The sea had always hated Garyl, and he hated it right back. Yet he still came back to it time and again, because it always seemed to have something that he needed. Unfortunately, this time seemed to act as an exception to that rule.
He stood on the ruins of Falden’s old shop, inspecting the upturned earth where he had forced the ruined skyship to break free of the ground and take off one last time. Nobody had come by to till the ground or build something new on the spot—it remained a jumbled collection or ruts and trenches, with a few holes where creatures had dug in to hibernate last winter. Most importantly, the location lacked Tiane. Garyl had hoped that the girl, frightened as she was, might go back to a place she remembered. After all, familiarity usually brought a sense of safety, even when the familiar thing was attached to painful memories.
Maybe that was one reason he always came back to the sea.
Twilight had set in, and a crescent moon hung over calm waters not far from Falden’s old operation. Garyl walked to the edge of the shore and sat down, letting the cold salt water of the tide wash over his boots.
With nothing left to do but wait and think, Garyl rolled his sleeve up and looked at the scar which Lytha had pointed out. He touched it and flinched despite the fact that it hadn’t brought real pain to him in years. Closing his eyes, he fell backward into his memories.
A younger Garyl opened his eyes, although they looked much the same. This younger version smelled the same thick scent of dust and mold that he had sensed before he lost consciousness. The inside of his mouth tasted heavily of blood and cloth. Nobody had gagged him—instead, they had packed his mouth full of bandages to dress a potentially deadly wound.
“Awake now, yes?” The voice belonged to a middle-aged man with a thick, rich voice that seemed to enjoy every word that came out from between his lips. “You chewed off your own tongue and almost bled to death. Fortunately, this academy is not without its healers as well.”
Garyl leaned to one side and pushed himself into a sitting position with his elbow. It took effort, not only due to his wooziness but also because both his wrists and feet bore heavy manacles. The shackles around his ankles connected to an iron ring on the floor that restricted his movement even further. He could get to the cot that served as his bed, or to the iron bars of his cell, but he couldn’t go any further in either direction without first figuring out how to break free of his manacles.
The man who had spoke wore orange robes and had long brown hair which he tied back in a ponytail. His beard was flecked with gray and his eyes were a placid blue. Next to him stood a dark-haired woman in light gray robes who seemed both frightened and excited as she gazed upon Garyl’s wounded form. Garyl raised an eyebrow in her direction. She seemed to see the motion, but didn’t show an indication that it meant anything to her.
“Check him,” the man ordered the woman. “Heal him and make sure that he can answer questions within the hour.”
“Master Shandalar,” the woman said timidly, “is this necessary?”
“It is,” the man snapped irritably. “He has information necessary for the security of Lorinth and all lands beyond. That he tries to kill himself instead of reveal what he knows only confirms that I am very close.”
“But he’s still a person,” the woman said. “That means that he has rights under our laws.”
“Dear, naïve Lytha,” Shandalar said. Garyl’s eyes lit up as he recognized the name, although his captor turned his attention away from him at that moment to address his hesitant helper. “This is exactly how the demons of the world catch us by surprise. They wear human form, they have human faces, but they lack human souls.” He gestured toward Garyl. “You may never have seen something like this before, but let me enlighten you. This creature is known colloquially as one of the night folk—creatures who were exiled by the Capertian Magelords centuries ago for consorting with entities from the depths of space. The Magelords called them cithrau, which translates to demon-touched. Their dealings with otherworldly creatures burns their souls away from the inside out. This thing isn’t a person—it is a husk that specializes in pain and deceit. In interrogating it, I am merely speaking a language that it knows.”
“Of course, sir,” Lytha said. She knelt next to Garyl and placed a satchel on the ground between them. The pack rattled as glass bottles within clattered against one another.
Lytha reached toward Garyl’s head with both hands. Involuntarily, Garyl jerked away.
“Is he dangerous?” the woman asked to Shandalar.
“Extremely so, if allowed outside this prison,” the headmaster replied. “Fortunately, right now the worst he could do is bite you…and he knows the consequences for doing that all too well.”
Lytha nodded and reached toward Garyl again. This time, the night folk didn’t try to escape. The healer pried open his mouth, removed the blood-soaked cloth inside, and inspected the inside. She grimaced as she looked at the damage, then began rummaging through her satchel for the proper medicine.
