“Farryn? Farryn, can you hear me?”
Farryn jerked her head up from the cold dirt floor. Gods above, had she fallen asleep? She blinked a few times, more out of habit than any real hope that the darkness would abate then, with a curse and a groan, rolled onto her side. Her bones creaked in protest, and she wondered if this is what it felt like to be Mother Ulla, waking to her mighty assortment of aches and pains every day.
Shaking her head and pushing limp strands of hair out of her eyes, she sat up. Her staff . . . a little thrill of panic raced through her chest. Where was her staff? She reached out both hands, searching in the dark. But the fingers of her right hand brushed against the gnarled wood, and she clutched it and pulled it too her, rocking slowly in place as she cradled it close.
She bowed her head, sniffed loudly, and pressed the heel of her left hand into her eyes, trying to drive the sleep out of them. It was ridiculous that she should sleep under such circumstances. But that encounter with the dream demon had sapped her strength and left her weak as a kitten.
“And now what am I to do?” she muttered. Her limbs shivered uncontrollably, though she wasn’t particularly cold. How much long before dawn now? How much longer before someone came to kill her? Did she even have time to attempt the forest and facing the demon again?
“Farryn . . . Farryn . . . .”
She frowned. Was she still asleep? No, she was pretty certain she couldn’t dream a darkness this intense. Her mind simply wouldn’t allow it, would try to fill in some shape or color somewhere. So why did she hear that voice . . . deep down in her unconscious . . . that voice she knew so very well . . .
A warm rush drove the shivering out of her limbs. Farryn leaped to her feet, brandished her staff, and quickly started writing her circle of runes once more. She didn’t take as much care or precision this time. What difference did precision make while writing in the dark? But she felt the power of the spells and, within moments, saw them rising up in the darkness around her, flickering and faint around the edges. They certainly weren’t her strongest workings. They would have to do.
Kneeling in the center of the circle, Farryn closed her eyes and, using the Nardual seeing-rune to guide her, stepped back into the Otherway.
She stood on a single white stone in a sea of fog. Pushing at the fog with the Nardual, she could just discern another stone in front of her, within reach if she gave a little hop. Dark void yawned beneath, but she paid that no heed.
Still, see didn’t take the step but turned in place, pushing the seeing-rune as she went, trying to get a better view through the hazy atmosphere. Ordinarily her vision in the Otherway wasn’t this obscured. Her last excursion had worn her out even more than she’d realized, and her runes simply weren’t as strong as she needed them to be.
That voice. So she hadn’t imagined it!
Whirling in place, Farryn pushed the Nardual further out, driving it through the fog. “Kellam?” she called, forgetting in that moment of desperate hope to use his official title. “Kellam, is that you?”
“Up here! Above you!”
Farryn angled her staff, whipping the seeing-rune up through the fog, which parted like curtains revealing a line of floating pathway stones a good twelve feet over her head. She squinted through the haze, trying to catch a clearer view of the figure standing up there.
He knelt, peered over the edge of the stone on which he stood. He held a candle in one hand, and it illuminated his square, clean-shaven jaw and glowed against his golden hair.
“Kellam!” Farryn gasped, standing up on her toes as though she might be able to reach him. She brandished her staff a little higher, trying to angle the seeing-rune into a better position. “What are you doing there? How did you find me?”
“Mother Ulla told me what happened,” he said. It was difficult to see his face clearly from this distance. Was she imagining the deep concern she thought she saw glowing in his eyes. “She told me to search for you via dreams, rather than chasing off into Whispering Wood without knowing where you are.”
Farryn grunted. That was certainly good thinking on the old ward witch’s part. Whispering Wood was a treacherous place, even when you were certain where you were going and whom you would meet on your way.
“Can’t say that I know where I am,” she admitted. “I woke up in a dark hole, and I haven’t seen anything beyond it yet. I’m pretty sure I’m over the border in Fairyland somewhere, but beyond that, I couldn’t tell you.”
Kellam’s free hand gripped the edge of the stone on which he knelt. “Do you know the name Yhendorn?” he asked.
Farryn shook her head. “Can’t say that I do.”
“Mother Ulla says it’s the name your captor goes by. Maybe you can use his name to figure out where you are? If you can just give me a hint, I should be able to—”
“There’s no time for any of that.” Farryn shook her head quickly, and her seeing-rune fluttered and almost went out. She lifted her staff and steadied it as best she could. “I’ve only got until dawn before . . . before things get real bad.”
“What do you mean?”
