Deathcaster – Cinda Williams Chima

Adrian sul’Han shivered, drawing the collar of his clan-made stormcoat up to his chin. Spring might have come to the Realms he’d left behind, but sea ice and icebergs still cluttered the surface of Invaders Bay. He could hear Captain Hadley DeVilliers shouting orders from the quarterdeck to their mingled Carthian/Fellsian crew as the Sea Wolf threaded her way through the ice toward the open sea. Sailing toward Lyss, if there was any justice in this shattered world. A debatable point. It had been Hadley’s idea to launch their mission from the Frozen Sea north of Wizard Head. For one thing, Empress Celestine now controlled the queendom’s only deepwater port at Chalk Cliffs. For another, the success of this mission depended on absolute secrecy. It was unlikely they’d meet any other ships this far north at this time of year. After all, nobody in his right mind would choose to be here. Nobody who wasn’t desperate for a win in the wake of so many losses—Hana, Jenna, his father. Ash did not want to live on as the survivor of another failure. He would save his sister and save the Line or die in the attempt. Not a trade I’d make. Stay alive.

Ash flinched. He looked around, but nobody was near enough to have been heard over the howl of the wind. He gripped the serpent amulet more tightly, his knuckles white, as if he could squeeze a response from the metal and stone. “Da?” Nothing. Ash’s breath hissed through his teeth. It had been this way since the night he and his father had partnered to bring his mother back from the dead. He’d hear a whisper in his ear, or feel a presence like the brush of a feather or the tendrils of a dream, or hear his father calling his name amid the shriek of the wind and the crash of the waves. But it was all one way. No matter how hard Ash tried, he couldn’t seem to enter the borderlands between life and death. Come see me in Aediion, his father had said.

You and your mother and sister have enemies at court. Enemies on the council. Don’t give your trust easily. “A little help here, healer?” The voice was edged with impatience. Ash looked up. High above, the magemarked pirate Evan Strangward clung to the rigging like a spider, shining like a ship’s lantern in the night. He’d been up there for hours, facing the brunt of the weather without complaint, manipulating wind and waves to open a path through the ice for the Sea Wolf. At the same time, he kept her sails filled, driving them forward as fast as they could safely go. Maybe faster. “Sorry,” Ash said, moving back into position in the bow of the ship, receiving the blessing of freezing spray and stinging sleet.

It was his job to clean up after the weather mage—to clear away the obstacles the pirate missed, blasting icebergs into bits, softening the slabs of ice that floated into their path so the ship’s hull could penetrate them without damage. Watching Strangward at work was like visual poetry, his amulet flaring under his fingers as he gathered power, then both arms sweeping forward, shaping, coaxing, cajoling, commanding, like a temple speaker, a conductor of wind, ice, and water. He was agile as a cat, maneuvering over the spars to get the right angle, swinging from mast to mast as if unaware that he was more than a hundred feet above the decks. He seemed impervious to bad weather. He’d left his stormcoat on the deck below, saying it only got in his way. Maybe he hadn’t the range of magic enjoyed by wizards in the Realms, courtesy of their ability to work charms, but there were clear advantages to being a specialist. Ash had seen limited weather wizardry from his parents’ friend Fire Dancer. As a clan-born wizard, Dancer had combined the uplander’s easy connection with the natural world with the raw magic of wizardry. But Dancer’s weather magic was a whisper next to Strangward’s roar. Evan’s roar.

The pirate had asked them to call him Evan, but, given the history between them, that wasn’t easy to do. “If you’d have told me I’d be sailing under that bloodsucking pirate, I’d have laughed in your face.” Ash spun around. Two of Hadley’s crew huddled next to the foremast shrouds, their eyes fixed on Evan, their faces clouded with resentment. “My cousin’s ship went down off Baston Bay, and it was the swiving Stormcaster that done it.” The sailor shuddered and spat on the deck. “Every time a ship is lost, they blame it on him,” the other one said, jerking his head toward the pirate. “He can’t have done for all of ’em. Anyway, we an’t sailing under him. DeVilliers is captain, long as we’re at sea.

” “Mind the telltales,” Strangward called down, causing the two of them to jump. “Trim the jib sheets—now.” “Tell him that,” the first one said, hurrying to adjust the sheets. “Maybe Captain DeVilliers is the master on paper, but she’ll go to the bottom with the rest of us if he decides to founder us.” Ash sighed. Though the pirate seemed painfully eager to win the rest of them over by proving his value to the mission, his efforts seemed to have the opposite effect. The Stormcaster was hated and feared all along the coast. Sailors were superstitious by nature. Plus, they were so often at the mercy of weather that the Stormcaster’s command of it was intimidating and unsettling, even for those who’d been raised with wizardry. “Impressive, isn’t he? Almost scary.

