Who—or what—will you become, when the power to rule all is in your hand?
Whoever holds a scepter, rules a gate. Whoever holds the scepter that rules all others, rules the world. A ruthless shadow magi, a cunning thief, a loyal fugitive, and a charming rogue will hunt—and be hunted—for the most powerful object in the land.
But only one hand can hold the scepter—and a legacy of blood follows its grip. Take care in what you desire. Be careful in what you reach for. Beware the House of Scepters.
From the Scroll of Fehl, as written in the thirtieth year of the Sunlight Empire:
When Sher Fehl campaigned to unite the tribes of the lower reaches, he was met with accolades and support from sovereigns far and wide who were tired of the unrest and chaos stemming from those lands. Even Tehrasi, the richest and cruelest kingdom in the Greater Medit region, saw the promise of unifying the chaotic lands that bled into theirs. They gifted Fehl with one of their prized gate scepters to allow him to maintain order of his newly conquered territories. But Tehrasi, ever wicked in its intentions, took something from the new ruler in order to show him his place at the same time.
Sher Fehl’s mind churned with revenge, but the possibility of changing the world stared back at him from the powerful scepter in his hand—a scepter which would enable him to create five gates between his newly aligned territories and allow instantaneous travel between far-flung lands.
Many rulers were puzzled at the initial locations where Fehl chose to erect the five gates gifted by the scepter, and were even more baffled at the inconsequential tribes he chose to consume thereafter. When peace ensued and their kingdoms prospered, most lost interest. They paid little attention when Fehl rewarded lower-class magi with riches and glory, and less attention when he gathered very specific types of magic users to his lands. They ignored completely his proclivity for bearing children far and wide with the most dazzling and powerful magi in the lands.
What no one could ignore were the terrifying abilities he revealed—in both himself and his offspring—when he came years later for their blood drenched lands.
With little resistance, far too late for any kingdom to mount an offensive, Sher Fehl’s hardened conquest spread through the entirety of the desert, forest, and sea lands of the sacred peninsula, and continued outward, creating an empire that would grow beyond the wildest of imaginings.
Tehrasi, the jewel of the Greater Medit lands—a kingdom that for centuries had withstood conquest and grown grossly opulent in the richness of its scepters—fell to Fehl’s assault and revenge. The royal family was helpless to prevent the extinction of their line, but in death they managed a single, monumental victory against the new empire—they took the secrets of their powerful scepters to their graves.
When the Tehrasi scepters—and all the gates that had been made from them—refused to answer to a new hand, only a mythical solution remained: to locate the scepter that could reset all the others. An instrument said to corrupt even the lightest of souls, a scepter that men would murder for and die to possess—The Scepter of Darkness would be found.
“Do you understand the power we are discussing?”
Ninli ul Summora forced wisps of enchanted current to encircle her head-to-toe-wrapped, camouflaged body—keeping her back, elbows, and feet adhered to the exterior vertical stones of the second-highest palace turret while she listened to the men arguing vehemently inside the war room.
Nin forcibly relaxed the muscles in her shoulders and bent knees beneath the multi-layered spells and took a deep breath as she looked out at the capital city spread out below in all directions from the palace.
The long freefall that awaited a misstep on her part didn’t make her stomach churn, but the conversation inside the palace did.
In Tehrasi, plots and politics always came back to the infernal scepters.
“With the Scepter of Darkness, you will hold all the power.” False charm oozed from the voice of the head scholar and councilor, Crelu ul Osni, the Scholari of Tehrasi. “Even the emperor will be made to bow.”
“I tire of your promises and your fireside myths.”
The petulant voice made Nin curl her toes into the enchanted stones and adjust her position. She spun an extra layer of magic to keep her body adhered to the turret’s exterior and grimly started weaving a revelation spell.
“It’s no myth, Padifehl,” Osni said. “The gates are failing, and your hold on this country will fail if the gates do.”
“I sit on the throne of the jewel of the empire—I, Etelian ul Fehl, Padifehl of Tehrasi, ruler of the City of a Hundred Gates—and nothing will unseat me. I will execute every gatekeeper who fails. I will execute you, should you overstep further. You are only alive because of previous, false promises, Scholari, and I tire of you.”
If Etelian ul Fehl, Padifehl of Tehrasi, were just a spoiled child, his position would be a problem. But he was a cruel, spoiled child, and his word was law.
“If your gatekeepers die, and if I’m removed, the last of the gates will crumble, for the scepters will be the only thing that hold such power any longer in this land,” Osni said.
If Crelu ul Osni, Scholari of Tehrasi, were a simple scepter scholar, Nin might be empathetic to his concerns. But he was a traitor and his words were poison.
“Your gatekeepers will die,” Osni said. “Then what will you do? The emperor grows weary of the failing gates—all our spies agree—and I will not be the only one punished. You will be whispered of in the halls of the Crown of Sunlight—what will your siblings say of your disgrace?”
“You dare. I will have your h—”
A flash of magic burst through the open stone window to her left. The flash forced her to squint painfully, but didn’t stop her movements. She moved her fingers faster to complete the revelation spell. She needed to see the map beneath Osni’s hand before he bled all over it. Osni played a dark game.