Garyl tried to click his tongue experimentally. He felt the muscle respond, but didn’t feel it touch his teeth or the roof of his mouth. In his vain attempt to escape, he had only wound up creating a phantom limb.
Lytha drew forth a bottle of inky black liquid. She removed the stopper from the vial and then placed the fingers of her free hand between his teeth to pry his mouth open. Garyl almost bit down reflexively, but forced himself to remain still during the procedure.
The healer raised the bottle to Garyl’s lips and titled it just enough to send a few small drops into his mouth. Her lips mouthed numbers as she counted silently to herself. When she had placed five drops inside, she forced Garyl’s mouth closed and whispered an incantation.
Nothing happened at first, but Lytha still packed up her supplies and retreated to the cell door, taking her place next to Shandalar. Then Garyl began to feel something.
His mouth burned as though he had eaten an extremely hot pepper. He had little trouble tuning out the initial pain, but it grew by the second. Muscles in his throat and neck contracted, forcing his face into a devilish sort of grin. Then he fell onto his back as spasms racked his body.
“This is normal?” asked Shandalar in a tone of mild concern.
“Yes,” Lytha responded. “With a wound so severe, the recovery is never very pleasant.”
A howl of pain escaped from Garyl’s lips. He forced his mouth shut, but the agony still escaped, creating a hissing noise between his clenched teeth. A sudden swelling at the back of his mouth momentarily blocked off his breathing, but the sense of asphyxiation vanished within a few seconds. When it disappeared, Garyl felt his tongue, previously severed and swallowed, touch the roof of his mouth.
“Sh-sh-shhh…” he began. In a different situation, he might have rejoiced to find himself capable of making such a sound—he had legitimately believed that he would never talk again, even if he did survive his injury. “Shandalar,” he finally gurgled as the power of speech returned to him in full. “You should run far from here Shandalar, because I’m going to kill you.”
Shandalar shook his head as though he had just been threatened by a child. With a single word and a wave of his hand, he cast a spell that left Garyl’s muscles frozen. The night folk fell on his back again, and it took all of his effort to keep himself from choking on his newly-grown tongue.
“You can certainly try once you’re free from here,” Shandalar said in a low tone as he knelt by the paralyzed Garyl’s side. “You would be smarter to leave this land behind once I set you free. But you won’t even get the opportunity to do so if you don’t start giving me information.”
He snapped his fingers, and Garyl found that he could move once again. He didn’t make any attempt to follow through on his threat to Shandalar, however. His muscles ached too much for him to do more than lie on the ground and gasp for air.
Turning his lip upward in a sneer of disgust, Shandalar stood up and walked to the cell’s entrance. He ushered Lytha out, then closed the door once they had both exited the prison.
“The world of Niiran holds many threats, some of which find their way into Lorinth,” Shandalar said to Lytha in the tone of an instructor teaching a lesson to a student. “As headmaster of this academy, it is my job to ascertain the full scale of these threats before I make a report to the city council. I appreciate your aid as a healer, but I also ask that you respect the need for confidentiality in this matter. I would hate for the students or your fellow teachers to panic before we know for sure whether this creature has allies and their numbers.”
“Of course, Headmaster,” Lytha responded obediently. She didn’t look back at Garyl as Shandalar led her away from the dungeon.
Several hours later, Garyl had completed the laborious process of moving from his place on the floor to the cot in his cell. Weak with hunger and loss of blood, he barely reacted when he heard footsteps coming toward him. However, he did jerk his head up when those steps passed right by his cell door and abruptly stopped further down the hall. Suspicious of the noise, he watched the narrow door of his cells for long, silent minutes. He kept his gaze steady when he heard another set of footsteps coming from the same direction as the first. This time, the visitor stopped in front of Garyl’s cell. Shandlar fished a key out of his pocket, placed it in the lock, and entered Garyl’s prison.
“You look puzzled, cithrau,” the headmaster stated. “Does something perplex you?”
“Just your lack of judgment.” Garyl’s voice still felt scratchy, and his new tongue still had a degree of swelling that made elocution feel like a chore. “It’s one thing to keep me down here and torture me, but bringing somebody else in as a witness seems sloppy.”