” Ash jumped and turned to find Finn standing next to him, his eyes fixed on the pirate. “If you like a show-off,” Ash said, stuffing his hands into his pockets. That should have drawn a laugh from the Finn he remembered. Instead, his friend drew in a breath, then let it out slowly. “Do you think we can pull this off?” Ash swiped water from his face with his sopping sleeve. “Pull what off?” “Get in and out of Celesgarde? Rescue your sister?” “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t hope for that,” Ash said. “Why? Are you having second thoughts?” “Not really,” Finn said. “I’m just trying to estimate the odds of success.” “Maybe it’s better not to look at the odds at all,” Ash said, rolling his eyes. “I was a little surprised that you agreed to come, since you had to postpone the wedding and all.

” “Duty trumps desire,” Finn said. “Julianna understands that we all must be willing to sacrifice for the greater good.” That sounded stuffy, even for bookish Finn. It was the kind of thing people say to you when you’re the one who’s going to be doing the sacrificing. “I’m not sacrificing anyone if I can help it,” Ash said. “I’ve already lost my father and my sister. My mother still hasn’t recovered. Too many of my friends have died in this war, or been gravely wounded, you included. I think we’ve done our bit.” “It’s never enough,” Finn said, pain flickering across his face.

He rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. Though he was bareheaded, his hair plastered down by the wet, he didn’t seem to feel the cold. “Are you all right?” Ash said, putting a hand on Finn’s shoulder. “It’s just . I’ve been having these headaches, ever since I was wounded,” Finn said. “They’re getting worse instead of better. And sometimes—it’s like I have these spells when I miss things. I just blank out.” He shook his head. “I think I’m losing my mind.

” Worry quivered through Ash. Once again, he was reminded that while he’d pursued a career as an assassin in the south, Finn had waged a war on a different battlefield—one in which he saw his friends slaughtered, and probably blamed himself for surviving. Both of them were marked by what they’d seen and done—things they would prefer to forget. “Listen,” Ash said. “Sometimes that’s how the mind works. When we’re under stress, it protects us by giving us an out when we need one.” “Well,” Finn said, with a bitter laugh, “stress is an appropriate response to stressful times.” I should have asked more questions, Ash thought. I should have made sure Finn had recovered enough to deal with this. What kind of a healer are you? Unable to help himself, Ash sent a tendril of soothing magic through his fingers into Finn’s shoulder.

He yanked back his hand, fingers stinging, as Finn twisted away. His friend stood, his back to the rail, one hand on his amulet. “Do not presume to heal me, Adrian,” Finn said between ragged breaths. “I am not broken.” “I’m sorry,” Ash said, mortified. “I was only trying to—” “I know what you were trying to do,” Finn said. “Don’t.” He turned away and disappeared down the forward ladder. Ash sucked his blistered fingers. The time will come when you will wish you were a better healer.

It seemed that Taliesin’s curse would be with him his entire life. They’d been at it for hours, but now—finally—they were escaping into the open sea. Once out of the bay, the seas roughened and the winds intensified, but at least the minefield of ice thinned, suggesting that their watch was nearly over. “Stand down, Your Highness,” Hadley called from the quarterdeck. “You, too, Strangward. You’ve done a yeoman’s job. Now go aft and get warm.” “I’ll be down in a little while,” Evan said, gripping the spar with his knees and leaning down toward her. He looked soaked through and half-frozen, the watch cap he always wore on deck was sodden, and yet, he seemed illuminated, as if energized by his connection to the elements. “I’d better make sure we’re well out of the shallows and possible coastal traffic before I leave off.

” Ash was close enough to Hadley’s position at the rail to see the storm brewing in her expression. She opened her mouth, as if to respond. Then, spotting Ash, she shut it again, turned on her heel, and stalked back to the helm. They were just a few days out, but friction was already growing between Strangward and his stormborn and Hadley and her veterans. Evan was used to giving orders, not receiving them. Though they’d all agreed that Hadley would serve as ship’s master during the seafaring portion of their journey, he seemed to view Hadley’s commands as the beginning of a conversation and not the last word. When he ordered Hadley’s crew around, they resented it. For their part, the Carthian crew was unflaggingly loyal to the pirate, always looking to Evan to verify Hadley’s orders before following them. Ash could tell that it was getting under her skin. Ash knew he needed to do something, but he wasn’t sure what.

