CHAPTER 1: DRESS CLOTHES
In retrospect, I think this is where things began going wrong.
Not that things were going that great for me. I was twenty years old, and for fifteen of those years, I had been in thrall to the Elven lord and archmage Kaethran Morvilind. My brother Russell was dying of a rare magical disease, and Morvilind offered to cast the cure spells he needed to survive.
In exchange, I stole things for Morvilind.
He taught me magical spells, and his human retainers (all of whom possessed a wide variety of illegal skills) taught me the skills a master thief needed. By the time I reached my teens, I stole from banks and secured offices and mansions for Morvilind, and I never got caught.
Morvilind had made me into a master thief, but I was really good at it. I knew he would kill me at the first sign of rebellion, but I still took a great deal of pride in my skills. He might have forced me to learn magic, but I had come to love the power it offered.
Even if I had to use the power in Morvilind’s service.
At first I thought he was just greedy, that he wanted art and historical relics without having to pay for them, but after the Archon attack on Milwaukee, I learned better. He was up to some grand plan, and he needed me to steal items necessary for that plan. I didn’t dare ask him more, because if I pushed him too far, he would kill me and Russell would die of frostfever.
I just had to hang on for six more years. Morvilind cast one healing spell on Russell a year, and once we reached Russell’s twentieth birthday in Conquest Year 320 (or 2333 AD, according to the pre-Conquest calendar), he would be cured.
And then we would see what happened.
Still, for right now, my life had an uneasy sort of equilibrium. Russell knew the truth about me now. Actually, he had known the truth for years, but he just kept it to himself. The Marneys, the family that had raised Russell while I did Morvilind’s errands, knew the truth about me as well, and I was on good terms with them. I wasn’t rich, but I had managed to steal and save enough that I wasn’t in immediate financial trouble, and so far I had avoided the malevolent attention of Homeland Security and the High Queen’s Inquisition.
I even had a boyfriend.
Well. Sort of. We were taking things slowly, very slowly. Riordan MacCormac had been badly burned by the women in the past, so he wanted to take things slowly.
But that was all right. I had been badly burned by a man in my past, so I was in complete agreement about taking things slow.
So while my life wasn’t great, it could have been worse. Much worse.
And right here, when Morvilind sent me to rob Baron Castomyr of La Crosse, that’s when things started to get worse.
It started on the second day of November in Conquest Year 314 (or 2327 AD, according to the old calendar). It was a Wednesday, which meant it was Punishment Day, when Homeland Security posted videos of criminal sentences on the Internet. The High Queen did not believe in maintaining a vast prison system like the pre-Conquest Presidents had done, so instead criminal punishments were corporal, often floggings, beatings, or sale into slavery. Homeland Security uploaded the most “engaging” videos of the punishments every week to promote virtue and self-restraint among the High Queen’s subjects.
In practice, most of her subjects laughed at the Punishment Day videos, and comedic remixes of the floggings were popular. The entire thing put me in a foul mood, so I planned to spend the day alone in my basement apartment. I started the morning by casting the spell Riordan had taught me to keep the anthrophages from tracking my mental spoor. I then moved on to a vigorous workout with my free weights and my treadmill, and then practiced my spells. After a nice hot bath and half a pot of coffee, I decided to spend the rest of the day maintaining my equipment while listening to music.
Morvilind’s summons caught me while I was cleaning one of my guns.
A summons from Lord Morvilind always hit me like a two-by-four upside the head. He had a vial of blood from my heart, and with it he could find me anywhere and summon me from anywhere. He could also kill me whenever he wanted, but (obviously) he hadn’t done that so far. The summoning spell he used felt like a seizure. A wave of pain and nausea rolled through me, and I had to grip the edge of my table to keep from falling over until passed.
Morvilind wanted to see me, and he wanted to see me now.
“Right,” I muttered, pushing away from the table. I found my phone and sent a text message to Morvilind’s butler Rusk, letting him know that I was on my way. Else Morvilind would simply repeat the spell every few hours until I showed up.
That accomplished, I bundled up to face the cold. Thanks to all the exercise and training, I had a lower body fat percentage than most women my age. This definitely came in handy when, say, I was fleeing for my life from anthrophages in the Shadowlands (which had happened more often than I liked). It was less comfortable in the midst of November in Wisconsin. Wisconsin winters got cold, cold, cold, and I hated the cold. More than once I wished Morvilind lived in Los Angeles or Phoenix or somewhere that had a nice dry heat.
I dressed in thermal underwear, black jeans, heavy black boots, a t-shirt, and a thick gray sweater before putting on a heavy black winter coat, a ski cap, and a scarf. Then I trudged into the parking lot, the snow crunching beneath my boots, and got into my car. I really preferred my motorcycle, but riding a motorcycle in subzero weather is a great way to get hypothermia, so instead I took my newest car. All my other cars had been involved in various high-profile thefts, so I had gotten rid of them in exchange for an old Lone Star Motors Vaquero sedan. It was an unappealing brown color, and all the buttons were labeled in Spanish, but it ran just fine.
