Authors: E.C. Blake
Be sure to read all three novels in E. C. Blake's
THE MASKS OF AYGRIMA
Copyright Â© 2015 by E. C. Blake.
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Paul Young.
Dingbat by permission of Shutterstock.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1694.
DAW Books are distributed by Penguin Group (USA).
Book designed by The Barbarienne's Den.
All characters in this book are fictitious.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
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This book is dedicated to my sister-in-law, Laurel Stein, with thanks for her encouragement and insight.
There are four people I need to acknowledge, and they are always the same four.
My agent, Ethan Ellenberg, was the one who recognized the possibility in the premise of
when I first submitted it to him in the form of a brief synopsis. He encourage me to make that my next project. He was, as usual, right.
My editor, Sheila Gilbert, as is her wont, immediately saw the weaknesses in the submitted version of
and made exactly the right suggestions to make the book stronger. Any remaining weaknesses are, alas, my own.
And last, but absolutely not least, gratitude and all my love to my beautiful and intelligent wife, Margaret Anne, and lovely and talented daughter, Alice, for being willing to put up with a husband and father who types entire worlds into being, while keeping him constantly reminded that despite those acts of creation, he is not, in fact, God.
Finally, my thanks to all the readers who have told me how much they've enjoyed Mara's adventures and how fond they are of her. I'm rather fond of the girl myself.
HE DEAD LAY ON THE BEACH,
row upon row, the snow gently wrapping their disfigured forms in shrouds of purest white, hiding the horror, hiding all differences. Had she not known how they were arranged, Mara could not have told which were Watchers and which members of the unMasked Army.
Except for the smallest corpses. There had been no children among the Watchers.
She stood, Keltan to her right and the Lady of Pain and Fire to her left, on the hillside landward of the gathered corpses. Keltan's presence warmed her. No one else had dared come close to the Lady and the wolves clustered around her feet. The survivors of the unMasked ArmyÂ .Â .Â . though “army” seemed far too grand a term for what had been whittled down to no more than eighty fighters and perhaps two hundred men, women, and children in allÂ .Â .Â . huddled together in small groups across the rows of dead from the Lady. Edrik stood with his wife, Tralia, both of them supporting Edrik's grandmother, Catilla, commander of the unMasked Army. Hyram was there, too, his arm protectively around the shoulders of Alita, the dark-skinned girl who had been rescued with Mara from the wagon taking them to the mining camp. Two other girls who had been in that wagon, Prella and Kirika, held each other close. Chell's men who had survivedÂ .Â .Â . about fifty in allÂ .Â .Â . stood with their prince and their captains on the seaward side, where the sinking sun turned them into faceless silhouettes as though they wore the black Masks that had crumbled away into dust from the Watchers' faces when they'd died.
Whatever words were to be said over the dead had already been said by the surviving members of the familiesÂ .Â .Â . those families where
survived. Not far from where she stood, Mara saw three corpses gathered together: man, woman, and young daughter. An entire family wiped out.
A family like mine once was
Among those corpses lay that of Simona, the baker's daughter who had been the fourth girl rescued from the wagon with Mara.
No tears dimmed her vision. Her ability to weep, like so much else, seemed to have been stripped away from her this day. Instead, her grief coiled, with her anger and fear, somewhere deep inside her, down where the nightmares lurked, the nightmares created in her mind whenever she used her Gift of magic to kill, whenever she absorbed the magic of those who died in her presence.
Though she had killed few if any of those on the beach before them now. The Watchers had killed those of the unMasked Army. And the deaths in turn of those Watchers, and the psychic burden they imposed, could be laid directly at the feet of the Lady in white fur by her side.
“The burial ceremonies are complete?” the Lady said now to Mara, in a voice only sheâand the wolves; she saw their ears flick at the sound of their mistress' voiceâcould have heard. The Lady had stood upon the hillside, watching silently, while the corpses were gathered and laid out.
“Yes,” Mara said.
“So.” The Lady raised her hands. In Mara's Gifted sight, they began to glow brighter and brighter, until they seemed like twin suns come to the beach. She knew that those around her who were not Gifted, like Keltan, saw nothing at all. She still found that hard to believe.
