* * *
Nineteen Years Ago…
XANDER HONURON WOKE to arguing, two voices, male and female. Varyn and Melyssa. His father and grandmother. They had come to murder his unborn daughter.
Panic gripped Xander as he broke out in a cold sweat. He couldn’t let them hurt little Kara. He tried to move and found his limbs lethargic, but they worked. Melyssa and Varyn could not know he was awake. If they did not know, he might still save his family.
As if the paralysis were not enough, Xander then discovered his hands and feet were both bound, separately. Tight knots — his father’s work. He grunted, strained, sweated, and finally rolled onto his side. Just that effort left him breathless, but he dared not rest.
The scent of spice and wax filled Xander’s nostrils as he pushed across the paneled wooden floor like an inchworm, moving his shoulder, then his hip. Shoulder, then hip. The smell of their home conjured memories of Ona’s warm body wrapped in his arms, her knowing smile as he ranted about his latest glyph, the way she narrowed her eyes and frowned as she concentrated. Beautiful.
Around him rose slim planks he had glyphed together to make walls and sealed with clay. This was their house, their safest place. Then Ona became pregnant, even though Xander had scribed a glyph to make sure that never happened. Now Melyssa had broken that glyph and would kill their unborn daughter because her blood wasn’t like Xander’s, or Ona’s, or anyone else’s.
Little Kara’s blood was different.
Xander’s body tingled as his exertion thawed what remained of Melyssa’s powerful blood glyph: the Forever Prisoner. A soul glyph that imposed paralysis. Melyssa’s glyph had dropped him as soon as he opened the door. Its effects lingered, invisible tendrils around his limbs as tight as the rope that bound his hands and feet.
Melyssa had taught Xander all he knew about the dream world, about glyphs, about magic, but Xander still should have felt her coming. Melyssa had forced carrow root down his throat while he slept, a rare plant that polluted a mage’s blood. Any glyph he scribed now would knock him senseless, but he still had his wits. His muscles. His will.
A lone oak dresser stood by the bedroom door, and that dresser became Xander’s whole world. His vision shrank to nothing but the dresser as he crawled on, heart pounding and chest heaving. The argument beyond the door grew louder.
“Why, Melyssa? Why let her live?” That was Varyn, calmly discussing the murder of Xander’s unborn daughter.
“Ending Ona’s pregnancy would change nothing.” Melyssa’s soft voice barely carried through the door. “The Mavoureen would simply change the next child, and we might never find her. They must think they succeeded. We must let her be born.”
“So we take her and my fool son to Solyr?” Varyn never mentioned Ona by name. “We raise my granddaughter in a cloister? Is that your plan, Mother?”
Xander’s head thumped against the paneled floor as his neck muscles spasmed. He ignored the spots before his eyes and pushed on, straining as he pulled at his bonds. Closer. Just a little closer.
“Of course not,” Melyssa said. “The Mavoureen are tireless. Wherever we hid her they would soon find her, take her. The only way this child survives is if no one knows who she is.”
Xander kept a small hunting knife balanced inside a thin shaft in one leg of his oak dresser. He slammed it with his forehead, and that knife clattered to the floor. He rolled onto his side and crushed his back against the dresser, straining with one bound hand. His fingers brushed the handle — maddeningly close.
“And how,” Varyn asked, “do we ensure no one knows that?”
“We obscure her heritage. We protect her, but never in any way she can see. The Mavoureen can invade dreams, draw secrets from people, but they cannot discover what no one knows.”
Xander grabbed the knife and cut his hands many times as he sliced blindly at the rope. His eyes watered as each new cut stung, but he endured because each sting was one closer to stopping this. Even if they didn’t kill Kara, they were still going to take her away.
“So,” Varyn said. “You are going to wipe their memories.”
“Not wipe. Distort. Replace. Ona married a man and she had a daughter. But that man does not have to be Xander, and this child does not have to be his daughter.”