It took longer than I would have liked to reach Morvilind’s palatial mansion in Shorewood. The plows were clearing away last night’s snowfall, and the Archons had blown up part of Highway 43 and it hadn’t been rebuilt yet, so I had to take the long way. Despite the snow, I finally crunched up the driveway to Morvilind’s mansion, which was built in the traditional Elven style, which looked like a combination of ancient Roman temples and Imperial Chinese palaces.
Rusk met me at the main doors. He was paunchy, balding man in formal livery, and he did not approve of me. Yet he didn’t give me a hard time, save to tell me to remove my boots so I did not track dirty water upon Lord Morvilind’s floors. I suspected he had lost someone in the Archon attack, and his usual haughty manner had been subdued ever since.
Maybe it would cheer him to know just how brutally Morvilind had killed the two Archons who had crossed his path.
I shivered, and not from the wretched cold.
Rusk led me to Morvilind’s library. It filled a vast room at the rear of the house, with tall windows overlooking the bluffs and the waters of Lake Michigan. Currently the waters of the lake had frozen over, and even as cold as Wisconsin became, that was rare in November. The floor was white marble, polished and gleaming. Books written in both Elven hieroglyphics and the common Elven alphabet covered the walls, along with countless volumes on ancient Earth’s history and peoples. Long tables ran the length of the room, holding books and scrolls and relics. An elaborate summoning circle had been carved into slabs of gleaming red marble before the high windows, its design intricate beyond my magical skill to comprehend, let alone duplicate. Morvilind had been expanding the circle, adding symbols and designs to its circumference. His work table stood facing the lake, holding three enormous computer monitors displaying a variety of information.
The Cruciform Eye sat on its pedestal next to the table.
I shivered again. I hated looking at the damned thing. It was about the size of a bowling ball, and fire filled its crystalline depths. Something like a black cross floated in its center, giving the sphere the look of a burning eye with a cross-shaped black pupil. After all the trouble it had caused, I had hoped to never see it again, but Morvilind had placed it in his library. Maybe Morvilind didn’t want to let it out of his sight.
Morvilind stood before his work table, gazing at the monitors.
“Miss Moran, my lord,” said Rusk, bowing and marching from the library.
I went to one knee, prepared to wait as long as necessary until Morvilind was ready.
“Rise,” said Morvilind a few seconds later. I rose, my thick socks slipping on the polished floor. Evidently Morvilind wanted to get down to business.
He regarded me without expression. He wore the gold-trimmed, ornamented red cloak of an Elven noble, but beneath that he wore the stark black robe of an Elven archmage. All the Elves could use magic to some extent or another, but there were only a few archmages among them, and rumor claimed Morvilind the Magebreaker was the most powerful of them.
I believed those rumors. I had seen him kill an entire battalion of orcish soldiers in the space of a few seconds, with even less effort than it would take for me to kill a fly.
“My lord,” I said.
The Elves almost always had a strange, alien beauty about them, but Morvilind looked old, far older than any Elf I had ever seen, almost to the point of frailty. His eyes were a harsh shade of blue in his angular, lined face, and it was very hard not to look away.
But I didn’t. Morvilind would not respond well to any show of weakness. That would reduce my value to him as a tool.
“Nadia Moran,” said Morvilind. The depth of his voice always startled me, given his gaunt frame. He turned back to his monitors, beckoning with one hand. “Attend.”
“My lord,” I said, stepping to his side. He tapped a few keys on his computer, and the image on the left-hand monitor changed. The screen showed a square stone tablet about six or seven inches across and two inches thick. Rows of blocky, stylized symbols covered its front – cuneiform, it was called, a language from ancient pre-Conquest Asia.
I flinched at the sight before I could stop myself. I had seen that tablet before, when Morvilind had sent me to steal it from Paul McCade’s mansion in Milwaukee. I had almost gotten killed in the process, but I had also met Riordan, and that had worked out so far.
“You recognize this, I trust?” said Morvilind. I couldn’t tell whether he had noticed my reaction. Likely he did not care.
“That is,” I said, “the tablet you sent me to steal from Paul McCade in July. The tablet enchanted with a spell of dark magic and dedicated to the Dark Ones.”
I regretted the words as soon as they left my lips. Morvilind had made it very clear that I was never to ask him about the Dark Ones. He had threatened to kill Russell if I ever did it again. Yet he did not seem displeased. Maybe he didn’t care if I made statements about the Dark Ones so long as I didn’t ask him about them.
“Correct,” said Morvilind. “Recently I have located a second tablet of similar age.” He tapped a key, and the image changed, showing a different stone tablet. They looked nearly identical, and if I hadn’t been looking I might not have noticed any difference between them, but the inscriptions were different. “You will obtain this tablet and bring it to me.”
“Like baseball cards?” I said before I could stop myself. “Have to collect them all?”
