By the Pact – Chapter 1

By the Pact Cover

As soon as Kamira kicked sand into the dark hole in the desert, she knew she’d found the right place. The golden grains rolled down and stopped at the edge of a tunnel leading deep into the ground. At least she hoped it was, because after two days of pointlessly crawling into random holes that always turned out to be dead ends, her patience and good mood were both running thin.

Half-crumbled ruins jutting out of the sand like skeletons of creatures long dead did little to improve her state. Every stone, charred or glazed into glass, reminded her that the surrounding desert was the result of a single mistake, a mistake that her predecessors made in their blind pride. Even over four hundred years later, people weren’t willing to forgive a whole kingdom lost, and the blame for the past deeds traveled down the line of teachers and students of a once-respected school.

She shrugged off those thoughts as she circled the hole searching for the source of magic that barred the sands’ entry. Her shadow shifted, mimicking both the movement of her sleek figure and the shape of her messy hair that she liked to adorn with feathers and bones. Back in the city, she’d add even more decorations, enjoying the many flinches her appearance spurred in the common folk. Over the years, the whisper “demonologist” behind her back aroused amusement instead of ire, and she’d long stopped bothering to explain her actual title or that she was nothing like arcanists of the past. Catering to common fears and misconceptions often brought unexpected benefits, and if nothing else, it made people leave her be. Only those who wanted to conduct business bothered her, and Kamira appreciated the peace and quiet of being alone.

Mostly alone, she concluded at the sound of footsteps.

“You found it.” Veelk stopped beside her.

If she was the epitome of what people thought a demonologist should look like, complete with her gaunt, close to malnourished features adding a sinister undercurrent to her grouchy personality, Veelk reflected the commoners’ idea of a tribal warrior. Tall and muscular, with a hairless head and an intricate net of scars marking his copper-hued skin, he often took advantage of anyone who assumed he was an uneducated savage. He surprised them with his wit, leaving many of people speechless, but when the ways of civilized men failed, he never lamented resorting to his keshal. His tribe’s traditional spear had a blade at each end of the haft—one narrow and one wide, both as sharp as his tongue.

“I hope so,” she muttered. “Otherwise, we’re going to crawl in the dirt, risking the desert collapsing on us, only to find another dead end with an equally dead body.”

Veelk grinned, unmoved as usual. “If you ever stop complaining, I’ll know a demon has taken you.” He approached the hole and carelessly threw a rock inside. Instead of bouncing or rolling, it sank into the black.

While he listened, Kamira bit her tongue before reminding him demon possessions were deemed impossible. After three years of traveling together, such a comment was nothing more than bait or distraction, or possibly both, since Veelk rarely passed on the opportunity to tease her as if trying to cure her inherent grumpiness.

“It’s deep.” Veelk glanced at her. “For once, that mage’s source might have actually been right about the location.”

Kamira groaned, since it meant they’d both have to climb down, because there was no chance Veelk would go down to check it only to come back up to help her, always eager to give her exercise opportunities. She eyed the opening in the ground with hate. “I regret we took the job.”

“No, you don’t.” As he squatted by the opening in the ground, the keshal strapped to his back towered over him. “Think of all that you might find in there. All the knowledge that will be yours to keep.”

She sneered, meeting his bait with hers. “All the knowledge I won’t be able to carry out?”

Veelk’s glance over his shoulder made it clear he didn’t fall for it. “I would consider carrying some for you if you stopped complaining and started moving. Or, at least, did both at the same time.”

With a chuckle, she made her way to him. If she found any tomes worth taking, it would be Veelk’s turn to complain about lugging the ancient scribbles, which he was certain to call them. But if she wanted her meager payback, she needed to make it down the tunnel, otherwise the only spoils he’d carry out would be the items that looked most valuable, and even if old books fetched a good price among collectors, they didn’t look as enticing as jewels or gold.

