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Varajas had thought he understood what it would be like to come back. He hadn’t understood how hard it would be to stand here, even in this tiny corner of the castle, and soak in the emptiness of the place. Castle Ulek had been alive. Yes, it had been under siege for most of the time he’d lived here, but even then, it had been full of people, people with lives and hopes and dreams.

Now it was empty. Eerily empty.

Whatever had happened here—this was above his pay grade. The magic Samir was talking about, that was huge, and Varajas would have bet more money than he had that somehow the knife had been involved. Even if the knife had been safe in Triome by then. But it had lived here for centuries, its power soaking into the bones of the mountain.

“Let’s keep going. I want to see.” He was possibly acting wrong for someone who was simply one of Lysander’s guard, but that was one thing too many to worry about right now. And any thought he’d had to go forward alone...no, he didn’t want to be alone here. He was grateful to have Samir close.

He could understand now why Ádan had come back to Triome so screwed up. If anything, he was impressed Ádan had held it together as well as he did.

Samir held up a hand and Krys came winging down to him. Together, they all went inside. Samir kept close enough to Varajas as they walked that their shoulders nearly touched. Or maybe that was Varajas keeping close to Samir. Either way.

Bolt was keeping close as well, walking at Varajas’s knee. He would occasionally leave Varajas’s side to sniff at something, then came immediately back.

Bolt wasn’t there the first time. Where was he? Already trapped?

Ruan’s questions, and good ones. Samir gave a tight shake of his head—one Varajas understood was meant for Ruan, rather than part of this memory. Now wasn’t the time.

They were moving through the huge, sprawling kitchen complex that had been responsible for providing food for most of the people who lived here. Numerous shelves and cabinets and ovens that had already become home to spiders, rodents, and other invaders. It was hard to tell in the gloomy interior, bur Varajas was fairly sure he saw a snake fleeing the noise. He hoped it was just a snake, and not some fragment of the tree.

There was a tension in the air, like a noise that was pitched just a bit too low for him to hear. Somehow it seemed too loud, even though everything was utterly silent except for their footsteps and their breathing. “Samir, are you…do you…” he didn’t even know what to ask.

But Samir understood. “I feel it, yes. I don’t know what it is, but I feel it.” He sounded calm enough, but he inched that little bit closer to Varajas, so now their arms were touching as they walked.

Samir, who could be so prickly. Who had spent so much time trying to push Varajas away. Now he was reaching for support, and Varajas was happy to provide it—and reach for his own. He took Samir’s hand, gave it a small squeeze. A reminder that he was here.

Samir squeezed back. “We can’t be the first people to come in here. Why haven’t other wizards been in here to figure this out?”

Varajas was tired of worrying about what he should or shouldn’t know. This conversation seemed important. “Most of the wizards down here, they were here to fight. They weren’t theorists.”

“But there’s been plenty of time for other people to get here. Hell, I had time to go to Triome, hang out for a while, and come back.”

“We don’t know who’s here and who isn’t,” Varajas reminded. “For all we know, the camp down the mountain is crawling with Archwizards.” And wasn’t that a horrible thought.

“Then why aren’t they here?”

“Why isn’t Sheluna here? From your story, it sounded like this happened before you and she rode back to Triome? Why did you leave?”

Samir looked at Raj, blinking in what seemed like confusion. “I don’t…I don’t know. Now that you say that…”

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Barbara J Webb

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