“We are low on supplies, master.” Ethan closed the pack.
“I know.” Samet nodded. “Fortunately, our first stopping point is not much further.”
Ethan starred, his mouth hanging open slightly. The glowing light revealed itself to be a naked woman, no taller than his hand. Gossamer wings sprang from her back, giving off twinkling motes of light. Her silvery, bell like voice rang across the path. “Samet.” She zipped toward him, stopping only an inch from his face, and planted a kiss on his nose. “You came to visit.” She turned a backflip in midair, then kissed Master’s nose again.
“Enesuriel.” Master smiled, then lifted a hand. She landed on it, sitting cross-legged to look up at him. “You are looking particularly lovely today.”
She giggled, then seemed to note Ethan for the first time. Immediately she took flight again and began buzzing around him, stopping now and then to take a look. He tried to follow her path with his eyes and only succeeded in making himself dizzy. “Ooh, he’s a pretty one.” She came to a stop a few inches from his face. “His eyes are like tree sap, but he stares too much.” She zipped around him again and then suddenly zipped backward. “He’s carrying iron.” She sounded scandalized.
“Be at peace, Enesuriel. He will not harm you.” Master held his hand toward her, and she landed in it again. He smiled. “Ethan, this is Enesuriel, an old and dear friend.”
“It’s, um…” Ethan swallowed. “A pleasure to meet you, Lady Enesuriel.” He wondered why Master hadn’t told him about this. “Forgive my starring, I’ve not see anything like you before.”
“What’s that mean?” She stood in Master’s hand, glaring at him.
He looked at Master for some kind of hint about what to say, and Master merely grinned. Ethan flicked his eyes back to the tiny woman. “It meant I never knew something as pretty as you existed.”
Delighted laughter came from her, and she immediately zipped forward to plant a kiss on the end of his nose. She flitted over to land on his shoulder, and put a hand on his ear to steady herself. “I like him, Samet. Are you going to keep him?”
“I was considering it.” Master chuckled.
“There, that’s much better.” Enesuriel flitted back and gave her handiwork a critical look.
Ethan looked at his reflection in the coppery mirror. Even knowing where the hidden sheaths were, it was hard for him to tell he was wearing the knives. The new clothes fit well, and the boots were more comfortable than the ones he’d been wearing earlier. Apparently, shaping things to fit properly was something she could do with a touch. “It looks wonderful, Enesuriel.”
Her laughter was delighted. “You’re more fun than Samet. He won’t let me dress him.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “He should wear a nice, swirling black cape, but he says it’s too dramatic.”
“I see.” He nodded to her, then gave Master an appraising look. “You know, she’s right, master.”
“Don’t start.” Master didn’t look up from the scroll he was examining.
He glanced back at Enesuriel. “It should be lined though. What color were you thinking?”
“Purple,” she answered immediately.
“I would have gone with a bit of silver, personally.” He tapped his chin.
“No, silly. The black should be silver-threaded.”
“I hadn’t considered that.” Ethan nodded gravely. “A nice subtle flair.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “Silver trim on the boots?”
“Yes, yes, yes.” She flitted about his head, then landed on his shoulder again. “And he needs a headpiece. Something that holds a nice glowing stone right in the center of his forehead.”
“But not too big. Thin metal. A circlet rather than a crown.”
“Silver. And the stone should be purple, oval with no facets.”
“Introducing you two…” Master just shook his head. “Not one of my better ideas.”
“No, Enesuriel.” Samet shook his head. As useful as the pixie was, he dared not take her with them. Not with her tendency toward distraction.
She folded her arms, and glared from her position on Ethan’s shoulder. “Fine.” She stomped one foot. “But you better bring Ethan with you next time you visit or I’m never talking to you again for a whole month ever.” She flitted up, kissed Ethan’s cheek, then waved before dashing away to disappear once more.
Ethan bent and picked up the pack before turning to look in the direction Enesuriel had gone. He slung the pack over his shoulder, then smiled. “I liked her, master.”
“I’m rather fond of her myself.” Samet smiled. He raised an eyebrow. “But she is not the kind of friend you expected me to have?”
“I thought that at first, master.” Ethan shook his head. “But then I realized it’s not surprising. She is kind and sweet, as well as less threatening and more dangerous than you might think.” He shrugged. “She is exactly the sort of friend I would expect you to have.”
“You think Enesuriel is dangerous.” Samet gave Ethan a curious look.
“We must walk this path, and camp at the waystones every night or we will die, master.” Ethan nodded. “She lives here, and well.”
