In Cindy Dees and Bill Flippin’s The Sleeping King our intrepid adventurers found the imprisoned echo of a long lost king on the Dream Plane. He told them how to wake him in the mortal realm: find his lost regalia–crown, ring, sword, shield, and bow–and rejoin them with his sleeping body.
In The Dreaming Hunt, the heroes begin their quest. But they’ve caught the attention of powerful forces determined to stop them. Worse, their visit to the Dream Plane has unleashed chaos, and the fight is spilling over into the mortal realm.
They frantically outrun old enemies and pick up new ones: imperial hunters, a secret cabal of mages, a criminal league, and a changeling army. Are they just pawns in larger political dramas, or are they crystallizing into the nucleus of a rebellion? Can they find the regalia necessary to wake the Sleeping King before they are utterly destroyed?
The Dreaming Hunt will become available September 27th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
He was a fraud. Even his name, Will Cobb, was a lie. If any of the soldiers lounging around the common room knew who he really was, they’d arrest him in a heartbeat and put him to permanent death … or worse. Why hadn’t his father or grandfather warned him that hiding in plain sight from the Empire would turn out to be such a nerve-racking business?
He might feel safer if his friends were aware of his deception. But for their protection he had to keep up the charade even for them. It was exhausting. It was also becoming increasingly dangerous. He’d caught other people’s attention now. Powerful people. Some of whom would, without hesitation, destroy him and his companions to prevent them from succeeding in their quest.
Will glared around the common room of the Heart building out of general principles. He did not like tonight’s business in the guild of healers, and he made no effort to hide his distaste for the proceedings. But desperate times called for desperate action.
Their nemesis, the deposed governor, Anton Constantine, was on the loose and would do everything in his power to take revenge against them. Not only had they been instrumental in ousting Anton but they’d stolen the treasure the greedy noble coveted above all else right out from under his nose. For that, he would pursue them to the ends of Urth and obliterate them.
Anton thought they’d found gold. But they’d found something much more valuable—memory of a legendary king who could stand against the ex-governor’s precious Kothite Empire. Of course, Will and his companions still had to find a way to wake the Sleeping King before Anton destroyed all memory of him. Or destroyed them.
It wasn’t that he worried for himself, even though he was no doubt Anton’s main target. But Rosana … he worried about her.
He was still furious with the gypsy healer for giving up a piece of her spirit to save his life in their desperate flight from the Sleeping King’s lair. She knew to keep her spirit firmly where it belonged and not to tempt fate by ripping out part of hers and using it in a manner for which it was never intended.
Not that he was in any position to cast stones at her for doing the unnatural. He fingered the thumb-sized wooden disk grown firmly onto his chest. No sane person voluntarily carried around a tree spirit inside himself, either. Of course, he was grateful to Rosana for her sacrifice. She’d stabilized the unnatural union of his spirit with Lord Bloodroot’s. Which was a boon. For weeks before her stunt, he had hovered on the ragged edge of death.
Now that he was not continuously nauseated and violently ill, High Matriarch Lenora wanted to attempt a ritual to transfer the shard of Rosana’s spirit from him back into the gypsy girl where it belonged. He was all for the transfer. But he could not help being suspicious of the whole business of high magic. Forest bred and humbly raised, these fancy magics were foreign to him. They smacked of the Empire with all its wealth and power. Or mayhap that was Bloodroot speaking. It was becoming increasingly difficult to separate his thoughts and feelings from those of the irascible truant.
Torches guttered in their sconces every time the Heart building’s door opened, casting hellish light into the corners of the wide, low-ceilinged common room. Two burly Royal Order of the Sun guardians—charged with defending the Heart, its healers, and most importantly, its resurrection Heartstones—stood guard while High Matriarch Lenora painstakingly laid out five large, overlapping circles of colored silk rope upon the floor. The braided ropes were marked with intricate signs that helped shape and focus the powerful magical energies summoned in rituals. Each circle would call and contain a particular flavor of magic. As the high matriarch wasn’t entirely certain what she was doing this night, she was calling upon many types of magic all at once.
