Al had taken a while to fall asleep. Every strange sound made him startle and, having never spent much time outdoors, every sound was strange. Anladet had turned towards him and snuggled up against his back, curling an arm around his ribs at one point. He had been in the throws of his letdown, paranoid but moving into loneliness. It hadn’t washed away the hollow pain, but it helped a great deal. He couldn’t remember a time he’d had someone be there for him while he fought against the symptoms of magic withdrawal and it felt nice.
He’d wondered if there was something more to this, to them. He thought she was beautiful in an exotic way. She had a wild sort of look to her, sharp features that appeared a little cat-like. Her hazel eyes, of some color falling between brown, gray, and green, often flashed with interest or mirth, often captivating him for a moment. Besides this, she had a comforting presence, self-possessed and confident without needing to lord it over him. Instead of leading them, she was content with sharing point and coming to an agreement on their actions. She might be considered motherly if she didn’t have that slightly impish look in her eyes when he joked. She could be considered child-like if she didn’t have the depth he’d seen of people who had seen too much of the world. To top it all off, she was just nice to look at, without her moving or speaking, like a garden or a sunset. And he noticed all this despite the fact that her hair was tangled, her skin dirty, and her physique was close to emaciated. He’d seen few women who weren’t at least plump and she was two or three stone away from that weight.
This all translated to some promise for Al. He liked her, he liked being with her, but everything he’d been through made that potential sour. It curdled as soon as he began to wonder. He knew that it could be different with Anla than it had with Burdet, but he was too battered and bruised emotionally to sustain any realistic thought about it. He’d had a hard time coming to terms with how thoroughly he’d been hurt. The train ride from Ispen to Hanala had been a deeply sorrowful trip, one where he had spent much of his time wondering what he would do differently if given the chance.
It had been nice to have someone hug him, he had to admit that. Other than his clients and Marnie, he hadn’t had anyone touch him in years. It felt good, comforting, healing. He liked her, but he’d have to wait and see. For the moment, he was content with what he had and pleased that he was so progressive by having a female partner that he didn’t want to romance.
They sat at breakfast, silent since they rose. The air was chilled and still, the dew clinging to everything. It was difficult for him to start speaking, not something he was accustomed to. “I, um, wanted to apologize. For last night. I said some rather uncouth things.”
She looked up in the middle of a bite of cheese. “Don’t concern yourself with it,” she said, bitter and disinterested in speaking of it.
“I need to explain. Whenever a wizard uses the Unease for too long, he has a terrible reaction after he stops. Like a hangover, the reaction is worse the more you drink. The longer I use, the worse I react. So, I didn’t mean those jokes. I just get uncontrollably giddy for a while.”
“You still thought them,” she said. “The only difference is you said them instead of keeping them inside.”
“You’re right. As I said, I have low opinions of piscarins. They’re pretenders. They sell snake oil and fake charms, things to give people false hope. It makes me angry and, yes, I make jokes at their expense. I need to distinguish you from them.”
“But I am them,” she said. “I read people’s fortunes. I give them false hope. I also give them the courage to do things they wouldn’t do without a little protection. Sometimes you don’t need the truth, but faith to do what you need to do.”
“You have a point. I need to ponder it a little more.”
She nodded, seeming to accept that. While she cleaned up their site, Al tapped into the Calm and pulled the stakes out of the ground, then packed away the tent.
“Is there anything we can do to stop all that from happening again?”
“And catch up to our kidnappers? No. I’ll just deal with it when it happens. I just need a little understanding from you if what happened last night happens again.”
“Okay. I can give you that.”
They walked back onto the trail, staying together while Al explained the Calm and the Unease. “Most wizards can only tap into one or the other. Of those that can do both, it’s much rarer to find someone who can do a task on one side while tapping into the other. That’s what I can do. I’m called a cross-switcher.”
“So, why aren’t you using the Calm while running?”
“They both have after effects, but the Calm’s are much nicer: lethargy, euphoria, a need to mingle with people, things like that. The Unease’s are worse, as you’ve seen. More people prefer to use the Calm, but it’s much harder to maintain it. You need to be relaxed, still, absorbed in what you’re doing. It’s not something you can sustain while running, though I’m sure a few really talented people could. You’d have to be continuously in a blissful state.”
She hesitated. “So, if you were relaxed enough, you could potentially run and then not have the after effects?”
“Yes. That sums it up nicely,” he said, squinting into the woods. He stopped for a moment, holding his hand against the sunlight. “Over there.”
“What is it? What do you see?”
“There’s an area that’s cleared, but it doesn’t seem natural. Very circular and laid out.”
They dropped off the trail and headed towards the clearing. Anladet walked around the area. “There was a camp here.” She leaned down and touched the earth with her fingertips, rubbing them together. “This might be blood.”
Al looked around and walked towards a tree that seemed abnormally lighter in one area of its trunk. There was a crude and hastily carved symbol about eye level high. It took him a moment to register what he was seeing.