“Oh, dear, poor padifehl. Your ceremonial scepter didn’t much like that attempt of yours,” Osni said, voice darkly satisfied. In ten years, Etelian had never mastered the scepter he had grabbed upon taking the throne. “You need me still.”
“You need me, Osni.” The padifehl’s voice was hot with rage. “Your scepter fails you, as well. I’ve seen it. That thief did something to you. Whatever you’ve been doing for the last decade holds sway no more. Your use is coming to an end.”
“I am not out of tricks.”
But Nin was darkly satisfied to hear the strain underpinning Osni’s voice. Unlike Etelian, she knew how Osni had been powering the gates. Crystal and blood ripped from his possession three months before had ended a decade long masquerade. Without the blood he had stolen from the fallen rulers of Tehrasi, Osni’s use truly was coming to an end.
Nin had made certain of it.
Three vials of blood remained—worn around his neck, disguised as ornamental spikes around the locket he held most dear. When the last drop of king’s blood was shed, when true desperation took hold of him, she’d be there, waiting.
And she would rip that locket from his neck.
“The thief will pay,” Osni promised darkly. “Failures can be wiped away with a single cast of the Scepter of Darkness.”
“The Scepter of Darkness is very real. The man who holds the scepter that resets all other scepters to his bloodline will be the most powerful man in the world. The hand that holds it won’t need any tricks. Think of it in your hands, Padifehl,” the scholari repeated, voice dropping. “Think of what you could do with it. What you could demand from the emperor. Who of the imperial children would be raised in favor then?”
Nin’s fingers itched insidiously at the thought of such potential power in her grasp, while her stomach turned at the thought of it in the hands of the men speaking. She forced herself to take a deep, silent breath and to complete the delicate spell she was weaving.
“You will have the power, and the emperor will recognize that worth,” Osni stressed.
“Where is this scepter, Scholari,” the padifehl said viciously, “that even the royal family of Tehrasi proclaimed a myth?”
“Of course they proclaimed it myth,” Osni answered just as viciously. “It would have cost the Carres their two-hundred-year rule. But now…” Nin could hear the dark curl of pleasure as his voice dropped. “Finally, finally,I will have victory.”
Nin curled her fingers around the finished spell. She would ensure that never happened.
Quickly securing additional wind strands around her waist, she let the revelation spell slip over the windowsill. She fished a crystal sphere from her belt and wrapped the tail of the enchantment around it, then let the threads on the seeking end find the map resting beneath the scholari’s agitated fingers. Smoked wind blew the image of the room, figures, and map inside the crystal sphere in her hand.
Eleven positions were marked on the map. Eleven inbound chariots.
It was the absence of a twelfth marker that lifted a grim smile to her face. That was their chariot, then.
They had one chance at intercepting it. Once the shipment reached the palace, there would be no chance for subterfuge.
She clicked twice on the modified child’s toy attached to the wrap at her waist, and lowered her headband insert with its two flattened spheres. She looked through the enchanted glasses. Roads spread in thousands of crisscrossing directions from the palace down to the hundred gates surrounding the capital city of Tehras—a city teaming with life and energy. Wind enchantments ferried spell-woven khursifas and their passengers along currents from district to district while mechanical conveyances freely navigated streets that had previously been held under the dark hand of the fallen Carre dynasty.
Colorful rooftops—a medley of old and new designs patched together across the city—spread in all directions, and light sparkled on metal adornments used to take in shared magic. A small flock of hand-sized dovedragons darted through the upper currents, testing the city’s pest control forces.
Through the enchanted lenses, Nin could see everything except what lay behind the turret she clung to—and that view, too, was possible with a wisp of spelled wind. Twelve red lights traveled through the city on different routes—their positions glowing in the spelled glass.
When the empire had conquered Tehrasi, they had brought with them a bounty of new inventions and enchantments from all the lands they had claimed, converting the stringent, holy city of Tehras to one brimming with cosmopolitan advancements and delights.
A city that had once relied solely on strict, elite access to the gates that connected them to places near and far was now connected in a far greater way. Districts that had been far from each other as traveled by foot—farther than the coldest or warmest of climates by gate—were now mere ticks of the sun’s path when traveled on wind streams that connected every part of the vast city with paths.
She clicked the instrument on her waist again while watching one of the red lights. Position two, go.
“The Hand has been increasingly active—five thefts in as many days,” one of Osni’s aides said cautiously. “He has spies everywh—”
“I know,” Osni said with dark pleasure. “I want him to try. He will be relieved of those hands, and I will know who is behind the hood and sash.”
“You risk the scepter for revenge?” the padifehl demanded. She could hear Osni’s aides whispering.
More fools, they. Osni would risk anything, everything, for revenge. She grimly pulled down her headband.
“Prize requires sacrifice.” Osni’s voice became maddened. “And I will have it all.”
“You will have it all?” the padifehl said. “I will have it all. Rats and spies—I should kill all of you.”
Nin paused at that, lifting her headband again with tight fingers and gazing into the glass sphere. The enchanted vision of the war room focused on the wall mirror and the displayed image of a man everyone in Tehras knew and feared.
She curled her lip at the padifehl’s state of dishabille—eyes shot with the thin red lines of palmera ingestion, clothes half undone, a vicious set to his features, a woman unconscious on the floor at his feet.
Nin gripped her headband tightly, hatred overwhelming her.
