The Stormtalons Blog

First 3 Chapters of Ed Greenwood’s “Word of Unbinding”

From Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms®, comes his newest fantasy setting, fraught with deadly mists, magic, and adventure! This if the first of 120 planned books, written by more than 50 Creatives from around the world. Don’t miss out on this sprawling new world!

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Words of Unbinding

Tanthalas is a crowded, stinking, dangerous place, but to Dustra, it’s home. And all of the world she’s ever known. She serves old Launtelle, an old woman who sells secrets for a living. And when you know too much, enemies swarm to you like moths to a flame. One of them is THE Big Foe, watching from afar like a malevolent stormfront: the Heirophar, the mysterious and all-mighty archwizard. Or is he? What does Launtelle know about him that may doom her, and Dustra along with her? And who is the local vagabond everyone calls “Tavern,” really?

As death closes in to claim more folks than usual, will the secrets whispered by the old witch prove Dustra’s salvation . . . or her doom?

Available now at the Onder Emporium!


Prologue

 It began, as so many regrettable things do, with a small and simple misunderstanding.

The beautiful but fiery-tempered Princess Galatha, of the kingdom of Thentorn, mistook a smelkyn of peculiar shape on her evensup plate for an enspelled larag-worm put there to poison and mock her by her bitter rival, Queen Elmaeraeze of Skalossoes.

Accordingly, Galatha shot to her feet, eyes flashing and silver-robed body catching the light in her passion like a shapely sword of war, and ordered in a voice that thundered among the hammerbeams of the high feasting hall that her wizards were to hurl their mightiest spells and “loose the doom of all dooms” on every castle, fortress, and proud high mansion of Skalossoes. Without the slightest delay.

The High Wizards of Thentorn were a secretive royal order of long standing, a small and aging group of longbeards far outnumbered in vigor and numbers by the younger men and women of Skalossoes who worked magic in the open marketplace. For years the Tornar mages had been preparing for an open break with one or more neighboring realms; given the hauteur of coastal Malrammar and Launting, and the hot temper of their own royal heir the Princess, such conflict was inevitable. So whenever a Tornar envoy visited any fortress, castle, high city hall, or palace in any of the four realms that are today part of Skalaunt, they absentmindedly left behind several chamberpots.

And when the Princess gave her angry command for war, the Tornar mages went to a cavern deep beneath the palace vaults, and to an alcove in that cavern containing tiny duplicates of the distant chamberpots scattered about Skalossoes. These they solemnly shattered, while murmuring certain secret words. Thereby letting loose the spells they had long ago cast upon the full-sized chamberpots—and bringing down ruination in the mightiest places of that realm.

Queen Elmaeraeze died shrieking as her privy chamber shattered and collapsed, and tall stone statues of herself leaned ponderously and then rained down on her.

And as Skalossoes buzzed like a kicked nest of hornets, aroused for war but not knowing what foe to hack, and word spread—and dread with it—across Asmer with the very speed of the gods, there followed it an announcement utterly unforeseen.

The hitherto-reclusive Wizard of the Mountain, who dwelt alone but for his prowling guardian monsters, came forth from his lofty tower and announced that the deed of the High Wizards of Thentorn revealed dark truth to all: that no wizard could be trusted in the Five Realms. And he proved that by causing all of the other wayward chamberpots the High Wizards had prepared to unleash their explosive spells and wreak destruction over other lands. The rightful penalty for that, he decreed, was death. Forthwith he confronted those old Tornar mages, condemned them as the cause of it all—and blasted them to charred bones and ashes with his own peerless spells.

Whereupon he used magic to stride from one palace into another a kingdom away, informing the rulers of the Five Realms that henceforth there would be only one lord over all the lands between the Dragonfires and the Dweomerflow, and one archwizard: himself.

For only he could be trusted.

He, the Heirophar, would rule all wizards—and all others, as lord of the new realm of Skalaunt, comprising the former realms of Malrammar, Launting, Skalossoes, Dreealth, and Thentorn. He took throne and title unto himself reluctantly, saying he would vastly have preferred to remain aloof from worldly matters and devote himself to ever-greater mastery of magic, but that he could no longer watch “petty princelings” and “reckless mages” despoil lands all over Asmer with their feuds and greed and irresponsible deeds of overly-harsh rulership. Henceforth, he would save them from themselves, and save also the world in doing so, by enforcing his mastery over magic of power.

