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Author: Sebastien de Castell
Publisher: Orbit, 2018
Hot Key Books, 2018
Series: Spellslinger: Book 4
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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For an outlaw spellslinger, the only way to survive is to hide.

Kellen's curse is growing stronger, promising a future of madness and murder. And now that the bounty hunter sworn to kill every last shadow black have caught his trail, he knows his days are numbered.

Desperate, Kellen braves a barren desert to find a mysterious order of monks rumored to posses a cure. But there are secrets darker and more dangerous than Kellen expected, and the price of his salvation may be more than he's willing to pay.


Chapter I - The Problem With Sand

The desert is a liar.

Oh, sure, from a distance that endless expanse of golden sand looks inviting. Standing at the top of a sand dune, warm breezes soothe the scorching sun above, beckoning you to the wonders awaiting below. Whatever you desire - treasure beyond imagining, escape from your enemies, or maybe even a cure for the twisting black lines that won't stop growing around your left eye - some fool will swear it's waiting for you across the desert. A dangerous journey? Sure, but the rewards, boy! Think of the rewards...

Look closer, though - I mean, really close - say, an inch or so from the sand itself. This is easy to do when you're face down in it waiting to die of thirst. See how each and every grain of sand is unique? Different shapes, sizes, colours... That seamless perfection you saw before was just an illusion. Up close the desert is dirty, ugly and mean.

Like I said: it's a stinking liar.

'You're a stinking liar,' Reichis grumbled.

My head jerked up with a start. I hadn't even realised I'd spoken out loud. With considerable effort I turned my head and turned to see how my so-called business partner was

faring. I didn't get very far. Lack of food and water had taken their toll on me. The bloody bruises inflicted by the spells of a recently deceased mage whose foul-smelling corpse was rotting in the heat a few feet away didn't help either. So was I going to waste what life I had left to me just to glare at the ill-tempered, two-foot-tall squirrel cat dying by my side?

'You stink,' I replied.

'Heh,' he chuckled. Squirrel cats don't have a very good sense of their own mortality. They do, however, have an acute penchant for assigning blame. 'This is all your fault,' he chittered.

I rolled over, hoping to ease the stiffness in my spine, only for the wounds on my back to scream in protest. The pain drew a rasping moan from my parched throat.

'Don't try to deny it,' Reichis said.

'I didn't say anything.'

'Yes, you did. You whimpered and I heard, "But, Reichis,

how could I possibly have known that I was leading us into a death trap set by my own people? I mean, sure, you warned me that this talk of a secret monastery in the desert where monks could cure me of the shadowblack was a scam, but you know me: I'm an idiot. An idiot who never listens to his smarter and much better-looking business partner."'

In case you've never seen a squirrel cat, picture an angry feline face, slightly tubby body, unruly bushy tail and strange furry flaps connecting their front and back limbs that enable them to glide down from treetops to massacre their prey. 'Good-looking' isn't exactly the phrase that comes to mind.

'You got all that from a whimper?' I asked.

A pause. 'Squirrel cats are very intuitive.'

I drew a ragged breath, the heat off the sand burning the air in my lungs. How long had the two of us been lying here?

A day? Two days? My hand reached for the last of our water skins, dragging it closer. I steeled myself for the fact that I'd have to share what was left with Reichis. People say you can live three days without water, but that's not factoring in the way the desert robs the moisture from you like a... like a damned squirrel cat! The water skin was bone-dry. 'You drank the last of our water?'

Reichis replied testily, 'I asked first.'


Another pause. 'While you were asleep.'

Apparently the desert wasn't the only liar I had to contend with.

Seventeen years old, exiled by my people, hunted by every hextracker and bounty mage with two spells and a bad attitude, and the last of my water had just been stolen by the closest thing I had to a friend out here.

My name is Kellen Argos. Once I was a promising student of magic and the son of one of the most powerful families in the Jan'Tep territories. Then the twisting black markings of a mystical curse known as the shadowblack appeared around my left eye. Now people call me outlaw, traitor, exile - and that's when they're being polite.

The one thing they never call me is lucky.


'Sure, I know the place,' the old scout had said, her mismatched hazel and green eyes glued to the dusty leather bag of copper and silver trinkets on the table between us. We had the ground floor of the traveller's saloon to ourselves, with the exception of a couple of passed-out drunks in the far corner and one sad fellow who sat on the floor by himself, rolling a pair of dice over and over as he sobbed into his ale about having the worst luck in the whole world.

Shows what you know, buddy.

'Can you take me to it? This monastery,' I asked, placing a card face up on the table.

The scout picked up the card and squinted at the shadowy towers depicted on its surface. 'Nice work,' she observed. 'You paint this yourself?'