“Well noted.” Samet gestured for them to start walking. “Enesuriel was present at both the rise and fall of the Sorcerer-Kings. She can be a loyal and amusing friend, or an implacable enemy.”
“You could have warned me, master.”
“And miss the look on your face?” Samet grinned. “Perish the thought.”
“Master…” Ethan glared.
“I had full confidence in you, Ethan, and your charm.”
“May I ask a question, master?”
“You warned me not to make bargains with the creatures here, but…” He frowned, trying to figure out how to phrase the question. “But you told me to accept what she gave me.”
“You are mine, and thus she was repaying a debt owed to me by seeing to your needs.” Samet shrugged. “While only a fool would take Enesuriel for granted, she and I have known each other a long time, and the field between us remains relatively level. One warning I will give you, though…”
“Unless the world is actively and imminently ending…” Samet shook his head. “Do not give Enesuriel any chocolate.”
“Why not?” Ethan gave him a curious look.
“Just…” Samet winced. “Trust me on that one.”
“It feels as if we have walked this same path for the last four days.” Ethan frowned.
“The waystones are different each time.” Master nodded. “Or I would agree. We are drawing near…” He shook his head. “Something.”
Ethan nodded. Master had been on edge the last two days. He’d adjusted his attire, switching out the knives he carried until he’d finally decided how he wanted to carry them. Only the red-sheathed ones were visible. Master had complained good-naturedly about the newfound hazards of undressing him. “What exactly is this shield we are seeking, master?”
“I can seal an archway using the athame, but I must be able to draw close to do so. If I do not have protection from the forces within, I will die in the process.” He shrugged. “Which would be acceptable, save for the fact there are three archways.”
“And I do not want you to die, master.”
“There is that to consider as well.” Master smiled. “I will need a certain kind of shield. When the Fey withdrew from the real world, they took the ones that remained with them. A few found their way back across, but all of those are destroyed or I would tip my hand in obtaining them. My father knowing my true intentions would be…” He frowned. “A bit of a problem.”
“My brother could help you.” Ethan scanned the horizon again. “If he knew what you were doing, he could send soldiers with you.”
“I mean no disrespect to your brother, but he has already sent a number of men to capture or kill me, and those very soldiers you mention would attack me on sight. Not to mention the goals of your brother and I differ somewhat.”
“You are trying to save the world.” Ethan glanced at him.
“Yes, but he wants to save the world by killing my father.” Master shook his head. “I wish to save it by rescuing him.” He hesitated a moment, then sighed before giving Ethan an apologetic look. “He is my father.”
“I know.” Ethan nodded. “I know, master. I cannot forgive him. I do not know if he can be saved or what that even means, but…” He met Master’s eyes. “I do understand that you must try.”
Master reached out a hand, and Ethan took it. “You are a better friend than I deserve, Ethan.”
“I do not think that is true…” Ethan smiled. “Samet.”
“Master…” Ethan sniffed.
“I smell…” He shook his head curiously. “Yellow?”
“Run.” Master grabbed his arm and began hauling him up the path. “Don’t look back. Run.”
They skidded to a halt in front of the waystone. He saw Master’s eyes began to glow as the shimmering runes began appearing on the waystone. Ethan glanced over his shoulder. He saw nothing on the foggy road behind them. He started to turn back toward Master. “Master…”
Master’s eyes suddenly widened as the color of the runes changed from blue to green. “No, no…” Master was suddenly yanked forward.
Ethan shouted as Master hit the waystone and vanished inside. “Master?” He rushed to the stone. “Master!” He touched it, but it felt like simple stone beneath his hand. He couldn’t even feel the faint tingle he’d come to associate with magic. “Samet.”
“Well, well…” A wet, croaky voice said from somewhere behind him. “What have we here?” He turned, reaching for the daggers at his side, and froze in place. The thing standing a few feet away looked like a wizened crone that had crawled her way from a grave a week after death. Her eyes were sunken and rheumy, and blood trickled from her mouth. Her spindly fingers ended in what looked to be sharp talons, and her hair was wet and matted with filth. She wore not but rags, revealing that serpents had been tattooed to encircle her limbs. “Prince Ethan Kendall of Talidir.” She tilted her head at him, and smiled to reveal a mouth of sharp, jagged teeth. “Vadin’s broken little toy.”
“Stay back.” He put his hands on the hilts of his knives. If this creature had somehow bested Master…
“Look at you. Pathetic.” She scratched at one of the open, weeping sores on her arm. “The warlord seared himself into your very skin. That your new master has a gentler hand doesn’t change that you are no more than a pet. Samet’s little dog, whining for his master’s favor and squirming when he pets you.” She spat a bloody green wad onto the ground. Then she lunged.
