“And what might that be?” Cynaco asked.
“You have to let me return to Welnaru,” Karu said.
Cynaco studied her in silence for almost a whole minute. “Why do you need to return?” he asked.
“I have promises that I must keep. Small things that need to be wrapped up. Gifts that must be given and traditions carried on. You may be planning for these people to die, but that doesn’t eliminate what I owe them,” Karu said. She met his gaze, hoping he would accept her statement. “I have no love for the Dohlo. I hate them for what they have done and for the way that they have treated my people. My people did not deserve that.”
“You speak of them very affectionately for being so long alone,” Cynaco said.
“I still think there are people there worth helping. And Vry told me I can’t save everyone. I accept that. I never said that I could. But if I could have just a couple more days to go and make sure that I have righted any wrongs I may have done and paid back kindness to those I can, I would appreciate it very much. I might even be able to do it in one. And if you let me do that, then I will return. Though I would prefer another entrance away from the spiders.”
Cynaco smiled. “Yes. They do make things rather exciting for intruders.” He nodded then. “Very well.”
“And Vry. He should be allowed to decide where he goes?”
“You are asking for a great deal.”
“It would be helpful if he could come with me, so long as he’s willing.” Karu suspected that she might not be able to get sufficient warnings out within the time she would be given. Vry might prove useful in that regard.
“He is yours to do with as you like. But.” Cynaco held up his finger, leaning forward so that he was inches from her face. “If you tell him what I am planning, then I will punish you severely. Do you understand?”
His breath struck her face, malice lacing his words. Karu stared straight into his eyes. “I understand perfectly.”
“Very well then. Come with me.” He led her from the fungal garden to another room a few halls away. It was clean with sky blue tiles, a pearly dais, and a lectern with a large book on it. The only items were bottles, jars, and vials stored on shelves four feet off the ground. Then Karu noticed her pack sitting in the corner as if it had been waiting for her.
“Since I would rather you not go insane, I will prepare something special for you. Small portals can be created in certain locations where the barrier is already exceptionally weak, and one of those locations is actually within the Red Flower Inn. Room 310 to be precise.” He smiled thinly. “And I will not send you back unprotected.”
He removed a grey vial from the shelf. A claw and arching symbol had been etched into its side. Holding it close to his mouth, he cupped his hand to it and spoke into it, the words from a language Karu did not recognize. He then removed the cork. A grey cloud rushed out, billowing and expanding. Lightning cracked within it, and a loud growling commenced. Stepping back, Karu watched, uncertain what this was becoming.
Within thirty seconds, it had grown to be eight feet tall. Long legs and pointed ears formed and claws slashed out of the cloud. Then in a final burst of energy, the cloud exploded outward and left a bipedal warg in the center of the floor. It growled and shook its head, saliva dripping from its mouth.
“This is a spirit warg,” Cynaco said. “Most can’t see it, but you can. No one else in Welnaru will be able to see him though. He’s going to make sure that you’re safe.”
Karu suspected it was for far more than that. “That really isn’t necessary.”
“I say that it is. You’ve been doing some very odd things in Raborki. How can you be certain that you won’t face some sort of trouble?” Cynaco said it so sincerely that if she hadn’t just heard him say that he was going to destroy her whole country, she might have believed he cared.
“I guess…” Karu stared at the warg. “What do I feed it?”
“Oh he doesn’t have to eat. Not anything that you can provide. This is another creation of the masata.” Cynaco flipped open the book and ran his finger down the column. “You will have two days at most. If you decide to leave, you need only tell the warg to take you home. He will do so immediately. If he becomes suspicious of you or believes that you are going to break your word, he will bring you back as well. Also, Vry will be sent elsewhere. I haven’t decided where, but you can leave the instructions for how you want him to carry out whatever it is that you do not finish. If you return and behave as you are expected, I will bring him back before the barrier falls and the masata is torn from the rift. Otherwise, he will die with all the rest.”
“But—” Karu started.
“Argue with me on this any further, and I will end this entire arrangement,” Cynaco said sternly. The anger that flashed in his eyes was so intense that Karu fell back a step. She nodded. “Good,” he said.
She drew in a deep breath. This decision had been the best one. If she had refused him, she doubted that he would have sent her back. There would have been too much risk of her revealing his plan. His decision to not let Vry join her was exceptionally telling. Despite his claim of enjoying time with her and wanting to see where time took them, she had no doubts that he would happily kill her.
“I don’t like being cross with you, but you need to stop being difficult. This all may be very confusing and alarming, but that does not make you qualified to question me without ceasing.”