I nodded. For the past six months, Reichis and I had crossed half a continent in search of a cure for the shadowblack. We'd pick up clues here and there, brief scrawls in the margins of obscure texts referring to a secret sanctuary, rumours repeated endlessly by drunks in taverns like this one. The Argosi paint cards of important people and places, imbuing them with whatever scraps of information they collect in hopes that the resulting images reveal otherwise hidden meanings. I'd taken to painting my own. If I died in my search for a cure, there was always a chance the cards would find their way into Argosi hands, and then to Ferius Parfax, so she'd know not to bother looking for me.

The old scout tossed the card back down on the table as if she were placing a bet. 'The place you're looking for is called the Ebony Abbey, and yeah, I could take you there... if I were so inclined.' Her smile pinched the crags of sun-browned skin on her forehead and around her eyes, her face like a map of some long-forgotten country. She had to be well into her sixties, but her sleeveless leather jerkin revealed rope-like muscles on her shoulders and arms. Those, along with the assortment of knives sheathed to a bandolier across her chest and the crossbow strapped to her back, told me she could probably handle herself just fine in a fight. The way she kept staring at the bag of trinkets on the table without paying much attention to me made it plain that I hadn't made a similar impression on her.

Searching for a miracle cure hadn't been a particularly profitable enterprise so far. Every coin I earned as a spellslinger during my travels had been wasted on snake-oil salesmen peddling putrid concoctions that left me sick and vomiting for days at a time. Now my travel-worn linen shirt hung loose on my skinny frame. My face and chest still showed the bruises and scars from my last encounter with a pair of Jan'Tep bounty mages. So I could understand why the sight of me didn't exactly fill the scout with trepidation.

'She's thinking of beating you up and taking our money,' Reichis said, sniffing the air from his perch on my shoulder. 'That thing ain't rabid, is it?' the scout asked, sparing him a wary glance. Other people don't understand the chitters, snarls and occasional farts Reichis uses to communicate. 'I'm still trying to figure that out,' I replied.

The squirrel cat gave a low growl. 'You know I can just rip your eyeballs right out of their sockets and eat them while you sleep, right?' He hopped off my shoulder and headed towards the two drunks passed out in the corner, no doubt to see if he could pick their pockets.

'Ask them that know the tales,' the old scout began in a sing-song voice. 'They'll tell you naught but seven outsiders have been inside the Ebony Abbey's walls. Five of them are dead. One's a dream-weed addict who couldn't find his own nose with both hands, never mind a secret monastery hidden in the desert.' She reached for the little bag that contained everything I still had of any value. 'Then there's me.'

I got to the bag first. I may not look like much, but I've got fast hands. 'We haven't agreed terms yet.'

For the first time the old scout's mismatched eyes locked on mine. I tried to match her glare, but it's unnerving to have two different-coloured eyes staring back at you. 'Why you want to mess with them Black Binders anyway?' she asked. Her gaze went to my left eye, and I could tell she'd picked up on the slight discolouration where the edges of the skin-coloured mesdet paste met the top of my cheekbone. 'You ain't got the shadowblack, do ya?'

'Shadow-what?' I asked. 'Never heard of it.'

'Well, I hear there's a posse of Jan'Tep spellcasters who'll pay plenty for one o' them demon-cursed. There's a particular fellow they've been hunting a while now, or so I hear.'

'I wouldn't know about that,' I said, trying to lend my words a hint of a threat. 'Like I told you before, I'm just writing a book about obscure desert monks.'

'Lot of money for that bounty. Maybe more than what's in that bag of yours.'

I removed my hands from the bag and let my fingers drift down to open the tops of the pouches attached to either side of my belt. Inside were the red and black powders I used for the one spell I knew that always left an impression. 'You know what?' I asked casually. 'Now that you mention it, I think maybe I have heard about this shadowblack bounty you mention. Word is, a lot of dangerous folk have tried to collect on it. Have to wonder what happened to all of them.'

One corner of the scout's mouth rose to a smirk. Her own hands, I saw now, had managed to make a pair of hooked knives appear. 'Met plenty of dangerous men in my time. None of them impressed me much. What makes you any different?'

I returned her smile. 'Look behind you.'

She didn't, instead angling one of her knives just a touch

until the blade caught the reflection of a certain squirrel cat who'd surreptitiously made his way up to the top of the coat rack behind her and was now waiting for the cue to pounce. Yeah, the little bugger makes himself useful sometimes.

I counted three full breaths before the old scout slowly set her knives down on the table. 'Sounds like a mighty fine book you're writing, my young friend.' She snatched up my bag of trinkets and rose from the table. 'Best we load up on supplies in town before we make the trip.'

I waited a while longer, doing my best to make it appear as if I hadn't decided whether to hire her as my guide or blast her into ashes. Truthfully though, I was waiting for my heart to stop racing. 'How far away is this abbey?' I asked.

She adjusted the strap of her crossbow and slid her knives into their sheathes. 'A long ways, as these things go, but don't worry; you'll enjoy the journey.'


She grinned. 'Folks say the Golden Passage is the gentlest, most beautiful place you'll ever see.'

Copyright © 2018 by Sebastien de Castell


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