CHAPTER 1 – THE RING
Vaysaal the Master Alchemist had been assassinated that morning, so Caina Amalas decided to loot his palace.
While she often robbed the cowled masters of Istarinmul’s Slavers’ Brotherhood and the emirs of the Most Divine Padishah’s court, their wealth was not her main objective. Money was only another tool to her. Her daring thefts had created the legend of the Balarigar, the shadow-cloaked master thief and bane of the slavers. But Caina was neither a thief nor an assassin, but the circlemaster of Istarinmul’s Ghosts, the eyes and ears of the Emperor of Nighmar, and the Slavers’ Brotherhood was her foe. Disrupting their vile business would have been a worthy goal alone.
But there was more than that.
Something was wrong in Istarinmul, something that Caina did not yet understand.
The drug, the thick black elixir, was called wraithblood. When ingested, it produced euphoria and pleasing hallucinations. As its users grew more dependent upon the addictive substance, the visions darkened, changing from pleasant dreams to horrific nightmares. The eyes of wraithblood users turned an eerie blue color, and they soon collapsed into utter raving lunacy.
Since arriving in Istarinmul, Caina had learned that Callatas, Grand Master of the College of Alchemists, was producing the wraithblood in his strongholds.
And, for some reason, he was giving it away for free.
She could not understand why. Callatas and his lieutenants made wraithblood from the corrupted blood of murdered slaves, charging it with sorcerous power. The costs involved were immense, yet Callatas gave it away for free, using a secret network of thieves and pawnbrokers to distribute it throughout Istarinmul. Some of the middlemen charged their customers, but Callatas sent Kindred assassins to deal with those who charged too much. The Grand Master wanted his wraithblood, his elixir brewed from the blood of murdered slaves, given away as cheaply as possible.
One of Callatas’s lieutenants had spoken of a plan before Caina had killed him. Something called the Apotheosis, something to do with malevolent spirits of the netherworld. Caina did not know what the Apotheosis was, but she knew in her bones that it was something evil. Caina had seen sorcerous catastrophes before, had seen the golden rift burn in the sky over New Kyre.
She never wanted to see something like that ever again.
She would stop Callatas. But to do that, she needed to know what Callatas intended.
Vaysaal’s death offered the perfect opportunity.
The Master Alchemist had been powerful and influential, a loyal supporter of Grand Master Callatas. Yet no one was safe in the vicious snake pit of Istarish politics, and someone had sent assassins after him. The staff of Vaysaal’s palace, his slaves and servants and guards, would still be in shock.
Vaysaal had helped make wraithblood for Callatas.
Which meant Caina could look around his palace and discover more about Callatas’s plans.
The afternoon after Vaysaal’s murder, Caina went to the Sanctuary and prepared.
The Sanctuary had once been the hidden refuge of Istarinmul’s Ghosts, at least until the Teskilati had killed them all. Fortunately, the Teskilati, the secret police of the Padishah, had not learned the location of the Sanctuary, and so Caina used it for herself. The underground Sanctuary was a large, gloomy vault, the ceiling supported by thick pillars. Glowing glass globes stood upon iron stands and emitted pale light. A half-dozen long tables ran the length of the room. One held weapons, another tools and half-assembled locks and traps, and another supported a mirror and a set of cosmetics.
Caina stood before the mirror and assembled a disguise.
She was twenty-three years old now, short and fit and lean with cold blue eyes and black hair trimmed down to stubble. Sometimes she did not recognize the face she saw in the mirror, the dark-circled eyes like blue ice and the sharp lines of her cheekbones. She found it harder to remember the woman she had been, the Ghost nightfighter who had masqueraded as Sonya Tornesti, the empty-headed mistress of the coffee merchant Anton Kularus…
Caina pushed away the thought. Grief unbalanced the mind, and she needed her wits about her.
She contemplated donning a dress and a headscarf, but a young woman walking the streets of the Emirs’ Quarter alone would draw attention, Caina needed to avoid attention. At last she disguised herself as a courier of a noble Istarish house, with a formal white robe and turban to deflect the sun’s heat and a leather satchel slung over her shoulder. A courier would not draw undue attention in the city’s wealthier quarters, and she could get close to Vaysaal’s palace without suspicion.