“Believe me, I would prefer that it hadn’t been necessary,” Shandalar responded. “But Lytha happens to be well-trained in magical potions and poultices. Your severe wound called for somebody with more expertise in the area than I.”
“People talk,” Garyl said. “Especially when they aren’t supposed to.”
“No doubt,” Shandalar agreed. “That’s why I chose somebody I trust to follow orders. Lytha has a strong sense of loyalty to this school, and especially to me. If she does speak, it will only be after a great deal of time spent soul-searching. By then, I hope to have set you free.”
“You could undo my restraints right now if you wanted to.”
“Not while you remain dangerous.”
“I’m just a wanderer,” Garyl insisted. “The only danger I represent is to cobblers, who weary of fixing the worn-out soles of my boots.”
“A wanderer, indeed. One can learn a great deal by wandering, especially if one wanders near the Dragonlands.”
“Oh yes,” Garyl said dryly. “I’m sure you could learn all about the many ways to die in that wasteland.”
Shandalar started to say something, then paused and glared at Garyl. He cleared his throat and began again. “You play the ignoramus quite well. Unfortunately for you, I happen to be familiar with your history. A skinny little scholar, with clothes as black as his skin. Always wandering on the heels of some great battle, patching up those he can and scouring the libraries before he disappears. A peddler of lore, a teller of histories. Somebody who has lived a great many years and who witnessed Derrezen’s fall from afar.”
“I also like mead and cherries,” Garyl said. “If you wanted information from me, you should have tried to ply me with those.”
“And would you have said anything of value?”
“To you?” Garyl shook his head. “No.”
The corner of Shandalar’s mustache twitched in irritation. “And why not?”
“Because I know your look. A hungry-eyed wizard who thinks his magic makes him better than others. A person who treats non-humans like myself as sub-humans. When somebody like you comes asking about ancient prophecies and forbidden lore, I know well enough to keep my secrets to myself.”
“Is that why you tried to kill yourself?”
Garyl breathed in sharply. He hadn’t been thinking of it in those terms at the time. Kajeel had once mentioned to him that something different happens to people who commit suicide—he had always tried to avoid such a fate, just in case it kept him from seeing her again.
“Yes,” he finally confirmed.
“You would rather die than share your knowledge of Derrezen?”
“With you specifically? Yes. I don’t know what you want with my information, but I know I can’t entrust it to you.”
Shandalar stiffened. “You admit that you saw Derrezen die?”
Garyl nodded hesitantly.
“And did you see a body afterward?”
Garyl remained silent. Shandalar’s face reddened in impatience.
“I’ll tell you what you saw, then,” the headmaster said. “You saw the Dragon-God burst into flame and disintegrate before he killed the heroes of Blackwood. And you journeyed all the way out to where his corpse should have been and you saw nothing! Then you realized, just as I do, that he isn’t truly gone. Derrezen seeks a way to claw himself from Hell’s depths and back into our world. One day, he will realize that goal. When he does, Blackwood needs new heroes!”
“And you want to be that hero,” said Garyl. “One empowered with whatever ancient artifacts and tidbits of lore I can provide you.”
“Would you rather see the Dragon War begin anew?”
Garyl felt beads of sweat begin to grow on his brow. He took a deep breath and pushed the image of the fiery Dragon-God from his mind. “You talk about yourself like you’re some sort of hero,” he said. “But look at me. I never wronged you, yet you still locked me away and tortured me when I wouldn’t tell you what you wanted to hear. And when your knives and whips didn’t do anything, you tried to compel the words out of me with magic. It’s true—there are a great many artifacts and relics hiding in the Dragonlands that would make a person powerful beyond his wildest dreams. But if I don’t trust myself enough to unearth them, why would I tell you where they are?”
Shandalar glared at Garyl and tapped his foot. Then he turned, left the cell, and locked the door behind him.
“It’s funny that you mentioned the compulsion magic,” the headmaster said. “You seemed to resist it well enough, and yet you chose to bite off your own tongue shortly after that session. That tells me that you might not be able to withstand those spells for much longer.”
“You don’t seem interested in testing that theory,” Garyl retorted confidently, ignoring the nervous flutter in his stomach.
“You’re still weak from your ordeal,” Shandalar said. “I don’t know how much your body can take right now. Besides, I have to locate a new cell for you.”