The expressions on the faces of the aides and subordinates in the war room changed from dismayed to terrified. “We would never say anything,” one tripped over himself to say. “We are keeping quiet until the scepter is found. The emperor and elite know nothing of these plans. Surely—”
“The scepter is the last chance for all of you,” Etelian ul Fehl said, mouth viciously twisted in pleasure. “I will kill you if you fail to accomplish what you promise, Scholari.”
Nin touched the cold, iron blade of the dagger at her waist. The Sunlight Empire—named from the crown that sat upon the emperor’s head—had brought many wonderful things to Tehrasi, but they had left behind the scholarly rat who had served the royal family he murdered, and installed Etelian ul Fehl, second son of the emperor, upon the throne as Padifehl of Tehrasi.
Those two appointments, Nin would never forgive. And to wipe them from her country, she would do anything. A decade after a change in rule, Tehrasi stood on a summit. Anything could tip it—to the cruelty of the past or the progress and hope that Nin so desperately desired.
Until she could remove Etelian ul Fehl and Crelu ul Osni permanently, she would continue to disrupt the state of affairs in Tehrasi.
A shadow broke through the grove below, breaking Nin’s dark thoughts.
“All in service of you, Padifehl, as my binding oath guarantees.” The scholari’s voice turned falsely obsequious—his greatest asset. “All for you, I can assure—”
Nin secured her goggles for flight, unsealed her upper body from the wall, and tucked the globe into the band strapped around her hips. She spread her arms, unsealed her hips and feet, and pushed off into a dive.
In the shadowed sweep of the palace banners as she dove, she watched the guards check their sand dials, eager to swap shifts and fly to the night bazaars.
The ground rushed to meet her, then enchanted wind did the same.
Wind encircled her and cast a reflection of the surroundings around her diving body. The ground rushed closer and she pulled her arms in sharply, using the momentum to flip herself. A gust of wind pushed upward, slowing her descent, and an unnaturally fast-moving object shot through the sacred grove of the palace on a perfectly executed intercept course.
Nin landed on the soft padding of woven linen and silk. A snakelike strap immediately wrapped up and secured her as the khursifa shot through the trees without pause. A steadying hand reached back, and Nin laughed in her sister’s ear and held on. With the crystal sphere pressed between them, they banked hard right and swerved out of the grove and into the southern wind gust of District Two, nearly taking out five other khursifas in order to swerve and catch the east current to District Five.
Strips of linen rippled on the breeze as they caught a cross-sectional spell and Nin activated the fibers beneath them that Taline had painstakingly spelled and enchanted, reinforcing each with specific magic.
She paused momentarily as old memories infused her. Scepters, power, horrid rulers, and secrets—revenge, intrigue, and erasing the legacy of Tehrasi…
You’ll never wield my scepter, little maggot.
“You’ll never cease giving me heart palpitations!”
Nin shoved old memories where they belonged and laughed at her sister’s words, firmly gripping the liberation offered by newer, better memories—late-night, insane khursifa rides with people who would never leave you, no matter the misfortune of your birth.
“Stop enjoying yourself,” Taline demanded over her shoulder.
Nin smiled and held on.
The wind from the crisscrossing traffic of flying khursifas brushed her cheeks. Imperial red and black banners trimmed in gold gently lifted in the winds along the streets. Enchanted lamps cheerfully dotted thousands of living quarters stacked five high on both sides of the street as the road sloped gently downward to one of the hundred gates that Tehrasi’s capital city was famous for.
“It’s a trap and you know it. You are sure the target is in play?” Taline asked.
“Osni hopes to accomplish two things tonight—revenge and triumph. Our target is on the board. The chariot from Nohr wasn’t on the map.”
“I knew it,” Taline said darkly. “There was no reason for you to take the risk of going to the palace.”
“Osni is confident that he killed everyone who knew the palace’s eavesdropping enchantments, and it has made him foolish enough to think that keeping the Fehls out is more important than keeping out vengeful spirits of the dead,” Nin said as they headed for the predetermined point and tucked the spying ball into Taline’s pocket. “We’ll take the chariot en route. Drop me on that roof there.”
The tap on Taline ul Summora’s shoulder was her only warning as Nin dove from the khursifa, rolling onto a rooftop.
Taline resisted the urge to grab Nin again—her sister in everything but blood—and make for a gate instead. Resisted the need to leave this cursed city and find an oasis in the desert or a juniper house in the forest—to wrap Nin in thick cotton and create a quiet life away from the intrigues of the empire, the unabated guilt, and the harsh memories of the past.
She took a deep breath and did none of those things. Nin would be fine. She always was.
Taline took solace in repeating the litany. Nin had been fine when she had dragged Taline’s broken body from a cage of fire four years ago—rescuing a nameless girl in need of help—and patched her up, giving her a home, a name in the empire’s new naming scheme, and a purpose. Nin had been fine when she had single-handedly wrecked the scholari’s estate with no casualties. She had been fine when she’d crushed the blood vials the scholari had been using to control the gates. She had been fine when she had rescued twenty civilian rioters last week from the padifehl’s guards and prison.
She had been fine when she had—
Taline swallowed. Nin would always be fine. Taline had to believe that.