“Oh, no,” he said.
“What is it?”
“Magrithon. The sun god. That’s His sigil, a sun with alternate straight and wavy lines. Do you know about Him?”
“A little. My father taught us a little about the Twelve, but it was academic and not passionate. The people where I grew up had different gods.”
“Other than being the sun god, Magrithon is the protector and the god of royalty. His church is well rooted in the Noh Amair kingdoms and in Gheny. The nobility patronizes His priesthood and temples.”
Anla knelt and touched the ground where someone had dug a small trough into the dirt. She closed her eyes for a moment, then inhaled sharply. “Al, if we find her and rescue her, I think you’re going to need to be in charge of her well-being.”
He stood next to her, looking at what she was looking at and seeing nothing. “Why? What is it you mean?”
“The lady is…very distressed. I don’t feel I’d be the best person to handle her.”
“Why, I don’t…”
“Don’t ask!” she said, then steadied herself with a deep breath. “This little trench here, I think she dug it. My guess is she was anguished and it helped calm her.”
“Are you sure? That doesn’t seem like strong evidence.”
“Please don’t ask. I’d appreciate trust on this matter.”
He watched her for a moment, then nodded. “Okay, I’ll take care of her. You lead us and I’ll talk to her.”
“Thank you,” she said, her smiled forced from a grimace. “I’m sorry. I know what you’ll go through tonight, when we finish.”
“I’ll manage.” Something popped into his mind and he helped Anla up. “We have to go,” he said, determined. “I just realized the answer to the question of their motivation.”
“What? Al, what is it?”
He cut through the woods, so frantic he forgot where the pathway back to the road was and made his own. “You have a group that kidnaps a helpless girl, albeit a noble one,” he said, turning back to face her in between pushing the brush aside. “They don’t kill her, they don’t ask for money, but they do take her miles away to a specific place at a vigorous pace. They’re Magrithon cultists, Anla. I think they’re going to use the Lady Silfa make a blood sacrifice to their god.”
She gasped lightly, tripping over a bush as they rushed to the road. “That’s horrid! Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know. Cultists are perverse, in action and by what they interpret from their scriptures,” he said as they both began to jog north along the trail.
“How much longer do we have?”
Al rubbed his lower face. “Magrithon and His twin brother, Kabidon, are the sun and moon gods. My guess is these people will choose high noon before the full moon. How many days is that?”
Anladet sighed and frowned. “Two days. That camp was two days old, judging by the wood in the fire. They’re traveling slower than we are, but we still need to hustle.”
They didn’t stop for lunch. Anla pulled out what she could reach and handed it to Al, who was still keeping up with her. They stopped well after sunset, so exhausted that it took a joint effort to build a fire and set up the tent.
They wolfed down their meals quickly. Anladet stared into the fire, transfixed, until she remembered that Al was going to be dealing with his fugue soon. “How do you know so much about the gods?” Anladet asked. Talking would be the best gauge to see where his mood was at.
“It’s part of our training in school, in Amandorlam. We focused on the major twelve, but there are hundreds we needed to be aware of.”
“As a magic user, it’s good to know all forms of it. That way, if you ever get into a fight with someone, you’ll know who you’re up against and how you can use your magic against them.”
“What about working with other magic users?”
“Uh, they didn’t really get into that very much. Sad, actually. I spent some time wondering if there were ways of compounding magic use with other practitioners. Wizard’s magic is separate from deitic magic, so it’s not like we’re ‘stealing’, like the churches say.”
“Stealing?” she said, holding his gaze. He seemed fine so far, but she watched him intently for any cues.
“Okay, so, pretend that the gods’ magic is like a basin of water. When a clergyman uses magic in the name of his or her god, they take a little of the water away. Maybe a spoonful’s worth or maybe a drop or two. When enough people pray or do dedications, a little water is added. The problem is, all that water is shared by the same people. A few drops times hundreds of thousands of people adds up quickly, so there’s always a little infighting to gather more people to The Twelve and especially to their deity. The more worshipers of one god, the larger the spoon is and the more magic they can take.”
“I don’t like that. It makes it sound like it’s a use-be-used situation. True worship is about love and freedom between you and your god.”
“Well, it’s only a theory. This is why the churches say they need to dip their fingers into every day things, like protection spells and marriage contracts, making artifacts and blessing ships. Things like that.”
“Artifacts? Like the Wheyspen Fountain in Hanala?”
“What does it do?”
“It’s said to cure ailments and slake thirst more then normal water.”
He giggled for a moment, then cleared his throat. “If it actually works, then, yes. It has to have divine influence and it has to work in order for it to be a true artifact.” He paused for a moment, considering whether it would be wise to let her in on his secret. He trusted her, he decided. “I have one, if you want to see it.”
He rummaged around his massive pack until he felt the chalice, then pulled it out.
Anladet looked at his hand, then his eyes, then back to his hand several times. “Is, um, hallucination part of your after effects?”
