These things I know to be true: My name is Marius Everhart. I am human. I can control shadows. I was in the shadow realm. Now I am not.
The hum of the tavern came back to him first. The taste of apple cider and some kind of meat lingered in his mouth. Slowly he opened his eyes to find a woman standing near his table, watching him nervously.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I don’t want any trouble please.” Everyone else stared at him with various expressions of fear.
He must have used magic. How many places had he been kicked out of now? Marius couldn’t even remember where he was. Images flashed through his mind, pulling him away from reality. Different taverns, different towns. He pressed his hands to his temples, trying to hold the memories back.
The motion frightened the woman, and she took a step away. “Please.” Her voice wavered.
He could demand they leave him alone, and if they refused, he could use his shadows to hurt them or send them all running. But he didn’t want to. He couldn’t trust his memories, but he knew he wasn’t that kind of man.
Marius rose slowly, trying not to alarm anyone further. “I’ll go.” This was a large tavern with a bar in the corner and an open seating area. That was why he’d chosen it over the inn—good sight lines.
The woman followed him from a distance as he went toward the door. Everyone else got out of his way.
Just before Marius left the tavern, he looked over his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Her eyes tightened with sympathy. “I’m sorry too, sir.”
He nodded at that little glimmer of kindness and stepped out into the street. Marius couldn’t blame them for their fear. He was cursed, touched by the queen. His powers made him dangerous, and his presence meant the Queen of Shadows wasn’t far behind. Shadowmancers were her emissaries or, in his case, an escapee she was hunting.
Fear crawled up his spine, and he glanced back, sure for a moment that she’d be standing there, cloak of shadows rippling. But no, there were only ordinary people on the street.
He remembered her smiling at the edge of the stream, shadows from the big oak tree clinging to her. The pale skin of her face and hands was a contrast to the darkness all around her: black hair, black dress, black eyes. She lifted a hand and beckoned to him…
Was that real? Had she watched him throughout his childhood, or had she added those glimpses of a dark figure to his memories?
Marius shook his head and started walking. These things I know to be true: My name is Marius Everhart. I am human. I can control shadows. I was in the shadow realm. Now I am not. I am on a road. The sun is shining.
So little he could be sure about, and having to move all the time wasn’t helping. He couldn’t stay in one place for more than a few days, never long enough for anything to become familiar. When he lost his grip on reality, which happened all too often, his magic leaked out of him. Thankfully he hadn’t hurt anyone beyond some minor injuries, but once he was revealed as a shadowmancer, everyone wanted to get far away from him.
The queen had caught up to him twice now. His memories after the escape were often hazy, but they didn’t shift. He could trust them. He was almost sure of that.
Marius had barely gotten away both times, once by fleeing before she got too close, and again when he’d held her off until he had a chance to run. She could find him again at any time.
And it wasn’t only the queen he had to worry about. How long before one of the mage guilds confronted him? Marius knew he should be keeping track of which city-state he was in, stick to the outlying areas or city-states that were too insignificant to have a guild. But he could barely manage to survive from day to day, let alone plan things out.
It had been a month or maybe two since he’d escaped the shadow realm. The weather had warmed, the landscape turning a deeper green with growing plant life, which made it late spring or early summer. Word must have gotten to at least one of the guilds by now that a shadowmancer was roaming the land.
Marius didn’t fear them the way he did the queen, but he didn’t want to worry about fighting on top of everything else. He survived by stealing food or enough coin to buy a few meals and a night at an inn. What he wanted was to find some quiet village, settle down to farming or some kind of trade. Anything as long as he could have a home. But that seemed impossible. It would be a few days at most before he lost himself and his powers leaked out again. What kind of life could he hope for?
It would be easier if I gave up and ended it. But Marius knew he wasn’t that kind of man either.
As he turned down another street, someone ran into him hard enough to make him stagger. The person sprinted away, and it took Marius a moment to realize they’d taken his bag. Briefly he considered letting them have it. It was stolen anyway, along with everything inside. But that only meant Marius would have to steal from someone else to replace it.
“Hey!” Marius ran after the thief, the magic inside him itching to be used.
The person weaved through the sparse crowd, a dark hood covering their head. As Marius closed in, they ducked between two tall buildings.
The thief spun to face him, and they weren’t alone. “Just let it go.” Three others stood with long blades at the ready.
The narrow passage smelled of refuse and was heavily shadowed. Marius could summon shadows from nowhere, but it was easier when they already existed. “Give it back and no one needs to get hurt.”
The thief slipped the bag’s strap over her head and snorted. “Big talk, but there’s four of us.” She pulled out a dagger.
Marius sighed. “I warned you.” With only a slight effort, the shadows came to life. A wall rose up to block the thieves from behind while other shadows twisted into ropes and lashed out at them. Two of the thieves cried out as the moving darkness wrapped around their bodies. Marius yanked them up and slammed them against opposite walls.
