Unable to purge herself of the poison that is slowly killing her, Major Sullyan remains trapped in Andaryon. The only thing that can save her is the Staff, which still lies buried in Taran's cellar.
Robin Tamsen sets out on a desperate quest to recover the artifact, but the enemy is two steps ahead of him. Sonten knows where the Staff is, and he will stop at nothing to get it back. If he does, Sullyan's life will be forfeit and no Artesan will be safe.
The race for the Staff has begun.
The horse’s jolting shook Taran’s very bones, the sensation making him nauseous. He struggled to calm his heaving stomach, but it was impossible with his head bumping against the horse’s shoulder. There was a gag across his mouth, so being sick could well prove fatal, and he was in enough discomfort already without choking on his own vomit.
He dangled helplessly, his hands tied tightly behind him. A peculiar buzzing invaded his brain and sapped his strength. It came from the spellsilver knife thrust through the ropes against his skin, cutting him off from his power. He hardly knew how to bear it, so he hung on and endured as best he could, trying not to groan.
There were horses all around him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cal’s mount. The young Apprentice was lying over its neck, similarly bound and gagged. Taran sympathized. The men who had taken them clearly knew they were Artesans, so Cal would also be suffering the effects of the spellsilver. Despite his fear at their situation, Taran couldn’t suppress his guilty relief at Cal’s presence.
The swordsmen talked as they rode, making crude jokes punctuated by rough laughter. The buzzing in Taran’s skull prevented him from hearing clearly, and the blood rushing through his ears due to hanging upside down only added to the fog in his brain. Yet, as he listened, he gleaned enough to know that this group’s commander was a man named Heron, and that they anticipated a rich reward for capturing Taran and Cal.
He tried not to guess the reason for their capture, but when he heard mention of fighting in Albia, he wondered if these men had been involved in the demon invasion. Then he cursed himself for slow thinking. Of course they had, they were Rykan’s men. He knew Rykan had set up the invasion in order to get Sullyan sent to Count Marik, so it should hardly surprise him that this group had taken part. Yet knowing this brought him no nearer to understanding why he had been taken.
Serious though his predicament was, Taran couldn’t help worrying about Bull and Rienne. He hadn’t seen them when he was hustled off the hill, and he couldn’t see them now. Was this a good thing, or a bad thing? It could mean they were still free—which seemed unlikely—or it could mean they had been killed. They might be somewhere behind him. He had no way of knowing, and speculation was futile. It probably wouldn’t be long before he found out, though. Someone had targeted him and Cal, and he very much feared this meant Sullyan was dead. He had seen Rykan defeat her, and the vengeful Duke would hardly allow her to live, even if losing her powers meant she was no longer a threat. She would still be capable of wielding a blade, and Taran knew Rykan would never take the chance that she, or one of her friends, might come after him one day. Taran could only hope her death had been swift, not brutally drawn out to feed Rykan’s lust.
He thrust that thought away, the lump in his throat threatening to choke him under the gag.
Taran felt the ground level out and knew they were clear of the hill. As the swordsmen set their mounts to a canter, the jolting grew worse. Taran was thrown violently about, and it was all he could do not to lose consciousness. A moan escaped him, muffled by the gag, but no one took any notice. He was in no danger of falling, tied securely to the saddle, but he was thoroughly battered and bruised by the time the horses slowed once more.
Breathing heavily around the gag, he tried to calm his spinning brain. As his horse halted the sound of voices grew, but Taran was in no state to understand the words. He only vaguely registered someone approach him, looking him over. Then a hand grasped his chin and roughly raised his head.
“Yes, this looks like the one. He fits the General’s description.”
The hand let go, and Taran’s nose connected painfully with the horse’s shoulder, making him moan. He felt someone tug at his bonds and thought they were going to release him, but they were only checking the knife. They knew what they were doing, his captors, and they knew not to let him access his powers. Sick and sore, he closed his eyes.
“Why are there two of them?”
The voice came indistinctly to Taran, as though muffled by wool. The speaker was clearly unhappy, and Taran struggled to hear the reply. He now knew that he was the target, not Cal. Anything he learned might help him. He strained his ears as men crowded around him.
The answer came from a gruff voice. “There were four of them on the hill, Commander. They weren’t keeping watch and they didn’t see us. We ignored the other two. One was an older man, the other a woman. But these two were standing together, so we couldn’t take just one without alerting the other. If we had killed him, the other two would have seen. We thought bringing both was the best way. If the dark one’s not wanted, we can always leave him on the battlefield. Cut his throat or stick him in the back. One more corpse won’t make any difference.”
