<★xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-16"★> Chapter One: Ryia Chapter one RYIA
“Are you sure this is a good idea★” Evelyn Linley, ex-captain of Dresdell’s Needle Guard, waded through the puddles in Ryia’s wake, swiping a rain-soaked red curl out of her face.
“Of course I’m sure. When have I ever had a bad idea★” Ryia answered, holding a hand to stop Evelyn from looping around the next corner. She gave a sniff, checking for the telltale stench of danger. Her Adept senses detected nothing beyond the normal unpleasant smells that always clung to places like this, where too many humans lived crammed together in too little space.
Ryia smirked at Evelyn’s silence as she waved them both forward. “See★ You can’t think of a single time.”
“No,” Evelyn said, pushing her hair back once more. It was in her face again within seconds. “The problem is that there are too many bloody examples to choose from….”
“Ha-ha,” Ryia said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
The fact was it didn’t really matter if their current plan was a good idea, and they both knew it. It was the only idea they had.
A fork of lightning split the night, throwing the wood-shingled roofs of houses, shops, and inns into sharp relief against the rain-blurred sky. Ryia’s lip curled. Edale. Land of mud, soot, and shitty memories. For ten long years she had avoided the kingdom at all costs. Now she was back—though not for long, if she had her way about it.
She and Evelyn had arrived in the stinking city of Duskhaven three days ago. Like her most recent home of Carrowwick, the Edalish capital was a tangled mess of close-knit houses crowding the edge of a river, but there were some key differences. For one, Duskhaven was about ten times the size of Carrowwick, with the filth and stench to match. And the people here were colder and harder than the Dresdellans—the lifeblood of Edale ran with coal and steel instead of Dresdell’s delicate lace, and it showed. All in all, Duskhaven was a bleak, disgusting pit of a city, filled with dour bastards and sallow-faced wenches.
After weeks of hard travel on the roads of Dresdell and Edale, sleeping on the wet ground and eating gathered mushrooms and stolen bread, they had been rewarded with a pair of cots in the foulest city of all Thamorr. All in all, it was an awful lot of trouble to go through to rescue the son of a bitch who had betrayed and abandoned Ryia in the lair of her lifelong enemy.
Tristan Beckett had only been in Carrowwick about six months by the time they had traveled to the Guildmaster’s island together, but in those six months, he had become the closest thing to a friend she’d had in the city. Which made the betrayal sting even more.
Bafflingly, he had turned out to be Prince Dennison Shadowwood, heir to the throne of Edale. In the end, he had only betrayed her to stay out of his father’s clutches, a motivation she was uniquely positioned to understand, given her own bastard of a father. Tristan—Dennison—had also saved her life in the Catacombs, stopping the Kinetic pit fighter who had been hell-bent on tearing her throat open. Saving her skin had put him back in his father’s grasp again. So she had come to Edale to return the favor. An eye for an eye, as it was. Or in this case, a harebrained rescue mission for a harebrained rescue mission.
Shit, she was getting soft these days.
On their first night in the city, she and Evelyn had learned where the prince was being kept. A drunken guard who had stared at Evelyn a bit too long for Ryia’s liking had been more than happy to let the information slip, especially since it didn’t seem too secretive or scandalous.
Prince Dennison was in his old quarters—a sprawling set of rooms located in the western tower of the keep. The stories all said the Shadow Keep was impregnable, but that seemed like one hell of an exaggeration to Ryia. Sure, it was situated on an island, surrounded by deep, murky water on all sides, and its walls were made of tall, solid blocks of shining obsidian. But Ryia was never one to shy away from a challenge.
The trouble would be getting Tristan—Dennison—back out.
Unless he had grown a pair of wings or gained some serious coordination since she had last seen him, there was no way he was going to be able to leap from his tower to the ramparts or climb down the outer wall from there or swim the width of the entire moat without attracting the attention of the guards patrolling either side. They had to find a way to get him out through the castle. Somehow Ryia doubted they were going to be able to saunter out the front gate.
Which brought them to their current predicament.
“You really think we can trust this… this skiver★” Evelyn asked.
“I think if you keep using words like ‘skiver,’ no one is ever going to buy that you’re from Edale,” Ryia said, chuckling at the Dresdellan slang. “But no. I don’t trust anyone; you know that.”
“Not even me★” Evelyn asked.