“For none other can be trusted,” he repeated. And from that day on, kings and lords and barons and wizards who defied and disputed him died by the hand of the Heirophar.

A hand that hurled spells no other could match, and that reached out across all Asmer—shy only of the Stormtalons themselves—by means of wizards sworn to the Heirophar’s service. Mages of power soon found themselves facing a stark choice: serve the Heirophar, or die.

And so the great spellduels ceased, and magic became as sword or armor, something sentinels could trust in, rather than the wild lurking beast that comes unlooked for, claws all at hand, and rages on unchecked.

Or so the story is told in Tanthalas.

Betimes with this bitter addendum:

“And so the honey-tongued hired minstrels of Skalaunt say, though they neglect to mention something else: that every word of this tale is a foul out-and-out lie.”

Chapter 1

Even in the darkest alleys of lawless Tanthalas—a city that held the likes of Mherezh “the Eye,” Laubur the Slayer, and Zormrelle the Deadly Dancer—there were some who strode without fear.

Such a one was Malhalark, whose dark and pointed beard jutted forth from the cowl of his hooded robe very much like the upthrust-three-fingers gesture, “the Hook,” that angry Tanthalans were apt to favor each other with in the heat of dispute.

Few trifled with him as he stalked, for Malhalark, as the entire decaying seaport knew, from the burliest dockers like Bremgur the Neckless to the most timid and scuttling grocers like Yormund of Bale Alley, served the Heirophar.

Wherefore Malhalark could stride alone down the darkest, narrowest, and most noisome alleys of Tanthalas without collecting hurled daggers or dangling garrotes. Though he usually went with three or even more mountainous armored figures in hooded robes that matched his own, striding menacingly along at his back.

Not tonight, though; six ships had come in, and there were many matters of sinister persuasion and scores-settling for his swordhounds to deal with.

Huhhrk.

Tonight, in the deepest heart of a wet and foggy night, Malhalark stalked quite alone—aside from the scurrying squaelorr, and the dark and greasy water rats were so everpresent that Tanthalans learned to accept and brutally dissuade them almost before they could walk; they were as much part of Tanthalas underfoot as the slime and the old worn cobbles—along one of the many sea-mist-shrouded low alleys near the docks.

Under his fine dark narthskin boots, their toes as pointed as his beard, the cobbles were slick with the slime of dead fish whose reek always clung thickly to dockside Tanthalas. Yet thanks to magic, he trod surefooted.

Huh-hurrk.

And as usual when the moon was high, the shore fogs glowed eerily with moonlight, turning what would otherwise have been impenetrable pitch darkness down here along the Huglul into a faint deep blue murk through which the most desperate—or dangerous—inhabitants of the decaying port city were wont to scuttle, creep, or stalk.

No one else came near the Huglul by choice, for its stink was truly choking. A stream down out of the Firefall that flowed through the city by many a channel and culvert, flushing out the chamberpot-wastes of all Tanthalas, the Huglul hereabouts frothed brown and worse, and often bobbed with the frozen fingers and swirling hair of the drowned dead.

Malhalark moved in eerie silence, thanks to his cloak and boots. Prowling rather than strutting, taking a few paces and then halting to listen.

He was following a distinctive wet and throaty cough, and didn’t want to lose its source in the many hiding-places this oldest, darkest part of sagging and decaying Tanthalas offered.

Huhhrk.

Ah. There it was again.

This way.

Down a dark streamside gallery lined with firmly-closed doors, a way that led to a dead-end, or over the Huglul’s flow by a railless span just . . . there.

That was the way his quarry would take. Malhalark drew his sword as he stepped into the deeper darkness under the arches of the gallery, for the spells the Heirophar allowed him to renew on it would guard against strangle- and tripwires, and against any driftspell the old woman left in her wake for him to blunder into.

