Queenslayer – Sebastien de Castell

Shush, shush, shush, whispered the silvery snow, as soothing as a man clamping his hand over your mouth as he sticks a knife in your back in the middle of a crowded street. There were seven of us in this particular crowd, shivering on the frigid plateau high up in the border mountains. Merrell of Betrian, the man I’d come to kill, cowered behind Arc’aeon, the war mage he’d hired to kill me first. A few yards away stood two bored Daroman marshals who’d graciously offered to oversee our duel (which is to say, threatened to arrest us unless we paid the overseeing fee). That just left the tall, graceful eagle that was Arc’aeon’s familiar and the short, nasty squirrel cat who passed for mine. Oh, and me, of course. ‘You’re gonna get it now, Kellen!’ Merrell hooted at me from across the fifty-yard stretch of snowdusted ground separating us. ‘Arc’aeon here’s a proper ember mage. Ain’t no fool, neither, so your spellslinger tricks ain’t gonna work on him.’ ‘Yeah, you’re right, Merrell,’ I shouted back. ‘My tricks only work on fools.’ Merrell swore, Arc’aeon smirked and the two marshals chuckled. Neither the bird nor the squirrel cat paid any attention. They were focused on each other. Me, I was thinking that maybe Merrell wasn’t the biggest sucker shuffling about trying to keep his toes from freezing off.

I thought I’d been running him down, racing to keep him from crossing the border into the Zhuban territories where he knew I wouldn’t follow. I thought I’d been chasing after a dumb, pug-ugly wife beater who’d tried to cheat me at cards. Turns out that was all wrong. Merrell was a lot wealthier than he’d let on. He was also a lot better connected, because however much money he had, hiring a full-on war mage couldn’t have been easy. My people usually shun contract work from repugnant borderland hicks. Looking at Arc’aeon, on the other hand, was like staring into a distorted mirror of myself. I was a few days shy of my eighteenth birthday and unlikely to see twenty. Arc’aeon looked to be in his early thirties, already the head of a notable Jan’Tep house, with wealth, power and a long, glorious future in front of him. My hair is what’s politely referred to as ‘manure coloured’; his gleamed in the morning sunlight like it was spun from strands of platinum and gold.

I was scrawny from hard living and a life on the run; he had the muscular build of a soldier. ‘I like your armour,’ I shouted across the swirling patch of snow that lay between us. Shining formfitting plates linked by bands of silk thread protected his chest, arms and legs. ‘It’s very … golden. Matches your bird.’ ‘Shadea is an eagle, boy,’ he corrected me, smiling up at the hunter flying in lazy circles through the air like a buzzard anticipating his next meal. ‘A bird is something that flitters around before you shoot it for dinner. An eagle makes a meal of you.’ He pointed absently towards me. I didn’t have any armour – just my leather coat and riding chaps to keep myself from getting scraped to bits every time I fell off my horse.

‘I like your hat,’ he said, nodding at the Daroman frontier hat I wore to keep the sun off the black marks that wound around my left eye. ‘Those silver glyphs on the brim are … cute. Do they do anything?’ I shrugged. ‘The man I stole the hat from said they’d bring me luck.’ Arc’aeon smiled again. ‘Then he overcharged you. This fool has paid me rather a lot of money to end you, Kellen of the House of Ke, but I would have done it for free had I known you were shadowblack. I’m going to send a bolt of lightning straight through that filthy left eye of yours.’ The bird … eagle, rather, let out a caw for emphasis, as if it understood the conversation. ‘You think the bird knows …’ I began.

‘Of course he knows what you’re saying,’ Reichis chittered in reply, then added, ‘Idjit.’ The squirrel cat meant to say ‘idiot’, but we’d been travelling the borderlands for a few months, and he’d taken to talking like a gap-toothed sheep herder. ‘The eagle’s his familiar. Whatever that skinbag mage hears, the bird hears.’ I glanced down at Reichis. He looked a little ridiculous holding his paw just above his eyes to shield them from the harsh sunlight reflecting off the snow and ice so he could scowl at the mage’s eagle. If you’ve never seen a squirrel cat before, imagine some drunken god had gifted a slightly tubby two-foot-tall cat with a big bushy tail and furry flaps that ran between its front and back legs, enabling it to glide down from treetops and sink its claws and teeth into its chosen prey – which is pretty much everything that moves. Oh, and then that same deity had given his creation the temperament of a thief. And a blackmailer. And probably on more than one occasion a murderer.