“Especially not you, you skiver,” Ryia shot back, avoiding the question. The truth was she trusted the ex-captain from Dresdell a hell of a lot more than she was willing to admit. After all, she had helped Ryia escape the Guildmaster. And Carrowwick. And helped her destroy the fabled Quill—the secret relic that gave the Guildmaster of Thamorr the ability to control all the branded Adept of the world. She was starting to rely on Evelyn quite a bit, actually. Not that she’d ever say so out loud.
“Well, if you’re not planning on trusting Mr. Berman, why exactly are we out in this ruddy downpour★”
“Because we can’t get Tristan out without a boat. Berman has a boat. So we’re going to go… have a chat with him.”
After two days of scouring every inch of the stinking hellhole that was Duskhaven, Ryia had found a way to get Tristan—Dennison—out of the castle. And actually, “stinking hellhole” was a pretty good description of the exit she’d found.
The royals of Thamorr didn’t shit in pails like the common folks of the kingdoms. They preferred to send their waste down an elaborate system of chutes and tubes that wound through the walls and cellars of their castles before leading outside. Through eavesdropping on some servants in a tavern called the Jackal’s Mug, Ryia had learned the sewer in the Shadow Keep ran underneath the wine cellar. Observation proved that the mouth of the sewer was positioned along the southeastern wall of the castle. With a little luck, a boat, and the right cover, it should be possible to get in and out without anyone being any the wiser. Another bolt of lightning crackled through the sky. They certainly had the “cover” bit down. The guards would have trouble seeing the ends of their own noses in this mess. Now they just needed the other two pieces of the puzzle.
Ryia threw a hand out, halting Evelyn in the shadow of a tavern just beside the moat surrounding the castle. A pair of City Watch stomped by, rain pinging off their armor as they went. Strains of string music floated out from the tavern, a dark and powerful ballad of some sort.
Felice, even the music in Edale was dull.
“And once we get Mr. Berman’s boat,” Evelyn said, eyeing the City Watch as they disappeared around the next corner, “what do you suggest we do with Mr. Berman himself★”
Just a few months ago, Ryia would have said, Easy, we slit his throat and throw him in the water. But, for better or for worse, Evelyn’s noble bullshit was rubbing off on her. “I already paid him,” she said.
Evelyn raised one eyebrow. “And you’re naive enough to think a few silvers is going to stop him from reporting a break-in to the castle guard★”
“You really think the man cares about his job that much★”
“No,” Evelyn answered, “but if he cares about lining his pockets as much as I assume he does, he’ll be very interested in collecting the coppers he’d get as a reward for turning in a pair of criminals breaking into the keep.”
Ryia shrugged. “Then we’ll ask him nicely to stay where he is and keep his mouth shut.” She pulled a length of frayed rope from her cloak pocket, holding it up in the light of the storm. “By tying him up with this.”
Before Evelyn could argue, Ryia darted out from the cover of the overhang. The sounds of rattling dice and murmured voices faded away as they splashed through the puddles, running for the lopsided hut that stood just beside the heavily guarded crest gate separating the Rowan River from the moat. The hut looked like a candle that had half melted on a hot day, the crumbled mortar barely holding the stones together as they tried desperately to collapse onto the mucky ground below. A tiny rowboat sat tethered to the side of the hut with a thick chain and a thicker lock, tossing and rocking in the wind as the storm raged on.
By the time they reached the door, Evelyn’s cloak was more brown than it was black, splattered with thick, dark mud all the way from the hem flapping at her boots to the seams underneath her arms. She thrust both hands down, sending a wave of mud and rainwater splashing onto Berman’s front stoop with a “yuck.” She looked at Ryia through narrowed eyes. “Can’t you do something about this★” she asked, waving a hand vaguely toward the sky.
“What, stop the rain★” Ryia asked, incredulous. “I’m sorry—I didn’t realize I was one of the twin goddesses.”
“Not stop it,” Evelyn griped, wringing out the hood of her cloak. “Just keep it off our bloody heads.” She wiggled her fingers in the air. “You know, with your special… skills★”
She was referring to Ryia’s Kinetic magic. Ryia snorted. “Yeah, sorry, you didn’t partner with a true-blood Adept. You’ve only got a cheap imitation on your team.” She tapped the hatchets slung over her shoulders, then ran her fingers over the throwing axes on her belt. “These are the only things my particular skills have ever had any control over.”