As I’ve mentioned before, I have a smart mouth. It has gotten me into trouble. It gets me into trouble. And it will continue to get me into trouble. I shouldn’t have made that wisecrack, but the sight of the tablet had brought up bad memories, and when I get frightened my mouth runs away with itself.
Fortunately, this time it didn’t get me into trouble.
“Something of that nature,” said Morvilind. He glanced at where the Cruciform Eye glowed on its little pedestal. “It will prove useful.”
“Where is the tablet presently located, my lord?” I said. That was a polite way of asking who I was about to rob.
“It is in the possession of Lord Castomyr, Baron of La Crosse and vassal of Duke Carothrace of Madison,” said Morvilind. He pressed another key, and an image of an Elven man in the gold-trimmed red coat of an Elven noble appeared on the right-hand monitor. He had thick golden hair, his eyes a peculiar, vivid shade of green that made his angular face seem even more alien. His lips were pressed into a thin line, and his expression radiated arrogant contempt.
“I see,” I said, trying to remember what I knew about him. I had driven through La Crosse on my way to the Twin Cities a few times, but I had only stopped there long enough to buy gas. All I could recall was that Lord Castomyr had a reputation for harshness, and was not terribly popular with the other Elven nobles. Of course, Morvilind himself was not popular with the other Elven nobles, likely because they were all terrified of him. “He will have excellent security.”
“Undoubtedly,” said Morvilind. “But I have confidence you shall rise to the challenge. You have excellent motivation to succeed.”
“Yes,” I said, my voice flat. Morvilind liked to give me as little help as possible for two reasons. One was plausible deniability. If I screwed up and got arrested, he would use the vial of heart’s blood to kill me and cover his tracks. The second was his own harsh personal philosophy. He had no use for weakness, and believed that challenges forced me to become stronger and harder and therefore more useful to him.
The hell of it was, though…he was at least partially right. I knew Russell’s life depended on me, and so I pushed myself harder, made myself more ruthless. That had let me succeed when I otherwise would have failed. Morvilind himself seemed to live the same philosophy. I had seen him fight only once, but he had crushed his opponents without a hint of mercy. I wondered how many fights he had survived to gain that kind of prowess. He had to be at least a thousand years old, if not older.
I pushed it out of my mind. Right now I had for immediate problems.
“You are correct that Lord Castomyr’s security will be excellent,” said Morvilind, “but there is an opportunity to exploit in three weeks’ time.”
“Three weeks?” I said, and then the date clicked. “He has a Thanksgiving party?”
“Of a sort,” said Morvilind. “Lord Castomyr traditionally holds a Thanksgiving banquet for his vassals and the richer members of La Crosse’s citizenry every year. Easily two thousand guests attend, accompanied by the usual hirelings that support such gatherings – cooks and entertainers and so forth. That will provide you with ample opportunity to steal the tablet in the confusion.”
“His security will be higher for the party,” I said.
“You have employed such a ruse before,” said Morvilind. “When Duke Carothrace received Jarl Rimethur at Madison, or when Paul McCade held his Conquest Day party.”
I started to open my mouth to say that there had been severe complications both times, but for once in my life I shut up. I didn’t think Morvilind knew how I owed the Knight of Grayhold a favor, how Rimethur had given me his amulet in exchange for screwing over the Rebels. For that matter, the complications at Paul McCade’s party had led to me meeting Riordan, and I really didn’t want to tell Morvilind that I was seeing him. The Firstborn of the Shadow Hunters seemed to be one of the few people on Earth, Elven or human, that Morvilind was unwilling to cross.
“Yes,” I said at last.
Eloquent as ever, I know.
“The Thanksgiving banquet will be your easiest opportunity to claim the tablet,” said Morvilind.
I took a deep breath. “That’s my deadline?” Only three weeks? Well, Morvilind had given me worse jobs with less time to prepare, but three weeks was still cutting it very close.
“Yes,” said Morvilind. “It is not necessary to obtain the tablet by Thanksgiving, but Baron Castomyr’s party is the best opportunity you are likely to have. Nevertheless, you shall bring me the tablet by midnight on New Year’s Eve. Failure to do so would not be conducive to your brother’s ongoing good health.”
I gritted my teeth. Oh, yes, we couldn’t get through a single conversation with a reminder of that. If I got myself killed, then Morvilind would stop casting the cure spells to heal Russell’s frostfever. With that handy lever, he could compel me to do almost anything. Still, he had kept his word.
Six more years. I just had to keep my head and stay alive for six more years.
“All right,” I said. “I suppose I had better get started.”
“Sound counsel,” said Morvilind. “Now depart and return with the tablet.” He turned back to his monitors, which meant the conversation was over.
I left the library and walked back towards the front doors. My mind was already sorting through plans. Three weeks? Three weeks was challenging, but it would be doable. Certainly Morvilind had dumped worse tasks into my lap.
Ha. If only I had known.