“Launtelle,” he whispered almost gloatingly, “have you breath enough left to run from me yet?”

He waited. There came no reply, beyond a faint drip-drop farther down the Huglul, but then, he hadn’t expected one.

Holding the blade up and out before him, and awakening its magic enough that it added an emerald-and-sapphire glow to the glowmurk, he advanced, keeping close to the dryside gallery wall.

Step by softly-booted step, half-expecting a trapdoor to swing abruptly down from the dark stone vaulting above . . . but though he could feel unseen eyes regarding him with cold malice, he met with only silence and stillness.

For everyone in all Asmer feared the Heirophar.

“Even the Heirophar fears the Heirophar,” as the saying went.

“For he has no one else to fear,” Malhalark murmured the customary rejoinder under his breath, smiling the wry half-smile those words always awakened in him.

I am a Blade of the Heirophar. Fear me.

He did not—quite—swagger as he stepped out onto the span over the reeking open sewer. But just as he imagined the Heirophar feared no one, neither did he. Not here.

Oh, one always had to be careful, but . . .

His quarry was known locally as a “wise woman,” an old crone who worked minor magics. But crones, even those who’d lasted long enough in lawless Tanthalas, the rathole of Asmer, to become old crones, were no match for Blades of the Heirophar.

“No match at all.”

Had he spoken that thought aloud?

No, definitely not. So, who—?

The rough and amused mutter had come out of the gloom ahead of him, at the gently arched height of the span. Now, hard after it, came the cough he’d been following. Huhhrk.

A drift of fog eddied aside, and he saw her. Standing waiting for him, stooped and gaunt, at the center of the span.

Malhalark cast a swift spell, a battle-shielding released with a mere murmur and single gesture. Bony old woman or not, this was a perfect place for a poisoned dart out of the dark, and one did not prosper in the Firefall—or anywhere in Ertalon, which was all of Asmer Malhalark had ever known—by being foolish.

He felt its faintly sighing tingling wash over him, knew he was armored by its unseen force, and advanced along the bridge. “Launtelle?” he demanded. “Launtelle Redcloak?”

“Malhalark?” came that rough old voice back at him. “Malhalark Dreth?”

She was mocking him, the little glythit!

“The alley witch?” he asked harshly, striding closer to her and straining to see any sign of a tripwire on or just above the railless span. It would be just her sort of trick to spill him into the Huglul. Delaying her demise only briefly, mind, but besliming not only him, but lastingly fouling very expensive boots that fit well—and it was hard to find boots that fi—

“You should not have come after me,” the old woman said crisply, another racking cough closing that observation as she came trudging towards him. “You should go, Dreth. You should go now.”

“Or you’ll what?” he sneered, lifting the sword to menace her. If she just kept walking, she’d run right onto its wickedly sharp tip. It gave a little singing sigh, as if impatient to be slaughtering, and its eerie glow shone more brightly.

“End your life rather messily,” she said sourly. “Do I have to explain everything? I know not where Riv’s getting his Blades these days, but—”

Malhalark lost patience and let her have it, feeble old woman be damned, unleashing a thornfire spell from the sword. It was far more than what was needed to take the life of one wrinkled crone who was barely a swords-length away, but she wasn’t stopping, and there was a warm bed and a warmer broth-tankard waiting for him back at—

The world went away in searing flames that he had just time to realize with surprise were cold; why?

*~*~*

Malhalark Dreth was no prettier as spattering gobbets of flesh, blood, and bone fragments than he had been as a sneering, strutting, oh-so-deadly Blade of the Heirophar.

The old woman stood unconcernedly as all that was left of him finished decorating her face and front and the bridge, and pattered down into the Huglul, waiting for the sword that had cartwheeled up into the foggy night air when the fool’s thornfire spell had met and fueled her lashflames to come back down again.

When it did, she snatched it out of the air with the deftness of a sword dancer, peered at the runes now winking up and down its blade—and hastily flung it down into the reeking Huglul. Using the force of her throw to propel her around on the railless span. She hobbled off it and on along a fishgut-littered alley with surprising speed.

The thunderous explosion behind her rocked buildings all around into groaning protests, sent stone shards cracking off walls, and hurled wet foulness in all directions.