Her father’s axes. The very same weapons that had cut the throats of a hundred Adept or more. Bled them dry so the sick bastard could funnel the sickly red liquid down Ryia’s throat. The weapons that had made her were the only thing her telekinetic magic would ever lock onto. The objects she would have liked to have never seen again after escaping from her father’s mansion were the only constant in her life since leaving that burning hellhole behind. If that wasn’t one of the goddesses’ sick jokes, Ryia didn’t know what was.
When it seemed that Evelyn was finally satisfied with the dryness of her hood, Ryia lifted a gloved hand to the door, giving it a resounding knock. The thunder rumbled. The rain poured. The music in the tavern across the way fell into a new, equally depressing-sounding tune. No one answered. Ryia knocked again. Still there was no response.
“Are you sure this is the right hut★”
Ryia rolled her eyes. “No, you’re right, this is the house of the other poor sod whose job is to unclog the pipeways and scrub the shit off the windows.”
She knocked again. She had come across Berman earlier that day, balancing haphazardly on his rowboat as he scrubbed at the lower windows of the keep with a rag tied to a stick. When he’d come back to his house, he had found Ryia lounging on his front stoop, waiting for him. For five silver halves, he had agreed to let her borrow his boat that night, and for another five, he had agreed to keep his filthy, crooked-toothed mouth shut about it. The money didn’t matter to Ryia—she had pickpocketed it all anyway.
After another knock returned only silence from inside, she lost her patience and shouldered the door open. Even without her stolen Kinetic strength, it would have been easy enough to break in. That door frame had been held together by mold and prayers to Felice, goddess of luck.
“Whuzzat!” came a disoriented reply from inside.
Berman was on his feet, but it was clear from his red-rimmed eyes—not to mention the smell of the room—that until a few seconds ago, he had been in a drunken stupor on the moldering couch beside the cold, empty fireplace. Ryia felt the weight of the rope in her pocket. This would be even easier than she had anticipated.
“Ah, Berman, good to see you’re ready for me,” she said, pulling her gloves from her hands one finger at a time.
“Close the twice-damned door, would you★” he said, lunging forward and shutting it himself. With the latch broken, it just swung right back open. “Lettin’ in more water than the bloody Rowan, you are.”
“Sorry,” Evelyn said, reaching forward to help him jam the door shut with the lone chair beside the tiny dining table. Polite as ever, she was, even when breaking into a man’s home in the middle of the night.
“What’d you break down my fuckin’ door for★” he asked, wiping his eyes like he was trying to rub the drunkenness away. It didn’t work.
“We made a deal, Berman.” Ryia leaned against the wall, pulling her cloak aside to reveal the belt of throwing axes at her hip. She then held out one hand, palm up. “I wouldn’t go back on it if I were you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Berman muttered, patting his trouser pockets, then the pocket of his sweat-stained shirt, before finally unearthing a small silver key. “You better bring ’er back in one piece, or you’ll owe me a hell of a lot more than ten silvers.”
“And I’d request that you keep to yourself and your ale tonight,” Evelyn said, stalking toward him. “If you get my drift.”
“If I… who in the hells are you, anyways★” Berman asked, bleary eyes focusing on her for the first time.
“The key, Berman,” Ryia prompted. “We haven’t got all night.”
“All right, all right.” He went to put the key in her hand, then drew back at the last second. “Don’t get yourselves caught out there, neither. There’s more than City Watch up on those walls at night.”
He meant Adept, of course: Kinetics and Sensers, brainwashed and trapped in service to the king of Edale. The castle was bound to be crawling with them.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now, the key.”
Ryia scowled as she snatched the key from Berman’s grip. For the first few days after she and Evelyn had destroyed the Quill and fled Carrowwick, she had been waiting to hear the news that the whole damned world was burning. That the Adept servants had all rebelled against their masters, risen up, run away, something. But there had been nothing. When she and Evelyn had stopped in the city of Taravan to pick up a pair of horses, she had finally seen why.
The Adept were no different from the way they’d been before Ryia and Evelyn had stolen Declan Day’s ancient device from the Guildmaster. They still plodded behind their masters, dead-eyed as corpses, obedient as hunting hounds.
