Authors: Lucien Soulban
E KNOW PEOPLE CAN USE PASSION
TO STOKE THEIR SPELLS
“But Wyldling magic has always been around,”
Tythonnia argued. “We know others advocate its use.”
“Never like this,” Astathan replied. “Most practitioners of
this ilk were unguided and unprincipled. Selfish. But, if we
were lucky, their own inexperience would consume them.
More to our favor, they kept their secrets to themselves,
treating knowledge as a thing to be hoarded. It was like an
illness that never spread because everyone shut themselves
away with whatever sickness they caught. Berthal, however,
is trying to bring discipline to the art. He’s teaching others
how to do more without burning the wick of their souls.”
“You want Berthal … eliminated?”
Ladonna asked with a grin.
“You must find Berthal and lead the renegade hunters to him.
He must be brought to justice, for betraying his oath as
a member of the Red Robes, for fomenting this dissent, and for
teaching what should have remained forgotten!”
“Us? Really?” Tythonnia asked in shock. “But how?”
“As renegades,” Astathan said.
“I’m asking you to become renegades.”
The Forest King
Paul B. Thompson
To my mother, Pieretta Ramponi Soulban, who I miss daily: Thank you for believing that all abandoned shoes on the street belonged to kidnap victims; for believing that the outstretched telephone cord you walked into that time was a garrotte; for believing that the swarm was indeed descending upon the city and not just something I saw on a television program. In short … thank you for your wild imagination.
To my father, Shukri Moussa Soulban, who I love dearly: Thank you for putting a real skeleton in your bed to frighten the maid when you were in med-school; thank you for considering attaching gas canisters to the alarm system to knock out intruders; thank you for buying mom a gold-plated pen that fired bullets in case mom “needed protection.” In short … thank you for your sense of humor.
To my sister, Graziella, who I also love dearly: Thank you for finding a way to burn your knees while cooking; thank you for leaving your blood splatter all over the kitchen and not telling anyone that you went to the emergency room (and letting mom, of all people, discover what looked like your murder scene); thank you for having those coke/caffeine induced hallucinations while pursuing your doctorate that made life so interesting. In short … thank you for sharing mom’s and dad’s insanity.
To my niece and nephew, Christopher and Christiana … I love you both. And best of luck. You’ve got some hard acts to follow.
he wizard Pecas was troubled. His forehead wrinkled fretfully, as he ambled between the rows of books on creaking knees with the help of a stout oak cane. His bony fingers danced lightly over the volumes, and he brought his face and flickering candle dangerously close to the stacks of brittle pages.
The room was rank with the tang of aged parchments and ancient stone that captured all the tortured smells of decades past. It was a fine library, to be sure, one of the most impressive private collections of any wizard, but it was going to waste in the dungeon of the small keep, at least as far as some were concerned. The other White Robes coveted the rare works within the library, but they politely waited … waited for Pecas to bequeath the collection to them then respectfully drop dead.
But the elderly Pecas seemed more obstinate about clinging to life with each passing month. Some of the younger wizards joked that should a drop of water ever touch his deeply wrinkled skin, why, he might swell up to twice his size like a raisin returning to the glory of a grape. Then, of course, others said he was always a raisin, one nurtured on a cold and soured soil.
Pecas, however, heard none of it, cared for none of it.
“Master Pecas,” the messenger said, peering around from his spot at the bottom of the stone stairs. “Perhaps I can help you find—”
“Eh? No,” Pecas snapped. “Stay where you are. No urchin, no matter his master, touches my books except me and Virgil … where is that blasted boy?”
The messenger, a lean man with sea-blue eyes, sighed. There was no boy to be seen. He himself had pounded on the door for nearly an hour before Pecas finally answered. The old wizard was annoyed at having been disturbed so late in the evening, and more so that the boy was nowhere to be found. Another hour had passed with most of that time spent trying to explain the matter to Pecas.
“Please, Master Pecas,” the messenger said, and tempted fate by stepping off the last step into the library itself. “His most Eminent Lord, the Duke of Elmwood, awaits your wisdom on this matter. Impatiently, I might add. If I can just help—”
“No … this isn’t possible,” Pecas said. He was ignoring the messenger. His twiglike finger probed the empty space between two books on the oak shelf, where another book was supposed to be. “It’s supposed to be right here. I saw it not three days ago!”
His attention wandered to another shelf, where Pecas poked at another gap, then another, like a tongue wandering in between broken teeth and finding only raw nerves for its efforts. With each discovery, he grew more irate and more panicked. Books were missing, books that had no business being elsewhere, books inked with the very blood of magic. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, the knowledge within the books was lethal. In the hands of a novice, even worse. The wrong word spoken from their pages, the wrong sheet of parchment torn, could ruin the magic contained within the books, or unleash wild arcs of fire and lightning that would
kill anyone around them. Worse yet, Pecas’s reputation would be ruined. All those years spent fostering an iron name to watch it turn to rust in an instant.
The messenger advanced another step into the library, but Pecas said nothing. He was still staring at the empty spot. “Perhaps your student borrowed them?”
Pecas turned on his heel, the strictures of his age momentarily forgotten as he straightened an inch and brushed past the startled messenger. “Go! Get out!” he snarled. He mounted the stairs, bellowing, “Virgil! Damn you, boy! Where are my books?” But no one answered him.
Above the shuddering canopy of giant elms and oaks, the storm thundered and raged. Water dropped from the cups of leaves and the bellies of branches—a thousand trickling waterfalls that steadily drummed the green floor. The shield of leaves that blotted out the cloud-choked sky made the stormy night that fell over the Lemish Forest darker still.
There were no homes that close to the border of the southern Darkwoods, where the trees were heavy and thick with age and the roots had torn free of the earth. Even through the din of the storm, though, the boy swore he could hear the soft lilt of alien voices, a song that wafted around wide tree trunks like long fingers and searched for an ear to hear them. He was still at least a few hours’ travel from the strange and eerie Darkwoods. How was he supposed to get close enough to reach the port town of Caermish?
The boy shivered beneath the skirt of the brown-bark elm. Its drooping branches curled all the way to the ground and provided him with a wall of leaves. He was dry and warm, but it was the dark that rattled him. He gripped his travel pack even harder. It was heavier than he anticipated, and after the flush of success had run its course, he was beginning to doubt his actions under the burden of its weight. The boy was barely old
enough to turn the soft stubble on his face into a true beard, and his robes were muck-splattered and torn. He would have loved to turn around and gone back to the comforts of his old life; what few comforts had been provided were opulent in comparison to his current circumstances.
It was too late to turn back, far too late. He’d come too far to be felled by his own hesitations. He’d taken an oath and stolen for the cause. His only hope of escape was to reach the ship docked at Caermish, the one that would not wait for him.
Sleep finally began to overtake the boy when something snapped in the darkness: a piece of wood cracking in half. Fear pumped into the boy’s chest, staggering his heart and forcing him fully awake. Someone—or something—was out there. The boy bolted to his feet, ears pricked and thoughts screaming at him to run. He willed himself to stay put, however, and pulled out his dagger. He reached out and gently pushed away a branch to see better, but for all the good it did him in the night- and storm-stricken forest, he might as well have kept his eyes shut. There was only darkness and his imagination, but that was enough to hint at moving shadows and the whisper of steps.
The boy’s mind reeled at the possibilities, his thoughts suddenly filled with the monsters of his youth and the stories of the woods he was in. He imagined undead prowling the forest, their coal eyes searching the undergrowth for a dinner of flesh and a drink of blood. He could imagine their withered fingers wrapping around branches, suddenly pulling them aside to uncover their next meal: him.