Taran heard movement followed by the sound of Cal groaning. He guessed the Commander was looking Cal over now. He prayed they wouldn’t kill him. He couldn’t bear it if his Apprentice died just because he had been standing too close to Taran. Of all the failures in Taran’s life, that would be the worst. His heart trembled as he waited for the decision.
“Bring them both.” Relief flooded Taran. “If nothing else, he might be useful as leverage. What one knows, the other probably does too. But don’t think you’re getting double the reward. Now get on with you, Arif. Take them to the General. And once you’ve done that, get straight back here. I’ve other duties for you.”
Taran’s body jerked as his horse moved forward again. Nausea swamped him and he tried not to pass out. He caught a glimpse of Cal’s face and thought his Apprentice was out cold. He envied Cal the oblivion, but no matter how deeply he craved unconsciousness, he knew he must stay awake. With Bull and Rienne still safe, there might be a chance of rescue.
From their vantage point, Rienne and Bull watched the final, shocking move that ended Rykan’s challenge. Unaware of Sullyan’s desperate plan, Rienne hadn’t been prepared for it. She had been terrified, devoid of hope while Sullyan lay defeated at the rebel lord’s feet. She could hear Bull’s labored breathing, and knew he felt the same. He had all but crushed her to his chest, but she was too distraught to feel pain. Her heart nearly burst when she saw Sullyan play her trump card. By the time Sullyan forced the Duke to yield, both Rienne and Bull were exhausted, overwhelmed by strong emotions.
As Sullyan struck off Rykan’s head, Rienne sobbed with relief. She couldn’t imagine how the Major was holding herself upright, let alone wielding a sword. The amount of blood she had lost worried Rienne deeply. She could almost feel Sullyan’s agony and was desperate to help her. Sullyan was too far away, though, and they were not safe yet.
Closing her eyes, Rienne let herself sag. She and Bull were still locked in his feverish grip, and they clung to each other in relief. The big man’s breathing still sounded constricted, but the panting was easing. They watched as the Hierarch tended to Sullyan and saw Robin kneel to gather her into his arms. Seeing her safe brought a lump into Rienne’s throat.
Bull huffed out a great breath. “Thank the gods that’s over!”
Rienne knew it was far from finished. Sullyan had collapsed from blood loss, shock, and exhaustion and was lucky to be alive. Rienne knew her friend would receive the best of care in the Hierarch’s palace, but it was Sullyan’s last despairing words that bothered Rienne.
“What did she mean, Bull, that Rykan’s power was not enough?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. It looked to me like she managed to absorb his life force before she killed him, although how she did it without his consent, I’ve no idea. He was a Master-elite, like her, so he should have had an equal amount of power. We’ll have to ask her what she meant by it not being enough.”
Rienne turned pleading eyes on him. “Can we go down there now?”
He smiled back, unlacing stiff fingers from around her waist. “I think we’ll be safe enough now, as long as we—” He stopped and glanced about the clearing. “Hello. Where have Cal and Taran got to?”
Rienne spun round. “They were here a moment ago.” Softly, still mindful of possible danger, she called their names. There was no reply.
“That’s odd.” Bull sounded strained. “I’ll just go and see if they’re with the horses. Stay here.”
He walked off into the trees to where they had tethered the horses. His startled shout brought Rienne running, her heart in her mouth.
“The horses have gone!”
She went cold. “What? Why would Cal and Taran move the horses?”
“They wouldn’t.” His expression frightened her. “Let me concentrate, see if I can pick them up.”
She waited, wringing her hands, while he searched the substrate for any trace of their patterns. After a few moments, he shook his head.
She stared at him, tears blurring her sight. “But they can’t just have vanished! They were standing right by us. Oh, Bull, I don’t like this.”
His tone was grim. “Neither do I. The thought that someone has been here and lured them or taken them without me knowing is frightening. And the fact that the horses are missing means they don’t want to be followed.”
He swore and punched a fist into the trunk of the nearest tree, making Rienne jump. “Why didn’t I keep better watch? This is all my fault.”
She put her arms around him. “There were four of us here, Bull. It wasn’t just your responsibility.”
“That’s not how Sullyan will see it. Gods, I’m in for a double roasting now.”
“But who can have taken them, and why? What could anyone want with Cal and Taran? Why take them and not us? Rykan’s dead, his faction has lost, so it can’t be anything to do with him. Can it?”
Bull spread his hands. “I don’t know. I can’t answer any of that. All I know is I can’t sense either of them, and that means spellsilver.” He passed a shaky hand over his face. “We can’t do anything about it now, not without horses. And I’m not going to put you in any more danger. I’m in enough trouble already. We need to get down to the Citadel and talk to Robin. Come on, lass, we had better start walking. Just pray that our bad luck’s over and we meet up with troops of the right side first.”