Which was not reassuring. The whole notion of “exploring” a way to restore Rosana’s spirit made him twitchy. A ritual like this had never been attempted, and no scroll of instruction existed for such a thing. Lenora was making it up as she went. Which likely passed beyond desperate into foolhardy.
At least Raina was going to be present in case things did not go well. Another member of their little party of adventurers, she’d sought the Sleeping King for reasons of her own. Her magical skills were considerable. She was an arch-mage in the making and could heal a small village single-handedly. He had faith, given the sheer volume of spirit magic she could summon, that Raina would keep them all alive through this ritual.
Still, his gut rumbled that the whole thing was a load of glittering unicorn dung. He was half-tempted to storm out and leave them to their smoky mirrors and useless spells. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in magic. By the Void, he was rapidly becoming a formidable caster himself.
It did not alleviate his doubts and concerns one bit that Guildmaster Aurelius himself had come out of his hallowed guildhall to consult with Lenora over the particulars of casting tonight’s ritual.
Bloodroot had been able to take the piece of Rosana’s spirit without any fancy rituals. Surely, the tree lord could give it back if he so chose. And the whoreson had better so choose if he and Will no longer had need of Rosana’s spirit to stay alive. Gruff humor rumbled somewhere deep in his belly. Will cursed back at the truant silently.
He should take Bloodroot back to the Forest of Thorns from whence he came and get rid of him once and for all. Of course, there was the small problem of the enraged tribe of orcs who called the Forest of Thorns home. The Boki. Will-self’s lip curled in hatred of the cursed orcs who’d murdered his parents. But the other self trapped within him, the Bloodroot-self, reacted fondly to thought of the Boki, who revered him. Bah. Orc scum.
Lord Bloodroot was one of the thirteen tree lords of the Great Circle. Or at least he had been until the other tree lords turned on him and hacked his tree to bits. Bloodroot’s spirit, housed in one of those bits of the great bloodthorn tree’s heartwood, had nearly killed Will before Rosana pulled her healing trick a few weeks back.
Will glanced over fondly at the gypsy, where she conversed in whispers with Raina. The two healers had grown close in their mutual efforts to keep him alive while they completed their quest. They’d found King Gawaine, or at least a dreaming echo of him, not surprisingly in the dream realm. Will was still not entirely clear on how extra-planar spaces existed, but he’d seen the evidence of one such place with his own eyes.
Apparently, he and his companions now needed to find the Sleeping King’s regalia and his physical body on this plane if they were to actually wake him. But those problems could wait for another day. First, they had to get Rosana’s spirit back where it belonged.
Raina’s blond hair shone pale in contrast to the gleaming sable of Rosana’s as they giggled at some joke. As if the gypsy felt his gaze upon her, Rosana looked up just then and smiled at him, her big, dark eyes worried. His irritation softened somewhat. If this cursed ritual would fix her, he would play nice and cooperate. And if it made her smile at him, all the better.
Rosana stepped wide around the ritual circles and rested her hand surreptitiously upon his forearm. Warmth and a feeling of rightness spread through him at her simple touch.
She murmured, “How do you feel today?”
“Fine. Whatever healing you did to me in that cave holds steady.”
“You will tell me immediately if you begin to weaken or sicken again, yes?”
That must have been at least the hundredth time she’d said that exact same thing to him. “Of course. I’m an open book to you, sweet gypsy rose.”
She gave his shoulder a playful swat. “On the verge of a deadly ritual and still you flirt with me? You’re incorrigible, Will Cobb.”
“Only with you, Rosie.”
She smiled up at him, a warm sparkle in her gaze. “What am I to do with you?”
“Love me always and never leave me.”
“Always and never,” she whispered back.
Her characterization of the forthcoming magic belatedly struck him. “Exactly how deadly is yon ritual?” he demanded abruptly.