“Good.” Cynaco removed a jar from the shelf, opened the lid, and removed a pinch of purple dust. “Now then…” He cast it out. Briefly the air shimmered, then it flashed purple. A thin line appeared. “Walk through and you will be back in Room 310 at the Red Flower Inn.”
Karu nodded. She started forward, then halted just before the line. “Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate this chance.”
Cynaco returned the nod, stiffening slightly as if he had not expected to be thanked. “Remember what I said. One word spoken to your slave and you will both be punished.”
“I won’t forget. Though I do have one more question.” She picked up her pack and slipped it over her shoulder.
“What?” Cynaco said sharply. His breath hissed through his teeth.
“What’s the warg’s name?”
A look of disbelief passed over his features. “What’s the—he’s a spirit warg. He doesn’t have a name!”
“I was just wondering.” Karu strode through. The purple light flashed around her and an odd sensation rushed through her body as if she was falling. Then, just as abruptly, it stopped, and she stood in the corner of the room next to the fireplace. The warg stood beside her, unblinking.
Karu sank onto the floor and held her head. Her temples pounded with urgency, each throb reminding her that she had two days to settle this. Two days to figure out a way to warn everyone without the Dohlo killing her and without the warg dragging her back. The warg’s heavy breaths emphasized the tenuousness of her situation. And Cynaco was right that she had made quite a spectacle of herself. But she had succeeded in the first part of her plan. Now she just needed to come up with the rest.
There was, however, a couple small things that she could do. She stood and gestured toward the warg. “Come on. If you’re going to go with me though, I’ll need to give you a name. Do you have a preference?”
The warg stared at her. He growled low in his throat.
“I feel like since we’re going to be spending time together that you should have a name, but you probably wouldn’t like our typical dog names out here. They aren’t especially imaginative, and you are a warg after all. I could call you Lovely.” She smiled.
The warg’s eyes narrowed. It growled again.
So he did understand. “Temperance then.” Another growl. His hackles lifted. “I suppose you’d like something a little more ferocious like Gulla Meor, which is a fancy way of saying Slayer of Mortals, Devourer of Souls.”
The warg’s ears pricked up. His tail wagged slightly, then stopped.
“Ah, there we go. You like that.” Karu grinned. Maybe there was a way to make this work out. “Well, come on Gulla Meor. You’re probably going to find this boring, but I need to take care of some things.”
The spirit warg followed her down the staircase. More coughs descended upon Karu. She shielded her mouth with her fist, then wiped it on her cloak.
“My goodness, dear, that cough is getting worse.” Ms. Bren strode out from the hall. Her gait was a little stiffer, but her smile was just as wide. “Why don’t you let me make you something hot to drink? No charge.”
“Maybe in a bit.” Karu fished her pouch out and removed a few of her coins. “I’m only going to be here a couple more days, and I just wanted to thank you. You’ve been an excellent host. I always look forward to coming here because everyone’s so friendly. But you especially. I know this isn’t much, but it’s a little way that I can say thank you.”
“Well that’s very kind of you.” Ms. Bren smiled, tears shining in her eyes. She accepted the coins and put them in her pocket. “It’s always good to hear. If there’s anything else I can do for you, do let me know. And when you get back, I’ll send that tea up to your room.”
“Thank you.” Karu cleared her throat again, then turned and left.
The rain was still pouring, the storm shifters still working. A few greeted her while others watched suspiciously. One called out, “what strange thing are you up to today?”
“Just some social calls. Nothing too exciting.” Karu was surprised that they weren’t acting worse. She made it a point to smile at all of them. This shift was probably nearing the end of its time and a new set would soon be there in slick dry trench coats and wide-brimmed hats. Because of their efforts, the waters had not risen past the planks. It was remarkable how hard they worked, and all without complaining and little notice. She turned, her hands tucked under her cloak. “Hey!” She waited until they looked up. “Thank you. Just for everything. You’ve done a lot of good work here.”
They looked at her like she had lost her mind, and she turned and hurried on without waiting to hear their responses. Her path took her now to the merchant’s. She went to the bakery beside, asked if the clerk knew the merchant’s favorite baked good, and purchased two. When she opened the door, she found him there at the counter. “Ah, the artifact seeker,” he said with a warm smile. “You found it?”
“No, not yet. But I’ve got six days left.” Karu placed the paper wrapped pastry on the countertop. “I wanted to thank you again. Those gloves and that meat saved my life.”
“It is always a privilege to help another,” the merchant said.