Caina hid the clothes and tools she would need later beneath the robe.
She examined her reflection in the mirror, applying a bit of makeup to give her jaw the illusion of stubble. She saw the courier of an Istarish noble house in the glass, short for a man, but with no trace of the woman she really was.
Amazing what one could accomplish with a change of clothes and a bit of makeup.
Vaysaal’s palace was a sprawling edifice of white marble and polished tile, its sides adorned with elaborate mosaics, its grounds filled with flowering bushes, bubbling fountains, and winding paths of white stone. By the standards of the poorer quarters of Istarinmul, it was opulent beyond measure. By the standards of the Emirs’ Quarter and the Masters’ Quarter, it was merely average. It would have been no larger than a wing of the Padishah’s splendid Golden Palace, and Grand Master Callatas’s palace was practically a city in its own right.
But Vaysaal’s palace was large enough to house many people, and at the moment a mob filled the grounds. Watchmen had descended upon the palace to secure the property while the hakims investigated Vaysaal’s death. Vaysaal had no children, so either the palace and its wealth would go to Vaysaal’s nearest living relative or the Padishah would seize it. Slaves in their gray tunics stood anxiously near the walls, waiting to learn of their fates. Perhaps they would remain with the palace, or perhaps the Wazir of the Treasury would sell them upon the block to the highest bidder. Caina felt a shiver of fury at the thought. It was not right that men could be bought and sold as cattle, but no matter how much Caina terrorized the Slavers’ Brotherhood, the practice would likely continue long after she was dead.
She walked to the gates of the palace, keeping the aloof expression of a courier upon her face. An official decree had been pinned to the gates, proclaiming the notorious master thief known as the Balarigar an outlaw. It offered a reward of half a million bezants for the Balarigar’s head.
Dead or alive.
A common laborer might earn a hundred bezants a year.
Suddenly her disguise, her tricks of clothing and makeup and posture and voice, seemed like a hideously ineffective shield against her foes. Still, no one had any idea who she really was. For that matter, only two other people in all of Istarinmul knew that the Balarigar was really a woman.
Caina took a deep breath and walked across the grounds of Vaysaal’s palace.
She wove her way past the crowds of miserable-looking slaves, past the various minor merchants who had claims against Vaysaal’s estate. A khalmir of the watch, proud and haughty in his spiked helm and officer’s cloak, stood guard before the doors to the great hall, flanked by a dozen watchmen in mail and helmets.
“You,” said the khalmir in Istarish, glaring at Caina, “state your business.”
Caina hefted her satchel. “Invoices,” she said in Istarish, keeping her voice bored and uninterested. “The late Master Alchemist owed my lord a great deal of money, and…”
The khalmir jerked his head to the side. “Go to the kitchen door and present your documents to the seneschal. He will sort through them in time, once the Wazir of the Treasury has made a final decree over the estate.”
Caina frowned. “My lord instructed me to make sure he received his money at once…”
The khalmir snorted. “Your lord, courier, can wait with everyone else.” He smirked. “I suspect the Wazir of the Treasury will seize the palace and hand it over to the Padishah. Then your lord can appeal to the Padishah for his money.” The watchmen laughed. “Now be off with you before I find an excuse to have you arrested.”
“Sir,” said Caina with a bow, and she circled around the side of the palace. The khalmir and his men watched her go, and then turned away. Likely they had spoken to a score of couriers and messengers, all hoping to claim a piece of the late Master Alchemist’s fortune.
Just as well. That would make it easier for them to forget her.
The sudden tingle of sorcery washed over her skin.
Caina kept her face calm and her stride unhurried, but she risked a look around. No one in the gardens was casting a spell, and the aura wasn’t coming from nearby. In fact, it was coming from above her head. Caina glanced up, stretching her shoulders to mask the movement.
One wing stood isolated from the rest of the palace, standing over an inner courtyard. Thick iron-bound shutters closed off the windows of the wing’s top floor, and a dozen chimneys rose from the roof. The only access was a narrow stone bridge over an inner courtyard. The sorcerous aura was coming from the top floor of the isolated wing.