Ryia didn’t know exactly what she had been expecting, of course. She’d known from the start that the cursed Quill could sense all the Adept in the world, could hunt them down in any corner of Thamorr. After watching Tristan—Dennison—use the Quill to take control of the Adept fighter back in the pits of the Catacombs, Ryia had thought the relic was the key to their obedience, too… but evidently not. No, it seemed that the Adept were bound to service by their masters’ brands. And if that were true, then the only way to free the poor saps who were already branded would be to go back in time.
At least the Adept serving now were the last ones who ever would, now that the Quill was gone. She had smashed it to bits herself up on top of the wall in Carrowwick. Had watched the pieces float away down the Arden River and out to the Yawning Sea. But still. The branded Adept would continue to serve their masters until the day they died, apparently. Thousands, alive, but trapped forever in their invisible shackles. It made everything they had done seem far too small.
Evelyn was watching her carefully. They’d had enough conversations about this since Taravan that she knew the ex-captain could tell exactly what she was thinking about right now. Evelyn’s hand brushed hers, and Ryia flinched away instinctively.
All right. Enough screwing around. She reached for her pocket, pulling out the length of rope.
“What’s this all about★” Berman asked, drawing back.
Ryia charged forward, pushing the man down into the chair, wedging the door shut. In three deft motions, she wound the rope around him and the back of the chair and knotted it tightly. He would be able to break free eventually, but definitely no time soon, and definitely not in his current state.
Leaving Berman shouting obscenities in their wake, she and Evelyn slipped out the back door to the tiny inlet where the boat was tethered.
The rain continued sloshing down from the sky in buckets, plastering Ryia’s hair to her scalp. It was still short, barely reaching the tips of her ears. Ivan had shaved her head so she could pose as a Kinetic pit fighter back in Carrowwick just under a month ago. It had been so damned convenient that for a moment, Ryia had considered keeping her hair that way. Then she had learned the branded Adept still weren’t free. The shaved head had felt like a pair of shackles from that point on.
Still, watching Evelyn wrestle her own long curls back behind her shoulders as she leaned over to unchain the rowboat, Ryia had to admit she was glad to have it shorn as close as it was.
Lightning crackled across the sky, and in the white flash Ryia saw it. The Shadow Keep. The Edalish castle was situated on a hard, rocky island about the size of most of the towns they had ridden past on their road north. The water surrounding it, now sloshing around their boots, was a stagnant and murky brown.
The keep was framed by thick stone walls, each corner marked with a tall tower studded with arrow slits. A single gate stood on the northern wall, but at the moment it opened to a stretch of disgusting water. The bridge rested alongside the wall for now, but Ryia had seen it in motion. Its mechanics were powered by magic, taking a team of Kinetics to raise and lower it over the moat. Another reason it was a shame destroying the Quill hadn’t instantly freed every branded Adept in the world. She would have liked to see Tolliver Shadowwood swimming through that thick, shit-filled water to get back to his castle….
In the center of the walls stood the keep itself, a tall structure built of stone so dark it almost looked black. It towered over the walls, jutting so high into the sky it almost blocked the twice-damned moon. Four turrets stood from its hard, angled roof. Evelyn eyed the western tower nervously through the sheets of rain pouring from the clouds.
“Are you sure about this★” she asked. “There’s bound to be a ton of guards up there. Or worse.”
After all, only Evelyn would be taking the boat tonight. Ryia would enter the castle by a different path—one where she was less likely to leave a trail of disgusting stains as she led Tristan—Dennison—back out.
Ryia snorted. “Have you really forgotten how impressive I am★” She had gotten through tighter spots than this before. She would break in and get the king’s brat down into those sewers to meet Evelyn before Tolliver Shadowwood and his men ever knew she was there.
For a long second, Evelyn didn’t respond. Ryia stared determinedly at the Shadow Keep as she felt the ex-captain’s eyes on her. “See you on the other side,” Evelyn finally said.
“Enjoy the shit tunnel.”
Ryia grinned, turning to watch Evelyn hop into the boat and row toward the castle walls. If this went sideways, the sight of the former captain disappearing behind the curtains of heavy rain might be the last she ever saw of her. The grin slid off Ryia’s face. She kept one eye on the Shadow Keep as she looped around to the western edge of the moat.
“This had better be worth it, Tristan,” she muttered, staring up at the western tower, ringed in the shadows of a fresh lightning flash.
With that, she took a deep breath and dove into the filthy water of the Duskhaven moat.