The rope frayed, then snapped. Xander rose gripping the knife in one bloody hand. His chest heaved and his eyes watered as he gripped the handle of the thin oak door separating the bedroom from the main room. The only two rooms in this small cabin.
To stop this, he might have to hurt his grandmother. His father. He might have to hurt them very badly, and that made his gorge rise. Could he jam a knife into Melyssa’s ribs if it came to that? Could he stab his own father in the gut?
No. He would brandish the knife, threaten them, convince them he was crazy with fear. Then he would flee with Ona. Could they cross the half league of rough woods to Cyan with her pregnant? Could he keep both Melyssa and Varyn off their trail?
No time. Those worries would come later. Time to save his family. He threw open the door and charged into the small living room with teeth bared and knife raised. Too late.
Ona was already gone.
Two wooden stools stood by the modest brick fireplace. A black pot hung on a chain of thin iron above smoldering embers. A small wooden table covered in wax held more of Ona’s scented candles, a book of limericks from Cyan, and a bowl of cold soup.
Xander ran to the front door. He could track them through the woods. He had only just grabbed the handle when a Hand of Breath slammed him into the door. He landed on his back and dropped his knife as his arms and legs went limp as wet straw.
New tendrils locked his limbs. His tormenters had felled him with a Hand of Breath followed by the Forever Prisoner. That meant they were still here, in this house. It meant Ona might be here too.
Heavy footfalls thumped, and then Varyn loomed over him. His father’s face was hard and square, like Xander’s, but Varyn had a thick black beard and ringlets of black and gray hair that fell to his shoulders. Xander wanted to scream at him.
“Clumsy and foolish as ever,” Varyn said. “Have I taught you nothing, boy?”
“Just leave,” Xander whispered. “Let us go and I’ll never have the chance to disappoint you again.”
“Xander?” Melyssa knelt beside him, white curls dangling before her bright blue eyes. “Why are your hands covered in blood?”
They must have used astral glyphs to hide themselves, a trick neither had ever shared with him. Of course, they had not shared much since he ran off to marry Ona. As if he’d ever be happy in self-imposed exile. That was their life, not his.
“We’re wasting time.” Varyn straightened. “Alter Ona’s memories. I’ll have Halde and Cantrall bring us a man from another town, someone without family. We’ll turn him into Ona’s husband.”
“No,” Xander whispered.
“If that doesn’t fool these demons nothing will.”
Xander found his wife propped against the table, fast asleep but breathing steady. Strands of raven hair fell across her heart-shaped face, and her full pink lips were clenched tight. Her pale blue dress clustered around her round belly. Around their child.
Melyssa would take her away tonight, take Ona and their daughter, and that made Xander’s chest ache and his eyes itch. There had to be something he could do. He had to stop this.
“Why?” Xander whispered. “Why can’t you protect us?”
“Oh my dear boy.” Melyssa tucked her ancient white robes beneath her knees. “You knew this day might come. We warned you.”
She looked to Varyn. “I’ll start with Xander. When the others bring the man you spoke of, I’ll see to Ona.” She turned back to him. “I hate myself for this, but you must see why it’s necessary. If there was any other way—”
“Don’t be such a coward. I’m strong enough to protect her. So are you. Give us a chance!”
Melyssa kissed his forehead as Varyn watched, eyes dry. Varyn had not cried since Xander’s mother died giving birth, but he didn’t have to convince Varyn. Just Melyssa. Somehow.
Melyssa sliced one finger with the nail on her thumb and painted complex glyphs on his chest with her own blood. “The whole world dies if they take your daughter. We can’t take that chance, but I refuse to kill her. I love her too. She’s my blood and yours.”
“Please.” As Melyssa’s magic forced his eyelids shut, Xander clutched his memories of Ona: memories of her wide brown eyes and bright, full smile. The scent of lavender in her hair. He sobbed as each memory melted away, as the woman he loved ceased to be a woman he knew at all.
“Kara, listen to me.” Xander projected mindspeak to his unborn daughter as best he could. “I love you so much. Take care of yourself. Take care of your mother.”
Then they were gone.