BOOM! The vortex ripped open and spat out Alekhsiy Iskandronovich like a dragon’s discarded toy. Ghostly scythes tore into his belly, carving smoky trails to feed the void’s greedy maw. He slammed into a brick wall and bounced off, the rough edges tearing at his axe’s leather scabbard.
He instinctively tucked into a ball, only to land on the sloping lid of a metal bin. A jagged, knife-edged patch of pitch-black sky pulsed and reformed into a myriad of shapes too fast to be watched. But it constantly spat out sparks along the silvery braids binding it to him.
BAM! His sword and dagger thudded into him. His gear collided with each other and the damn box. Echoes roared through the alley’s narrow confines like the Red God of War’s angry hungers.
He fell, rattling over bumps and bars on the searingly hot metal cover. He flung out his hand to stop himself, yelped at scorched fingers, and dropped onto the ground.
He landed on his ass, like a youngling knocked off his first boarding ladder. Demons ripped through his stomach again, eager to hurl its contents back to Torhtremer.
Alekhsiy gagged. His brother Mykhayl had warned him of this reaction to journeys across the void. He could master himself. He’d done his duty before after a night’s carousing. Surely this couldn’t be any worse.
But the next time I accept a quest to cross the void, hoping to see my little dancer, remind me what an idiot I am, Mother of All Life. No matter how great the temptation to just once catch a closer glimpse of she who’s brought me so much joy and peace before unimaginable trials over the long years.
His stomach heaved another objection but he forced it back. An odd handle on the box’s side offered him a grip and he pulled himself onto unsteady feet.
Large metal pots stood to his left, while the faceless wall protected his right and back. The paving beneath him was almost flat, unlike cobblestones, but its treacherous cracks caught at his boots.
The vortex snapped shut, booming like a gigantic thunderclap directly overhead, and chopped off the knives cutting into him. The sky disappeared into a few patches of clear, cloudless blue, in-between the army of gray stone buildings eager to grasp it.
Alekhsiy dared to take a single breath, testing his lungs’ limits.
Heavy metal crashed into more metal somewhere close by, crumpling like paper. No such noise had ever been heard in his father’s forge.
Alekhsiy promptly dropped into a battle crouch, every nerve coming alert to face such a catastrophe’s source.
More metal screeched and a foul burnt odor erupted nearby. A cacophony of horns sounded, completely unlike the sweet music of huntsmen.
Somebody yelled, “Watch where you’re going, idiot!”
A woman screamed back, proving Alekhsiy could understand even the foulest of language, thanks to his sister-in-law’s spell. At least he didn’t have to worry whether the speaker was alive and well. Her lungs were undoubtedly in fine fettle.
He swallowed hard and straightened up. He was a graduate of Torhtremer’s finest military academy and a veteran of the Great Wars. He would walk, even though his legs were weaker than water-soaked straw. He had a quest to perform.
Thanks be to the Horned Goddess that he’d arrived safely. When he returned home, he’d sacrifice a hundred baskets of star lilies to the Lady. His amber amulet would blaze the way, thanks to its soaking in dragon’s blood and spell bindings.
He patted it fondly, reminding himself of its protective warmth, even through his festival tunics and chain mail.
But the cloth was cold.
“By all the gods . . .”
Alekhsiy tore open his tunic and pulled out the carved pendant. An inert lump of rock lay in his hand, little more than brown streaked with gold, and cold to the touch. It should have been crystal clear, with flames leaping through its center, and hotter than a lantern’s globe.
It held no magic and could not take him home.
A knife stabbed him hard and fast in the heart, more brutal than any endured during the wars. He gritted his teeth against the shout of denial rising in his throat. Never again to swim in the western rivers under the high waterfalls, dandle a niece or nephew on his knee, or wrestle with Mykhayl . . .
How many times had he been warned death would be an easier price to pay than what this quest might demand? His throat tightened. May the gods be gracious unto him and forgive his prior disbelief.
There were only two ways to recharge the precious wizard’s amulet. The easiest would require a longer lifespan than both he and his son could offer. The other? He might as well beg Chaos’s gray gods for a miracle.
But he could still do his duty—find the enemy and stop him on this side of the void. No matter where that left him personally.
He slowly turned around again. The dragon Khyber had promised he’d arrive at the closest place in space and time to the enemy and the key to the lock, which guarded the gate back to Torhtremer against their foe.
Where should he start?
Moisture filled the air, aching with the heaviness of heat unbroken by any rain for far too long. It beaded on the metal pipes edging the wall and lurked in the mold glistening along the bricks. It hunted every fold of his festival wear, slipping between his linen outer tunic and into his chain mail’s links, pressing down on his lungs.
An angry river was moving quickly past in the distance, creating a loud, dull roar. A few horns sounded there, too, but not many.
How had his sensitive sister-in-law survived so many years here? No wonder she’d accepted Torhtremer so quickly. The High King’s palace offered far more joys than this.
A shoulder-high ledge rose next to the large metal bin, cutting off the entire alley’s rear. A single door shimmered in the darkness behind it.
Small wagons without horses or oxen—called cars, according to the spell—and larger wagons, known as trucks, were crawling through the street beyond the alley. Men and women walked past in an odd assortment of breeches and short skirts, most carrying heavy packages. A few pushed tall, wheeled ladders that were heavily laden. Many glanced at him then looked away without speaking, despite the obvious differences in their attire.
He needed to move on quickly before somebody questioned him.
Torhtremer’s great patrons had bestowed on him two guides for his quest. Khyber, the Imperial Dragon, had given him a golden serpent with a ruby head and a long, forked tongue looping around and around his finger to lead him to the enemy. Svetlhana, the Imperial Tigress, had granted him a silver tiger twisting over itself, as if playing with its paws and tail, to light the path to the key. But magical gifts, especially from that pair, always had their own goals, which rarely matched their wearer’s.
Would this work? How much choice did he truly have? His mouth twisted wryly.
“Show me the fastest road to my prey.” Alekhsiy cupped his hands and blew on the two rings, choosing the simplest method to summon their magic. Otherwise, they’d signal him when and how they chose.
Instantly, two narrow beams flashed into the darkness behind the ledge. They lingered on the door for an instant then winked off.
Couldn’t they have sent him into the city, where he could defend himself against enemies? Not a dark, cavernous fortress with no room to swing his axe or sword?
The silver tiger lit up again, returning the alley to noontime brightness.
“By the Red God of War, of course I will enter it!” He hastily covered the ring with his other hand.
It faded into a steadily pulsing glow and he shook his head. Gods willing, no one would notice anything was amiss.
Alekhsiy braced both hands on the ledge and heaved himself up. An instant later, having heard no noise coming from behind the door, he turned the knob and walked in, his hand on his dagger.