Rezkin tightened the strap securing his pack behind the saddle and then took the reins. Leading Pride forward, he looked over his shoulder to make sure the others were with him. He did not want their presence in Gendishen announced, so all but one of the landing party were dressed as mercenaries, a guise they decided would not raise suspicion since bids for mercenary companies were rising in every kingdom. It was a lucrative profession if one could survive the war that would follow. Only the priest, Minder Finwy, appeared out of place. While the Gendishen extremist views of the Purifiers did not adhere to the tenets of the Temple of the Maker, and, in fact, the collectiare openly condemned their actions, the people of Gendishen respected and honored anyone who served the Maker—so long as he or she was not a mage. Rezkin’s party had come ashore midmorning, far from any settlement, sacrificing time for secrecy. By foot, it would take the travelers half the day to reach the trade route and from there another three days to the nearest city. Rezkin hoped they would not have to walk the entire distance. Gendishen was known for good horse breeding, and King Privoth, like his ancestors before him, had vowed to create a breed to rival the battle chargers of Ashai. The Gendishen reds were no battle chargers, but they were fast. Since his was the only mount, Rezkin hoped to procure some reds for the rest of his party. He had dusted and painted Pride’s coat, mane, and tail to make the horse’s appearance less striking, although it was unlikely anyone would recognize the battle charger for what he was. As far as Rezkin knew, no battle charger had ever trod upon Gendishen soil. Even so, he had covered the majestic stallion in a worn and muddy brown caparison that hid the impressive armor underneath.
Kai cleared his throat, the gruff sound barely discernable over the sound of the waves breaking against the rocks on the desolate shore. “You should ride,” he said. “You are the king. No one would begrudge the king his mount.” Rezkin checked the dinghy one more time and then waved to the crewmen who would return it to the ship. He looked at Kai and said, “To what end? We can go no faster than the slowest walker. I would grow bored in the saddle. I prefer to be active. Besides, while they may not resent me for riding, they will respect my decision to join them in the walk.” Kai hefted his own pack.
“Perhaps, but it is unseemly for a king to be trudging through the dirt like common infantry.” As Rezkin scanned the horizon, he said, “Remember we are mercenaries. Besides, Cael is a warrior kingdom led by a warrior king—one that fights with his men, walks with his men, and dies with them if necessary.” “Is that right, Rez?” Farson said as he strode up to Kai’s other side. Rezkin had struggled with the decision to bring the estranged striker but had concluded that he would rather keep the man in his sights than allow him to run amuck in his new kingdom. He stared at his former trainer, waiting to hear his latest resentful accusation. Farson did not disappoint. Farson said, “Would you die with us if we came under attack from an undefeatable force? Or would you be on that horse and away to safety?” “I follow the Rules, same as you,” said Rezkin. “Not like me. We are not the same.
You—as king.” Farson huffed with contempt. “You will drop this role as soon as it becomes inconvenient.” Rezkin paused, and Kai and Farson stopped beside him. He glanced over his shoulder to see that Jimson and the others were far enough back to lend them privacy, all but Minder Finwy. The priest was scrabbling over the detritus at a respectful distance, but he was still close enough to hear the conversation. Rezkin lowered his voice. “What would you have me do, Farson? These people have need of me. Ashai has need of me. Should I abandon them now? To do what?” Farson scoffed.
“Are you doing this to serve their needs, or are you using them to serve your own?” Exasperated, Rezkin said, “What needs have I?” He closed the distance between them, inciting Farson to palm a dagger from his sleeve. He made no effort to hide his distrust. Rezkin said, “I have more money than I could spend in a lifetime. I am trained to become anyone, to do almost anything. I am not like them. That is clear, as is Rule 257. Have no doubt that I understand. Yet, without them”—he nodded toward Malcius, Brandt, and Yserria—“I cannot heed Rule 1. Without them, I have no reason to be anything. Without them I have no purpose.