Taline kept her cloth-covered gaze on the younger girl sprinting across rooftops. She watched as Nin nimbly landed and rolled, drawing a hand along her midsection, turning her clothing from multi-colored-stone camouflage to black, as she slipped between the soft shadows cast by the bright lights of the night market.
Nin would be fine.
A thin white sash appeared around her black-clad wrist, trailing behind in the breeze of flight. A taunt. A mark. A statement. Nin wanted the scholari to know who robbed him this night—the person nearly single-handedly responsible for the mess the scholari and padifehl found themselves in.
Nin ran, her figure blinking between one position and the next, in a way no normal person could.
Taline gripped the spell-woven, reinforced threads of the khursifa. At times like these, it was hard to think of Nin as anything restricted by human physical standards.
As Nin ran, her fingers flashed. Position two, clear.
Taline banked and flew to the corner of the District Eleven bazaar, alighting on a rooftop. With a flick of her wrist, the khursifa was rolled and stored in an enchanted, cylindrical holster on her back that would recharge its spells. She processed the traffic above, below, and around her as she, too, added enchantments to change her own appearance—creating the stooped figure of a large man.
Horseless chariots—vehicles caught between innovations old and new—rolled along the sandstone roadway below, competing with pedestrians and magic-powered machines. They, too, would someday be obsolete, replaced by something grander—a mere stepping-stone between what once was and the brimming delights of the future.
It had taken a mere ten years to transpose the region from a tightly controlled city filled with ritualized bloodshed to one filled with the spellwork of the future.
Bitterness curled as she watched the horseless chariots. The horse masters had been driven to the dwindling interiors or farthest reaches of the empire, where the new enchantments had yet to spread, but on their way out, some horse masters like her father, clinging to the past, had done unspeakable things to stave the change—making others pay for their rejection of the future.
Taline had paid dearly.
She firmed her lips and shook the thoughts free as she always did when ghosts rose. She had a better life now—a better identity. And she had Nin.
A chariot with a red dot on its frame—visible only to those spelled to see it—turned the corner, rattling onto the sandstone thoroughfare. The chariot driver tapped his gold-tipped staff into the veins of power in the sandstone, tithing the trip through imperial enchantments and ensuring security measures would call the watch, if triggered.
Taline checked her softly spinning wind clock. Perfectly on schedule.
Position two, go.
The single guard on the chariot watched the streets through narrowed eyes as the driver navigated. Warded canvas hid the contents in the back.
As the chariot crossed the intersection, Nin’s black-clad figure stepped onto the street and a wind-enhanced hole blew straight through the vehicle’s center, separating the driver and guard from the vehicle.
The back half of the chariot erupted in wooden shards and a burst of coins from the weighted chests spilled onto the street.
People in the streets immediately fell upon the treasures and the armed guard leaped into action with scimitar and stave.
Nin slipped around the heap of riches and jabbed fingers into the driver’s neck and back, carefully tipping his suddenly slumped frame to rest against a fallen box. She grabbed the folio from the heavy, leather satchel slung obliquely across his back, snapped the key from the chain around his neck, and brushed quick fingers across the man’s temples.
He’d have nicer dreams and modified memories than those Taline would have given.
Never one to leave others to deal with her problems, Nin darted behind the guard who was unabashedly stabbing civilians trying to gather fallen coins. She jabbed her fingers into pressure points in his neck and back in three quick movements. The heavy guard dropped to the ground like a sack of wheat.
Taline whipped out her khursifa just as a screech from the skies announced the arrival of the city’s security forces.
A five-man unit of the city’s elite airborne investigorii flew from their hidden perches, tossing specially enhanced khursifa spell fibers and halting flying traffic in all directions, as they dove upon the perpetrator below.
Taline dove as well, but instead of running to the best pickup position, her idiot sister remained at the scene, spending precious moments healing the fallen citizens the guard had stabbed. Five, four, three…
Nin’s hand finally shot up and she leaped into the air, knowing that Taline would be there.
Taline grabbed Nin’s hand and flipped her onto the back of the khursifa with a burst of wind—narrowly avoiding a collision with two of the investigorii, the stolen folio tucked between them—enchantments already activated to fling them to top speed. With her spelled hands, Taline gripped the front, reinforced strap of the khursifa and banked hard right.
She would always be there to grab Nin’s hand.
The five airborne investigorii banked with them, their white khursifas appearing like rectangular, ivory eagles diving after small, dark prey.
The airborne investigorii were elite flyers—using the spelled resources they had purposefully stashed around the city—sliding in from hurriedly sprung wind injections from the east and west to propel them closer.
Taline could have really used those precious seconds Nin had spent ministering to the citizenry.
“You can’t save everyone,” Taline yelled back.
“Drop me on the roof. Most of them will follow me,” Nin said over the wind, with far too much manic enthusiasm in her voice. “They know which of us is the thief.” Her white sash whipped in the wind.
“Come on, Tali, drop me. There are lots of places to disappear tonight.” On the eve of a holy day, the people were spilling into the streets in greater numbers as darkness enfolded the town.
“You are going to get caught using your powers.”
She could feel Nin’s smile turn feral. “We’ll see. Drop me.”
Taline saw eyes watching from the candlelit window of an apothecary ahead. Saw those eyes catch on the white sash around her sister’s wrist.