Which meant it almost certainly held Master Alchemist Vaysaal’s laboratory.
Perhaps more secrets about Callatas and his Apotheosis, about the wraithblood and the nagataaru, waited within that room.
Finding the seneschal proved easy enough. He sat at a wooden table near the kitchen door, the table piled high with ledgers, letters, and invoices. Three more tables stood nearby, and a dozen scribes in gray slave tunics toiled over them. Six watchmen stood guard over the seneschal and his scribes, no doubt making sure no one attempted to rob them.
“I have invoices from…” started Caina.
The seneschal, a balding, stout man with a tired expression, did not look up from his ledger. “That pile. All requests shall be addressed in the order in which they have arrived. Final settlement of any accounts shall have to wait until the Wazir of the Treasury issues a ruling. Next!”
“But…” said Caina.
“Next!” said the seneschal, still not looking up.
Two of the watchmen stepped forward, and Caina raised her hands. The watchmen let her go without further complaint. She retreated, making sure the khalmir at the main doors saw her disappear into the crowds.
Then instead of making for the gates, she turned left, moving through the gardens. She did not sneak, not precisely, but made her way from bush to bush, unnoticed until she returned to the rear of the palace. The seneschal and his guards and scribes still worked, their attention focused upon the various messengers who came to deliver documents and demands.
They had no attention left to spare for the kitchen door.
Caina waited until the latest messenger turned and left, then glided forward and reached the kitchen door. It was unlocked. Caina slipped it open, shut it behind her, and entered the palace of Vaysaal.
She found herself in a deserted corridor, the kitchens on her left and the slaves’ barracks upon her right. The watchmen had herded all the slaves outside, lest they try to loot the palace before the Wazir and his magistrates finished their assessment. Of course, the bolder slaves had likely stolen everything they could carry. Which meant that the watchmen would have set patrols through the palace’s halls. Likely they too would steal everything they could carry, but if they saw Caina, they would arrest her.
For a moment dark amusement filled her. If the watchmen killed her, they would simply think they had caught a greedy courier. But once they searched her corpse and found the shadow-cloak, they would likely realize they had killed the Balarigar. A riot might start once they started arguing over who could claim the enormous reward.
Best not to give them reason to argue, then.
Caina hurried through the kitchens, past the great hall of the palace, and found one of the guest bedrooms on the ground floor. It was furnished in typical Istarish fashion, with a colorful carpet upon the floor, a low table ringed by tasseled cushions, and a bed heaped with blankets and pillows.
A bed that had just enough space beneath it to conceal Caina.
She rolled into the gap between the bed and the floor and settled down to wait.
After night fell, Caina climbed out from beneath the bed, stretching her stiff limbs.
She never would have attempted such a brazen hiding place in one of the palaces of the Master Slavers, not after she had robbed so many of them. The cowled masters of the Brotherhood lived in terror of the Balarigar, and their guards checked every nook and cranny of their homes. But Vaysaal was dead, and the watchmen hardly cared what happened to his palace. Caina had heard one man walk past the bedroom door a few hours past, but the palace had been utterly silent since.
It was time to begin.
She stripped off the robe and the turban. Beneath the robe she wore black boots, black pants, and a light black coat lined with steel plates to deflect knives. Black gloves and leather bracers covered her hands and forearms, and throwing knives, a coiled rope with a collapsible grapnel, and other tools waited in her belt. She drew a black mask from the satchel and slid it over her head, and then pulled her shadow-cloak free. It was a wondrous thing, lighter than silk and blacker than night. While Caina wore it, she blended with the shadows, and it also had the useful property of shielding her mind from sorcerous attack and detection.
That had saved her life more than once.
A man’s golden signet ring, heavy and worn, rested against her chest beneath the jacket, hanging from a leather cord. It had been her father’s, and Caina carried it in his memory, for his murder had brought her to the Ghosts.
It was all she had left of him.
And she had nothing left of Corvalis…
Again she pushed aside the thought. Caina adjusted her shadow-cloak, checked the daggers in their boot sheaths and the knives at her belt, and crept from the bedroom.