She shrugged, but a shadow passed through her eyes. “Well, of course, there’s always a small risk of a flaw in the outcome. Or…,” she trailed off.
“Or what?” he demanded.
“Or a backlash,” she mumbled.
“What sort of—”
He broke off as a commotion erupted at the door. The Royal Order of the Sun guards admitted the shining, golden-skinned solinari—sun elf—Aurelius. It was a wet, blustery night, but the rain and wind did not seem to have touched his impeccable presence.
Rosana took advantage of the distraction to glide away from Will’s side. Avoiding answering his question about backlashes, no doubt.
“Welcome, Guildmaster,” the high matriarch greeted him formally.
Aurelius bowed back courteously in the elven fashion, remarking, “I see the circles are prepared. I brought you the magical components you requested.” He held out a cloth bag, which Lenora passed to Raina. “And here is the other thing we spoke of.” He pulled a leather tube from the folds of his cloak that Will recognized as a scroll holder. It looked old. Desiccated. Lenora took the case with a word of thanks, handling it with extreme care.
“A moment with you in private, High Matriarch?” Aurelius murmured.
Will frowned. He knew that tone of voice. The elf wanted to talk about secret things. And Will would bet all the gold he owned it had to do with tonight’s ritual. What hadn’t Aurelius told him about this casting? Will’s gaze shot to Rosana smiling and chatting with Raina inside the ritual circle, and his gut clenched in sharp fear.
The high matriarch and Aurelius slipped out of the common room and into a small office. In quick decision, Will made his way unobtrusively to the kitchen and, when no one was looking, darted into the pantry beside the office. He climbed on a barrel and pressed his ear to a thin spot high on the wall.
Lenora was speaking. “Just how dangerous is it?”
Aurelius answered carefully in the tone he used when he was avoiding a subject, “—am worried that both of their spirits are unstable. You do not know much of Will—”
“I have a good idea exactly who he is, old man.”
Will was shocked to hear her take that tone with his guildmaster.
“You cannot possibly—” Aurelius started.
“You forget that I am an Imperial genealogist. By his skills alone I could guess who Will Cobb really is, even if he were not the spitting image of his father at that age. For that matter, I know who his mother was, as well.”
“You do?” Aurelius sounded shocked.
A pause. Then, her voice low enough that Will had to hold his breath to hear her, Lenora murmured, “The Heart has tracked the pastoral line of Serica’s family for generations, for the same reasons we have tracked the Delphi line.”
Will all but fell off the barrel. Lenora knew who he was? And she had not turned him in to the Empire? Could she be trusted with this knowledge or not?
Aurelius hissed in a sharp breath. “We must have a long chat about this after tonight’s ritual is concluded. I will be fascinated to hear what else you can tell me of young Will’s parentage.”
A lengthy silence stretched out. Will heard noise behind him as if someone might be headed for the pantry, and he scrambled down to look busy. The footsteps retreated across the kitchen, and he hastily resumed his listening post on the barrel.
“—about the piece of Rosana’s spirit that is trapped within the boy?” Lenora was asking.
A heavy sigh. “He collects too much of others’ spirits within him. I am concerned that Will is becoming a vessel. I have seen this before with Tarses, and it did not go well. Will is no more meant to carry around these energies within him than the general was meant to hold that ice elemental.”
He’d heard of General Tarses, of course. Everyone had. The bards sang tales of his conquests all the time. Tarses conquered the elemental continent, Pan Orda, for Koth and was attacked in his moment of victory by the lord of ice, an elemental creature called the Hand of Winter. The general had survived the attack and returned home in triumph, only to die in battle soon after, if the songs were to be believed. A tragic end for a great man.
The high matriarch was speaking again. “—you have any idea the potential of the children you’ve thrown together?”
“That would be the point,” Aurelius replied dryly. “Who else could possibly succeed at the task we have set for them?”
“Do they have any idea?”
“No. And it must stay that way. They must continue to believe they are just normal youths. They must not in any way call the wrong attention to themselves. Everything depends on it. Everything.”