“Wait.” Taline grabbed Nin’s fingers.
Wearing the mark of the Hand was a risk, but…
An investigorii guard swooped down with a surprising injection of wind and reached for the cloth wraps around Nin’s head. Taline swerved toward the apothecary’s shop, then suddenly banked hard left as the door of the shop opened.
The edge of the opening cedar door brushed against her sleeve, and as they shot past, Taline caught the glittering eyes of the apothecary’s assistant in the shadows of the opening door.
The door swung wide. The guard splatted against cedar, falling in a heap of woven white fibers.
The assistant exclaimed in feigned surprise and bent to help the guard.
Wearing the mark brought its own rewards.
Nin’s laughter rang into the air around Taline, knowing Taline’s enchantments woven deep into the khursifa edge straps would force the wind to swallow it.
Everyone thought the Hand was a young man, and it was within their best interests to keep it that way.
Taline banked left again. The remaining four followers banked with her.
A whisper of something slithered down the street. And suddenly candles lit in windows in quick succession, like a trail of birthing stars.
A line of abruptly hoisted laundry took out the second guard, wrapping him in clinging enchantments.
The third guard was dropped by a load of magic being emptied from a window into the stone gutter along the edge of the street.
Taline yanked the khursifa into Caszerby Alley, jumping two sets of designated wind drafts and slightly manipulating a third with her best weather spellbox to achieve the altitude required. Tweaking the enchantments was a dangerous risk—a windchaser would be on their tail soon and with active power in hand. The Weather Guild didn’t approve of people exploiting their secrets.
Any powerful windcatcher could manipulate the paths, but there were consequences for being caught. A disruption in the winds was punishable by breaking the offender’s fingers and losing a month’s wages. Being caught with a khursifa that was created and imbued with magic to manipulate the winds and jump paths would cost her freedom.
Legal khursifas could be controlled and downed by the investigorii and had standard, set spells in their fibers and weaves to be used for inner-city travel only. Non-standard khursifas were only limited by the imagination and the city spells set up each night by the Weather Guild. Creating or owning a non-standard khursifa was strictly forbidden and harshly punished.
The guilds were harsh masters and guarded their secrets zealously.
Taline touched the bare skin at her throat. The farhani necklace tag she had removed earlier would proclaim her a Level Four healer, just as her full name did. It was thought that only a Level Seven trained in windmaking could change a preset windstream.
People gave little thought to what could be accomplished by a person who could duplicate spells perfectly given patience and time, or to what such a person could do with boxes, fibers, prepared spells, and the overwhelming abundance of magic from someone like Nin to power one’s creations.
The first scroll Nin had stolen for Taline, teaching her how to do advanced spellwork, had been a gift as life-altering as the new identity Nin had given her.
Unlike Nin’s under-proclaimed farhani level, Taline’s was close to truth. If tested, Taline would register as barely powerful enough to do a tenth of what she had done tonight—catching Nin in her fall from the tower or giving Nin the pre-enchanted threads to put forth their plans.
Taline smirked and pressed a fiber on her belt, activating a preset spell filled with Nin’s magic to whip up a tornado behind them, taking out the fourth man as Nin downed the fifth.
Nin had given her the power to be a reckoning force, regardless of the circumstances of Taline’s birth and the crippling magic she had suffered under subsequent hands.
Screeching in the skies above, imperial reinforcements arrived in the guise of the head of the investigorii himself—Investigore Malik ul Malit—along with five elite riders and three windchasers.
Taline whipped the chase into the slums of District Eighteen.
They had to take care. With her preset enchantments, Taline was a force to be reckoned with only as long as she had everything mapped out. But if she made a mistake, the windchasers would be able to neutralize her without employing tricks.
She shivered in the sudden breeze. They couldn’t afford to make a mistake.
A timely opening of a seedmaker’s door ensured that the first windchaser would not remember the flight when he woke. A thrown bucket of slop took out the next.
It was always remarkable and rewarding when the citizenry of Tehras assisted. There was no designated group of citizens who helped them, but the community had pieced together quickly how the Hand could be “helped.” Back doors opened mysteriously during chases, laundry was aired precisely at the right moment to encase guards flying hot through the streets, magic was emptied from windows to disrupt tracking spells.
Although most of the populace sung the praises of the empire openly and attended all oath and fealty festivals without a peep of protest, when it came to providing information to the scholari’s or padifehl’s troops, they were less helpful. Few regular civilians—even those who embraced the empire—liked the scholari, who was seen as a traitor and untrustworthy.
That the Hand’s thefts against the elite left bounty in the laps of the lesser citizens only increased the aid the latter chose to give on nights like this.
Taline and Nin banked around the district’s traffic circle, knowing more imperial reinforcements would be on their way. They had to ditch the skies for a drop point quickly.
Without her permission, Taline’s eyes strayed to a familiar balcony in a shadowed section of the slums. An insouciant figure raised a glass—undoubtedly an expensive glass of fordenay—in a mocking salute.
She didn’t bother gesturing back. It wouldn’t be a kind one.
“Drop me,” Nin urged. “I can feel your energy levels waning. Take either point three or twelve that I set up this afternoon and I’ll meet you at home.”
Taline headed for the ground. Nin wasn’t wrong. Manipulating the wind enchantments around the city against people who did so for a living had drained her, and on a khursifa, she could only carry enough cached spells and boxes for emergency points and covering an escape.