The old woman felt her back and head get decorated this time, and nodded, unsurprised, ere she muttered, “You always were a right thrust-up-behinds-blade, Rivaglorr. But not smart enough to get me with snares quite this sort of clumsy and overly obvious.”

A few lurching steps later, she added, “Pity about his boots, though. Those were nice boots. Huhhrk. Stylish.”

Chapter 2

The old woman was dying.

That much was clear even to someone who couldn’t hear her wracking coughs, or ever see under her filthy gowns and overrobes to lay eyes on the festering mess of flesh just above her jutting right hipbone; Launtelle was a staggering old skeleton, mere skin draped over bones, and she stank.

Of spices more than decay, because she knew a reek clung to her, and sprinkled whatever clothes she wasn’t wearing liberally with the most pungent powders, and chewed cinnamon to keep her breath from being too foul for shopkeepers to tolerate her presence.

Yet for all of that, and Launtelle Redcloak’s sour words and habit of seeing everything at a glance and treating one accordingly, Dustra liked her.

Dustra Teldragon was Launtelle’s only friend in the world, for two reasons: she admired the grim fire with which Launtelle dragged what was left of herself through what the world threw at her—and in Tanthalas, that tended to be a lot—and because the old woman was the one person in all Asmer whom Dustra thought she could trust.

Not that it seemed the old woman would be breathing the air of Asmer for much longer. She shuffled stoically through life, calmly well aware her end wasn’t far off.

The only change knowing her time was nigh made in her—beyond the cough and her increasingly slow and awkward movements—was that for the first time, she was telling Dustra secrets. Not enough that Dustra could take over her Launtelle’s profession, not big revelations about Lady Talice the Vanished or where rich treasures lay hidden, but as if she wanted to tell someone the important things she knew about magic, before it all went down into the silent darkness of the grave with her.

“Profession” was a grand word for what Launtelle did; Dustra knew hearing it would make Launtelle snort dismissively, because she’d done it once.

Just as the “Redcloak” for which the old woman was nicknamed—in place of the family name no Tanthalan knew—had been neither red nor all that much of a cloak for some seasons now, Launtelle lacked a trade in the sense that what she did to earn a living could be swiftly or easily said. For most Tanthalans, that was because the word “thief” wasn’t a helpful or welcome description; for Old Redcloak it was because she wasn’t a spy or a snitch. Or one of the Heirophar’s legendary, never-seen spelltutors. Launtelle sold what was in her head, and there was no one else in all Tanthalas who could do that.

“Teldragon,” the old woman growled now, “where’s my eelbroth?”

The steaming tankard of simmerbrew was right at her elbow, and came with a jerk of her chin, so Dustra knew the question wasn’t literal; it was Launtelle telling her to get up into the loft and stay hidden and quiet.

Which meant a client was only moments away from shouldering through the creaking outer door and knocking on the bolted inner one.

How Launtelle knew paying visitors were nigh was one of the secrets she didn’t share, and the old woman was full of secrets.

So full that Dustra and Launtelle could both—just—eat on what she sold, to those few who dared to seek out the heaped and filthy lone room that was home to them both. With Dustra living in the loft, fetching and carrying and cooking and washing, as she’d always done. The room faced out into one side of the tail end of what had once been a nameless meandering old alley—before a fierce storm had made three buildings collapse in a great heap, burying alive those unfortunates sleeping in them, and Ethran Aummurk, who was more than a bit of a thruster, had built a new warehouse atop them almost before all the rubble had tumbled to a halt.

And the few daunts, occasionally taleths, and all too often mere bits those tellings earned were what the two of them lived on. For as long as Dustra could remember, she’d been Launtelle’s companion; first as a child, living wild amid the filth and swift knives and scurrying squaelorr of the worst alleys in Tanthalas, later as a young, bruised, and hardened girl, and now as a harder young woman with some beauty and the knife scars and dark memories to offset those pert looks. Only the heavy metal slave collar Launtelle had paid Lajrel the smith to put around Dustra’s neck in one of his soberer moments had kept her from being throttled to death, on more occasions than she could remember.