This is why Lyss is the officer and you’re not, he thought. 2 SECOND THOUGHTS Ash swapped out his wet clothes and retreated to his berth in the crew bunk room, knowing he would have it to himself this time of day. Reaching into his sea bag, he pulled out a weather-beaten, leatherbound book. He could just make out the timeworn lettering stamped into the cover—Kinley’s Mastery. As a boy, Ash had been intrigued by his father’s stories about meeting the mysterious Crow in Aediion—the dream world. Crow—who had turned out to be their ancestor Alger Waterlow, known as the Demon King. He’d mentored Ash’s father in his battle for his birthright. At first, Ash had assumed that the ability to cross boundaries had been unique to the two of them, a consequence of Waterlow’s unfinished business and his thirst for revenge. But when his father gave him his first amulet, Ash had begun devouring the magical texts in his library. Halfway through Kinley’s Mastery, Ash found a chapter with directions for travel to the dream world.

For someone with an interest in healing, this seemed like a critical skill. Ash had begged his father to allow him to try a crossing himself. His father had refused, warning him that the borderlands were a dangerous place. “You never know who’ll be waiting for you there,” he’d said. “A wizard more skilled than you can change his appearance and change the setting you’re in. You can get lost in Aediion and not find your way back to your body.” “I’ll be careful,” Ash had said, which got him nowhere. “You could come with me,” he persisted. But his father held firm. “There are enough dangers here in the real world.

Wait until you get some academy training,” he’d said. “They teach it in senior year for a reason. Even then, not many are able to do it. We’ll work on it then.” Soon after that, his father was murdered, and Ash fled to Oden’s Ford. There, he trained as a healer and launched his career as an assassin. He’d never had a chance to study travel to the dream world, since he never completed his senior year. His schooling had been interrupted by the arrival of the Darian assassins. Now, it seemed, he had permission, even encouragement from his father. Come see me in Aediion, his father had said.

Easier said than done. Ash flipped to the middle, to a page marked by a ribbon. Page 393. The title was Portal to Aediion. There followed several pages outlining the risks of travel to the dream world—a daunting collection of dire consequences for the unwary and untrained. Everything his father had mentioned and more. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for the wizard to leave his corporeal self in a safe place while journeying to the dream world. Not only will it be vulnerable to predators and enemies of all kinds, there is a risk that it will be committed to the funereal flame. There was more. If he was killed in Aediion, he would be dead in real life.

If he ran out of flash —stored magic—he would have no way back. Enemies could lie in wait in the dream world, disguised as friends. Worse, an enemy might hitch a ride back to the real world and possess his body. Ash was beginning to understand why his father had warned him away from it. Direct magic was the only effective weapon in the dream world. There followed several examples of ways to use flash against adversaries, most of which Ash was familiar with. The exception was a method of “inhaling” magic—of drawing power out of an opponent until he was an empty vessel. It is possible to strip magical energy from an adversary in Aediion and turn it to one’s own use. This should be used as a last resort, as timing and mastery of the charm are critical. He reviewed the lines of spellwork—three for the portal, three for the return.

He mouthed the words, practicing them until he knew them by heart. As Ash understood it, he’d have to meet his father in a place they both knew well. But where? They’d never set a place and time to meet, so what were the chances that they would connect? It wasn’t as if he could leave his body behind and go and sit there, day after day, waiting for his father to appear. Not now, when he was on his way to find Lyss. He was about to close the book and return it to his sea bag, when he noticed something that he hadn’t before. At the bottom of the page, writing had bled through from the other side. He turned the page. On the other side, in neat hand lettering, was printed Meet at Drovers’ Inn . He stared at it. Ran a finger over it.

Drovers’ Inn was where he and his father had breakfast at Ragmarket on the day he was murdered. Had that been there all along? Ash hadn’t looked at the book since the day his father died. It had languished on his shelf while Ash was exiled in the south. He’d brought it aboard with him so that he could study it during the crossing. He examined the inscription, trying to determine if it was in his father’s hand. His handwriting was rowdy, scrawling, nearly unreadable. But this was printed. So it could have been him, being careful to make it legible. But it couldn’t have been him. He’d died that same day.

Unless he’d written it there beforehand. Had he had a premonition that he was going to die? Had he wanted to lay the groundwork for a meeting after death? Or was it some kind of a trick? Ash would have to go. He knew he had to go—either to meet up with his father or confront his killers. But it would have to wait until this mission was done. He couldn’t risk letting his sister down again. Slowly, he closed the book and shoved it back into his sea bag. Later that day, after dinner, Ash made his way aft, descending the midship ladder to the gun deck, then continuing on to the officers’ quarters in the stern. Hadley had made this space available to Ash’s hand-picked band for private discussions. The rest of the crew was housed on the berth deck below. Ash could hear low voices when he reached the day cabin, but they stopped abruptly when he pushed the door open.


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