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The Covenant RisingBook One of the Dreamtime
By Nicholls, Stan
It was a place of cheap magic.
A swarm of tiny sphinxes gathered, fluttering just above her head. Snapping jaws, whipping wings, curling tails. They weren't convincing. Their colours were wrong, and up close they were semi-transparent.
Serrah swatted irritably, her hand passing through them as if they were dawn mist. They disintegrated into countless infinitesimal specks, like glowing rust. The tips of their spread wings were the last to go, popping out of existence in little burnished puffs.
'We going to skulk here all night, Ardacris?' Phosian hissed.
He hid next to her, but the alley was too dark to make out his features. His garb, like hers, was uniformly black, with a silk mask covering nose and mouth. Where flesh showed, it had been smeared with ash. The sheen of their blades was dimmed by grease and soot.
Serrah inwardly bridled at his familiarity and the disregard of her rank. But in deference to his connections she whispered only, 'Patience.'
Phosian sighed. Serrah needed no light to picture the conceited expression on his callow face.
Nothing much stirred. The street was a midden lined with hovels, all gloom and demented angles. Its glistening cobbles were silvered by a half moon. Flies teemed, the air stank. Now and again a low-priced glamour walked, crawled, flew or drifted by, waning, and wasignored.
The house they watched was grander than the others and set apart. Two guards were visible at its front. There were more at the sides and rear. Again Serrah wondered if her modest forces would be enough.
'Think our strength's up to it?' Phosian asked, hinting criticism of her.
She was struck by the idea that he might have read her mind. But she knew such magic was likely mythical. And if it did exist it was so rare even his relatives probably couldn't afford it. 'Numbers aren't everything,' she said. 'I'd take one seasoned fighter over a regiment of conscripts any day.'
'And what would you call those inside, seasoned or green?' Sarcasm dripped.
'Ruthless bastards,' Serrah replied, still seething at having him foisted on her. 'But I've a team I can trust.' With one exception, she thought, adding, steely-toned, 'It's taken weeks to get to tonight. Nothing's going to jeopardise it.'
His silent contempt was almost tangible.
By knowing where to look, and straining to see, several others in her group could be faintly made out, grey against the blackness. They were in position.
'It's time,' she decided. 'You know what to do. Stay close.'
He gave an indolent grunt.
She had a short piece of twine, and worried its end with thumb and forefinger, as though flipping a coin. Suddenly the tip glowed cherry red. Less conspicuous than a naked flame and generating no heat, it was a very basic glamour; just an ember, but enough for those alert to it. Serrah quickly signalled, then pinched it out.
The nearest guard, a shaven-headed colossus, stood gazing at the night sky. His broadsword was thrust into the ground at his feet, his palm absently caressing the hilt. Further back, a leaner companion prowled with meagre enthusiasm.
A sound cut the air. High, smooth, and abruptly stilled by a soft impact.
An arrow quivered in the big man's chest. He looked down at it dumbly. The sound repeated and his comrade dropped. A second bolt winged into the giant. Arms outstretched, he fell heavily.
'Move!' Serrah barked.
Dashing out of the shadows, limbs pumping, she ran for the house. Phosian chased her, his scrawny form contrasting with her athletic build. As they arrived at the entrance, two more of her crew slipped from the darkness to join them. Like Phosian, they hefted axes.
The double doors were oak with iron bracings. At her sign, the battering commenced. Almost immediately the rest of her team began pounding at the back of the house.
Serrah scanned the street, feeling vulnerable. Imperial agents weren't exactly popular in this quarter and she half expected to see locals rushing in to take issue.
But she was more worried by what might be waiting inside.
The doors gave.
A dimly lit passageway stretched ahead of them. There was another door at its end. A corridor was set in the righthand wall. Serrah motioned for one of the party to keep watch, then she, Phosian and the fourth group-member carefully advanced, weapons drawn.
Something came out of the side passage. They froze.
It slinked, ebony fur bristling, a mass of fangs, claws and ill temper. Its hard, tawny eyes regarded them haughtily. It let out a wheezing snarl.
The barbcat was waist-high to Serrah. Had it stood upright it could have laid its forepaws on her shoulders while it tore her throat out.
Absolutely still, they watched as a second cat padded into the hall. It was just as big, just as irate. Its ears pricked tensely, its ample pink tongue lolled.
Serrah couldn't be sure about the creatures. She took a chance and edged forward.
'Chief . . .' one of her team cautioned.
She paid no attention and moved in on the nearest cat.
Her response was instant. She fell into a half crouch, simultaneously swinging her sword up, two-handed, teeth gritted with effort, carving an arc. It crossed paths with the slavering animal, slicing cleanly through its body. But not as though it were flesh.
The bloodless halves of the cat hung in the air for a second, then dissolved into golden shards and nothingness.
Rising, Serrah expelled a breath. 'Sentinel glamours,' she declared, unnecessarily. And well made, she judged. Costly magic.
The other barbcat turned and loped back to its alcove den. They ignored it and readied themselves.
'Let's move,' Phosian urged testily.
Serrah glared at him. She swung her boot at the door. It flew open. Continues...
Excerpted from The Covenant Rising by Nicholls, Stan Excerpted by permission.
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