“You have put a great load on young and untried shoulders, Guildmaster.”
“Believe me, I wish it were not necessary. But there is no one else up to the task.” A pause. “We need to get that shard of Rosana’s spirit out of Will before we send them into the wilderness once more. Otherwise, he risks losing himself to the alien spirits within him. It is the only reason I am allowing this ritual to proceed.”
Lenora sounded amused when she answered, “The last time I checked, this is my house.”
Will heard footsteps retreating from the office, and he hurried out of the pantry, as well. He slipped back into the kitchen just as one of the Royal Order of the Sun guardians poked his head into the room. “There you are, boy. High matriarch’s looking for you.”
Will grabbed a sausage roll off the long table and followed the big man docilely back into the common room, but his thoughts whirled. What was a pastoral line? Who had his mother really been before she’d become the humble wife of a cobbler in a muddy little village on the edge of nowhere? He knew she was a talented scout and a skilled archer. And unfortunately, he’d seen firsthand that she knew how to use alchemical gas poisons. She’d used a fear gas to force him to flee his parents the night they’d died at the hands of the Boki. Of course, his father had been the greatest battle mage in Dupree and leader of the colony’s Celestial Order of the Dragon before he’d fallen afoul of Anton Constantine and become a fugitive.
What of the coming ritual? Would the piece of Rosana’s spirit inside him ultimately harm him? So far it had done nothing but improve his health radically. But would it stay that way if this ritual failed?
As he moved to stand beside her, Rosana shook her head at the bun in his fist. “You’re hungry at a time like this? My stomach is doing flips and flops. I could not possibly eat.”
Not far from the circles on the floor, Aurelius took a seat in a comfortable chair someone brought for him. Will had argued heatedly with the guildmaster—also his adopted grandfather—over this ritual, insisting instead on returning to the Forest of Thorns to seek a solution less dangerous to Rosana. But Aurelius had been adamant that he was not going to risk his only grandson’s life, nor the gypsy girl’s, on the questionable hospitality of the Boki. Aurelius believed the Boki would just as soon kill Will and cut Bloodroot’s disk off his chest. Truth be told, he reluctantly agreed with his grandfather.
“How dangerous could a ritual backlash be?” he asked Rosana low as a waiting quiet settled over the room.
She winced. “If we were lucky, you and I would only die and have to resurrect. But with both of the casters’ experience, I’m sure we will be fine.”
“Both?” he asked, surprised.
“Well, yes. Raina will assist Lenora. She can perform high magic and summon more magic than everyone in this room combined. The high matriarch would be silly not to let her help with the casting, just in case…”
He finished the thought in his own mind. Just in case something went terribly wrong and they needed to power through the ritual by brute force—or in case Raina had to restore them all to life. A deep sense of foreboding washed over him as he stared at the overlapping circles on the floor. This wasn’t even foolhardy. It was insane.
The high matriarch called from across the room, “We are ready, Will and Rosana. Let us begin.”
Raina stepped reluctantly into the small area where all five circles overlapped. This moment represented everything she’d tried so hard to avoid in her life. Ever since she’d shown massive talent as a healer, other people had been trying to fashion her into a tool for their own uses. She’d run away from home, given up her noble rank, her family, even her identity, for a chance to forge her own path in the world.
Ending up in the Heart had not been ideal, but landing in the White Heart had been a stroke of luck. It was the pacifist, diplomatic order within the healer’s guild and enjoyed close protection by the Royal Order of the Sun. Her White Heart colors allowed her to move freely and in relative safety wherever she chose to roam.
The White Heart was known for dabbling in politics, which suited her purposes, as well. And it had the added benefit of making her untouchable by those who would have co-opted her power for their own ends. The downside was that she nominally served the Kothite Empire, which she despised. It was an uncomfortable arrangement at best. But life was turning out to be fraught with arrangements that left her less than thrilled
“Get comfortable,” the high matriarch instructed her, Will, and Rosana. “This may take a while.”