He laughed much harder at this. Anla waited patiently, not getting it, but understanding that he might need a practical joke or two to get him through this period.
“Sorry, I keep forgetting it’s invisible,” he said. “Here, hold it.”
Anla’s eyes widened when she felt the cup touch her hand. She placed her other hand around it and began feeling it. “That’s amazing. What does it do?”
“I’ve read only a little about it, so I’m not entirely certain. It supposedly links people together for a year’s time so that they can’t be more than a mile apart from each other. That’s all I know.”
She handed the chalice back to him and waited while he put it away. “Al, may I ask you something in a direct way?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Have you ever been hoodwinked?”
Al looked confused. “Hoodwinked?”
“Yes. Scammed, tricked, taken Skon’s Way, conned, duped…”
“I know what the word means. I’m just curious why you’re asking it.”
“Well, I’ve been waiting for you to take precautions against me and you haven’t.”
“Why would I? I trust you.”
“I know you do. Why, though? We just met the day before yesterday. When we met, I was conning people into giving me money. We are in the middle of the forest and you don’t know where we are nor how to survive out here. Do you know how easy it would be for me to rob you of everything and leave you stranded? Or, perhaps, use you until we find the girl, knock you out, and take her back for the full reward? I just ask because you have a guarantee that I can’t do those things and you don’t use it. I’m left to believe one of two things: you’re going to take the drop on me or you seriously don’t think that people work like that.”
Al was flummoxed. “I…I hadn’t thought of it like that. You’d do that? You’d break your word?”
“Me? No. I have no need to, at least not with you and not now. Would other people? Some people live by finding things like that to do and they do it all the time, Al. All the time. It doesn’t matter if you’re hurt or desperate or a child, those people will take advantage of you. They will rob you of whatever they can. It happens, Al. Trust me on that if nothing else.”
She had given him quite a bit to think about. After some time he stopped and reached inside his backpack for the chalice and his snub bottle of Caudet he had saved for a special occasion. “Would you share a glass with me?”
“You have wine in there?” she asked. She started laughing at the situation, which caused Al to laugh until his stomach hurt. “Okay, calm down, Al. Calm. Why do you have a bottle of wine in your backpack?”
“It’s my favorite wine. It’s from Arvonne, actually. It only holds two glasses of wine. I had hoped to share it with a friend, if I ever made one.”
“That sounds a bit like you don’t consider me a friend anymore.”
“I wouldn’t say that. You’re right, though, about trust. We don’t really know each other. If you betrayed me, I could get over the loss of fortune. I might even make my way back to that village by myself and figure out what to do next. I don’t think I could get over the treachery, though.”
“So you want to do this now?” she asked, extending her hand to hold the chalice while he poured.
“Yes. Before we go on any farther.”
“You don’t trust me anymore?”
“No, I just want the reassurance that it can provide for both of us.”
“Say ‘yes’ if you mean ‘yes’, Al. I don’t need the reassurance; I know you’ve been astonishingly honest with me from the beginning.”
“Then yes, I don’t trust you anymore.”
“Good,” she said in a relieved tone. Al poured with a jittery hand, though he didn’t spill any of the liquid. “You’re learning. How does this work?”
Al pulled a knife from his front pocket after he recorked the wine and put it away. “A little blood in the indents on the chalice. A little wine inside, then we both drink. I’m fairly certain of it, but I can’t be sure.”
“How will we know it worked?”
“You can walk a mile ahead and I’ll stay here, then I’ll catch up if anything happens.”
“Last question. Does it work for death, too? As in, if I die, will you die as well?”
“I don’t know, but I would do anything I can to stop you from dying just because I don’t want to see you die.”
He immediately regretted saying that. It made him sound desperate, pathetic even. She had just tried teaching him not to be so trusting and he had blurted such an intimate thing out.
“Okay,” she said, feeling the cup underneath her fingers. The liquid hung suspended in air, an inverted dome of deep red. “Why are the indentations so low?”
Al grabbed her other hand and split her fingers, sliding the chalice stem in between them. “The nobility drinks their wine like this. It makes them seem dignified or something.” He nicked his thumb with his knife and waited until a dark line appeared, then took the chalice back. “Bottoms up.”
After he drank, Anla quickly grabbed the knife, cut her thumb, and thirstily drank the rest of the wine. She almost dropped the chalice when it appeared in her hand, gold with rubies embellishing the bowl.
“I think it worked,” Al said.
“I’m a baerd,” she said, handing him back the chalice.
“A bard? Great! What kind, flutes or lutes? I find most minstrels use woodwinds or stringed instruments. Oh,” he paused. “But you don’t have an instrument. So, you sing, then? May I hear a song before we retire for the night?”
“No, Al, not a bard, a baerd.”
His smile faltered as he realized what she meant. She felt guilty. She had tried so hard not to use him, to manipulate him into her means. And here she had wound up doing it anyway.
“So that means you’re…” She tucked her hair behind her pointed ears. “Oh.”