Ethan woke. He blinked a few times, sniffed, then sat up and stared across the camp. Samet sighed. “Yes, I burned breakfast.” He offered Ethan the plate. “Eat it anyway, we’ve got a long way to go.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan accepted the plate. It was a little charred, but still edible. “Are you alright, master?”
“No.” Samet took a deep breath, then met his eyes. “But I will be.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Thank you.”
Samet slung his pack over his shoulder, and then held a hand out to Ethan. Ethan took it, twining his fingers around Samet’s. They both took deep breaths, and then stepped off the path.
“What happens after we seal the first archway?” Ethan glanced at Samet.
“Ideally, we go seal the other two. The one in Talidir is the most imminent danger. My father has been feeding that one, intending to use it as a decisive strike against your brother.”
“Feeding it?” Ethan raised an eyebrow.
Samet sighed. “It’s…” He looked away. “A blood ritual.”
“Human sacrifice.” Ethan narrowed his eyes.
“No.” Samet half closed his eyes. “No, he hasn’t done that. It’s his blood, which is why it’s been a slow process. He has too…” Samet took a deep breath. “He has to prove his strength.”
For a few minutes, they walked in silence. “Was my torture part of the ritual?” Ethan’s voice was quiet.
It took a few more minutes for Samet to answer. “Yes.”
“Did someone take my place, after he gave me to you?” Ethan kept his eyes on the spire.
“He started overseeing interrogations.” Samet swallowed. “I’m going to stop him, Ethan.”
“And after that?” Ethan sighed. “Samet, you know that the Coalition won’t just…”
“I’ll…” Samet walked further before continuing. “Then at least he’ll die clean, and…” He looked away. “Then Mother won’t be alone.”
Ethan took his hand, and squeezed it gently. He took a deep breath. “My mother technically died before I was born. Robert’s wife, Tabitha, she’s…” He nodded. “Her firstborn died the same night my mother did. She swallowed her grief and took me into her arms. Loved me as though I truly were hers.”
“You’ll see her again, Ethan.” Samet squeezed his hand back. “Soon.”
“Sarah’s the eldest, only about two years younger than me.” He frowned. “Do you know if she’s married yet?”
“My father apparently was planning on marrying her to me, so I assume that would be a no.” A small snort came from Ethan. Samet chuckled. “Should I be offended by that?”
“Sarah likes lace and attending balls, dancing and embroidery.”
“I can dance.” Samet smiled.
“She’d have you wearing lace at your throat.” Ethan grinned. “And a cape.”
“No cape.” Samet shook his head. “They have five children, yes?”
“Margaret is two years younger than Sarah. I guess that makes her just about marriageable age now too. She’s our tutor’s favorite, mostly because she doesn’t fall asleep when he drones on and on and on and on. She also draws very well. Anabeth is twelve now…” Ethan frowned. “I think. Not sure of what day today actually is. She might be thirteen. She’d rather be a healer than a princess.” He smiled. “I bet she loves having another baby in the family. Justin’s probably getting spoiled rotten. And Lucille was the youngest. She’d be eight now. I was…” His smile became sad. “Teaching her some combat forms.” He shrugged. “She was doing considerably better than you, master.” He took a deep breath. “We’re going to get there in time to save them?”
“Yes.” Samet squeezed his hand again. “We are.”
Vadin paced Samet’s room, looking around. He’d called to Garachus, but for the first time since they’d struck their bargain the demonness had failed to respond. If they’d run into trouble… He took a deep breath. His eyes went to the painting on the wall. Usha smiled at him from it. “You should see what he can do, my love.” He smiled back at her. “What he has become. You…” He sighed. “You should be here, with us.” He pulled his eyes away from hers. “I miss you.”
He took a deep breath, then strode from the room. They’d captured a fresh spy. Time to find out what the man knew.
Three standing stones seemed to almost materialize in front of them. Ethan stared at them for a moment. “The archway’s been in the ruins for a thousand years.” He shook his head. “They are in the royal hunting grounds. We…” He shook his head. “Used to picnic by these stones.” He turned toward Samet. “The Covenant mages sealed the entrance to the chamber.”
“No, they closed it. Sealing it is something you do to ensure it won’t reopen. What they did was the equivalent of moving a dresser in front of a doorway and hope nobody ever tried opening it from the outside or nothing really big ever wanted to come through.” Samet rolled his eyes.
“It’s only a few miles from Silverhall.” Ethan took a deep breath.
“Until the archway is fully open, it can’t hurt anyone, Ethan.” Samet pulled him close, kissing his forehead. “We seal it, and they will be safe.”
“Okay.” He took another deep breath. “Okay. Which knives will I need?”
“Gold and glass.” Samet looked over the standing stones. “Sealing the archway will require my full attention. The shield will protect me from the soul storm.” He smiled at Ethan. “You’ll have to protect me from everything else.”
“Yes, master.” Ethan smiled back.
Samet put his hand under Ethan’s chin and raised his chin slightly. They kissed gently and tenderly. “You ready?”
Samet just shook his head at the ward. “Crude, but serviceable.”
“How long will it take you to untangle it?” Ethan raised an eyebrow.