Nin, who never ran out of energy or magic, would do better without Taline to protect.
The investigore and both windchasers immediately dove after them and six additional investigorii flyers appeared overhead, converging like small thunderclouds.
Taline focused on the entrance of an alley where they could separate their pursuers and use gate medallions to meet back at home.
By skimming the currents and light traffic in a street this far from the holy areas, and near two easily accessible secret points of travel, they were almost free.
Then a “helpful” bystander let loose an upward blast and the investigore tumbled from the skies behind them. Nin shoved the folio down Taline’s cloak, then launched herself backward, turning her body in midair, hand extended.
“No, no, no,” Taline intoned, yanking the khursifa upward to turn around, a last cushioning enchantment pressed far too late to buffer Nin.
Nin’s own burst of wind flew a moment too late as well, through the investigore’s hair, as he slammed into the ground.
Nin slid across the ground in a forced crouch driven by momentum, then dove toward him while investigorii ravens descended in deadly fury.
It was sometimes hard to think of her sister as anything restricted by human physical standards, yes, but it was horribly easy to see the crippling emotions that ensured she would try to save everyone, with little regard for her own life.
Cursing, Taline manipulated the skies, depleting the last of her preset “special” spells to call down a whipping thunderstorm that spewed the diving hunters out in temporary blasts.
Nin passed a hand over the investigore’s face and chest, and he heaved a breath, alive once more. A civilian crowd pressed in on the two of them.
Nin twisted quickly through the crowd and sprinted down the alley to the right. Nin wanted to help any who crossed her path, but at least she did understand the thin line she constantly traveled between freedom and captivity.
On their khursifas, the investigore’s best enforcers were predators in the night, regaining their seats and pulling into perfect formation—narrowing in on their prey with deadly accuracy.
Taline admired their talent even as she activated the first of her final set of spells and changed the patterns of the District Six winds.
Taline flew hard, banked sharply left, threw a masking spell at the thick stone jutting into the path, and tweaked the last wind enchantment, before ascending steeply up the building at the T of the street. Her fingers shook with the effort of using too much magic. The tweaked wind enchantment caused the final windchaser to turn sharply and give pursuit to the criminal manipulating the winds. But the windchaser was exercising more initiative than care and slammed into the hidden stone and slid to the street.
Taline crested the roof and dipped into the wind slide, diving into a steep descent on the other side before pulling up along the street that would deposit a traveler at the gate of Loran. She skimmed the street and curled one shaking hand around the edge strap of the khursifa. She rolled the woven mat with a flick of her wrist and landed at a full run—abandoning the route at the last moment and startling a small group of travelers entering the city from the mountainous province of Loran.
She skidded on the sandstone smoothed by foot traffic and spells, shoved the khursifa into the sheath on her back, then sprinted north, west, north, east.
She ran toward drop point three—one of the many alcoves Nin had carefully selected around the city—cutting a slice across her hand without pausing. Using a quick detection spell, she noticed her pursuers were out of visual range but gaining quickly. She’d have three breaths to escape. She whirled into the darkened space in the armpit of the alley and pressed her palm against the medallion that was inset into the stone.
She flipped through space and landed in a small oasis near the learning halls. Slipping through the palm trees, she used the last of her reserves to change her clothing as she walked—identity spells so much a part of her that they needed no preparation. Her black cloak was flipped to one of light brown patterns—an unexceptional woman heading home from a long day of work—and her khursifa and sheath were enveloped by a large workman’s bag. She let a layer of magic wash from her features. Three more changes to her face and clothing were completed before she reached their home.
She took her time, carefully changing only as she moved around corners and slipped through shadows. Caution was needed over carelessness and panic. The gate medallions were spelled to destroy themselves upon completion, but it was never smart to bet against advancement. If someone ever guessed how the Hand disappeared and discovered a way to trace the point of disappearance, they would be in deep trouble.
Being caught as the thief would mean a loss of a hand, at minimum. Being caught as a magi who could move bodies through space would mean a lifetime of caged, enforced servitude. Nin would be a pet in a gilded cage.
Gatemakers were rare, and once identified, they served their rulers—celebrated and confined—or they were exterminated in the streets as monsters by fearful zealots.
Taline would never allow either to occur.
Awash with grim thoughts, Taline took an extra two routes through the increasingly tight and shabby streets of their home district, just to make sure no one was in pursuit, then slipped silently inside their tiny fifth-floor home.
Chucking the folio on the table, along with her khursifa and sheath, Taline checked the wind sphere Nin had tucked into her pocket.
Inside the enchanted sphere, the moving image played of Crelu ul Osni igniting the papyri sheets on his desk and his aides cringing against the walls. “I want that thief’s hands! I want him drained of every bit of power. I want him hanging from his neck at the Sacred Gate for all to see.”
Etelian ul Fehl’s sprawled visage in the mirror behind the scholari made her insides freeze and her breath grow short. She closed her eyes and forced herself to inhale deep breaths and think of other things.