That hadn’t stopped some of them from dashing her head against a handy wall, or tossing her down stairs or out a window. So she had the everpresent aches of ill-healed bones as trophies, and one of them—her left ankle, again—flared into sudden fire as she scrambled up into the loft and flung herself onto the heap of old clothes that served as a bed. In an eel-like roll that fetched her up on her back, so she’d not sneeze or shift to snatch her breath or otherwise betray her presence.

The men—and they were almost always men—who visited Launtelle did not want to share their questions, or her answers, with anyone.

This latest one hammered at the outer door in exasperated haste before realizing it was open—whereupon he almost fell through it to get to the second one and rap upon it.

“Redcloak,” he rasped out. “Lady Redcloak?”

“Who asks?” Launtelle croaked back at him.

“One who would remain nameless, but pay well to hear truths.”

“How well?”

“A taleth a truth. A full truth.”

“There are no such things, but I can tell you many a taleth-worth.”

“Then let me in. I mean no harm, and I ask nothing out on the street.”

“Fair enough,” Launtelle granted, shooting the well-oiled bolts—first the floor bolt, and then the cross-bolt.

The second, she did with a metal docker’s hook that meant she wasn’t right behind the door if a guest tried to ram it open into her. The pointed end of the hook was coated with sleemsnake oil, the strongest paralyzing substance that didn’t wear off swiftly. For as Launtelle said from time to time, “An old sack of wrinkles can’t be too careful. Not in Tanthalas.”

This guest offered no immediate trouble. Dustra could see through a spyhole that he was alone; a dark-haired, slender man she’d not seen before. Which meant he wasn’t a previous client. Not unless his last business with Launtelle had been more than seventeen summers back. Her memory failed her for the times before then, when she’d been too young to know what did and didn’t matter.

This man wore well-worn leathers—a successful yet still hard-at-work trader?—with dagged fringes down the outsides of the arms. The only men Dustra had ever seen wearing such had been from Izeltazrim, though folk who docked in Tanthalas hailed from many afars, and could and did shop for clothing just about everywhere in Asmer. He looked weary, and of middling years, and . . . not a brute.

He waited until Launtelle had shuffled back to where she preferred to sit—which meant to face her, he’d be standing where she could kick a catch free and release a stone block as heavy as four men to swing down from the ceiling and smash right into him from behind. And Dustra could roll over at the right cry from below, and blow a Yacathan adder-dart down through a hole in the floor that would drop most men in a few agonized mouth-foaming, limbs-trembling instants.

“It’s open,” Launtelle announced.

The door swung slowly open, the man slipped quickly through it, closed it again, and shot the cross-bolt.

Then he turned to face Launtelle, drawing a single taleth from a wrist-purse, and holding it out in his palm where she could see it. Which meant if he hadn’t been here before—Dustra couldn’t tell from Launtelle’s face—he’d spoken to someone who’d told him how Old Redcloak preferred to do business.

“Put it on the stool,” Launtelle told him simply, “and ask.”

The man nodded, put the coin down with the deft care of a respectful trader rather than slapping it or tossing it, and asked, “I have heard priests of the Lady say that a rare few humans—a very rare few—can become dragons. Is this true, and how does this happen?”

Which Lady?” Launtelle asked sharply.

“Stars and shadows, stars and shadows,” the man murmured, and she nodded.

“More summers ago than I have seen,” she told him, “a dragon told the wizard Vaeredroon that humans prepared rightly can ‘die by dragon’ and return to life—and when they do this, they remember the pain of their passing, and every detail of their deaths. If they do this nine times, they will either become immortal, or become dragons themselves.”

“And Vaeredroon, the mightiest of all wizards, could become a dragon, and command them,” the man said.

“True,” Launtelle agreed, “but he did it another way. Or so he told me.”

You spoke with Vaeredroon?”

“Many times, but all of them long ago. Told me and showed me something of it, and enough more that I believe that what he said the dragon told him is true.”

“So who walking among us in Asmer is immortal?”

Launtelle shrugged.