He threw himself to the side, rolling away. Instead of following, she laughed, a sound that reminded him disturbingly of flesh being ripped away. When he started to stand, she barked a word at him. “No.” He froze. “Slaves kneel.”
“I’m not a slave.” He stood. It took an act of will not to start shaking when she narrowed her eyes at him.
“You’re a fuck toy.” She smirked. “Maybe I should try a taste of you myself, boy. Hmmm? Would you wriggle for me?” She laughed again. “You’ve wriggled for many. Asking for it with a please. Crawl to me, dog.”
The thing that terrified him most was that part of him wanted to obey. To crawl to her and let her do as she pleased and hope that she wouldn’t hurt him more. Master would save him but Master was… Master couldn’t even tell him which knife to use, which would hurt her and… He touched a hand to the sheath above his knee. Then he moved toward her, low and scurrying. “Please…”
“That’s a good…”
The moment she leaned toward him he lunged, drawing the dragonbone blade. He pushed her back, knocking her to the ground and then he laid the dragonbone blade against her throat. “Please give me back Samet before I cut your fucking head off.”
“So…” She smiled, bloody froth at the edges of her mouth. “The dog has teeth.”
“There are worse things to be than a dog.” Ethan let the dragonbone cut slightly into her neck. The blood that welled up was more brown than red. “A terrier can clear a house of snakes in an afternoon. Give him back.” He narrowed his eyes. “Now.”
There was a hissing sound, and then something coiled around his arms and legs. He was flung back from her, and landed on the ground a few feet away. With a horrified look, he realized the serpents decorating her were now moving. Her eyes flashed.
Samet fell from the waystone. Immediately his eyes began to glow, and fire appeared around him. “Don’t threaten me with spells I taught you, boy.”
“That was cruel, Varorgirin. Even for you.” Samet moved toward Ethan.
“Master?” Ethan accepted Samet’s hand back to his feet.
“I needed to know him.” The crone spat again.
“You’ll stay away from him.” Samet stepped between her and Ethan.
“If you weren’t distracted by him, you never would have stepped into that trap. You’d have remembered that I know your magic and the path you are taking.” She shook her head. “Fortunately, not all the wolf has been beaten out of your dog.”
“He didn’t deserve that.” Samet glared.
“Nor did he deserve what your father did. But your world is rarely a matter of what one deserves.” She spat a bloody mess onto the ground. “Look at you. The Covenant damned you the moment your father spilt his seed in your mother’s belly. And you’d save the hand responsible for her death. Fool.” She sat on one of the stone benches. She turned her eyes back to Ethan. “Make tea.”
He glanced up at Samet. “Master?” He waited until Samet nodded before moving to obey.
“What do you want, Varorgirin?” Samet folded his arms.
“Your soul.” She smirked. “But in the meantime, I’ll settle for your ears.”
“That depends on how literally you mean that.” Samet shook his head.
“Your father is feeding the dragoncrown. Once you get the shield, you’ll have three days before the archway opens.”
“Bloody hell.” Samet growled. “That’s not enough time.”
“More sugar, hound.” She snapped at Ethan before turning her eyes back to Samet. “Yes, I know. You still have to actually get to the archway.” She leaned forward, blood dripping from her mouth. “Now if there were a way that didn’t involve having to travel miles through Coalition lands…” Her lips twisted into a smile. “That would be useful, would it not?”
“And what price do you ask for this path?’ Samet gave a resigned shake of his head.
Varorgirin took the cup of tea Ethan offered her. She gulped it down, then thrust the cup back at him. “Another.” He quickly prepared it and handed it to her. She gulped it down, then nodded. Then she turned to look at Ethan. “Leave the path, but keep the black spire in your eye. Get him to the standing stone, and he’ll be able to manage the rest.” She thrust the cup back at Ethan.
“Your price was…” Ethan looked down at the cup. “Tea?”
“No.” She cackled. “My price is a soul, and I will, in time, have my due.” She abruptly sank into the ground and vanished. Small, delicate blue flowers sprang up from the spot.
“Who was she, master?”
He took a deep breath. “My fairy godmother.” He shook his head at Ethan’s confused look. “She owed a debt to my mother, once. She chose to repay it by…” He clenched his fists. “Helping me, in her own way. For the better part of a month, that involved her trying to kill me every night until I learned how to make a decent ward.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, Ethan.”