“I’m terrible about introducing myself sometimes,” Karu said. “My name is Karu. What’s yours?”
“Balmor.” He smiled though there was still some sadness in it. “I hope that you find the artifact. Is there any other way in which I can help?”
Karu glanced back over her shoulder. “Do you by any chance know anything about masata magic?”
“Masata magic? No. I’m afraid not. Dangerous stuff, masata. It can explode at the slightest jostling if it isn’t gathered properly.”
“I heard it was rather unstable. Someone was talking about a legend.” Karu paused, noticing that the warg was sniffing one of the dried hunks of meat. She pulled her pouch out. “I’ll take a pound of that too before I leave.”
“Excellent choice. It’s been aged and marinated in spirits. Very powerful.” Balmor sliced off the amount plus a little extra and wrapped it as she placed the coins on the counter. “Let me know if there’s anything else.”
“I will.” Karu bid him goodbye then and picked up the package. The warg followed her, breathing heavily.
“Come on, Gulla Meor.” Karu continued around the corner to a small side street. No one was about, and the rushing of the water was it was pulled along and removed masked the sound of her voice. Vry was right that she had judged the spiders too quickly. She hadn’t even tried to find a way to reach them, and maybe there wasn’t. They had been exceptionally threatening right from the start. But she could at least try with this warg. She unwrapped the paper and offered the warg the meat. “You don’t seem to just be spirit. And I’m guessing you’ve got some corporeality or else you couldn’t drag me off. So…would you like some of this?”
The warg’s ears pricked forward, but his eyes narrowed. He then edged forward, more saliva dripping from his mouth.
“You can have it,” Karu said.
The warg licked the meat tentatively, then seized it in his jaws and pulled back. He shook his head and devoured it swiftly.
“There.” Karu grinned. “I wonder why you didn’t just eat it in the shop? Nothing was stopping you. He couldn’t see you, and he wouldn’t have seen you do it because his back was to you.” An idea struck her. She rummaged in her pack once more and pulled out the dried meat. Breaking off a chunk, she held put it on the ground but said nothing.
The warg finished the meat she’d given him, then stared down at the meat on the wood boards. He looked from her to the meat. That longing expression in his eyes was the same as any dog she had ever seen. Then, after a few moments of staring at it, he sniffed it. But he did not lick or touch it.
“You can have it,” Karu said.
The warg at once pounced on the meat. Little bits fell from his mouth.
“I’m guessing you don’t have to have this sort of food to survive, but you like it.” Karu nodded. This was making sense. And since he could have food, that meant she had an even better chance of soothing and befriending him, which meant he might not be so aggressive in enforcing Cynaco’s orders. “All right then, Gella Meor. We’ve got two more stops to make.”
The first stop was in a little flower shop where she bought with a few of her last coins a potted closet lily, a hearty thick leafed plant that could be kept in the dark and whose color changed depending on how much you talked to it and the sound of your voice. From there, she went on to the infirmary. Hjor, though surprised to see her, welcomed her, and he accepted the plant with delight.
“I didn’t expect to see you again,” he said. Then he flushed and cleared his throat. “I mean…” He gripped the clay pot tight.
“It’s all right. I know what you mean.” Karu forced a smile. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I did have some more questions for you if that’s all right.”
“Whatever you like.” Hjor continued to hold the pot. The tips of the leaves flushed turquoise from his words.
“Do you know of any powerful magic practitioners who can use masata energy here in Welnaru?”
“No. I know the last king didn’t want anyone to use it because it was too unstable. Too potent for smaller tasks, too demanding for the larger. Best to leave it where it was, wherever it was.”
“Hmmm.” Karu nodded. “Do you mind if I look at your books?”
Karu got them out and sat in the chair beside the bed. Gulla Meor growled quietly. Karu shot him a chastising look. “I’m really fascinated by all this, you know,” she said for the warg’s benefit. “I always loved books, but there were rarely any around.”
“Books usually bring a great deal of joy. I’m not so sure about mine though.” Hjor chuckled.
“I wish I knew more about magic.”
“Well, there’s not too many that can tell you that. All the minor users are pushed into service, and the Dohlos, well, they don’t really seem to like people talking about the fact that they’re practitioners. Not that it’s punished. But they give you some pretty dark looks these days.” Hjor shifted in the bed. He shook his head. “I think that’s why they have so many wards up in their chambers.”
“What do you mean wards?” Karu asked. She turned the page. In a section of bound and folded paper were additional smaller sheets and a spare pheasant quill.
