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Author: Sebastien de Castell
Publisher: Orbit, 2018
Hot Key Books, 2018
Series: Spellslinger: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Kellen's life as an outlaw spellslinger is about to get a lot worse.

In Gitabria, a miraculous discovery draws spies from all over the continent willing to kill to get their hands on it. Swept up in the race for power, Kellen is forced to join the pursuit. But the invention holds a dark secret-one that could spark a war.


Desert Lightning

'I totally saw this coming,' Reichis growled, leaping onto my shoulder as lightning scorched the sand barely ten feet from us. The squirrel cat's claws pierced my sweat-soaked shirt and dug into my skin.

'Yeah?' I asked, ignoring the pain with about as much success as I was having stopping my hands from shaking. 'Maybe next time there's a hextracker on our tail, you could warn us before our horses panic and dump us in the middle of the desert.' Another thunderclap erupted overhead and shook the ground beneath our feet. 'Oh, and if it's not too much trouble, how about a little heads-up before dry lightning starts crashing down on us from a cloudless sky?'

Reichis hesitated, no doubt trying to come up with a believable explanation. Squirrel cats are terrible liars. They make excellent thieves and particularly enthusiastic murderers, but they're rubbish at deception. 'I was waiting to see if you'd gure it out on your own. I was testing you. Yeah, that's it. Testing you. And you failed, Kellen.'

'You two recall we're supposed to be laying an ambush?' Ferius Parfax asked, kneeling a few feet away to bury some- thing shiny and sharp in the sand. A tangle of red curls whipped around her face while she worked. Despite the strange storm raging all around us, her movements were uid and practised. This wasn't the rst time we'd found ourselves on the wrong end of a hunting expedition.

Hence the need for traps.

Ambushing a Jan'Tep mage is a tricky business. You never know which forms of magic they might have at their disposal. Iron, ember, sand, silk, blood, breath... The enemy could have any number of spells to kill you. As if that wasn't enough, you also have to consider the possibility of accomplices - lackeys or mercenaries hired to watch the mage's back or do his dirty work for him. 'This might go faster if you let me help you set the traps,' I suggested to Ferius, desperate to keep my mind o the surprising number of ways I might die in the next few minutes.

'No, and quit watching me.' She got up and walked a few yards away before kneeling to bury another spiked ball or fragile glass cylinder lled with sleeping gas or whatever else she was using this time. 'The fella chasing us could be casting one of them fancy Jan'Tep silk spells to ferret out our plans. That head of yours is too full of thoughts, kid. He'll read you easy.'

That bristled. Ferius was an Argosi - one of the enigmatic card players who travelled the continent attempting to... Actually, I still wasn't quite sure what they were meant to do other than annoy people. Despite not having much hope of ever becoming an Argosi myself, I'd been studying Ferius's ways as best I could, if only because doing so might keep me alive. It didn't help that she kept insisting I rst had to learn to do stupid things like 'listen with my eyes' or 'grab onto emptiness'.

Reichis, of course, loved it when Ferius upbraided me. 'She's right, Kellen,' he chittered from his perch on my shoulder. 'You should be more like me.'

'You mean without any thoughts in my head?'

The snarl he gave me was barely more than a whisper, but delivered perilously close to my ear. 'It's called instinct, skinbag. Makes it hard for silk mages to read me. Want to know what my instincts are telling me to do right now?'

Another bolt of lightning struck the peak of the dune above us, nearly giving me a heart attack and sending a wave of smoke sizzling up from the sand. Had Reichis and I been better friends, we probably would have been hanging on to each other for dear life. Instead, he bit me. 'Sorry. Instinct.'

I jerked my shoulder, shaking the squirrel cat o me. He spread his paws out and the furry aps that ran between his front and back limbs caught the wind as he glided down gracefully to the ground where he gave me a surly look. It had been petty of me to throw him o . I couldn't blame him for his reaction to the thunder. Reichis has a thing about lightning and re and... well, pretty much any enemy you can't bite.

'How is this guy doing it?' I wondered aloud. A dry storm in the middle of the desert under a cloudless sky? It made no sense. Sure, the sixth form of ember magic creates an electrical discharge that looks a lot like lightning, but it mani- fests from the mage's hands, not from above, and they have to be able to see the target to cast it.

I looked back up the dune for the thousandth time, wondering when I'd see him coming over the crest, ready to rain seven hells upon us. 'Three days this mage has been on our tail and nothing we do shakes him. Why won't he leave us alone?'

Ferius gave a wry chuckle. 'Reckon that's what comes from having a spell warrant on your head, kid. Whichever cabal of mages implanted obsidian worms in them rich kids can't be too pleased with us going around destroying them.'

Even with more pressing dangers at hand, just thinking about obsidian worms repelled me. They were a type of mystical parasite. Once lodged inside the victim's eye, they enabled mages to control the host from afar. Ferius, Reichis and I had spent the last six months tracking down students from the famed Academy who had no idea they were slowly being turned into spies against their own families - or worse, assassins.

'When did it become our job to save the world from the obsidian worms anyway?' I asked, removing my frontier hat so I could wipe my brow with my sleeve. Despite the dry air, I was sweating profusely; wearing a black hat that was too big for my head wasn't helping. I'd got the hat from a fellow spellslinger by the name of Dexan Videris - payment on account of his having tried to kill me. He'd claimed the silver sigils adorning the band would keep mages from tracking me, but like everything else Dexan had told me, that was turning out to be a lie.

'It ain't our job,' Ferius replied. 'It's mine. The whole point of bein' Argosi is to avert the calamities that bring su ering to innocent folks. Since a bunch of idiot Jan'Tep mages assassinating powerful families all across the continent could set o a war, I'd say this situation qualifies.'

The wind picked up without warning and my apparently non-magical prized possession ew from my hand. I almost went running after it but decided not to bother. Stupid thing never t right anyway. 'It would be nice if just once somebody came along who wanted to help instead of everybody trying to murder us.'

Ferius rose abruptly to her feet and peered out into the desert. 'Now that don't look good at all.'

I turned to see what she was talking about. In the distance, a wall of sand that must've been a hundred feet high had begun to roil in the air.

'Now we've got to deal with a freakin' sandstorm?' Reichis grumbled. He shook himself and his fur changed colour from its usual muddy brown with black stripes to a dusty beige ecked with grey that matched the approaching clouds of sand and grit. Once it got here he'd be able to pretty much disappear into the storm if he wanted - which he probably would if things went badly. Squirrel cats aren't sentimental.

As the storm approached, I tried to decide whether I'd rather die from being buried under tons of sand, electrocuted by dry lightning or murdered with dark magic. The choices are never pretty when you're an outlaw spellslinger with a gambler for a mentor, a squirrel cat for a business partner and a long line of mages who want you dead.

Oh, and I was fairly sure it was my seventeenth birthday. 'What do we do now?' I asked.

Ferius, her gaze on the thick clouds of sand coming for us, replied, 'Reckon you'd best take a deep breath, kid.'

Copyright © 2018 by Sebastien de Castell


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