The corridor beyond was dark and deserted, as was the palace’s grand hall. Pale moonlight leaked through the tall windows, but Caina saw no sign of motion. Through the windows she glimpsed watchmen keeping guard over the grounds, but none of them had bothered to enter the palace.
Just as well.
Caina set off through the corridors, making her way to the inner courtyard and Vaysaal’s workshop.
At first Caina thought the palace looked no different than the others she had seen. Vaysaal preferred the same style of mosaics upon his floors as the other wealthy men of Istarinmul, the same frescoes upon his walls, the same statues in niches. If she had not known he was a Master of the College of Alchemists, Caina would have assumed his home belonged to yet another Istarish noble or cowled master of the Brotherhood.
But then she reached the seventh floor. The top level had only one entrance, and Caina picked the lock and entered the corridor beyond.
The artwork was different here.
Crystalline, life-sized statues of naked women gleamed within niches in the walls, their expressions full of fear and pain. Others had their arms raised as if to ward off a blow, while others knelt, their hands raised in supplication. They had once been living women, until Vaysaal had used his powers to transmute their flesh and blood and bone into crystal, killing them and creating his macabre art.
Dozens of the statues lined the walls.
There were other artworks, each more disturbing than the last. The Alchemists had unmatched powers of transmutation, and sometimes the Alchemists put those skills to twisted uses. One of their spells gave flesh the strength and durability of granite while killing the subject, so some of the niches held statues of more women, frozen forever in the instant of their deaths. Others were horribly misshapen, arms and legs grafted to a dozen heads, creating visions of ghastly horror.
Caina thought the world would be better if every last sorcerer was dead. She knew that her hatred of sorcery was irrational, that it had been burned into her by the pains of her childhood and the struggles of her life.
But she so often saw evidence to support that hatred.
She left the corridor of grotesque statues behind and came to a small library, the walls lined books. Her first impulse was to search the books for any clue into Vaysaal’s researches. But a quick glance over the titles told her that it was useless. The shelves held no books of sorcery, only tomes of history and ancient lore.
She saw quite a few books on the history of Iramis. That city had burned beneath Callatas’s sorcery a century and a half past, yet Caina had seen the destruction in her dreams, shown to her by the strange spirit that had helped her in the Widow’s Tower. Now Callatas sent gangs of slaves into the Desert of Candles, searching for relics of the lost city.
Caina did not know what that had to do with the wraithblood, with the Apotheosis.
Perhaps she could find out in Vaysaal’s workshop.
She took a step forward, and stopped.
Several things seemed out of place. Dust on the carpet, driven into the fibers. The marks of heavy boots. A scratch on the gleaming wood of the shelves. Like a scabbard or a shield had bounced off the bookcase. And she had seen scratches upon the polished stone floor of the corridor.
As if a large band of armed men had recently passed this way.
That disturbed her. Vaysaal had been a Master Alchemist, which meant he had a guard of Immortals to watch over him. Though those Immortals had not saved him from the assassin that had taken his life. But the Immortals were usually quite good at defending their charges from assassins.
Unless, of course, they had wanted the assassins to succeed. Certainly they had not returned to Vaysaal’s palace after the Master Alchemist had been assassinated.
Something was off.
Caina considered withdrawing. Agabyzus had counseled her against taking foolish risks, and perhaps she ought to heed his advice for once. Yet Vaysaal had helped the Grand Master to manufacture wraithblood. And Caina had never been able to look around a wraithblood laboratory without someone trying to kill her. Soon Callatas or the College would send someone to take charge of Vaysaal’s sorcerous tools.
This was Caina’s best chance to learn more about wraithblood.
It was worth the risk.
She crossed the library and opened the door on the far wall.
The inner courtyard yawned like a chasm beneath Caina. Nearly a hundred feet below she saw the Master Alchemist’s private garden, filled with strange, otherworldly plants, creations of his alchemy. Viridian blooms surrounded huge green pods the size of large men, and long roots curled and uncurled above the pods. It put Caina in mind of krakens, of long tentacles reaching out to devour unwary sailors.