‘I bet that guy’s eagle doesn’t call him “idjit”,’ I said. Reichis looked up at me. ‘Yeah, well, that’s probably because I’m not your familiar, I’m your business partner. Idjit.’ ‘You think that’s going to make a difference in about five minutes when the marshals tell us to draw and that eagle snatches you up and rips out your entrails?’ ‘Point,’ Reichis said. He patted me on the leg. ‘All right, so you’re a genius, kid. Now blow this guy away so we can eat that ugly bird of his for supper. I call both eyeballs.’ I let my hands drift down to the powder holsters at my sides.

It had cost a small fortune to convince a leather-smith to make them for me, but they let me pull powder faster than my old pouches, and when you’re duelling a war mage, even a fraction of a second can mean the difference between life and death. Merrell nearly fell on his arse and the two marshals instantly had their crossbows trained on me in case I was about to cheat the duel, but Arc’aeon ignored the gesture entirely. ‘He ain’t afraid of you blasting him,’ Reichis said. Well, he doesn’t speak exactly – he makes squirrel cat noises – but the nature of our relationship is such that I hear them as words. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘Intransigent charm shield?’ ‘Gotta be.’ I peered across the gap between us and the ember mage. I couldn’t see anything on the ground. I’d picked this spot intentionally because it’s pretty damned hard to keep a circle intact when the only thing to draw it in is ice and snow. I couldn’t see markings, so that left only one logical possibility.

‘Say, fellas? You all mind if we move just a few feet to the right? I’ve got the sun in my eyes here. Can’t have an unfair duel, right?’ The older of the two marshals, Harrex I think his name was, shrugged his bony shoulders and nodded towards Arc’aeon. The mage just smiled back and shook his head. His eagle did a little dive towards us and turned up just a few feet away from my face. ‘They got here early and laid down copper sigil wire under the snow, then poured water on it and waited for it to turn to ice,’ I said to Reichis. ‘Guess you were right that we should’ve camped out here last night.’ ‘Idjit.’ Harrex held up a miniature sundial. ‘Well, gentlemen, I reckon we’re just about there. In a minute it’ll be mid-morning and Marshal Parsus here will start the countdown from seven.

You both know the rules after that?’ ‘Kill the other guy?’ I offered. Reichis glared up at me. ‘That your plan? Crack jokes until that mage can’t blast us on account of he’s laughing too hard to speak the incantations?’ ‘Might be our best shot. No way am I going to be able to blast through that shield.’ ‘So what do we do?’ I looked over at Arc’aeon and watched the smile on his face widen as he stood there, calm as could be, waiting for the duel to begin. ‘Seven!’ Marshal Parsus shouted out. I looked down into Reichis’s beady squirrel cat eyes. ‘How about we switch dance partners?’ I suggested. ‘Six!’ ‘You’re saying I get the mage?’ Squirrel cats don’t usually smile, but Reichis had a big nasty grin on his fuzzy little face. He might be greedy, he might be a liar, a thief and a blackmailer, but the little bugger loves nothing more than a knock-down, drag-out fight.

A few months ago he got himself the same shadowblack curse around his left eye that I have around mine. It hadn’t improved his disposition any. ‘Five!’ ‘Don’t screw around, Reichis. You know what to do.’ ‘Four!’ Reichis gave a little shake. His fur changed colour from its usual mean-spirited brown with black stripes to pure white, making him almost invisible against the thick carpet of snow. I flipped up the metal clasps on my holsters to open the flaps. ‘Three!’ Arc’aeon brought the fingers of both his hands together in a steeple shape. I knew the somatic form, even if I couldn’t cast the spell myself. I winced at the thought of what it would do when it hit me.

‘Two!’ Arc’aeon winked at me. The eagle pulled around from his last circle to get ready to dive after Reichis. The squirrel cat got down on all fours and pressed his back feet against the snow, digging in for leverage. ‘One …’ Parsus said, a little too much enthusiasm in his voice for my taste. Observers of such things will note that there are usually only two ways to lose a duel: end up on your knees begging for mercy, or on your back waiting for the falling snow to cover your corpse. ‘Begin!’ I was about to discover a third option that was even worse. 2 Fire and Lightning The first tiny blue sparks of lightning materialised around Arc’aeon’s fingers just as the eagle began a downward dive to kill Reichis. I could almost taste the ember magic in the air that preceded the bolt and I prayed that Arc’aeon was just arrogant enough to want to follow through with his earlier threat. I dropped to the ground, already jamming my hands into the holsters at my side, forefingers snatching a pinch of the red and black powders that awaited there. I watched the lighting bolt tear past where an instant ago it would’ve struck my left eye.

This guy had good aim. Reichis was kicking up a miniature snowstorm behind him as he raced towards Arc’aeon, screaming all the while, ‘Die, you stupid pigeon!’ The eagle’s talons were reaching for the squirrel cat’s hide when I threw the powders up in the air in front of me as my right shoulder hit the ground. Inert and innocent as babes on their own, the two powders had a hatred for each other that created a monstrous explosion on contact. The magic’s not in the blast, you see – that’s just the effect of the powders themselves. The magic’s in the hard part – guiding the explosion without blowing your hands and face off in the process. My fingers formed the necessary somatic shape: bottom two pressed into the palm, the sign of restraint; fore and middle fingers pointed straight out, the sign of direction; and thumb pointing to the heavens, the sign of, well, somebody up there, help me. ‘Carath Toth,’ I said, uttering the two-word invocation. Only the first two syllables were needed, strictly speaking. Toth was the name of a particularly mean-spirited bounty hunter who’d tracked down Reichis and me a few weeks ago, declaring before an entire town that he’d be the one to finally put an end to me. Since my powder was now suffused with his blood, saying his name gave the spell a little extra kick.

A blast of red and black fire, the flames intertwined like snakes, followed the direction of my forefingers as they shot out at the eagle, leaving a haze of smoke in their wake. I missed the bird’s heart, but got one of his wings. He went careening to the ground a few feet away from Reichis. The squirrel cat didn’t stop to look though – just kept those little legs pounding towards his true target. ‘Shadea!’ the mage screamed, his hands unconsciously relinquishing the somatic shape for his next spell. Hurts when your familiar gets hit, don’t it? I thought maliciously. I had nothing against the eagle, you understand, but he was trying to kill my business partner. Arc’aeon aimed his second blast just as I was getting back to my feet, forcing me to drop again, this time flat on my stomach. I felt my hair stand up as the lightning passed just above my head. I wasn’t going to be able to evade a third bolt.

Reichis bridged the gap between himself and the war mage. With a feral growl he leaped up into the air. Arc’aeon nearly fell back, despite the fact that there was no way the squirrel cat was going to be able to breach the shield. But the shield wasn’t the target. The instant Reichis hit the ground he started digging ferociously, tearing through snow and ice to where the fragile circle of copper wire holding the spell must be buried. Arc’aeon was just starting to figure it out when I fired another shot at his familiar. ‘Carath Toth,’ I murmured. ‘No!’ Arc’aeon screamed. He fired a different kind of spell this time, some kind of blessing or protection that enveloped the eagle and dissipated my blast into airy black smoke. Nice trick, I thought.

‘Now!’ Reichis growled at me. I saw the crease in the snow where he’d been digging. That was my opening. But I wasn’t in the right place to send a bolt through the hole in the shield. ‘Damn it,’ I said, as I got to my feet and ran towards Arc’aeon. I saw him look down at the ground, his hands forming a new and ugly shape. His eyes went from the hole to Reichis before settling on me and aimed the spell at my chest. Too soon, damn it, too soon. I wasn’t in line with the gap yet. ‘Carath moron!’ I shouted at the top of my lungs, aiming my fingers at Arc’aeon as if I’d really been casting the spell.

The ‘moron’ part wasn’t necessary, but when you’re an outlaw with a price on your head, you take your fun wherever you can. Reflexively he changed the configuration of his fingers and formed a transient shield. A mistake, since I hadn’t actually fired and his warding would only last a second without copper to anchor it. Arc’aeon’s mouth went slack as he realised I’d tricked him. I was now in line with the gap in his shield. With the opening in the shield now visible as a stuttering shimmer in the air, I whispered, ‘Carath Toth,’ one last time. The powders slammed against each other before me. Aiming down the line of my fingers, I sent the explosion through the gap before Arc’aeon could get another warding spell up. The bolt took him in the dead centre of his belly and right through the decorative plating of his armour. There was quiet then, as we waited for the last echoes of the explosion reverberating off the mountains to fade.

For a few seconds the war mage remained standing, ignorant of the fact that his body now lacked the vital organs necessary for life. The blast had left a hole big enough for me to see right through him to where Merrell was cowering behind his champion. I walked towards him as the mage’s body finally figured out what had happened and collapsed to the ground. If that all sounds too easy, it wasn’t. Besides, we’re still not at the part where I screwed everything up.

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