The Lady made a pushing motion. Mara saw a ball of white fire spring forth from her palms, spread into a towering wall of flame, and sweep across the beach. As the fiery wave passed, the bodies vanished, dissolving into white dust that the flame pushed ahead of it into the sea.
One instant, the corpses were there. The next, they were gone, and the snow fell onto empty, level ground, already softening the human-sized blotches of bare stones where the bodies had lain an instant before.
Mara heard a kind of collective gasp from the unMasked Army and the men of Korellia, followed by renewed weeping from those whose loved ones' remains had just vanished. She'd gasped, too, but for a different reason: for the first time she had seen
the Lady obtained her power. This close to her, she had sensed its flow.
Most Gifted could only use magic collected and held in containers of black lodestone, the strange mineral that attracted magic to itself. But the Lady of Pain and Fire, the Autarch, and Mara herself could draw magic directly from other living things, including people, though the Autarch's power was limited in that he required those people to be wearing magical Masks for him to access their magic.
The Lady had just drawn magic from the wolves.
Mara looked down at them. They grinned back at her, tongues lolling.
“I see you glimpse the truth,” the Lady said softly to her. “But this is only the beginning of your understanding. Once we reach my strongholdÂ .Â .Â .” She looked out to sea, and frowned. “But first, we must reach it.” She glanced at Keltan. “Boy.”
“Keltan,” he muttered, but she hardly seemed to notice.
“Tell Catilla we have to leave at once. The storm is returning.”
“But you stopped it,” Mara said.
“No. I only quieted it, locally, for a short time.”
“But didn't you start it in the first place?”
The Lady shook her head. “The land of Aygrima has magical defenses, established centuries ago. That ancient magic created this storm. It will last for however long those who crafted that magic decreed it should last.” She spoke to Keltan again. “If we are not off this beach before full night, there will be more deaths. We must move
Keltan frowned, glanced out at sea, froze for a moment, and then dashed off without another word. Mara followed his gaze, and saw what had given him pause.
The sun was vanishing, but not yet falling below the horizon: instead, it was being swallowed by a rapidly rising line of black clouds, whose towering peaks it outlined in flame as it disappeared behind them.
“I'm not sure they
be off the beach before the storm comes back,” Mara said, turning to the Lady. “Can't you quiet it again, at least for a time?”
The Lady shook her head again. “I came down to the shore holding as much magic within myself as I could, and I drew much more from the dying Watchers, but I also used a great deal destroying the remaining Watchers and cleansing the beach.”
And destroying Chell's ships
, Mara thought, glancing at the crippled
lying heeled-over and broken-keeled on the beach, and uneasily remembering the gleeful fury with which the Lady had savaged it. But she didn't mention that out loud.
“The wolves provide some, but they are not inexhaustible,” the Lady continued. “No. I can do nothing more against this storm, or stop the rising seas that will soon lash this beach. But as I have said, I have prepared food and shelter a short distance away, to see us through the night. After that.Â .Â .Â .” She pointed into the hills. “We are three days' journey from my stronghold, and that is three days as
travel. It may be a week with this ragtag bunch, and the journey is difficult.”
Mara felt a surge of anger. “Then leave without us, if you're so worried. Save yourself. What do you care about this âragtag bunch'?”
The Lady raised an eyebrow. “I need them,” she said. “I need people. And, as I have told you already, I need
in particular. If Iâif
âare to overthrow the Autarch, then we must all help each other.” She looked across the now-empty beach at the unMasked Army, and Mara, following her glance, saw Edrik already beginning to chivvy people inland. Beyond Edrik, the water, almost calm a few moments before, now tossed restlessly against the shore, and out to sea, the waves advanced in white-capped rows growing ever larger.
The final blazing sliver of sun vanished behind the rising clouds, plunging them into shadow. A wind even colder than before swirled the snow across the beach.
“I will use my magic as I can to make the journey easier for them,” the Lady said, “but I cannot remove all hazards or discomforts.”
Mara stared out across the beach, at the weary, crying children being urged to their feet, at the weeping widows and walking wounded turning their backs on the rising sea to start the long, uncertain journey inland. “Is there anything I can do to help? This sufferingÂ .Â .Â . it's all my fault.”
“It is the
's fault,” the Lady said sharply. “Don't forget that. And don't forget that he
pay. Now that I have
fall, as hard and fast as his father.” She took a deep breath. “And, no, there is nothing you can do to help. I have no magic you can use, and I do not think you are willing to deliberately take magic from your companions.”