Best not to touch the strange plants.
A narrow stone bridge crossed the inner courtyard, leading to the isolated wing. Caina felt sorcery radiating from the top floor of the wing, felt the power of arcane wards crackling around it.
Caina eased over the bridge, feeling the wards as she did so. Vaysaal had ringed his sanctum with spells to turn aside sorcerous attacks and to disrupt any divinations. Yet Caina felt no defensive wards, no spells to maim or kill physical intruders. Ricimer’s laboratory in the Widow’s Tower had been much the same. Perhaps the Alchemists did not have the Magisterium’s skill at such wards, or perhaps Vaysaal had trusted in his guards to keep spies away from his workroom.
Foolish of him, given that Caina now stood before the door to his laboratory.
The door was locked, but it was only the work of a few moments to release it.
She raised a hand to open the door and hesitated. There was only one entrance to the laboratory, and it was only accessible over this narrow bridge.
Making Vaysaal’s laboratory the perfect place to trap an intruder.
Was this a trap?
Vaysaal had been killed outside of the College itself, not here. While the Slavers’ Brotherhood wanted the Balarigar dead, Caina could not imagine the cowled masters assassinating a Master Alchemist simply to trap her.
And yet the unease refused to go away.
She was about to gamble, but that did not mean she couldn’t play with loaded dice.
A row of shuttered windows stretched away from either side of the door. Caina grabbed the windowsill of the nearest one and pulled herself up. Then she moved to the next one, the muscles of her arms and shoulders straining, the courtyard with its strange garden stretching below her. One slip and she would fall and smash her head against the ground, which was likely a better death than what those strange plants would do to her.
At the third windowsill she stopped, unhooked the coiled rope from her belt, and drove the grapnel between the stones of the wall. She left the coiled rope upon the sill. If necessary, it would allow her to make a hasty escape. Every floor of the palace had windows overlooking the inner courtyard, and Caina could swing down the rope and retreat through the windows.
She climbed back to the narrow stone bridge, pushed open the door, and stepped inside.
And just as she suspected, she found herself in a wraithblood laboratory.
It was a large rectangular room with a high ceiling. A massive mirror, ten feet by ten feet, rose from the center of the room. It gave off pale gray light, and Caina saw her shadow-blurred reflection in the glowing glass. She also saw the dead gray plains and rippling black sky of the netherworld through the mirror, and felt the potent sorcery that transmuted the sheet of glass into a Mirror of Worlds.
Just beyond the gate she saw a massive steel spike driven into the ground of the netherworld. A thick coil of chains wrapped around the spike and led back through the gate and into the laboratory. There the coil split into hundreds of smaller chains leading to a ring of steel tables surrounding the mirror. Upon each table lay a naked corpse. Every last one was pallid and gray, their veins turned black. Each corpse bore a dozen spikes in their flesh, the slender steel chains dangling from them. The corpses’ wrists had been opened, and droplets of black blood fell from their wounds to land in metal troughs.
Wraithblood. Produced from the corrupted blood of murdered slaves, charged with arcane power siphoned from the darkness of the netherworld.
There were thousands of wraithblood users in Istarinmul. Caina wondered how they would react if they knew the drug had been created from the blood of dead men and women.
She moved around the circle of steel tables, examining the laboratory in the dim light from the mirror. Caina had seen an apparatus like this before in the Widow’s Tower. She knew what it was. Yet she did not know why Callatas had created it. Perhaps some of the answers lay within this room.
Caina spotted a staircase at the far end of the laboratory. Maybe Vaysaal conducted his private experiments down there, or simply maintained a second wraithblood laboratory. A massive wooden desk sat near the spiral stairwell, covered with papers, and a pair of bookcases rose to either side of the desk.
Caina crossed to the desk and sifted through the papers. Many were letters from Grand Master Callatas himself, exhorting Vaysaal to greater production of wraithblood. The letters complained of Vaysaal’s laggardly work, pointing out all the slaves that Vaysaal had received to produce wraithblood. Perhaps Vaysaal had been embezzling from the Grand Master, keeping slaves for his grotesque art. If so, then Callatas himself might have ordered Vaysaal’s assassination, which explained why the Immortals had not saved him.