“Can I have a window this time?” Garyl blustered.
“No,” Shandalar said simply. “In fact, the next one will be even deeper underground than this one. That way, even if Lytha does speak to somebody else, an inspection of the cell will only show that you’re no longer here. Only I will know your actual location, and I will keep that secret to myself all the way until I die of old age if need be. Your kind are said to be nearly immortal…it will be a long time to live alone in the dark.”
Shandalar waited for a moment to see if Garyl looked ready to speak. When the night folk said nothing, he turned and walked away.
Minutes later, Garyl heard footsteps again—this time coming from the opposite end of the hall, where the mysterious visitor from before had ventured unseen. A moment later, Lytha appeared out of thin air, materializing in full as her spell of invisibility came to an end.
“You do know me, then,” Garyl said when he saw the woman once again.
“Yes,” Lytha confirmed. “Do you know me?”
“I didn’t recognize your face at first, but your name jogged my memory.”
“I’m not surprised you didn’t recognize me,” Lytha said in a loud whisper. “It’s been more than twenty years.”
“Has it?” Garyl didn’t whisper, but also didn’t raise his voice much louder than Lytha’s. “You don’t look a day older than…well, come to think of it I’m really not good with judging ages.”
“And you don’t seem to have changed at all,” Lytha said. “Except for your circumstances, of course.”
Garyl grinned for the first time in weeks. “Oh, I’m sure I’ve picked up one or two white hairs since we spoke last. You were the stable girl at the Tree Spirit Inn, if I remember correctly.”
Lytha nodded. “You do.”
“Considering how often I made my way back to Lorinth, and how rarely the innkeeper let one of my heritage sleep inside lest I frighten the guests, you and I must have spent several hours talking while you made my bed next to the horses.”
“And then one day you just disappeared.”
Garyl frowned. “Yes…I ran into some trouble in the north. Now that I’ve come back to Lorinth, the place has grown even less hospitable.”
“What can I do to help?” Lytha asked. “I can’t open your cell right now, but maybe if I steal the key from Shandalar…”
“Why would you do that for me?” Garyl asked. “Didn’t your headmaster inform you that I’m just an it?”
“He never asks me questions about how I learned magic,” Lytha said. “If he did, maybe he would know about the parlor tricks you taught me all those years ago. And then he wouldn’t have taken my word when I said I wouldn’t come back down here.”
“Why does he trust you so much?”
“Because I usually do as I’m told,” Lytha said. “Historically, I follow orders. When you don’t have any reason to believe somebody’s lying, even simple tricks can fool you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Garyl said. “Or I’ll try to, if I don’t block out every moment from this horrid cell. As for you, don’t waste time trying to steal from Shandalar. As much as I hate to admit it, neither you nor I will be the end of that man. But the headmaster of the Lorinthian Magic Academy answers to the city council. Notify them—tonight if you can. Bring them down here and Shandalar will be finished.”
“What makes you think they would step in to help you? Don’t they think of you as an it, too?”
“Maybe,” Garyl said. “But there’s a vast divide between making somebody sleep in the stables and cutting them up like a roast. Let them see my scars—that should do the trick. If the council turns its back on me and lets Shandalar continue with his little operation, then there’s nothing you can do.”
“I can always do something,” Lytha insisted. “Even if I can’t think of it right now.”
The healer whispered a word and vanished once again. Garyl heard her footsteps along the floor as they receded away from the cell.
Garyl yawned as his mind refocused in the present. He normally had only a few select memories from his past that he revisited. The effort of trying to sort out all the years almost always left him exhausted.
Had Lytha not mentioned the scars left by Shandalar, he never would have thought about his time in the headmaster’s prison. Now it would probably linger on his mind and turn him into a nervous wreck the next time he stepped onto campus.
“If I ever step onto campus again,” Garyl muttered to himself. “I might have to spend years trying to find where Tiane ran off to, and the academy is the last place she would—”
Oh, Garyl realized. Oh, no.
Words that Lytha had spoken in the past came back to haunt him.
When you don’t have any reason to believe somebody’s lying, even simple tricks can fool you.
Garyl leapt to his feet and sprinted in the direction of the academy. But he already knew he was too late.