” He knew that arguing with Farson was futile, so he did not wait for a response. He instead tugged at the reins and headed inland at a brisk walk. Kai turned to Farson. “I have not heard of a Rule 257.” Farson followed in his former pupil’s footsteps, calling over his shoulder, “Be one and alone.” The terrain between the shore and the trade route was rough, covered with sharp rocks, pits, and hollows that could collapse under the weight of a careless traveler. Brandt and Malcius were surprisingly quiet, keeping most of their anguished grumbling to themselves. Jimson and Sergeant Millins were good soldiers, suffering in silence and making sure the others navigated the treacherous passage without injury. Yserria danced over the rubble with ease but tended toward the opposite side of the group from Malcius. Rezkin had hesitated to bring her since swordswomen were even more uncommon in Gendishen than they were in Ashai.
She was a capable fighter and spoke fluent Leréshi, though, which would help to disguise their party’s origin. Malcius huffed as he caught up to where Rezkin waited for them with Wesson. He said, “We should not have left so soon after the battle. What if there are more demons? What if those white creatures attack again?” “You had the option to stay behind.” “You know I could not,” Malcius said with a nod toward Yserria. He tugged at an amulet that had been fashioned to hold her life stone. “Not since you hung this burden around my neck.” “It is only temporary,” said Wesson. “You cannot know that. I was talking about the attack, though.
What of the creatures?” Rezkin said, “I cannot be everywhere, and the war will not wait. I delayed this trip long enough. It has been two weeks, and we have seen no signs of aggression from the creatures. If anything, they seem eager to please. Shezar and the mages are keeping an eye on them. The shielreyah insist they will be able to prevent them from becoming a problem again.” “They could not the first time,” Malcius said. “That is because the shielreyah are not fully conscious,” said Wesson. “Their souls reside in the Afterlife. They could not detect the threat because their vague awareness could not conceive of it.
Now, they are aware of the potential danger.” “I harbor no trust for them either,” Malcius grumbled. “And it makes no sense. The shielreyah were created to protect the fortress. If a threat exists on the island, they should know of it.” Rezkin said, “The shielreyah refer to the creatures as ictali. Apparently, the ictali were utterly loyal and devoted servants when the shielreyah lived. They would not have recognized them as a threat. I believe the only reason they attacked was because of the demon’s control.” “And Healer Aelis? Was he under its control as well?” “I have reason to believe he was already possessed when he joined us in Skutton.
” Wesson said, “I have seen only a few references to demons, most of them warnings in introductory texts. They all agree that demons can only possess a person with consent.” Malcius looked at Wesson aghast. “Why would anyone do that?” Wesson shrugged. “For power. Some even think they can use it for good. My master told me a story about a healer who wanted to cure his wife of some terrible ailment. He did not have enough talent on his own, so he made a pact with a demon. It did not end well for either of them. They think they can control it; but, in all the stories, the demon ultimately overcomes the person’s will.
I am not sure if the ritual we interrupted in the forest was a form of forced possession or some other kind of demonic control. We do not have enough information. Truthfully, I never completely believed the stories. I thought demons were myths. Surely, if they were real and so powerful, they would have consumed the world ages ago.” “All the more reason we should have stayed in Cael,” Malcius grumbled. He sighed with exasperation as he stumbled over another loose rock. “I do not understand why we could not bring at least one earth mage. It would have made our passage far easier.” Rezkin said, “I told you the talent is not tolerated in Gendishen.
All forms of magery are outlawed.” Wesson added, “The talent is referred to as the scourge, and those af licted with the scourge are put to death. A special division of the king’s forces called the Purifiers are dedicated solely to the investigation and elimination of the afflicted.” “But you are here. You could do something about this,” Malcius said as a stone shifted beneath his foot. “We do not wish to attract the attention of the Purifiers,” replied Rezkin. Wesson said, “It is unclear how the Purifiers identify the afflicted, since only those with talent can sense it in others. Still, if anyone witnessed my actions, they would certainly report us.” Brandt, who had arrived on Malcius’s heals, said, “It makes no sense to me. Most people would kill to have the talent.
Why would an entire kingdom spurn the gift?” “People often fear what they do not understand, and they tend to hate what they fear,” Rezkin said. “No ruler of Gendishen has possessed the talent. The king rules with strength of arms alone. A mage class would threaten the ruling family’s power.” “So they just kill anyone they think is a mage?” Brandt said. His irritation was compounded as he snagged his pant leg on the razor edge of a boulder. Rezkin navigated around a steep slope of talus, leading Pride to stabler ground. He said, “The surrounding kingdoms are glad to accept talented refugees, which has always been a major point of contention between Gendishen and its neighbors, Channería and Lon Lerésh. To keep the peace, the other kingdoms begrudgingly agreed not to assist in an escape, but they will provide sanctuary if someone makes it across the border.” “Why is Mage Wesson here, then?” Brandt asked.