“Items to ward off magical energy and spells. It’s as if they don’t want anything else to get in there. Which would not make much sense when you consider that they’re probably using their private chambers to practice magic.”
“True…” Karu paused, realizing that it actually did make sense. She had seen many icons, tomes, statues, and charms hanging on the walls of the Dohlo gathering chamber. They had frightened her when she went there with her grandparents and parents to allow each to pay their debt. At the time, she had thought they were cruel reminders of the horrors that the Dohlo could bring upon them. Now she realized it was all about keeping Cynaco away. Cynaco and his magic. Yes! Cynaco only used masata based. The last king had insisted on his practitioners using a variety. No one practiced with masata because the wards prevented it. As she glanced down at the blank page, another idea struck her. “Could I ask a big favor?”
“Of course.” Hjor smiled warmly.
“Could I use some of your writing supplies?”
“Certainly. There’s ink in the cupboard.” Hjor indicated the cupboard where the books had been kept.
“Thank you.” Karu quickly organized the materials and began writing. She titled the top of the document Karu Iitin Syua Last Testament. Then she wrote in a neat printed script, These are the possessions and debts that have yet to be settled. Funds can be accessed in a bank in Per Lidi under the family name Syua. Please see to these matters, Vry. Thank you.
The quill scratched across the page. This had to work. There was a chance that she wouldn’t be able to speak to the Dohlo or that they would kill her before she faced them, but if she did this right, then Vry would know what was going on. Her heart raced faster as the warg peered over her shoulder. She tried to keep writing, pretending not to notice him, but his hot breath made her skin crawl.
Hjor continued to chat with her, and she tried to make amiable chitchat as well even as her pulse soared. It was hard to think of enough small random things that someone like her might possess. But soon she had her message. On the right hand column was a list of random items ranging from buttons promised to a neighbor friend to toothpicks that needed to be replaced to beads that needed to be put in particular boxes. On the left column was the following:
She let the ink finish drying, then folded it. “Thank you, Hjor.” She bid him farewell and left. They had no sooner moved to a side street when the warg seized her and pushed her up against the wall. “Whoa!” she exclaimed.
The warg pulled the parchment out. The air around him grew purple as he passed through.
“What is this?” Cynaco’s voice asked. He sounded distant as if he was at the end of a long tunnel. She couldn’t see him through the portal.
“My testament. It’s the instructions for what Vry is supposed to do with my belongings. Look at the top.” Karu folded her arms tightly over her chest.
“This is highly specific.”
“That’s how my family does it. A family tradition which I feel like I should try to keep given everything. I want to make things as right as I can.” Karu sighed. “Where did you send him anyway?”
“He’ll get there. Eventually.” Cynaco grew silent. Then the pages rustled. “Aside from being exceptionally anal, I don’t see anything wrong with any of this. I’m sure he will find endless amusement counting out all of these glass beads and identifying the proper shades.”
The warg reappeared with the parchment in paw. Karu took it back, giving the warg a chastising glare. “You could have asked me,” she said sternly.
The warg flicked his ears back.
“It’s not like I want to die, all right?” Karu put the parchment in her pack, then sighed. “It’s getting late. Let’s get some food.”
Though she sounded calm, her insides churned. Cynaco might not have kept his word. After all, he didn’t seem to like Vry much. The fact that she didn’t know where Vry was or how far away disturbed her even more. There was no way to confirm anything, and her knowledge needed to be passed on. Even though Cynaco had only said that she could not tell Vry, she suspected he had meant to say that she was not to tell anyone.
Ms. Bren greeted her warmly as always, and Karu gave her the parchment, explaining that Vry would be returning at some point and she needed to make sure that he received it. Ms. Bren agreed to deliver it. Karu then ordered dinner for herself and the warg, paying extra so that they could eat in their room.
Once they were alone in 310, she pushed the platter of stew to the warg. His nose twitched as he watched her. “You can have it,” she said.
The warg pounced on it, devouring it in great gulps. Karu ate her meal much slower. The Dohlo always met at night. If she could get past the first gate, the wards might be enough to keep the warg from following her through at first. She’d have to enter deeper though if she wanted to be protected for longer. But if she could get the words out, even a few minutes might be sufficient.
Karu’s stomach sank. She’d be caught by someone after that. Who would do the catching was the point on which she wasn’t entirely sure. There really wasn’t any way out. But if she wanted to make sure that the warning got through, she had to do this. Her appetite vanished, and she pushed the platter of stew over to the warg. “You can have it,” she said softly.