Will sat on a narrow stool a Royal Order of the Sun guardian brought forward. Rosana perched beside him on another. On a small table between her and the high matriarch, Raina carefully laid out the magical items whose energies would be drained to help fuel the ritual.
“What’s all that?” Will demanded suspiciously.
Raina answered, “Distilled essencia. Etherium manacles. Spinneret of a veilweaver, threads of an aethercloak. And of course you know this one: sap of an ancient bloodthorn.” She gestured at a small glass tube of liquid, so dark a red it looked nearly black.
The high matriarch pulled Aurelius’s scroll tube out of her sleeve, carefully unrolled an age-stained parchment scroll upon the tiny table, and weighted down its corners with the small stones. Raina read the first few lines and was impressed. It described how to cast a nature circle, from an extremely rare form of magic.
Lenora glanced at her. “Shall we begin?”
Raina was not clear on why the nature circle was necessary. She could see logic in using spirit and curse circles. Rosana could cast both types of magic, and as such, they would be intrinsic to her spirit. The time and glamour circles had more to do with powering the ritual than with specifically helping fix Rosana. But nature? Did it matter to the gypsy somehow? Or was that a nod to the Bloodroot spirit within Will?
One by one, Lenora activated the circles, blending their energies into a dome of magic encompassing all four of them. It would serve to contain the otherwise wild and uncontrollable high magics.
“Once I draw forth the magic from the items on the table, I will begin adding my own magical energies to it. That is when you will start adding your magic to the ritual, Raina.”
“Yes, High Matriarch,” Raina murmured dutifully, privately amused. As if she didn’t know how this worked. She’d been casting high magic since she was a child. She might only be sixteen, but her home in Tyrel seemed a lifetime away. She missed them, her bossy older sister, her little brothers and father, even her domineering mother, who had ultimately driven her to run away from home.
A prickle of energy passed over her skin as the spirit circle activated, adding its energies to the shell around them. Will glanced over at her, and she smiled reassuringly at him. He returned the smile, but the expression did not reach his eyes. She saw his fingers squeeze Rosana’s.
She secretly envied them their young love. It had always been her fondest wish to marry and have a family, but joining the White Heart had pretty much made that impossible. Her childhood sweetheart was still in Tyrel, but she was expected to go wherever the Heart sent her, healing whenever and wherever her skill was needed. It would be hard to settle and have a family while roaming the width and breadth of a continent the size of Haelos.
“Let the magic flow into you as it builds, Will,” Lenora murmured.
He looked as if he sincerely tried to do so. But all of a sudden, the ritual magics were twisting and writhing wildly, whipping around all of them like the tails of angry cats. Not all the circles were activated yet! Would the existing circle magics be enough to contain whatever was going wrong inside them?
Will clawed at the disk upon his chest with his fingernails, even though he knew full well that he could not pry it off his skin. “Bloodroot,” he gasped. “Stop this ritual.”
“We risk a backlash if we stop it now,” Rosana replied nervously.
“He doesn’t want the spirit shard removed. He’s fighting it,” Will panted, obviously in searing pain. “This isn’t right.”
“Heal him,” Lenora ordered Raina, her concentration fully upon the magics she was trying and failing to corral and calm.
It was too dangerous to use common magic inside a shell of ritual magic, so Raina made do with spreading a healing salve on Will’s chest just where the disk attached, its red scars streaking outward from the disk more angrily than usual.
Understanding broke over her as rage flowed out of the disk and into her fingertips, as bright and strong as the magics flailing around their heads. “Bloodroot does not wish for this ritual to continue. He wants the shard of Rosana’s spirit to stay where it is.”
“I would have my healer whole,” Lenora snapped.
She didn’t think Bloodroot gave a care for Rosana’s wholeness or for the high matriarsh’s desires. Which meant this ritual was doomed to failure before it barely got started. All that remained to be seen now was how bad the backlash would be.
Copyright © 2016 by Cindy Dees and Bill Flippin
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