The man grimaced and got out another taleth, but before he could add its golden glint to the stool, she said sharply, “Save your gold, Ilvren of Thantport.”

The man stiffened. “How is it you know my name?”

Launtelle smiled.

Chapter 3

Her guest’s face was tight, and his hand had gone to where Dustra was sure the hilt of a blade hung, beneath his weathercloak, but the old woman asked him calmly, “How should I not know a man so famous for the breadth and quality of his cheeses, the reach of his trade in them, and so handsome and polite in his dealings?”

What Dustra could see of the man had told her he was neither ugly nor coarse of feature, but more nondescript than handsome. Yet he was smiling wryly now at Launtelle’s words, as he asked, “Save my gold, you say? So there are some things you will not give answer to?”

“There are many things I do not know, and this is one of them. I’ll not steal coins by spewing lies or hinting where there is nothing but another’s suspicion for my words to stand on. So seek not to pay me for an answer to that. I know of no human whom I know to be immortal; it seems to me that word is one priests toss about far too often, to try to cozen.”

“But you saw or were shown men who’d been killed by dragons and come back to life?”

“I have met humans who claimed to have done so, and Vaeredroon believed them to have done so.”

“And how is it that you knew Vaere—” But there Ilvren fell silent with another wry smile, for Launtelle was already shaking her head, the thinnest of smiles plucking at the ends of her mouth.

He held out the second taleth in entreaty and said, “From when I was old enough to know what I was hearing, it has been said that the dragons—the old dragons, the real dragons—are awakening. And that when they do, everything will change. Now this is being said with vigor, on everyone’s lips, in all the ports. Is this true?”

Launtelle nodded at the stool, and the Thantren cheese trader put that second gold coin down on it beside his first.

When he’d straightened up again, she said simply, “It is. Some of them are awake already. And their mastery of magic is such that the Heirophar and the priests of Rheligor alike, who are now the opposed emperors of the magical, may be swept away or become the playthings of the dragons overnight, should they so wish it. Yet I am not at all convinced that the great orms will speak with one voice, just as great kings of humankind do not.”

“So we may see the . . . the balance of things swept away in our lifetimes.”

“We may all see that, several times over,” came Launtelle’s dry rejoinder. “May is a marvelous word.”

“This dying by dragons; does the dragon have to slay in a certain way? Is its permission or agreement necessary to the success of the rising again to life?”

“No, but the human must prepare themselves in the right manner beforehand, or they will simply die.”

“And what . . .” The cheese trader caught himself, and fell silent.

“Mondar Ilvren,” Launtelle told him gently, “your secrets are safe with me. No one I will take coins from cares to pay to learn if a certain Thantren trader is or is not a wizard, or has the Gift. I do not have any dealings with creatures who serve the Heirophar. You seek to learn what the right preparations are, but hesitate to ask because you believe that doing so will reveal to me that you a wizard. Of sorts.”

Her guest was silent for a long time before he tendered another smile and asked, “So, will more coins buy me a correct and complete answer about the proper preparations?”

“Complete, no. I can tell you who to inquire of, but must warn you: doing so will bring you under the eye of the Heirophar. So you must have a way ready, of getting to a dragon and dying under its jaws or claws that is swift indeed. Fast enough to so perish before the Heirophar’s agents catch you, and give you a permanent—and likely rather brutal; the Heirophar likes to make examples, so rumors will dissuade others—passing.”

“So . . .”

“So wait. You are young enough that the Heirophar may not be the same sort of threat to all that he is today, when years have passed from now, but you are still hale enough to voyage and ride and go seek your expert advice. And your dragons.”

“Yes,” Ilvren said gently, “yet forgive me: you may not be.”

Dustra held her breath, wondering if she was going to see one of the rare—and terrible—occasions upon which Launtelle lost her temper.

But the wrinkled old woman who’d been a mother to her all the days she’d known merely nodded and said, “True.”

How old was Launtelle? If she’d known Vaeredroon, mightiest of all the great wizards before the Heirophar . . .

She’d been more than Dustra’s mother, she’d been her entire family—though by their looks, the hues of skin and eyes and hair, the two of them were not blood-kin.