It was the fifty-second year of the emperor—the tenth year since Tehrasi had been forced to accept a new calendar that started at the emperor’s birth. Her name was Taline now, followed by a lot of census-identifying words until Summora was reached—the family name she had eagerly embraced with both hands. She had a life as a healer’s assistant. Her wrists were free of chains. The wall her fingers were touching was simply textured instead of the elaborate lion imprints of the palace’s master suite—crisscross, crisscross, crisscross…
She opened her eyes on the last deep breath and let her gaze drift slowly back to the sphere.
“And what body part should be removed from you this time, Osni?” the padifehl said lightly, his poisonous, perfect features warped by the rounded glass. Her pulse leaped in learned terror without her permission—Etelian ul Fehl was ever light before he was cruel, as were all the children of Emperor Sher Fehl and his favorite wife. “Not just your hand, I think, should the thief get the scepter.”
Osni snarled and signaled to one of his underlings with his replaceable clay hand. “Let him try. The temple isn’t protected by secrecy alone. Tonight was a ruse that failed, but no matter. Anyone who seeks the temple will die. I hope he tries.”
The darkness in Osni’s features was overwhelming. The Hand had cost him control of the gates and sent him into this deep downward spiral.
The gates had been flickering more each day for the last three months—their power stretched between those last vials of Carre blood he wore—the blood of the last Carre king. It wouldn’t be long now before they failed entirely.
“I will enjoy watching you die.” Etelian ul Fehl’s words lingered, as he disappeared, leaving a blank mirror behind.
There was something strange about Osni’s expression for a moment. Something almost like triumph. It didn’t sit well with Taline. Osni had nothing to feel triumphant about.
“You, like all of those who sit a throne, forget who holds the true power,” Crelu ul Osni, Scholari of Tehrasi, said darkly to the blank wall. He turned to his subordinates. “Find that thief. I want his blood. I want him dead.”
“A second set of documents will arrive tomorrow, then the day after, and the one after that. There are destruction and explosion charms on all of them. I’d like to see the thief try to capture any of those shipments. I will extract the location and its secrets from the temple source myself. The documents were a ruse that didn’t pan out because the investigore is weak. The Carres, for all that I wish them into an eternal Sehk-ridden underworld, knew how to run a city with fear.”
Taline touched the folio, but didn’t unwrap it, listening to the ongoing threats emanating from the scholari while she stared at the blank mirror behind him.
“If only I had more activated vials…” Osni muttered darkly.
But Crelu ul Osni had no ability to obtain more. Nin had made certain of that. Made certain to extinguish the remaining blood supply of the Carres from Tehrasi.
Only Nin’s entrance through the window forced Taline’s gaze. Nin ducked in with a wide grin, but her grin dwindled as she looked at Taline. Nin approached carefully and looked her over for injuries with quick, sharp brown eyes. Taline motioned at the folio on the table then the sphere, still in her hand, in explanation.
“The folio is ensnared,” Taline added unnecessarily.
Nin looked at the sphere for long moments, then muted the scholari’s voice with a slow wave of her hand. “Of course it is. That’s not why you are upset.”
Her fingers rested on Taline’s before taking the sphere slowly from her fingers and setting it on the table. “Better or worse than the last one?” Nin’s warm fingers wrapped around Taline’s again, slowly chasing away the cold. Nin never looked away.
“Better.” She let Nin’s warmth envelop her. “We should check the trap spells.”
“I wrapped the folio in a stasis spell and surrounded it with a pocket of air from the Telb Mountains. They can’t find us and nothing can detonate. We have time. And I have you.” Nin squeezed her fingers gently. Taline accepted the comfort with greedy breaths.
When she was finally feeling equilibrium, she looked at the folio.
Nin’s gaze followed. “Don’t worry. I didn’t read them without you.”
The last of Taline’s tension drained in a huff. “You are just full of wit.”
Nin smiled and pulled forth a pocket of barren landscape from mountains leagues away to fill their living room. She reached for one of the small, contained null fields Taline had painstakingly created just for this type of activity and flipped it into her hand. “Do your no-magic, oh creator.”
Taline activated the small null field around the folio while Nin stayed far from its reach. Taline stepped into the pocket landscape with the wrapped folio and went to work, picking apart spell threads and redirecting frozen currents. The spells were easily deactivated in the null field until nothing was left to connect them to a trigger.
Taline deftly removed the traps while keeping the preservation enchantments—delicate work that required precision and no magic. As opposed to intuitive, overpowered Nin who had never had to live or work without magic, Taline was used to having hers stripped—was used to having to use cleverness instead of power.
Inside the folio were hand-coded logs and directions. The logs detailed the travel land markers to the “Temple of the Scepter” and displayed information about the temple and its surrounding area.
“Well?” Nin asked, with a cursory glance at the materials, gaze quickly focused back on Taline.
“Exactly where you said it would be,” Taline murmured, following the path of coded words and clues to the indicated endpoint—an easy feat when you already knew the endpoint.
The tension in the room increased. The Scepter of Darkness was a myth, the story of legends, and Taline was used to Nin looking amused whenever they looked over the scepter maps treasure hunters sold.
The steady stiffening of her sister’s spine this time was quite different.
“Well,” Nin said lightly. “It looks like someone finally found it.”
Taline watched her closely as Nin gazed at documents she couldn’t read, as if searching for an answer to a question she didn’t want asked.