“Don’t be, master.” Ethan stared at the flowers for a moment. “I think she may have been trying to help me.”
“That’s Varorgirin.” Samet turned to the waystone to begin raising the ward. “If she gets any more helpful I may have to kill her.”
Ethan looked at his hands. The knots Master had tied were not simple things, and though they did not tighten when he pulled at them there was no chance of him slipping out. He was bound thoroughly but not cruelly. He looked up at Master.
“Are you alright, Ethan?”
“May I struggle, master?”
“If you feel the need.” Master nodded to him.
Immediately he began to thrash, yanking and pulling at the bonds. He relaxed a few seconds later, then took a deep breath. “I’m alright, master.”
Master kissed his belly. He picked up a piece of cloth and started to place it over Ethan’s eyes. Immediately Ethan pulled away. This time, when the rope caught him and held him fast, he felt a trace of panic rising. “No.”
The cloth was immediately withdrawn. “Ethan?”
“No.” Ethan took a couple deep breaths. “I can’t…” He took another deep breath. “I need to be able to see it’s you touching me, master.”
“It’s me touching you, Ethan.” Master tossed the cloth aside, and kissed Ethan’s mouth tenderly.
“Ethan?” Master sat up.
“Not…” Ethan shook his head. “I don’t mean…” He laid his head back. “I like it when you bite me sometimes. It hurts but it feels good and…”
“And you wish to learn your limits.” Master nodded. “Then we will make one small change.”
“A change, master?”
“If I hurt you, you may find yourself saying no but not meaning it. So, give me a word that we both agree means no, and if you need me to stop, say that.”
Ethan considered a moment, then nodded. “Broccoli.”
“Broccoli.” Master raised an eyebrow.
“I hate broccoli.”
“Very well.” Master smiled. “Broccoli.” He leaned forward, meeting Ethan’s eyes. “Who is your master?”
“You are, master.” Ethan felt a strange thrill of anticipation at the look in Master’s eyes. It was an odd feeling, being helpless but somehow not. He held his breath when Master pulled him closer, than moved him to lay facedown across his lap. Master’s hand caressed his buttocks, gently and soothingly.
And then his hand came down in a sharp smack. Ethan gasped. Master rubbed where he’d struck, gently, soothingly once more. Another smack, another gasp, and… And then Master’s finger probed him gently, causing a tiny bit of pain and then a shiver ran through him as the finger moved inside him. He felt himself getting hard. He moaned a small protest when it withdrew a moment later, and then Master’s hand came down again. He tried to squirm away, and Master used his free hand to grip the rope harness the bonds had made. He pulled Ethan back into position, and spanked him again. “I didn’t say you could move, Ethan.”
“Yes, master.” His voice was breathless. He felt strangely floaty and the pain from the next blow sent a small thrill through him. He could take it. He arched his back with the next blow, then felt Master probe him again. “No…” He whispered the word when Master withdrew the teasing finger. Master hesitated just a moment, and Ethan squirmed against him. The hand came down again and again, and he savored the sensation of Master’s hand soothing the pain away. “Harder.” The next blow made him yelp, and he smiled fiercely, focusing on the pain, and then on Master’s teasing fingers. He felt the fear try to crawl back in, and pushed it away, rising above the pain.
The sting no longer fully faded between blows, but it felt… Master’s hand came down again, and this time the sound he made was more warcry than yelp. “Need you, master.”
“Need you.” He gasped the words. Master shifted him, using the ropes as leverage. Ethan pushed back as much as he could when Master began gently moving into him. “Harder, master.”
“Mine.” Master’s voice was fierce. He arched his back when Master drove inside, pulling Ethan back at the same time. Master’s hips collided with the stung areas of his buttocks and the combination of pain and pleasure made him cry out. Master moved a hand to Ethan’s shaft, caressing in a way that somehow managed to be rough and gentle at the same time. Ethan rocked his hips back, trying to drive Master deeper inside him.
They came together. Master rolled to the side to avoid falling atop Ethan, then pulled him closer. “Are you alright, Ethan?”
“Hold me.” Ethan tried to crawl closer. “Need to, need to feel you.”
“I’m here, Ethan.” Samet rolled onto his side, pulling Ethan in closely. “I’m here.” He caressed Ethan’s back gently, then tugged at the knot. The ropes around Ethan’s hands loosened enough that he could pull free. He did so, wrapping first his arms and then his legs around Samet. He felt hot tears burning at his eyes. “I’m here.”