“He will be killed if caught.” Rezkin paused to dig a rock from Pride’s hoof as he answered. “According to the Interkingdom Accords, rulers and dignitaries from foreign kingdoms are exempt from the anti-scourge laws for the duration of a sanctioned visit. I doubt King Privoth will extend us the courtesy without first recognizing me as an independent monarch. Therefore, we could not bring any mages. Journeyman Wesson, however, insisted on attending despite the dangers. He knows his strength and also speaks fluent Gendishen.” “I am willing to hazard the risks,” Wesson growled in a heated tone unlike his usual easy-going demeanor. “What they are doing is wrong. People should not be persecuted for being born different from others.
The Gendishen believe the talent is a choice—that wielders have made pacts with demons or the like.” “But it is a blessing of the Maker,” Malcius exclaimed. “Mages can do great things!” “And terrible things, too,” Sergeant Millins muttered as Malcius stumbled into him. “Come now, Sergeant, how can you say that?” Malcius said, shrugging off the soldier’s assistance. “The sergeant is right,” Wesson said. “I know more than most that the power can be both a blessing and a curse—not in the bearing of it, but in the use. For one with my affinity, it is easy to destroy and infinitely harder to create.” “I think you will find that is true in all things,” Rezkin said, “not just with the talent.” Rezkin wondered if Wesson’s true reason for attending was to keep an eye on him. Rezkin had been better about keeping his emotional—and often paranoid—episodes under control, but the strikers still treated him warily.
He had overheard Kai asking if Farson had noticed a difference in Rezkin’s behavior, and his former trainer had laughed. Farson had said that if they were observing a strangeness in Rezkin, it was because he wanted it to be so. Farson’s assertion had been a relief, since Rezkin would not want his potential enemy to perceive the weakness. After finally reaching the road, the travelers took a short respite and then walked for another hour. Gendishen was a large kingdom. Far to the east were forests and to the north, mountains, but it was otherwise dominated by flat plains. Even the smallest bump in the landscape was a notable topographic feature. As such, most of the residents were farmers, ranchers, and plantation owners. The countryside seemed to go on endlessly, and everything in sight was tall grasses, clumps of bushes, or short, scraggly trees, feasted upon by herds of grazing animals. Occasional disturbances in the grass, usually caused by a fox or wild cat, would incite a frenzy in the grassland birds, which took to the air in a noisy flurry.
The buzz and snap of insects was only overshadowed by the hollow drone of the breeze wafting through the sea of wispy green and gold stalks. Eventually, Rezkin came to a halt. “We shall stop here,” he said. “Why so early?” Malcius said. “We have at least a few hours before sundown. We should push ahead and get to civilization sooner.” Rezkin nodded up the road and then to the meadows surrounding them. “This is unknown, possibly hostile territory, and we travel light. Are you capable of hunting in the dark?” Malcius said nothing but furrowed his brow in frustration as he followed his pack to the ground. Brandt turned from surveying the landscape and said, “I am not questioning your decision, Rez, but I am wondering why you chose this spot.
It looks identical to everything else around here.” “True,” said Rezkin, “there is little to distinguish it.” He pointed to a spot a short distance away and said, “Those grasses are slightly greener than the rest. Do you hear that bird song? It is bouncy and quickens at the end. It is a sedge wren. They are often found in wet areas.” “You think we will find fresh water here?” said Brandt. Rezkin shrugged as he untied his pack. “Possibly. It is no guarantee.
” “Did you teach him that?” Malcius said, as he stared at Farson. Farson paused in the searching of his pack and glanced between Malcius and Rezkin. People generally avoided bringing up their past connection since it was obvious their relationship was less than conciliatory. Malcius seemed to be in a foul mood, though. Farson finished fishing in his pack and set to stringing his bow before answering. “No, that was probably Beritt. He was good with birds—most animals, really—and he was an excellent tracker.” “So where is Beritt now?” Malcius asked.