It didn’t require much focus to summon a lumisphere, and with the nudge of her will, she sent it down. As it sank, its warm light revealed a partially crumbling tower. Where the Cataclysm damaged the structure, its large stones shifted or broke off, creating an irregular pattern of ledges that seemed stable enough to allow careful descent. She inspected the inner walls with interest, but no obvious arcane markings presented themselves. She wanted to believe the structure was sturdy on its own, but more sand trickled from the edges, and as it stopped short of falling, it reminded her that magic had its part in securing the opening. Unless the arcanists of the past were subtle with their art, someone ensured the remains of the old tower didn’t collapse or get buried by the desert entirely.

Veelk made his way down, and after he checked the first ledge was stable, he helped Kamira. While she was finding her footing, he dropped to another ledge, so she called her lumisphere back and inspected the walls with renewed interest. Whoever wanted the tunnel sand-free must have been carving the runes around it while balancing on the uneven surfaces, and this meant a rushed job that would be hard to conceal. Yet the porous walls revealed nothing, not a single mark nor even a portion of an arcanist’s circle.

Disappointed, she followed her companion down. As they descended, the air cooled and carried a breeze that made Kamira pause.

“You sense that too, don’t you?” Veelk threw her a glance.

She nodded. “Demon magic.” She didn’t need to explain that it wasn’t the traditional magic that arcanists channeled through their pacts with demons.

Veelk dropped off to another ledge. “Lingering from the Cataclysm?” he asked while she made her way down to him.

A simple “yes” was all she needed to lull their instinctual concerns. After all, the original Towers were the epicenter of the Cataclysm, and the place where the arcanists of old laid down their lives fighting a demon who had betrayed their trust. Or, if the high mages got their version of history: where the arcanists paid dearly for attempting to summon a powerful demon in the flesh.

But the truth was that she couldn’t be certain. Magic didn’t linger in places unless it was spelled into artifacts or arcane circles. And the pure demonic nature of the energy suggested that no arcanist had a hand in its making. At the same time, this was the place of a grand battle, and no one knew what happened when a demon was slain. Maybe his magic did continue to haunt the place of his final rest.

“So it’s a no.” Veelk tensed, glaring at the tunnel’s dark bottom with wariness.

All she could give him was a shrug as she approached the edge, letting him help her down. The grim aura of the tower must have been getting on his nerves too, since he offered not even a single remark at her lack of climbing prowess. They descended in silence, and the drift carried the faint magic from beneath in waves that made her think of steady breaths. The image that followed, of a powerful creature lurking in the darkness below, sent a shiver down her spine, but she didn’t share her thoughts with Veelk. He needed to be focused on real threats instead of entertaining her doubts.

Feeling solid ground beneath her feet when they reached the dusted floor at the bottom of the tower brought no relief. Even the notion of familiarity the structure had for one who had spent years in the High Towers, like Kamira, couldn’t ease her thoughts. As she ran her hand against the half-crumbled reliefs depicting the great deeds of the arcanists of old, a pang of regret struck her. The mighty figures adorned in what was now considered tribal fashion were forever captured in stone performing incredible feats of magic. So much had been lost over the centuries, so much knowledge and power, and with the high mages dictating the rules for years after the original Towers’ destruction, no arcanist since had been commemorated, nor their deeds depicted in such a way.

“Some demon gnawing on your brain?”

Kamira snapped out of her thoughts. “Not since yesterday.” She inspected the corridor and pointed to the left, picking the direction at random. “Should be this way.” Even if she knew where the teachers’ quarters were supposed to be, entering the ruins through an unknown tower meant she first needed to find a point of reference; a bigger hall or a stairway would do. Until then, one way was as good as another.

Veelk inspected her as if estimating her confidence and headed down the dusty corridor. She allowed him to get ahead in case the builders or recent visitors left any nasty surprises amongst the rubble. With the tribal scars protecting him, he could withstand most magical assaults, and he had a better chance of avoiding or destroying traps than she did. She smiled at that, because on rare occasions her magic came to aid as she shielded him from afar. Tackling the largest piles of rubble from caved-in walls, she tried to shake off the nagging feeling of uneasiness. The exploration wasn’t going at all as she had imagined. For years, she’d dreamed of delving into the old structure and discovering the long-forgotten secrets of the most skilled arcanists of all time; instead, she only found a longing to get back to the surface.