“Thank you.” The tears were falling now as he shook in Samet’s arms. “Thank you.”
“Ethan.” Samet breathed his name, and gently ran his hand through Ethan’s hair.
“I beat it, Samet. I beat it.” He raised his head to meet Samet’s eyes. “I’m stronger.”
“I know.” Samet kissed him. “I know you are.”
“I love you.”
“Oh, Ethan…” Samet kissed him again.
“Over a month, and still no sign of them?” Lady Roshni looked across the war table.
Vadin narrowed his eyes at her. “He will return when his task is complete.”
“Coalition forces have become emboldened by the mysterious absence of our sorcerer.” She gave him a frustrated look.
“Which only proves they are fools.” Vadin chuckled. “Sorcerers are at their most dangerous when you do not know where they are.” He kept the confident look on his face, but inside he was starting to worry. Samet had traveled often, but this was the longest he’d gone without some word or sighting. He’d repeatedly tried to get Samet to take soldiers with him, only for Samet to remind him that every time he had, the soldiers either ended up dead rather quickly and Samet had been so frustrated and hampered by trying to keep them alive that he’d sent them away. Good men were too vital to the war effort to waste.
“If the Emir is compromised in some fashion, my lord…” Lady Roshni shook her head. “Everything depends on him.”
“My son will do his part.” Vadin smiled. “I suggest you ensure he never learn you doubted him.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Still nothing?” Robert raised an eyebrow when Graham entered.
“It is admittedly nerve-racking.” Graham shook his head. “A sorcerer is dangerous enough when you know what he is up to, and…” He cut himself off.
“And?” Robert folded his arms.
“And I have increased your personal guard. There will be no fewer than four Covenant mages with them at all times.” Graham met Robert’s eyes.
“Don’t be…” Robert started to shake his head.
“Your majesty, I speak as your adviser.” Graham took a deep breath. “We know the sorcerer took Ethan with him when he left. Ethan grew up in the palace. He knows its defenses and its secrets, it strengths and weaknesses. He knows your guards, your nobles, your servants.” He swallowed. “And he has been in Vadin’s hands for a long time, your majesty.”
Robert clenched his fists, then slowly breathed in and out. “Old friend, it has been a long time since I’ve wanted to punch you.”
“We both know that is not true, Robert.” Graham put a hand on his shoulder.
“Blood of the gods, look at us.” Robert gestured at the war table. “We were going to usher in a new age. Peace and prosperity. A university.” He leaned on the wall. “My children were going to inherit a golden age.”
“Victory is not beyond us, Robert.” Graham smiled encouragingly.
“I thought you weren’t allowed to lie anymore.” Robert sighed, and looked at the wartable again. “No. And as much as I hate to admit it, you are right. And…” He turned to look at Graham. “Put Covenant mages on my family, as well.”
“Already done, your highness.” Graham gave him a look that suggested he was actually insulted Robert had thought the order necessary.
“I think we’ve an opportunity here.” Robert traced a spot on the map with his finger. “We’ve stayed away from Vadin’s forces at the marsh due to the presence of the old ruins and ley lines. But with the sorcerer out of play, we could make three quick strikes, here, here, and here.”
“That would add up to a devastating loss for him. He’d be forced to retreat from Corlith or being flanked. That would give Alinor some much needed breathing room.”
“Send word.” Robert squared his shoulders. “Let’s bloody Vadin’s nose.”
He slashed out with the dragonbone blade, and the creature surged backward, dropping Samet. Samet rolled back to his feet, and the blade was suddenly coated in ice. Ethan lunged, thrusting the blade into the creature’s softer underbelly. Steam and blood flowed from the wound, and the creature gave one last howl before going limp. He turned toward Samet. “A naga.” Samet was smiling. “We are on the right trail.”
“She nearly swallowed you whole.” Ethan glared at him.
“She was…” Samet moved his head from side to side. “A tad bit more resistant to magic than I was expecting, yes.”
“Just a thought, master.” Ethan shook his head and yanked his other knife free. “You could try not taunting things that are attempting to eat you.”
“You were worr —” Samet was cut off by Ethan grabbing him, yanking him forward, and planting a hard kiss on his mouth.
Ethan let him go a few moments later, then looked up at him. “Do not do that again, master.” He met Samet’s eyes. “I do not like it.”
“Very well, Ethan.” Samet ran a hand through Ethan’s hair. “I will endeavor to avoid a repeat occurrence.”
“Thank you, master.” He went to go retrieve the rest of his knives. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Samet watching him with a wide smile on his face.