The other two thieves, a man and the woman with the bag, tried to escape. They made it a few more steps than their companions. The man saw the shadow wall and skidded to a stop. He let out a high-pitched scream of panic as the pitch-black form rushed to meet him, swallowing him up.
Marius should’ve hated using his magic. It had been given to him by the person who had kidnapped and imprisoned him, a reminder that she had forever changed him. It was a curse that made people fear him. And yet it felt good, the way running or climbing made him revel in the motion of his body. Shadowmancy was a part of him now, as deeply embedded as magic was in the mages who were born with it.
The thief who had taken his bag spun back to face Marius, her eyes wide and wild. Clutching her dagger, she ran at him.
Two narrow ropes of shadow shot up from the ground and grabbed her legs. Jerked to a halt, she fell forward and landed hard. The dagger clattered as it hit the cobblestones. More shadows wrapped around her arms, trapping her.
She turned her head to look at him, a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth. “Please don’t hurt me! Just take it.”
The shadows thickened as Marius pulled her up. Darkness covered her arms up to the elbows and her legs to midthigh.
“Let me go.”
Marius took a few steps closer while she cowered. With a flick of power, he pulled the strap of the bag over her head and shoulder. A dark mass carried the small battered traveling bag to him and dropped it into his arms. The thief kept begging, her pleas getting louder and more desperate.
Marius dropped her none too gently. She landed with a grunt as the shadows drew back. The wall of darkness blocking the alley melted away, and the man who’d been swallowed up appeared, kneeling on the ground and shaking. The other two thieves lay unconscious.
“Run,” Marius said.
The woman staggered to her feet and sprinted down the passage. The other conscious thief took a moment longer to rise, casting a fearful glance at Marius before following his companion.
Marius pulled the shoulder strap of the bag over his head so it lay across his body, the way he should have been carrying it in the first place. It would make the bag harder to steal and prevent a situation like this in the future.
He spun at the voice, tensing for another fight. But the man behind Marius wasn’t looking at him with fear or anger. The expression on his face was one of wonder.
“You really are a shadowmancer.” The man had dark brown skin and close-cropped hair. Small gold hoops adorned his ears, catching the light from behind him. He was actually smiling.
Marius blinked. “What?” Nobody had ever reacted to him like this.
“Forgive me for cutting to the chase, but I want you to join my guild.”
“What?” That was impossible. No guild would allow a shadowmancer to join.
“Oh, sorry. I haven’t even introduced myself. Ayodele Sauveterre.” He held out his hand.
Marius stared down at it. Was this a trick? A trap?
After a moment the man withdrew his hand. “Ah, well. Maybe that was too forward? People say I’m too eager sometimes. It’s just that I’ve been looking for you for weeks now, and I’m so excited to meet you.”
Did the queen send him? Marius tensed, ready to protect himself. But it wouldn’t be like her to send someone else after Marius. She would come herself.
Ayodele held up his hands. “If you want to refuse, I understand. But can you at least hear me out?”
“You’re not hunting me?” Marius searched the man’s face for signs of deception.
“No, no. Not at all. Not like that anyway. I need your help.” The man tugged at his embroidered collar. He wore a lavender shirt with a matching vest. The vest had intricate embroidery in darker purple, and his breeches were a similar shade. It was a sharp contrast to the humble clothing of the thieves, of the tavern patrons, and of course the stolen clothing Marius wore. If Ayodele was here recruiting for a guild, that meant he was a mage, which would explain why he had such fine clothing.
“Can I buy you a drink? Or a meal while we talk?” Ayodele asked.
“It’s not safe for me here.” Rumors would spread quickly from the tavern.
The man pursed his full lips. Combined with his high cheekbones and long eyelashes, they gave him a slightly feminine look. “We can talk while we walk then.”
This could still be some kind of trick. It wasn’t possible for a guild to accept a shadowmancer. Was this a way to lure him out for an attack? But on the other hand, this was the first time someone hadn’t reacted to his magic with fear. A deep yearning for human interaction rose up in him, so sharp it was almost painful. Marius nodded.
Ayodele clapped his hands. “Lovely. Let’s head this way.” He started off. “Is there anything you need to pick up at an inn or the like?”
It took a moment for Marius to realize he meant luggage. “No, this is it.” Marius nudged his bag.
“Enchanted? They do make things so convenient for traveling.” Ayodele patted the small white bag hanging from the strap across his chest. It wasn’t much larger than a purse.
“It’s just a normal bag.”
A frown crossed Ayodele’s face. “We’ll get you something when we arrive at the guild.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything.” Definitely not following this man home. Whose territory were they in? Ayodele wasn’t wearing a guild badge or mark that Marius could see.