But all that was only speculation. Caina started rifling through the desk’s drawers, looking for notes on alchemy or perhaps a notebook. If she could find a single hint of what Callatas intended with his wraithblood and his Apotheosis, then she would be one step closer…
She felt a pulse of sorcerous power.
Caina whirled, reaching for a throwing knife. But the laboratory remained deserted, and she saw no change from either the Mirror of Worlds or the rest of the ghastly apparatus. After a moment she realized the pulse of sorcery had come from the bottom drawer of the desk. Had she accidentally triggered a ward? It had felt like a ward, but different, more focused.
She knelt and slid open the bottom drawer.
It was empty, save for a wooden box. Caina opened the box, revealing a velvet cushion. Atop the cushion rested a bronze ring of curious design. It looked like a short chain of slender bronze plates, twisted together into a braided ring. The ring radiated intense arcane power, and Caina wondered what it did. The aura felt like a warding spell – had Vaysaal created the thing as a protective talisman?
She started to straighten up, and the ring moved.
It uncoiled like a serpent, the polished bronze gleaming. Before Caina could react, the uncoiled ring sprang from the box and struck her left hand. She cursed in surprise and fury, reaching for the ring, but her left glove crumbled into dust at its touch. The coil of bronze scales wrapped around the third finger of her left hand, cold and hard and heavy.
Caina felt the steady pulse of sorcerous power from the ring, and she braced herself for whatever sorcery it would unleash upon her.
Yet nothing else happened. It had crumbled her glove into dust, but she felt no pain from the ring. The ring’s arcane aura remained constant, but as far as Caina could tell, it wasn’t doing anything. It seemed to be…waiting for something.
Caina did not want to find out.
She grasped the ring and tugged it from her finger.
But it would not move. It did not feel tight, and Caina pulled harder, but the ring remained motionless upon her finger. She grunted and tugged harder, but the ring would not budge. At last she gave up and examined the ring. She didn’t think it had done anything to her…but just because she didn’t notice the effects didn’t mean they weren’t happening.
But she could worry about it later. One more look around the laboratory, and then she would escape. In the safety of the Sanctuary, she could find a way to remove the ring. After that …
The clatter of armor was her only warning.
Caina whirled as men in black chain mail and steel plate surged up the stairs from the laboratory’s lower level, scimitars and coiled chain whips in their armored fists. Every one of the men wore black helmets, their faceplates shaped into grinning human skulls. Pale blue light gleamed in the eyeholes of the skull masks, a side effect of the sorcerous elixirs the men had ingested. They were Immortals, the elite bodyguards of the Padishah and the emirs and the Master Alchemists, and the alchemical elixirs flowing through their blood made them stronger and faster than ordinary men. The elixirs also induced an insane lust for cruelty and a sadistic delight in pain. If the Immortals captured her, they would take days to kill her.
Caina turned towards the door, ready to run, but the Immortals moved faster. Six of them blocked the laboratory door. More Immortals emerged from the stairs, weapons in hand, until a score of the black-armored warriors filled the laboratory. Caina had killed Immortals before, but it had been chancy. There was no way she could overcome twenty of them.
Yet they made no move to attack.
For a moment she contemplated running to the gate in the Mirror of Worlds, but that was madness. The Immortals could only kill her. There were things in the netherworld that could do far worse than that.
A final man climbed the stairs to the laboratory, clad in the leather jerkin and chain mail of a mercenary soldier. He was in his middle forties, his balding gray hair close-cropped, his nose like the beak of a hawk. He had the cold, hard eyes of a hunting hawk as well, and faint scars marked his jaw. A scimitar and a dagger hung at his belt, and from his balance, Caina knew that he could use those weapons well.
But she already knew who he was. The man was an assassin of Istarinmul’s Kindred family…and one of Grand Master Callatas’s men.
“Anburj,” said Caina in a rasping, disguised voice.
A smile flickered over the assassin’s hard face. “Good. You know who I am. But I did not know that it would be so very easy to trap you, Balarigar.”