Dustra knew nothing of her own heritage, for Launtelle would not speak of it, and “Teldragon” was the way in Ertalese of saying what some Hararman seafarers called “Everyshanks” and Izeltazzrim named “Everyman.” It meant no one knew your family, or you wanted no one to know. And—but hold, the cheese trader was speaking again.

“Do you have the time, here and now, to school me on the casting of spells as if I was a complete novice? For that, I am. A child’s introduction, if you will. Not how to cast a spell, but the casting of all spells. How it all works.”

Launtelle leaned forward. “If you have the coins, I have the time.”

By way of reply, Ilvren reached very slowly to his belt pouch, drew forth a small purse, thrust it into his kerchief-pouch on the other side of his belt buckle, dipped deeper into his emptied pouch to undo something that was likely a false inner bottom, and drew forth a stiff piece of curved leather that hasty exploring hands might take to be merely a reinforcement for the pouch. He did something to it, and squeezed forth some sparkling gems, polished and crown-faceted: jargoons and arpells and dehzoars.

“Is this enough?”

“Put those away, man. If you are wise enough to ask for a child’s introduction, I am fair enough to demand just a taleth—one taleth—for it.”

The Thantren cheese trader stared at her for a moment, then put his gems away, got out another golden taleth, and placed it almost reverently on the stool with his earlier payments. It occurred to Dustra that he must be the same “trader of Thantport” who supplied most of the outland cheeses she’d seen in the windows of Runthaer’s, that tall and sprawling ornament where those Tanthalans with coin enough could shop for the wares of the world. Then he stepped back and waved his hand in a small, tentative “please begin” gesture.

The old woman bowed her head as if he’d done her courtly praise. “Well, now. Put all the nonsense about dancing naked under the moon and blood-pacts and eating raw and squirming glythit out of your head, right now. To be a wizard, you need the Gift. Just wanting to hurl spells about, or even having wands or scrolls thick with spells in your hands, isn’t enough. Without the talent, or one of the fabled Words of Unbinding, you just can’t work magic. It’s rare, and in most who have it the Gift is not strong; they’ll be healers or hedge wizards at most, no matter how much they work at it. And there are two Gifts, alike and often confused: the ability to craft spells—create magic—and cast them; and being able to drain or impart the raw energy of magic, the Ithiira or Essence. Those who have that second sort feel strong magic, as a tingling within them, when it is near. Whereas wizards tend to feel magic cast on them, or by them, or flowing through them. It is very rare for one mortal to have both—unless that mortal is a dragon. A great dragon.”

Ilvren might have been made of stone, he stood so still now. Just staring at the old woman across the room, drinking it in. Above him, peering down through the hole with the blowgun ready in her hand, Dustra listened just as intently.

For there had been times—a rare few—when she’d felt sudden inward tinglings, for no reason she could discern. Though Launtelle had warned her tartly that such sensations usually meant a pinched nerve or too much wine, not any sort of Gift at all.

“To cast a spell, you need a power source,” Launtelle said gently. “It can be yourself, but even a minor working—making your hand or a rock or a little bit of the air glow, or if you should fall from a height, slowing yourself to save bones or your life—will leave you staggeringly weak and sick for a good part of a day. Doing two such minor magics puts most of us out, to lie senseless and as if dead for a day and a night or even longer. If you drain someone else, even if they’re willing, it takes, yes, a spell, so it weakens you and drains them.”

She coughed, rackingly, drew forth a vial from somewhere in the rags she wore and sipped from it, sighed heavily as if she’d just drunk fire, then went on. “The spells we all hear of in the tales, blasting down foes with fire and lightning, major healing; they take more power than a person can spare. So it’s drain horses or oxen—plural—to death, or find a stronger power source. Magic items are the most reliable; you source them for a spell, and drain them down for a day or so, and they slowly come back if you don’t overdo it. And yes, the legends are true; the bones of wizards can be used, too.”

“Aren’t they cursed?”

“Curses are rarer than all the tales make you think, man. Yet hear this, Mondar Ilvren: unrobbed—and untrapped—wizards’ graves are even rarer.”

Had the Thantren turned a shade paler?


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