Begrudging the time it took to explain, Farryn swiftly filled him in on the fae lord’s demands. She told as well of her two brief encounters with the dream demon and their disastrous outcomes. While she spoke, Kellam’s expression hardened into a stone-faced mask by the light of his little candle. His eyes widened until she could almost see the whites ringing the blue irises, even at this distance. He didn’t interrupt, but she could see his thoughts galloping.
“It doesn’t look too hopeful,” she finished with a rueful shrug. “I’ve never encountered anything like this monster! And dawn can’t be far off now.”
Kellam shook his head hard. “We’re not done yet,” he said, and a sweet, comforting warmth flared in her breast at his use of the word ‘we.’ She tried to shake it away as he continued: “Tell me, what did this so-called demon look like exactly?”
Farryn described it as best she could, finding it difficult to put into words the strange horror of the being. So much of what made it so dreadful was in the feeling it gave off, the aura of horror that accompanied it, and had little to do with its gruesome appearance. She stumbled through a garbled portrayal, ending with, “Do you have any idea what it might be?”
“I . . . think so.” Kellam’s voice was hard and heavy, and the hand which held his candle aloft trembled slightly. “I think it might be a Noswraith.”
Farryn blinked up at him and twisted her seeing-rune around, trying to get a better angle on his face. “A what now?”
Kellam swallowed hard and she thought she heard him whisper a curse through his clenched teeth. Then he leaned out over the stone again, looking down at her.
“Listen,” he said, “don’t try to face that thing again. Not until I get back. I’ve got to wake up, got to find something. If I can. A spell. I hope it’ll help. But don’t go back into that dream, Farryn! Your runes aren’t a match for a Noswraith, trust me.”
“What?” Farryn gasped in surprise as Kellam retreated suddenly, pulling back from the edge of the stone and drawing his candlelight with him. “Kellam? Kellam, come back! Don’t leave me here! Gods blight you, wretched man!”
She twisted her staff and sent the Nardual as high as she dared, but couldn’t catch a glimpse of him. The rune struggled to be sent so far and nearly went out. She had to pull it back or risk losing it, and as it sank back toward her, the fog closed in overhead, blocking out even the stone where Kellam had crouched.
She was alone once more in the Otherway. And suddenly the void all around and underneath her seemed much darker, much deeper than before.
Kellam breathed in a sharp, short, snort and sat upright. The abruptness of his waking made him scoot his chair back several inches from his desk, and he nearly lost his balance and fell from his seat. He gripped the arms of the chair, gave his shoulders a quick shake, and looked up.
Mother Ulla stood across from him on the other side of the desk, her skinny old arms crossed over her sagging bosom. “Well?” she demanded.
“A Noswraith!” Kellam exclaimed. He tried to stand, but was still too dizzy from the trance-like sleep and couldn’t quite make his feet or legs work. “That fae wants her to battle and rid his mind of a Noswraith!”
The old ward witch twisted her lips to one side, wrinkles mounding. “You don’t say.”
Kellam leaned forward, buried his face in his hands, and groaned. This was so much worse than he’d thought. And he’d thought it plenty bad as it was! “She’s not prepared,” he said through his fingers. “She can’t be! What is that fae thinking sending her against such a fiend?”
He looked up over his fingers, meeting Mother Ulla’s watchful eyes. “A Noswraith is a nightmare,” he said. “A living nightmare. But it’s not like the other beings one encounters in dreams. They were . . . they were created by mortal magicians. By Miphates. Meant to be dreams come to life, they warped, twisted, and became horrors unlike anything the worlds have ever known! They are—”
“I know what a Noswraith is, boy,” Mother Ulla interrupted. “You Miphates.” She spat out the word then followed it with hocking spit on the polished study floor. Raising an eyebrow, she leered at Kellam. “Only your kind would have the stupidity to think up spells like that. Witches know better than to dabble in creation magic. It’s begging for trouble!”
Kellam couldn’t very well argue. He sat back in his chair and drummed his fingertips on the desk. Wrenching his eyes away from the penetrating gaze of the ward witch, he looked around the study shelves, at the many hundreds of volumes surrounding him.
“I don’t understand,” he said, more to himself than to his companion. “I thought all the Noswraiths had been subdued. Gathered and imprisoned at the time of the Pledge’s signing. It was part of the peace agreement, wasn’t it? That the Miphates would give up all their Noswraith creations and destroy the spellbooks teaching that form of magic?”
Mother Ulla sucked on a tooth, her eyes a little too knowing for comfort. “And when have you ever known a Miphato willing to give up an inch of power? Even power that might well destroy him?”
Kellam couldn’t argue. He’d just spent five years of his life studying under the most brilliant minds the modern magical world had to offer. And he knew full well just how dangerous each and every one of those minds could be. He knew too how easily he might be counted in their number.