“Untangle it?” Samet glanced at him. “Weeks. Breaking it, however…” He drew upon his magic, and spun it out, ripping the ward away entirely. “Done.”
“That works.” Ethan shrugged.
Graham entered the room at a dead run, sliding to a stop a few feet from Robert, who stared at him in shock. “Something tripped the ward sealing the archway.”
“What?” Robert leapt to his feet. He handed Justin to Tabitha. “No, they…” He shook his head, and then his eyes widened. “The sorcerer.”
“My conclusion as well.” Graham nodded.
“The Covenant mages say the power necessary to activate the archway is…” Robert took a deep breath. It was only a few miles from the city. How many would die if… “Can a sorcerer do it?”
“A sorcerer-king did it once before, your majesty.” Graham reluctantly nodded. “I’ve sent for mages, but if it is opened closing it once more will take…” He shook his head. “A hundred of them, at least.”
“Then get a hundred here,” Robert snapped. He turned to Tabitha. “Take the children and get behind the old wards.”
“Robert…” Tabitha started to shake her head.
Robert grabbed her, pulling her to him and holding her and Justin tightly as he kissed her. He felt a thread of panic. He’d already lost one child. The thought of losing even one of the others was… “Keep them safe.”
“Keep yourself safe.” She nodded to him.
“Once I begin, do not cross the boundary made by the glyphs.” Samet set his pack down, the shield atop it. He kept the athame tucked into his coat. “Or we’ll both die horrible, painful, screaming deaths and possibly break the archway open in the process.”
“No pressure there, master.” Ethan adjusted his daggers, making sure both the spare gold and glass ones were accessible.
“I’ll need a few minutes to clear the temple of residual magic.” Samet began walking a circuit of the temple. He stopped in front of the archway again. “Ethan, if the shield…”
“I don’t want to think about that, master.” Ethan squared his shoulders.
“I know, Ethan, but we must. If the shield fails, take the athame and go to your brother. With it, the Covenant mages may be able to seal the other two archways before my father can open them.” He took a deep breath, then turned toward Ethan. “And if that does happen, I want you to know you are…” He strode forward and pulled Ethan to him for a kiss. “Mine. As I am yours.”
Ethan kissed him back, holding him close. “Hell can’t have you, master. I won’t let it.”
Samet touched his forehead to Ethan’s, and smiled. “Come. It’s time to save the world.”
“The honor guard has been alerted already, and should be underway.” Graham shook his head. “They only have two mages with them, so my hopes aren’t high for their success. Perhaps they can disrupt whatever is happening long enough for reinforcements to arrive.”
“And how many reinforcements will be arriving?” Robert shook his head. “I can send a few hundred soldiers, but without mages…” He strapped his sword to his hip.
“A dozen will ride with us. More than that are…” Graham made a frustrated sound. “They are spread across the front lines, looking for the sorcerer. It will take days before they can get here.” He offered Robert a protective amulet. When Robert simply looked at it, Graham sighed. “Humor me, old friend.”
Robert took it, and put it around his neck. “You’re no soldier, Graham. You should stay with Tabitha.”
“Even if you were not…” Graham shook his head. “We are dealing with the old magic, Robert. My place is at your side.”
Ethan stood, a knife in each hand. Samet held the athame in one hand, and was using it to scribe an intricate glyph in the air. Several other glyphs were appearing simultaneously in a circle around them. A faint thrum of power seemed to hang in the air around them.
Something glimmered, moving toward Samet. Ethan slashed with the gold dagger, and felt resistance. There was a wash of cold air, and then a light scattering of dust. He shivered slightly. Fighting something he could barely see was more difficult than he ahd imagined. Another glimmer, and ice seemed to sear across his shoulder. He bit back the cry so as not to distract Samet, and slashed out again. Another wash of dust, and then something grabbed his wrist. He sliced with the glass dagger, and heard something hiss as it released him.
The archway suddenly started to glow, and a watery light shimmered inside, faintly reflecting the temple chamber. Hands seemed to try to reach through, stretching the surface. Samet’s eyes were glowing as he began drawing another glyph. His face was pale, and to Ethan’s horror bleeding marks appeared on Samet’s cheek as though a cat had swiped at him. Ethan slashed at another glimmer, then whirled to slash again. Dust stung against his skin as the creatures burst into nothingness at the dagger’s touch. He cut himself free of another invisible bond and felt ice across his leg. He drew on the pain, letting it push at him, sharpen his awareness, and spun faster as he slashed out again and again.
Samet cried out, and Ethan drove the knife through another gleaming figure. Samet was visibly sweating as he focused on the glyph. It spun out, the pattern too intricate for Ethan to follow. The glyph was mirrored on the watery surface within the archway. Slowly, it seemed like the watery surface was freezing, the glyph turning to frost on its surface.
And then it shattered. The light of the archway vanished as the stone turned a pure, ashen white.
“It’s done.” Samet started to turn, and then his legs went out from under him.
Ethan caught him before he could fall. “Master?”
“I’m…’ The door at the end of the hall was flung open. Two dozen armored men entered, swords ready. Two Covenant mages followed, wands in hand. They were all headed toward them. “That…” Samet shook his head and the world swam around him. “Doesn’t seem fair.” Darkness closed.