Veelk looked back over his shoulder. “You shouldn’t be so—”

He never froze, just shifted instantly from a casual gesture to a battle-ready stance, keshal unstrapped, staring back the way they had come. Kamira ducked out of the way almost flat against the wall. The darkness behind them was so thick that it filled the corridor like black fog. Out of it emerged creatures with crude crystal bodies, and she gasped. Even in her homeland, where arcanists placed demon-imbued stones on statues and animated them, no one ever attempted to craft a construct from the stones themselves. Their creator must have been both skilled and powerful, and she tensed. The limitations of her own pact had become clear in comparison.

The creatures moved at a slow pace, but their bulky mass blocked the way out if Kamira and Veelk wanted to retreat to the point of descent. Kamira moved behind Veelk, studying their crystalline skin. Besides directing sheer power at them, more than she could ever channel, she couldn’t think of any way to stop them.

Veelk lunged and thrust at the one to their left. The keshal’s blade glanced off its body, as somewhat expected, and the construct retaliated. Kamira stumbled backward trying to get out of Veelk’s way as the crystalline claws cut through the air.

“Better start running.” Veelk held his defensive stance, dodging just out of their reach only when he had to. “And pray to your demon to give you some magic.”

“I don’t pray to any demon,” she muttered out of habit.

“The running part still stands.”

His tone may have seemed carefree, but she knew he meant it. Even if there wasn’t any way to defeat the creatures, they could at least outrun them.

“Suzhaul’s curse!” Veelk’s shout startled her, and before she knew what all was happening, he threw her against the wall.

Kamira narrowly dodged the giant crystal body thundering past, its swift movements and pivot both apparent and unexpected. So much for their slowness, she thought with her back to the stones. She searched the hallway as Veelk leapt and spun with narrow swings and powerful thrusts back and forth in front of her to hold the constructs at bay on both sides. Further down the corridor, a destroyed portion of the wall seemed to open into a natural tunnel. It could be unstable or a dead end, but trying to outrun the creatures would likely be suicide, so they had to risk it.

“There!” She ducked as Veelk’s weapon drew an arc in the air, delivering another blow. It didn’t escape her that blood trickled down his arm. The gash seemed shallow enough, but over time the creatures would wear him down.

He glanced at the tunnel and nodded. “Go.”

Without hesitation, she slid along the wall while the closest construct was preoccupied with its main opponent. She didn’t look back until she reached the tunnel. Veelk was right behind her, so she ducked into the uneven, damp walls of the tunnel. Her fingers dug into the thick soil as she fell to her knees to crawl through, and her lumisphere flickered when several lumps of wet sand loosened from the low ceiling, but the tunnel seemed stable enough, and the air inside smelled fresh. A short distance farther, and she was able to stand up, but the rumble behind her held her breath of relief.

Too big to follow them inside, the creatures kept clawing and pounding at the corridor’s stone wall, disturbing the wet earth with steady tremors.

“We better get going,” she muttered.

The image of the desert collapsing all around them always accompanied her whenever they delved into underground, forgotten ruins, and even though she’d learned to brush away such concerns, she couldn’t fight her own imagination. At least the air, though filled with the scent of wet ground and traces of unsettling magic, moved with a slight breeze, offering comfort and reminding her that she wasn’t buried alive or stuck in a giant sandworm, if such things could exist. One glance back, though, where the creatures relentlessly fought against the stone, made her take back that last thought. If someone was capable of creating constructs like that, sandworms seemed just as possible.

Upon Veelk’s insistent gaze, she sent her lumisphere ahead, and he squeezed past her. Even with the tunnel being taller, he couldn’t fully straighten up, but his keshal remained at the ready nonetheless. The path weaved through the ground, and as it sloped downward, Kamira paused to look back. Maybe the creatures had abandoned their pursuit, and the exit would be clear again. Backtracking seemed a better idea than venturing deeper into the ground, possibly away from their goal if the tunnel didn’t lead back to the structure.

“There’s an opening ahead.” Veelk slowed down.

Kamira didn’t have to ask why he stopped. The familiar, unsettling magic emanated from the tunnel’s end, more intense than back in the corridor. She swallowed the suggestion to turn around and instead sent her lumisphere in. Its faint light revealed a spacious chamber, partially covered with rubble and sand, especially by the walls, where the desert broke through the tall windows, but the patch of dark opposite them suggested another exit. Deeper in the chamber stood a strange milk-white crystal reaching high up to the ceiling.

“I’ve never seen anything like that.” She stared in awe, but the magic surrounding it resembled the one radiating from the constructs earlier, and it had the same malicious flavor she’d been tasting in the air since they had entered the ruins. “Ready?”

Veelk poked his head into the chamber. “Do you really think the arcanists would leave traps in a place like this?”

“It’s not the traps I’m worried about.” Kamira indicated the crystal with a slight point of her chin. “With all the weird magic around, this must be some remains of the battle that took place here before…” Her voice creaked, but she didn’t need to finish. Veelk knew the tale of the Cataclysm. “Besides, I’m not sure how, but the constructs we’ve met are connected to this thing.” Looking back at the tunnel and the shape of its walls, she’d think the crystal creatures could have been the ones to dig it out… if they were small enough to fit in.

Veelk arched his eyebrow in a mockery of polite interest. “If it comes alive when I enter, leave it to me and get to that exit.”

At the thought of her companion facing a construct of that size, Kamira opened her mouth to protest, but in the end, all he had to do was hold its attention and survive while she made it through the chamber. “Ready when you are.”

As soon as he exited the tunnel, Veelk stretched his back and flexed his muscles, twirling his keshal. Kamira stood in silence, but nothing happened, and after several drawn-out heartbeats, he glanced back at her and smiled.

“There’s something around the stone.” He took cautious steps toward it, and she could swear no speck of dust rose at his passage. “The markings are odd, but look a bit like a summoning circle. Old arcanist ways, maybe?”

“Maybe. Stay away.” She entered the chamber, eying the crystal, but it didn’t react to her presence. It must have been as Veelk said: a dormant relict from the Cataclysm, harmless but still echoing with past magic.

“You aren’t going to inspect it?” Veelk asked as she made her way through the chamber.

Her hesitation didn’t last long as another gust of magic breeze swept over her. No discovery could be tempting enough to take such a risk. It was one thing to venture into half-buried ruins in search of artifacts, avoiding traps left by the previous explorers or maybe even the place’s lost owners, but entirely different than willingly facing the unknown aftermath of the magical battle from centuries ago. “I’d rather get out of here before we have to fight something as nasty as those things. Let’s see if that exit connects to the surfa—”

“It doesn’t, little mage.” The deep, masculine voice echoed from the stone through the room. “But you won’t need it anyway.”

Kamira curled as convulsions shook her body, unable to call for help. She fought for words, but only a vicious cough came out of her mouth. Veelk shot to her side. He stood with his arms wide, facing the crystal as if barring the way, and the net of scars on his skin lit up with a golden glow, absorbing the energy and disrupting its flow.

“Step aside, mage killer. I have no quarrel with you,” came the voice again. “But I’ll kill you if you keep protecting that pitiful gaharra.”

Kamira allowed herself a sigh of relief as the debilitating pain faded enough to move, but she didn’t waste time. Veelk could only protect her for so long, so with trembling hands, she drew several symbols in the dust around her. Even shaky lines on an uneven surface would suffice… With one mental command, she activated her meager circle, and a wall of energy rose around her, cutting off the pain and malicious magic.

“Done,” she said, and Veelk stepped aside.

“Ah, a pactee… That I did not expect.” The crystal vibrated as the voice continued.

At Veelk’s questioning gaze, Kamira said, “It’s an old name for an arcanist. I thought your folk would know.”

He didn’t take the bait, but the corner of his mouth creased into a smile, letting her know he appreciated the attempt. Had they not been in a life-threatening situation, he’d likely have reciprocated with a witty remark. Instead, he turned toward the crystal with his keshal at the ready.

“I have no quarrel with you, mage killer,” repeated the voice.

“But I have quarrel with you.”

Laughter echoed through the chamber, and the lumisphere trembled in the waves of magic that followed the sound. “Your people were always brave, but in the end, Suzhaul picks no weaklings.”

Kamira and Veelk exchanged surprised glances, since the name was not common knowledge, at least in their world. Kamira stiffened. The truth she’d been refusing to consider forced its way back into her thoughts. It wasn’t a human they were dealing with. And if a demon indeed resided within the crystal, it meant the tales of the past weren’t as accurate as the high mages claimed them to be.

Curling her hands into fists before they trembled too much, she said, “You’re Veranesh.” Of course, it could have been another demon, but it seemed much too coincidental.

Another burst of laughter sent ripples through the waves of magic washing over the chamber. “So mages told stories? Delightful. What were they? Tell me.”

Kamira pressed her lips into a tight line. The odds of surviving disappeared like water in the desert sun, but she couldn’t give up, not yet.

“Kam?” Veelk prodded her.

“He’s the one who destroyed these Towers and all the lands around them. A cautionary tale for those who dare to choose the arcanist path.” She tried to control her voice, but fear tainted her words. “The purest of evil, the most malicious of the kind… You know how it goes.”

“They left out some details, but didn’t exaggerate much.” An arc of blue lightning flashed within the crystal as Veranesh spoke, and revealed a dark silhouette of a massive body with blurred shapes of wings and claws.

“They did forget to mention you’re still here,” Kamira replied, but her gaze darted to Veelk.

He gave a slight nod, and as soon as the demon spoke, he began moving slowly through the chamber.

“That’s indeed something they wouldn’t like to reveal,” Veranesh said. “I’d guess their so-called victory over me was too big of an event to admit the truth. So what happened? They pronounced themselves saviors?”

If anyone asked Kamira, talking to demons was like willingly walking into an assassin’s blade. She might have made a pact with one, but both she and her demon were happy enough to reap the benefits of the pact without engaging in too many conversations. Yet this time it meant keeping Veranesh distracted. She’d rather not risk he’d be able to breach her lousy circle.

“Something like that,” she replied. “Hunted down a few surviving arcanists, chastised others, and spread the demon hate. Come to think of it, they might have been right, at least in the last part, don’t you agree?”

“From their perspective, most definitely,” Veranesh said. “But that’s a long discussion, and meanwhile you could try something… unwise. I wouldn’t bother with a mage, but a pactee is a different matter. I shall make you an offer, but if you try to leave this chamber, you’ll die. And with you—a large part of this land.”

She swallowed at the thought of the Cataclysm that destroyed the continent centuries ago. She had to keep him talking and ease his suspicions, so agreeing to anything was out of the question. “You’re bluffing.”

“Am I now? I had four hundred human years to devise this spell, and it’s the key to my freedom.”

Veelk had stopped and was standing midway between Kamira and what they hoped was a way out, relaxed but ready. All Kamira had to do was get to the exit while Veelk kept the demon’s attention, but Veranesh’s suspicion made such a simple task seem impossible.

“It’s hard to believe in your generous nature,” she said. “You must have a reason to keep me in here, and it’s not the caring for my life, so cut the game.”

Veranesh spoke, but she didn’t listen. At his first word, she sprang to her feet, and even though her instincts screamed against the dissolution of the circle, she gave up her protection and dashed toward the exit. At the same time, Veelk mocked an attack at the crystal.

“What a pity,” Veranesh said.

Before Kamira realized the shift in magic, her lumisphere dispersed, drowning the chamber in darkness, and she collapsed to the ground, shrieking. This time the attack felt different. The physical pain mixed with the sudden emptiness within her, and even though the torture took away her focus, it couldn’t conceal the hollow space in her mind… the space where her magic and pact used to be.

Veelk abandoned the pretense of the attack and made it back to her. He dropped to his knees and curled around her, yet she kept shivering and moaning.

“I admire the perseverance and will to fight, but it’s time you stopped, pactee. My offer only lasts as long as my patience.” The darkness lit up with the blue glow of the crystal. Within it, the dark silhouette brightened, illuminating a humanoid figure with birdlike features: a long, pointy nose, clawed fingers, and furled wings.

“Let Kamira live,” Veelk said with a trembling voice.

“Very well.”

Kamira sighed with relief when the pain faded, but the feeling of emptiness persisted. Whatever Veranesh did to her, it affected her pact.

“You couldn’t have shielded her, mage killer,” the demon said in an almost comforting tone. “The spell was already on her. I’m merely executing it.”

Veelk narrowed his eyes. “How did you know?”

“Suzhaul used to discuss his ideas with me, and I made some suggestions. Glad to see he put them to good use.” Sarcasm rang in the demon’s voice.

Kamira sighed and sat up. Despite Veranesh’s claim, Veelk still held his arm around her. “He broke it,” she whispered. “He broke my pact.” It couldn’t have been possible. Only the demon and the arcanist who made the pact could break it.

“I thought that would get your attention.” Veranesh must have heard her. “Are you ready to listen?”

Her expression hardened as she squeezed Veelk’s muscular arm and replied, “Fine, demon. Let’s hear your lies.”

“Very wise. The spell I put on you will release upon your death. It’ll sow destruction across the land and free me from this place. But since you’re a pactee, I’ll give you a choice. You can die here and now, and maybe spare some lives, or you can leave, live your life freely… and die somewhere else, some other time, in a place possibly more crowded than here. I’m patient enough to wait a bit longer from my freedom.”

Kamira huffed. “That’s not much of a choice, even if you actually promised me my whole lifetime.”

Veelk had an unspoken question in his eyes, and she shrugged in reply. She’d called the demon’s bluff once and paid for it. It wasn’t wise to risk it again.

The demon laughed. “I see you’ve dealt with my kind before. I suppose I could offer you another way.”

She saw that coming. If he didn’t want something from her, she would be dead already. “I’m all ears.”

“I’ll let you live, and you find a way to free me.”

“Out of the question.” She never believed the Cataclysm was the fault of the arcanists of old, and to help Veranesh would mean betraying their sacrifice.

Veelk replied at the same time, “Agreed.”

She sent the mage killer an angry glare, but his expression made it clear that arguments were pointless.

“Garivan,” Veelk said. “Go by the rule.”

If she had her magic, she wouldn’t resist the urge to burn his eyes out… even if it wasn’t exactly possible with the scars protecting him. Of course, she couldn’t claim she didn’t remember Garivan, because the memory of the betrayal they’d suffered remained as clear as ever. Yet it didn’t mean Veelk had the right to call upon the promise they’d made back then in such circumstances. “No heroics, survival first” had no place in a confrontation with a powerful demon.

“How about you do me a favor, mage killer, and find a few small creatures,” Veranesh said before she could present her arguments to Veelk. “They’ll be useful, should we come to an agreement. And while she isn’t distracted by your presence, I’ll discuss the details with the pactee.”

Veelk tensed. “I’m not leaving unless you guarantee her life.”

Veranesh looked down at him, his sharp features hardening. “You’re becoming tiresome, mage killer. Had I no respect for Suzhaul and arcanists of old, I’d no longer bother with either of you. Comply or watch her die.”

Kamira shivered. The sudden shift in the demon’s mood brought back the fear. “Veelk, just take supplies and go.” They couldn’t win this game. With her magic gone, she could do as much as throw obscenities at the demon. The unpleasant memory of her pact being severed overwhelmed her, and she forced herself to focus on the problem. Veelk was right: survival first, even if in the end it meant she had to pretend to make a deal.

Veelk smiled as if he knew to what conclusion she arrived, and after giving the demon a short nod, he left the chamber.

“So, how come you became a pactee?” Veranesh asked. “My spell wouldn’t have worked on you if you didn’t have traces of what they call high magic, but you didn’t use it to fight me.”

She could ignore his question, but if they both remained silent, it wouldn’t help her figure out how to alter the odds. “I studied with them for a while, but when I disagreed with one of them, they kicked me out. So I found an arcanist to teach me and a demon to make a pact. No glory, no pretty title, but enough to get by.”

“Enough to get by… Do you regret?”

She shook her head as she pondered what sounded like genuine interest in the demon’s voice. “The look on the face of the fourth archmage when I told him what I thought of him… It was worth it. I’d do it again,” she said with confidence.

“Please, continue.”

Her eyes opened wide. Demons couldn’t read minds, so Veranesh must have learned it from her expression or was wise enough to understand there were no simple answers to questions about regrets like that.

This time she didn’t answer in an instant, and memories swarmed her.

The thrill of making a pact. Meeting Veelk and the friendship with a mage killer that grew so unexpectedly. The satisfaction of seeing the morbid look on her father’s face when he learned she’d become what common folk called a demonologist. The anger at the unjust treatment she suffered, both from the high mages and anyone who despised arcanists. The foolish hope that one day she’d make a name for herself. The feeling of freedom from the High Towers’ rules. The unfulfilled ambitions. She thought about it all often, about the choices she made and consequences she had to face, and in the end she always concluded that no, she didn’t regret.

“There’s more,” she admitted. “But it’s a long story.” One she wouldn’t be sharing with a cunning and deceptive demon.

“And you’re willing to end it here?”

She gave him a bitter glare. “Eventually everyone meets their match.”

Veranesh huffed. “I didn’t expect empty words like that. I won’t accept them from a pactee who only moments ago was ready to fight to the end.”

“I did fight to the end, but I’m not a pactee anymore. I have no magic left.” She stared at him, putting forth all the effort she could muster to look like someone resigned to their fate.

“I see.” In the crystal’s blue light, Veranesh’s smile seemed sinister. “You’re hoping the sands will bury us. That it’ll give the high mages enough time to find a way to defeat me.”

She pressed her lips together and looked away, but to her surprise, the demon chuckled.

“It seems that we have more in common than you’d think, you and me,” he continued, amused. “If you agree to help me, I’ll not only give you your magic back, but also promise you get to see the high mages fall.”

“Why not kill me now? Why risk it?” There had to be a reason for Veranesh to prefer her alive. If he really desired his freedom, he shouldn’t have bothered with all the talk. Two human lives must be nothing in comparison to regaining his freedom after centuries in that crystal.

Veranesh offered a predatory smile. “Because I enjoy the thrill, and to see what you’re going to do, what you’ll learn, and what decisions you’ll make… That’s something I haven’t experienced in a long time. And if you fail or try to turn against me, I still get my freedom.”

“I didn’t make my pact yesterday, demon.” Kamira grimaced. “There’s another reason you want me to live.”

His eyes lit up, and their color resembled honey. “I want my revenge. I want to watch my enemies fall when they think nothing threatens them. I want to hit them when they least expect it. And for that, I need someone to prepare everything and free me in the right way… and at the right time.” He smiled and stared at Kamira. “The chance of bringing high mages to their end… It’s worth the risk, don’t you think?”

“It is.” She wasn’t lying. Survival aside, the prospect of bringing the high mages down, of seeing them helpless and humiliated… The prospect of exposing their lies and corruption… It was worth the risk of agreeing to the demon’s terms.

Veranesh regarded her with his eyes narrowed accompanied by the corner of his lip curling, as if he’d expected such response, as if she proved they were indeed alike. “Will you find a way to free me then?”

“I will.”


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