But still . . . Noswraith magic? Who would be foolish enough to dabble in such dark works, even putting the Pledge at risk? From the sound of what Farryn had described, this wasn’t one of the greater, more horrible Noswraiths. Those were known to attack and devastate entire fae cities at a time, for fae magic was utterly useless against them. This Noswraith, by contrast, seemed much smaller scale, having focused its powers on a single fae, hiding deep within his mind, preying on his dreams.
Kellam frowned, his hands clenching slowly into fists. Something about all this felt wrong, felt . . . malicious. Was it possible this Noswraith had been created for the purpose of attacking this specific fae? And if so, why? And by whom? So many questions, and so little time in which to find the answers! Dawn could not be many hours off—
“What?” Kellam looked up and turned in his seat. While he’d been lost in thought, Mother Ulla had tottered around behind his desk, nosing among the many volumes on the shelves behind him. He saw her just as she angled her staff to catch a certain volume by the spine and pull it from a high shelf overhead. It fell into her waiting hand, a black leather binding, much battered and somehow unsettling. Even the smell of it was subtly evil.
Mother Ulla turned the book round in her head, sucked on one of her three teeth again, then, with a little tut-tut, handed the book to Kellam. “That’s your Noswraith, that is.”
“What?” Kellam blurted again. He flipped the book open to the first page and started to read the spell. Immediately magic and power rose up from the written words, burning into his brain. An image flashed through his mind—a tall, grotesquely proportioned being, its eyes sealed shut with silver, its broken jaw gaping and bulbous tongue dragging out over its cage-like chest. The shock and horror of the image was enough to make Kellam cry out. He swiftly shut the volume before the spell got out of hand.
He lifted his gaze, meeting Mother Ulla’s implacable stare. “What is this? How is this here? All the Noswraiths are . . . were . . .” He swallowed hard, looked down at the book in his hands, then quickly dropped it on the desk as though it burned his fingers. “And how did you know to find it?”
“Wysamenor.” Mother Ulla smiled slowly, not at all a nice sort of smile. “You know, back in my day, I was never what you might call a pretty thing. But . . . I had my ways, if you know what I mean.”
Kellam decided then and there under no circumstances did he want to know what she meant. He clamped his gaping jaw shut, refusing to ask any of the questions trying to rush from his tongue.
“Your predecessor took a fancy to me,” the old ward witch continued relentlessly, turning her staff around in her gnarly old fingers. “But I didn’t much care for him. He had this spicy foreign perfume he always wore, and it quite turned my stomach! Yhendorn, however . . . he and I met upon more than one occasion. We danced on Glorandal Night one year. And Wysamenor didn’t care for it.”
She took a step toward Kellam and tapped the end of her staff against the cover of the black spellbook. “This was his revenge. Wysamenor knew his magic was no match for a power like Yhendorn’s, so he went dabbling where he oughtn’t. Not very good at it, I would venture to guess. His little nightmare certainly ain’t going to be demolishing any cities, that’s certain! But a potent beastie in its way. And fae magic is useless against it. Poor Yhendorn!” Neither her voice nor her expression indicated any real sorrow for the fae. In fact, she looked distinctly delighted. “Who’d have thought he’d been suffering all these years!”
“You knew about this?” Kellam persisted. “You knew Mage Wysamenor was writing a Noswraith into being?”
The old woman shrugged. “He told me he meant to. I didn’t think he’d actually go through with. He was always one for a lot of loud bluster and boasting. Eventually he got tired of chasing after me, and we settled into a comfortable mutual dislike for the latter part of his life. Our paths never crossed but that we didn’t have to spell ward or two to keep off any ill workings.” She gave Kellam a look from beneath a bristling brow. “Such is the natural order of things. Miphates and witches weren’t meant to get along. You’d best remember it, pretty boy, before you gets yourself in too deep.”
Kellam drew up straight in his chair. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Mmm hmm.” Mother Ulla snorted and waddled back around to the other side of the desk and leaned heavily on her staff. “So now you gots the spell, any idea what you’re going to do with it? Our girl is still out there somewhere, and she certainly don’t have a notion what she’s up against.”
Kellam dropped his gaze to the battered spellbook again. His brain still simmered with the intensity of the magic he had glimpsed. It was a spell far beyond his range of experience, magic he had never thought to encounter much less attempt.
But an idea was forming. Maybe not a very good idea . . . but it might be the only chance Farryn had.
“I have question, Good Mother,” he said, lifting his eyes to meet the ward witch’s studying gaze once more. “A question concerning your runes.”