“Right, right. Making assumptions.” Ayodele sounded like he was talking to himself more than Marius. “I’ve made my decision, but you haven’t made yours yet. Nice bit of work with those thieves, by the way. I was worried you might be the sort who enjoys hurting people, but you let them go even though they stole what apparently amounts to all your worldly possessions.”
Marius glanced around as they walked, but most of the people on the street barely gave the two of them a glance. Word hadn’t spread far from the tavern yet.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. The way you used those shadows.” Ayodele tilted his face up toward nothing in particular, shaking his head slightly.
Now that they were side by side, Marius noticed he was several inches taller than Ayodele.
“And it hardly seemed like an effort at all. No wonder everyone is so afraid of shadowmancers.”
“It’s not my power you should be afraid of, it’s…” Marius closed his mouth. He didn’t want to even mention her in case it somehow called her to him.
“The queen?” Ayodele gave him a curious look. “So she’s real?”
Marius nodded, cold fear swirling in his gut. “She’ll come after me again.”
The mage waved a hand. “We’ll deal with that later. We should get down to business.” Marius couldn’t believe how easily the man dismissed the Queen of Shadows. “As I said, I want you to join my guild.”
Now they were back where they’d started. “No guild would accept a shadowmancer.”
Ayodele gave him a mischievous smile, and a tingle of interest flickered through Marius. “Mine would.”
Ayodele moved closer until their arms brushed with every step. Marius tensed, debating if he should move away. He’d been touched by people a few times—brushing up against him in a crowd, bumping into him—but not deliberately. And not after people knew what he was. The light physical contact distracted him, and he had to make himself focus on what Ayodele was saying.
“I come from Aveyons, where they discovered gold a few years ago.” His voice was low. “Thanorphos has been doing a lot of trade with us, and they claim to be happy with the arrangement, but I know Serpent Fang is planning an attack. They want to conquer us and keep the gold for themselves.” Fierce light blazed in his brown eyes. “I won’t let that happen.”
The more powerful city-states existed in an uneasy truce with each other, protected by their respective mage guilds. But city-states with weaker guilds or no guild at all were at the mercy of their neighbors. If they were rich in resources or farmland, they often found themselves swallowed up by a stronger city-state or, if they were particularly unlucky, the battleground of a war between two mage guilds.
Had Marius lived under a powerful guild? Or had the little farm he remembered been in one of the weaker territories? Marius pushed those thoughts away before they could lead into the tangled confusion of his memories.
“So that’s why I need you. A shadowmancer will make my guild stronger.”
“But there’s never been a shadowmancer in any guild.”
“That’s exactly the point, darling. It will give even Serpent Fang pause if they know I’ve recruited you.” Ayodele stepped away, and Marius immediately missed the contact.
“So I’d be there to intimidate them?”
“And to fight. I said it would give them pause, not stop them from attacking.”
The buildings around them were a little farther apart, and there were more homes than businesses. Fewer people too. It seemed they were heading out of town. “You want me to fight for you?”
“Yes. I can pay handsomely. Even if you don’t want to join the guild, I can still hire you.”
Marius made a noncommittal noise. He shouldn’t get involved at all. “The queen will come for me—”
“So you’ve said.”
They looked at each other for a long moment. “Aren’t you worried about her at all?”
Ayodele shrugged. “Perhaps I should be, but I’m more worried about my home and my family being subjugated by Thanorphos.”
Family. Was Marius’s family out there somewhere? “The queen could hurt them too if they get in the way.”
“Then I’ll make sure they’re out of the way if she comes for you.”
“When,” Marius said. “She’s come after me twice already.”
Ayodele arched a sculpted eyebrow. “And yet you’re still here.”
Marius opened his mouth to argue that he’d been lucky, that he’d barely escaped both times.
“Once you join the guild, you’ll have our protection as well.”
It was so selfishly tempting, the idea of other people fighting for his sake.
“And you’ll have food and drink. A place to stay.” Ayodele looked him over. “Plenty of money. My— The guild is rich.”
A home. Stability. Somewhere Marius could form memories that hadn’t been tainted by the Queen of Shadows.
Ayodele held a hand out to stop him. His eyes searched Marius’s as if he were trying to see into his heart. “Join us, please.” Ayodele tilted his hand, offering it to shake.
The loneliness and fear of the past few months filled Marius until he could hardly breathe. “Okay.” It was nearly a sigh. As if watching himself from a distance, he reached out and took Ayodele’s hand.
The man grinned. “Wonderful. Welcome to Paladin Charm… Goodness, you forgot to introduce yourself.”
Marius was reluctant to release Ayodele’s warm, firm grip. This was the first time someone had deliberately touched him since he escaped the shadow realm. He used the excuse of introducing himself to hold on for a few seconds more.
“Marius. Marius Everhart.”
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