Taline didn’t know how to fix the wounds beneath such carefully feigned nonchalance. She wasn’t sure it was something fixable at this point. They both had soul-deep wounds camouflaged beneath so many other layers. They were two broken pieces that fit together.
Taline didn’t know how to soothe the deepest fear of the person she held closer than blood. But she knew how to momentarily deflect her insecurities.
“You nearly got caught tonight.” Taline eyed the sphere on the table. The wind would record for another hour, saving the contents inside—a spell she had devised based on a complete set of Sand family incantations they had discovered. “You risked much by saving the man who already has suspicions about you.”
Nin silently stripped her night gloves from her fingers. “The investigore is merely doing his job. I’m not going to let him die on my account.” The tension in her shoulders eased a fraction.
“He would have our hands in a basket and the rest of us in chains. Then he would hand us to the scholari, who would personally skewer everyone we know.”
It was an old argument—well-worn like the handwoven rug in front of their door.
Nin sat heavily in her favorite cushioned chair and pulled off her boots. “The investigore is not the villain. The scholari and padifehl are. When those two fall, we will need the investigore and his investigorii in place.”
“I must trust that there is good in the empire.” Nin looked at the documents, then the sphere. “That exterminating the rot in Tehras will be enough. That having a check on those in power will be enough.”
So much for deflection.
“We are seeing the effect our thefts have on the elites,” Taline acknowledged. “Two hundred gold pieces on our head—whichever head is holding the sash when caught.”
“The more bounty they put on us, the more effective we become.”
“The elite will still be in power, even if the scholari and padifehl are deposed,” Taline pointed out.
“But if the library is established, the ranks will change,” Nin said decisively. “The entire populace will be lifted by progress and knowledge—to help when vocations are replaced—and to cultivate and instigate creative solutions and advancement. Hope. Those who want the old traditions back, like the Festival of Blood, can be convinced to embrace solutions where thousands don’t have to be sacrificed and the resulting magic is better. If we can place one of the scholarly princes on the throne—”
“More than likely we will get a politically minded one,” Taline said with grim certainty, the argument old. “Or a warrior, if we go too far in our rebellion. Or another son of Nera—Aros, if he finally prevails.”
Aros ul Fehl, the eldest of the emperor’s innumerable children, was constrained by his tainted birth, though. Tainted by the possibility that he had a Carre father, not a Fehl one. For Nin, a Carre on the throne was the stuff of childhood nightmares. Even Kaveh ul Fehl—the head of the empire’s armies and the terrifying nightmare of enemies and allies alike—would cause Nin less unease as padifehl.
The latter would never be a possibility, fortunately—everyone knew the “Nightmare of the Empire” never strayed far from the continuously expanding battlefronts he ruled with his living shadows. But the former…Aros would ever be a problem. It was not a secret that he wanted Tehrasi.
“Then we take care of that issue when it arises. We have to think positively. There are other imperial children with promise. Ones who have adopted Shiera’s ways.” It was an even older argument—Shiera, the Padifehl of Cuipsin was beloved by her people, and Nin was forever lamenting that Tehrasi hadn’t been blessed to get her as padifehl. “Or we could make a play for Simin or Baksis, neither of whom have been assigned territories.”
“Baksis, second or third best of the imperial children at every skill—you are the one who said he could be a vengeful leader.”
“Or a moderate one. My experience has yielded examples of both. It just means we need a superb negotiating position,” Nin said, ever trying to see the sun. “One where we can scrutinize and control the choice of the Fehl on the throne.”
“Negotiating positions aren’t your strong point,” Taline said pointedly.
“I beg your pardon.” But Nin looked reluctantly amused.
Taline’s hand hovered over the documents. “The scepter won’t be in the temple.”
“Not in the temple, no,” Nin said. “But…” Her gaze drifted to the documents again. “But the key is,” she added in a softer voice. “A relic that, once activated, will unlock the true location of the scepter. I need you to tell me what they know about it.” She indicated the sheets.
Nin’s gaze dropped. “Osni is clever. And single-minded. Death holds no concern for him. With enough manpower, he will unlock it. Eventually. And if the scepter is secured by Osni…”
It would be Carre dominion all over again. No one could wield the scepter without going mad.
“We won’t unlock it. We will just take the key.”
“It will be well. Even if the worst came about, even with the scepters under their complete control, the Carres were defeated,” Nin said lightly, reading Taline’s expression. “There is no such thing as a fail-safe when the scepters come into play.”
“Taline, if Etelian ul Fehl and Crelu ul Osni secure the Scepter of Darkness? If Aros ul Fehl does?”
Taline already knew the answer. “Can you get to the key?”
Taline met Nin’s gaze and let it communicate her own answer. She would assist Nin until the day she could no longer raise her head. But once they embarked on this path…they would be entering a new game—a game that would put Nin’s secrets at risk.
Nin said nothing for a long moment, gaze dropping unnervingly to the documents before she looked back up with fierce eyes. “Yes.”
Two days later, they went to the temple and stole what was inside.
Series + Next Book
House of Scepters is the first book in the three book series.
Cage of Shadows is Book 2.
Crown of Starlight is Book 3.
Images, maps, and other extra materials to come!
The beautiful illustrations on House of Scepters, Cage of Shadows, and Crown of Starlight were drawn by Eleonor Piteira. To contact her or to check out more of her awesome art online: