Soulbinder – Sebastien de Castell

When I was seven years old, my parents unexpectedly picked my brother and me up from school. I figured something terrible had happened, but instead they presented us with two puppies. We named them Lady and Tramp, after the greatest movie of all time. In the strange way of these things, Tramp became ‘mine’ (or rather, I became his). I guess loads of people have had similar experiences, and I don’t know why they mean so much to us, but they do. They mean everything. Hope is a won drous island upon whose shores we all wish to tread. Be wary though, that when you find your eyes drawn to that distant horizon, you remember to look down once in a while … – Stupid Argosi proverb 1 The Problem with Sand The desert is a liar. Oh, sure, from a distance that endless expanse of golden sand looks inviting. Standing at the top of a sand dune, warm breezes soothe the scorching sun above, beckoning you to the wonders awaiting below. Whatever you desire – treasure beyond imagining, escape from your enemies, or maybe even a cure for the twisting black lines that won’t stop growing around your left eye – some fool will swear it’s waiting for you across the desert. A dangerous journey? Perhaps, but the rewards, boy! Think of the rewards … Look closer, though – I mean, really close – say, an inch or so from the sand itself. This is easy to do when you’re face down in it waiting to die of thirst. See how each and every grain of sand is unique? Different shapes, sizes, colours … That seamless perfection you saw before was just an illusion. Up close the desert is dirty, ugly and mean.

Like I said: it’s a stinking liar. ‘ You’re a stinking liar,’ Reichis grumbled. My head jerked up with a start. I hadn’t even realised I’d spoken out loud. With considerable effort I turned my head to see how my so-called business partner was faring. I didn’t get very far. Lack of food and water had taken their toll on me. The bloody bruises inflicted by the spells of a recently deceased mage whose foul-smelling corpse was rotting in the heat a few feet away didn’t help either. So was I going to waste what life I had left to me just to glare at the ill-tempered, twofoot-tall squirrel cat dying by my side? ‘ You stink,’ I replied. ‘Heh,’ he chuckled.

Squirrel cats don’t have a very good sense of their own mortality. They do, however, have an acute penchant for assigning blame. ‘This is all your fault,’ he chittered. I rolled over, hoping to ease the stiffness in my spine, only for the wounds on my back to scream in protest. The pain drew a rasping moan from my parched throat. ‘Don’t try to deny it,’ Reichis said. ‘I didn’t say anything.’ ‘Yes, you did. You whimpered and I heard, “But, Reichis, how could I possibly have known that I was leading us into a death trap set by my own people? I mean, sure, you warned me that this talk of a secret monastery in the desert where monks could cure me of the shadowblack was a scam, but you know me: I’m an idiot. An idiot who never listens to his smarter and much better-looking business partner.

”’ In case you’ve never seen a squirrel cat, picture an angry feline face, slightly tubby body, unruly bushy tail and strange furry flaps connecting their front and back limbs that enable them to glide down from treetops to massacre their prey. ‘Good-looking’ isn’t exactly the phrase that comes to mind. ‘You got all that from a whimper?’ I asked. A pause. ‘Squirrel cats are very intuitive.’ I drew a ragged breath, the heat off the sand burning the air in my lungs. How long had the two of us been lying here? A day? Two days? My hand reached for the last of our water skins, dragging it closer. I steeled myself for the fact that I’d have to share what was left with Reichis. People say you can live three days without water, but that’s not factoring in the way the desert robs the moisture from you like a … like a damned squirrel cat ! The water skin was bone-dry. ‘You drank the last of our water?’ Reichis replied testily, ‘I asked first.

’ ‘When?’ Another pause. ‘While you were asleep.’ Apparently the desert wasn’t the only liar I had to contend with. Seventeen years old, exiled by my people, hunted by every hextracker and bounty mage with two spells and a bad attitude, and the last of my water had just been stolen by the closest thing I had to a friend out here. My name is Kellen Argos. Once I was a promising student of magic and the son of one of the most powerful families in the Jan’Tep territories. Then the twisting black markings of a mystical curse known as the shadowblack appeared around my left eye. Now people call me outlaw, traitor, exile – and that’s when they’re being polite. The one thing they never call me is lucky. ‘Sure, I know the place,’ the old scout had said, her mismatched hazel and green eyes glued to the dusty leather bag of copper and silver trinkets on the table between us.

We had the ground floor of the travellers’ saloon to ourselves, with the exception of a couple of passed-out drunks in the far corner and one sad fellow who sat on the floor by himself, rolling a pair of dice over and over as he sobbed into his ale about having the worst luck in the whole world. Shows what you know, buddy. ‘Can you take me to it? This monastery,’ I asked, placing a card face up on the table. The scout picked up the card and squinted at the shadowy towers depicted on its surface. ‘Nice work,’ she observed. ‘You paint this yourself?’ I nodded. For the past six months, Reichis and I had crossed half a continent in search of a cure for the shadowblack. We’d pick up clues here and there, brief scrawls in the margins of obscure texts referring to a secret sanctuary, rumours repeated endlessly by drunks in taverns like this one. The Argosi paint cards of important people and places, imbuing them with whatever scraps of information they collect in hopes that the resulting images will reveal otherwise hidden meanings. I’d taken to painting my own.

If I died in my search for a cure, there was always a chance the cards would find their way into Argosi hands, and then to Ferius Parfax, so she’d know not to bother looking for me. The old scout tossed the card back down on the table as if she were placing a bet. ‘The place you’re looking for is called the Ebony Abbey, and yeah, I could take you there … if I were so inclined.’ Her smile pinched the crags of sun-browned skin on her forehead and around her eyes, her face like a map of some long-forgotten country. She had to be well into her sixties, but her sleeveless leather jerkin revealed rope-like muscles on her shoulders and arms. Those, along with the assortment of knives sheathed to a bandolier across her chest and the crossbow strapped to her back, told me she could probably handle herself just fine in a fight. The way she kept staring at the bag of trinkets on the table without paying much attention to me made it plain that I hadn’t made a similar impression on her. Searching for a miracle cure hadn’t been a particularly profitable enterprise so far. Every coin I earned as a spellslinger during my travels had been wasted on snake-oil salesmen peddling putrid concoctions that left me sick and vomiting for days at a time. Now my travel-worn linen shirt hung loose on my skinny frame.

My face and chest still showed the bruises and scars from my last encounter with a pair of Jan’Tep bounty mages. So I could understand why the sight of me didn’t exactly fill the scout with trepidation. ‘She’s thinking of beating you up and taking our money,’ Reichis said, sniffing the air from his perch on my shoulder. ‘That thing ain’t rabid, is it?’ the scout asked, sparing him a wary glance. Other people don’t understand the chitters, snarls and occasional farts Reichis uses to communicate. ‘I’m still trying to figure that out,’ I replied. The squirrel cat gave a low growl. ‘You know I can just rip your eyeballs right out of their sockets and eat them while you sleep, right?’ He hopped off my shoulder and headed towards the two drunks passed out in the corner, no doubt to see if he could pick their pockets. ‘Ask them that know the tales,’ the old scout began in a sing-song voice. ‘They’ll tell you naught but seven outsiders have ever been inside the Ebony Abbey’s walls.

Five of them are dead. One’s a dream-weed addict who couldn’t find his own nose with both hands, never mind a secret monastery hidden in the desert.’ She reached for the little bag that contained everything I still had of any value. ‘Then there’s me.’ I got to the bag first. I may not look like much, but I’ve got fast hands. ‘We haven’t agreed terms yet.’ For the first time the old scout’s mismatched eyes locked on mine. I tried to match her glare, but it’s unnerving to have two different-coloured eyes staring back at you. ‘Why you want to mess with them Black Binders anyway?’ she asked.

Her gaze went to my left eye, and I could tell she’d picked up on the slight discolouration where the edges of the skin-coloured mesdet paste met the top of my cheekbone. ‘You ain’t got the shadowblack, do ya?’ ‘Shadow-what?’ I asked. ‘Never heard of it.’ ‘Well, I hear there’s a posse of Jan’Tep spellcasters who’ll pay plenty for one o’ them demon- cursed. There’s a particular fellow they’ve been hunting a while now, or so I hear.’ ‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ I said, trying to lend my words a hint of a threat. ‘Like I told you before, I’m just writing a book about obscure desert monks.’ ‘Lot of money for that bounty. Maybe more than what’s in that bag of yours.’ I removed my hands from the bag and let my fingers drift down to open the tops of the pouches attached to either side of my belt.

Inside were the red and black powders I used for the one spell I knew that always left an impression. ‘You know what?’ I asked casually. ‘Now that you mention it, I think maybe I have heard about this shadowblack bounty you mention. Word is, a lot of dangerous folk have tried to collect on it. Have to wonder what happened to all of them.’ One corner of the scout’s mouth rose to a smirk. Her own hands, I saw now, had managed to make a pair of hooked knives appear. ‘Met plenty of dangerous men in my time. None of them impressed me much. What makes you any different?’ I returned her smile.

‘Look behind you.’ She didn’t, instead angling one of her knives just a touch until the blade caught the reflection of a certain squirrel cat who’d surreptitiously made his way up to the top of the coat rack behind her and was now waiting for the cue to pounce. Yeah, the little bugger makes himself useful sometimes. I counted three full breaths before the old scout slowly set her knives down on the table. ‘Sounds like a mighty fine book you’re writing, my young friend.’ She snatched up my bag of trinkets and rose from the table. ‘Best we load up on supplies in town before we make the trip.’ I waited a while longer, doing my best to make it appear as if I hadn’t decided whether to hire her as my guide or blast her into ashes. Truthfully though, I was waiting for my heart to stop racing. ‘How far away is this abbey?’ I asked.

She adjusted the strap of her crossbow and slid her knives into their sheathes. ‘A long ways, as these things go, but don’t worry; you’ll enjoy the journey.’ ‘Really?’ She grinned. ‘Folks say the Golden Passage is the gentlest, most beautiful place you’ll ever see.’ 2 The Virtue of Corpses Faint scratching sounds returned me to my current predicament. I opened one eye a fraction, groggily expecting to be blinded by the reflection of sunlight against the shimmering golden sand. Instead I was greeted by twilight and a bitter chill. You’d think a place as blisteringly hot during the day as the Golden Passage would be temperate at night. But no, the temperature goes from scorching to freezing with barely an hour of warmth in between. I shivered and tried to go back to sleep.

The scratching continued though – so close that for a second I batted at my ear, fearful that some insect was burrowing inside. When that failed to solve the problem, I forced my head up enough to turn towards the source of the incessant noise. Reichis was wearily dragging himself along the sand. He’s trying to get to me , I thought. Fondness broke through the cold and despair. For all our quarrelling, the squirrel cat and I had saved each other’s lives more times than either of us could count; now he wanted to die beside me. I reached out a hand, only to discover he wasn’t getting any closer. He was actually crawling away from me. Have I mentioned that squirrel cats are ungrateful little wretches? My so-called business partner hadn’t been expending his last ounce of strength so that we could meet our end together; this wasn’t some final moment of friendship between us. No, instead the furry monster was slowly working his way to the war mage’s corpse.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked. No reply. Reichis just kept crawling inch by inch to his destination. When he finally lay next to the corpse’s head, panting and exhausted, I worried that perhaps the squirrel cat’s mind was so far gone from thirst that he’d mistaken the dead man for me. With a trembling paw, he reached for the mage’s unblinking eyes that stared blindly up at the darkening sky. That’s when I finally understood what Reichis was up to. ‘Oh, for the sake of all my dead ancestors,’ I swore, ‘tell me you’re not planning to—’ With the deftness that comes from practice – a lot of practice – Reichis used one of his claws to dig out the man’s eyeball. He then opened his jaws wide, dropped the disgusting, squishy sphere into his maw, and bit down. ‘Oh …’ he said, moaning rapturously, ‘that’s tasty.’ ‘You’re repugnant, you know that?’ I’m not sure the words actually came out of my mouth.

At that precise moment I was using what little strength of will I had left to keep myself from vomiting. ‘Yummy,’ he mumbled between chews, then swallowed noisily. What few people know about squirrel cats is that the only thing more revolting than the way they devour their food is their insistence on rhapsodising about it afterwards. ‘You know,’ he began with a contented sigh, ‘you worry that it’ll be overcooked, on account of this guy’s face having caught fire and all, but it turned out perfect. A little crispy on the outside; soft and warm on the inside.’ He reached a paw over to the other side of the dead mage’s face. ‘You want the left one?’ he asked, adding a slight snarl to convey that the offer wasn’t entirely sincere. ‘I’ll pass. Doesn’t it just make you more thirsty? We’re likely to die from lack of water a lot sooner than we’ll expire from hunger.’ ‘Good point.

’ Reichis hauled himself closer to the mage’s chest, where a massive wound from our duel had left a pool of blood. The squirrel cat began lapping it up. He paused when he caught me staring at him in horror. ‘You should probably drink some too, Kellen. Must have some water in it, right?’ ‘I am not drinking blood. I am not eating eyeballs.’ The squirrel cat served up a sarcastic growl. ‘Oh, right, because your culinary hang-ups are so much more important than our survival.’ I couldn’t think of a suitable retort. He might’ve been right, for all I knew, though I had no idea if human beings could actually get enough moisture from blood to make a difference, or if it would just make me sick.

Either way, I couldn’t bring myself to find out, so I just lay there for a few minutes with nothing to do but listen to the sound of Reichis’s enthusiastic slurping. When he was finally done, he lay back down on his side and called to me. ‘Kellen?’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘I know this is kind of a sensitive topic, but …’ ‘What?’ ‘Well, when you’re dead, is it okay if I eat your corpse?’ Hastily he added, ‘I mean, it’s better if one of us lives, right?’ With what little strength I had left, I rolled away from him onto my back, ignoring the pain that exploded from my injuries. I didn’t want the last thing I saw in this world to be the blood-soaked face of a squirrel cat as he pondered which to eat first, my eyeballs or my ears. High above, beyond the petty concerns of mortals, the stars began to appear, thousands of tiny sparks coming to life. Though the Golden Passage was an arid, unlivable hellhole, the night sky out here could really put on a show. I took in a breath, only to have my throat spasm painfully – a reflex that I guess must be the result of going too long without water. I’m going to die here . The words invaded my thoughts as suddenly and as forcefully as an iron binding spell. I’m really going to die tonight, killed by some arsehole Jan’Tep bounty hunter and my own stupidity.

I felt myself starting to cry, and with trembling fingers reached up to wipe at tears that weren’t there. I must’ve let out a sob, because Reichis groaned. ‘Oh, great, cos bawling your eyes out is really going to help conserve water.’ Squirrel cats aren’t exactly known for their compassion. Usually when I get myself into trouble, my survival depends on the timely arrival of a certain curly red-haired gambler by the name of Ferius Parfax. There I’ll be, on my knees, begging some lunatic who happens to have a thing against shadowblacks, waiting for the blade (or mace, or crossbow, ember spell, or … you get the idea) to come crashing down on me, when all of a sudden she’ll turn up. ‘Well now, don’t you two look as fussy as two feisty ferrets fightin’ over a fern,’ she’ll say. Actually, she’s never used those exact words, but it’s usually something equally nonsensical. ‘Do not dare interfere, Argosi,’ the mage (or soldier, assassin or random irritated person) will shout back. Ferius will push that frontier hat of hers a half-inch higher on her brow, reach into her waistcoat to pull out a smoking reed, and say, ‘Far be it from me to interfere, friend, but I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to that skinny fella you seem intent on carvin’ up.

Gonna have to ask you to kindly back off.’ After that? Well, fight-fight-fight, clever remark, certain death, near-impossible daring feat, enemy goes down, one last clever remark – usually at my expense – and then I’m saved. That’s how it’s been ever since I left my homeland on my sixteenth birthday. Only now everything’s different. Six months ago I’d abandoned Ferius, my mentor in the ways of the Argosi, and Nephenia, the charmcaster I once loved, on account of I’d learned that my people were never going to stop hunting me and anyone with me, so long as I had the shadowblack. Since the swirling black marks around my left eye showed no sign of fading away, that meant leaving the two people I was closest to behind or risk them being killed by enemies intent on getting to me. As painful as my departure had been, at least it had felt kind of noble. For about six minutes. The problem with being noble and self-sacrificing is that when you get into a jam – say, like, when the tattooed metallic bands on a Jan’Tep hextracker’s arms are glowing from all the magic he’s summoned to kill you – there’s nobody to get you out of it. ‘Hey, Kellen …?’ Reichis asked with an uncharacteristic hesitation in his voice.

‘Yes, you can eat me when I’m dead. Happy now?’ Silence for a moment, then, ‘No, I was just wondering if you think that mage was telling the truth.’ ‘About what?’ ‘When he said he killed Ferius.’ 3 The Trouble with Spells I’d suspected the old scout would betray us the minute she had us in the desert and away from any prying eyes. Reichis and I took turns watching her, day and night, as we trudged up and down one sand dune after another. Our vigilance proved to be misplaced, however, because although she really was leading us into a trap, it wasn’t one she’d set herself. Among the many ways the desert messes with you is the way light reflecting off the sand plays tricks with your eyes. Sometimes you’ll see a shimmer in the distance that looks just like a Jan’Tep shield spell. You’ll get ready for the fight of your life, only to have your mean-spirited guide mock you for being ‘as jumpy as a tadpuddler’. I have no idea what ‘tadpuddlers’ are.

Apparently they’re quite jumpy. Every time I freaked out over a mirage, the old scout would ride up to the glistening haze, holding her hooked knives aloft and shouting, ‘Have at thee, foul patch of empty air!’ She found it all terribly funny, right up until one of those blurry shimmers fired a bolt of ember magic that blasted her into ashes. Reichis and I were so exhausted by then that we barely had time to drop to the ground before another bolt came after us. Turned out we weren’t even the target: the ember spell was aimed at our horses. They died a mercifully quick death. Unfortunately, with them went the supplies we needed to survive another week in the desert. ‘How many?’ the broad-shouldered mage asked as he stepped out from his obscurement spell. As cloaking conjurations go, it wasn’t particularly impressive, which gave me hope this guy might be relying on a charm and wasn’t particularly powerful himself. Maybe he was just a one-bander like me. ‘How many what?’ I asked, rising to my feet and casually reaching for my powders.

‘How many of my fellow mages have you killed, shadowblack? How many of our people have died trying to bring you to justice?’ I considered the question. ‘Nine,’ I lied, then corrected myself. ‘Actually, ten now.’ I tossed the red and black powders into the air in front of me. Just before they collided, I formed the somatic shape with my hands: index and middle fingers pointed towards my target, in the sign of guidance; ring and little fingers pressed into my palm, the gesture of restraint, and thumbs to the sky, the closest I ever get to a prayer to my ancestors for help. ‘ Carath ,’ I intoned. The explosion shattered the air between us. Twin red and black flames intertwined around each other like snakes as they roared out after my enemy. An instant later, the flames were gone, broken against his shield spell. Guess this guy’s sparked more than one band.

‘Did you really expect that to work?’ he asked. ‘No, but I’m ready for you now, and you can’t cast another ember blast without dropping your shield.’ I let my hands drift back down the pouches at my sides. ‘Care to see who draws faster?’ ‘Heh,’ Reichis chuckled. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘Nothing. It’s just funny when you try to sound tough.’ ‘Not helpful.’ My opponent watched me closely, taking my measure as I took his. He was young, as mages go, not much older than twenty.

Usually that means I can count on them to take up my challenge, but he didn’t bother with another ember spell. Instead he flicked copper-coloured hair out of his eyes and kept up the somatic gesture for his shield with one hand while raising the other so I could see that one of his fingers had an unnaturally elongated nail. With a slow, deliberate motion, he pushed the nail into the skin of his wrist and drew a sinewy line about six inches long, leaving behind a trail of crimson.

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