Mara shot a horrified look at her. “I'll never be willing to do that. It'sÂ .Â .Â . I don't dare.”
“Really?” The Lady smiled slightly, the expression revealing deeper lines in her face than were usually apparent, so that for the first time Mara had a hint of her true age. “I can see we have a great deal to talk aboutÂ .Â .Â . and a great many misconceptions on your part to clear up. But all that must wait.” The wolves, sitting or lying at ease all around them, suddenly rose to their feet as one animal. “We are moving at last, and I must lead the way.” She turned, tugged the hood of her white fur robe into place, and strode higher up the hill. She did not move like a woman of at least Catilla's age, and as she stood, slim and erect, at the crest of the hill, waiting for those below to follow her inland, she might have been taken for no older than Mara. Like the Autarch, she seemed to have the secret of perpetual youth.
Like the Autarch
, Mara thought, chilled by more than the wind. She knew how the Autarch had extended his life: by draining magic from the Child Guard and, through the newest version of the Masks, from many others. So how was the Lady achieving the same effect?
Mara had a lot of questions for the Lady of Pain and Fire. But first, of course, they had to survive the night.
What did she mean, she's prepared shelter?
How? And what kind of shelter?
Despite her questions, she didn't follow the Lady to the top of the hill. Instead, she went downhill, in search of Keltan.
She found him gathering the belongings of a woman who cradled a squalling infant in her arms. “Lost her husband,” Keltan grunted as Mara came up. “Needs help.”
Mara nodded, then turned to the woman. “Let me carry the child for you for a while,” she said, holding out her arms.
But the woman glared at her, hatred plain on her face even in the fading gray twilight. “Don't touch her.”
Mara gasped. “Iâ”
“Don't come near her, youÂ .Â .Â . you monster!” The woman could barely choke out the loathing-filled words. She turned and strode blindly toward the hill where the Lady waited, clutching her infant to her breast.
Keltan, still carrying the woman's bundle slung over his back, paused beside Mara. “She didn't mean it,” he said. “She's just upsetÂ .Â .Â .”
“She meant it,” Mara said.
And the worst of it is, she may be right
“I thought you'd stay with the Lady,” Keltan said. “What are you doing down here?”
“I don't want to walk with the Lady,” Mara said. She wished she could take Keltan's hand, but they were both full. She contented herself with walking beside him. Side by side they trudged toward the hillside through the snow, the wind swirling it around their feet and biting through the flimsy coat she wore. “I want to walk with you. With someone ordinary.”
Keltan shot her a glance. “ThanksÂ .Â .Â . I think.”
“You know what I mean.” Mara sighed. “The Ladyâshe wants me for something. She wants me to become like her, I think. To help her overthrow the Autarch. But if I do what she wantsÂ .Â .Â . Keltan, I don't want to be a monster. I just want to be a girl.”
a girl,” Keltan said. “I've kissed you, remember? Definitely a girl.” He shook his head. “But if you mean you just want to be an
girlÂ .Â .Â . Mara, I'm sorry, but you can never be that. After what you've doneÂ .Â .Â . after what you've seenÂ .Â .Â . you'll never be ordinary. You never have been.”
Mara said nothing. Her life in Tamita, before her failed Masking, seemed as dim and distant as a pleasant dream, one that had vanished upon waking, leaving behind only a faint sense of well-beingÂ .Â .Â . and longing. Had she ever really been a carefree child, playing barefoot in the streets, sitting on the city wall and watching the crowds in the Outside Market, sneaking out at night with Sala for a secret swim, secure in the knowledge her mother and father loved her and she had a hot supper and warm bed awaiting her every night?
Now her father was dead, and maybe her mother, too. She'd seen so much death, had
so much death, had done things she would never have dreamed possible less than half a year ago, things she wouldn't have believed if they'd been in one of the tales she'd enjoyed reading as a child. Everyone wanted to use her, to turn the powerful abilities she had never wanted to their own ends: the Autarch, Catilla, Chell, and now the Lady of Pain and Fire. None of them seemed concerned with what
wanted, or needed, or longed for. They just saw her as a tool, a tool they would use until it broke.