Chapter One

The heat, the dust, the mountains rising ahead were all false, as much illusion as the mirages wavering with the fake promise of water.

Mage Alain of Ihris focused inward, denying the dry, hot wind which had just flicked a cloud of fine sand off the crest of a dune and dusted it over the caravan. Denying the grit which settled in his eyes. None of it was real.

Mounted caravan guards rode alongside the open carriage in which Alain sat, their horses plodding with the same weary gait as the oxen pulling the long line of wagons. Those guards were here for the same reason he was, to protect the caravan from the bandits of the Desert Waste, but that in no way made them equals.

He was a Mage. At seventeen years old he was the youngest Mage in the history of the Mage Guild, but to the common people in the caravan and among the guards, Alain’s age did not matter.

They did not matter, either, Alain reminded himself. Those other people, like the desert about him, like the carriage in which he rode, were all illusions, mere shadows created by his own mind. Only he was real. Ten years of harsh schooling in the Mage Guild had taught him that he was always alone, no matter how many shadows his mind imagined seeing.

Alone.

A memory intruded despite his best efforts: a vision of two graves near Ihris, where the remains of a man and a woman lay buried side by side. His parents had never been real and had never mattered, the Mage Guild had taught. It didn’t matter that his parents had died at the hands of raiders off the Bright Sea after Alain had been taken from them and isolated within a Mage Guild Hall. It didn’t matter that he had not learned of their deaths until a few months ago, when he attained Mage status and could finally leave that Guild Hall.

It did not matter, Alain told himself, trying to deaden all feeling as he had been taught.

But the stab of pain the memory brought served as a reminder of what Alain had successfully hidden from his teachers in the Mage Guild. Despite his best efforts to deny all feeling, to see others only as shadows with no value, deep inside emotions still tore at him. All of the Mage Guild’s teachings, all of the elders’ ruthless discipline, had not caused his mother’s last words to fade in Alain’s memory as the Mages took him away. Do not forget us.

At least there were no other Mages here to detect Alain’s failure, to constantly watch him for signs of weakness.

There should have been, though.

This was his first assignment since earning his status as a Mage. He did not know why he had been sent to protect the caravan alone. Normally, two Mages would have been assigned, as some insurance against failure. And even though the Mage Guild saw everything as illusion, the elders had always shown a fondness for gold, real or not. The protection of two Mages cost the common folk twice what one Mage would.

Alain peered ahead, where the track the caravan had been following for days wound up out of the wastelands and curved toward a pass surrounded by rugged hills. Despite his denial of the dust and the glare, a moment of weakness caused him to wish that he had a pair of the odd headgear some of the caravan guards wore, a sort of bandana with two pieces of dark glass set in it that protected the eyes. But those “goggles” were made by Mechanics, and the Mechanics who claimed the ability to change the world illusion in their own ways were frauds. His elders had never wavered in that. Common folk might be fooled into using and paying for the strange gadgets of the Mechanics, but no Mage would be taken in by their hoaxes. The goggles could not actually work, and as a Mage Alain could not touch them.

Perhaps the pass would finally bring them out of the blazing desert, or at least provide momentary shade as they passed between the higher ground on either side. Between the glare of the sun hammering down from above and the reflected heat from the ground below, Alain felt like a loaf of bread being baked in an oven. It might be just an illusion, but it was a very warm illusion. Regardless, he had to take no apparent notice of the heat. He had to maintain at all times the stoic indifference of a Mage to physical hardships, no matter what those hardships were.

That pass, though. He should not remain indifferent to that. A narrow way between looming walls of rock. If bandits did lurk here, they would surely choose such a place for an ambush.

Alain denied the unease that thought brought to life. He denied any hint of nervousness that he might soon face his first deadly test outside a Mage Guild Hall.

The commander of the guard rode not far from Alain’s carriage. Alain raised one hand slightly, turning his head just enough to look at the commander.

Common folk avoided looking directly at Mages, but they knew to respond when a Mage beckoned. Tugging at the reins, the commander brought his horse over to trudge next to Alain’s carriage. The commander pulled down the scarf protecting his nose and mouth, then slid up the goggles covering his eyes so that his face was visible. Only then did he bow as deeply as permitted by his position in the saddle. “Yes, Sir Mage.”

Alain watched him, knowing that his own expression revealed no feeling at all. Merciless training had taught that skill to the young acolytes of the Mage Guild. But with the ability to hide all feeling came a corresponding proficiency at spotting emotion in others, even when they tried their best to hide it. On those few occasions when he had spoken with the commander before this, the man had revealed beneath an impassive face and respectful tone of voice the usual fear of Mages. Now within the commander’s eyes and voice lurked a greater worry.

After most of a childhood spent obeying Mage Guild elders in all things, it felt odd to be addressed with so much respect and fear by a man of the commander’s age. It would have felt awkward, that is, if that were not one more feeling to be denied.

Gesturing ahead, Alain spoke in a voice with no feeling in it. “We approach a pass.”

“Yes, Sir Mage.” His voice hoarse, the commander used the back of his hand to wipe his dust coated lips, then raised a leather water flask and drank to clear his throat. “We are entering difficult territory.”

“More difficult than this waste we have spent so long crossing?”

The commander hesitated, anxiety flaring in his eyes as he tried to guess what Alain had meant by that comment. “Yes, Sir Mage. The pass threatens worse than heat, thirst, and dust.” He pointed up the road, to where the hills loomed over either side of the pass. “Bandits rarely operate far into the waste, and once beyond those hills there may be patrols out of Ringhmon to help keep the peace. But if we are to be attacked, if there are any brigands out and about, that pass is where they’ll make their try at us. It is called Throat Cut Pass for good reason.”

He hesitated again, not quite looking at Alain. “Sir Mage, do you know of any…?”

“No.” Alain let the flat word stand alone. Some Mages did have occasional flashes of foresight warning of what was to come, but never reliably, and he had never felt that gift himself. The elders said that stress or danger could bring foresight to life in a Mage, but Alain would not explain any of that to a common. “Why does Ringhmon not garrison the pass?”

The commander licked his lips nervously before replying. “A garrison here is too much trouble and expense as far as Ringhmon is concerned, Sir Mage. Keeping a strong garrison supplied out here wouldn’t be cheap, and a small garrison would too likely end up victims to the bandits.” He pointed ahead again. “See that column of stone, Sir Mage? Ringhmon claims its borders out to here, but that’s nonsense. They’re not half so big as they like to pretend.”

“Ringhmon is over proud.” Alain made it a statement, not a question.

“That is very true, Sir Mage,” the commander stated bluntly, though he seemed surprised that a Mage was showing interest. “I’ve had to sit and listen while they claim that only the might of Ringhmon has served to check the southern advance of the Empire.”

Alain kept his face and voice expressionless, hiding the inner flash of amusement that he felt. “It is the great desert waste that has stopped the armies of the Empire.”

“That is so, Sir Mage.” The commander gestured behind them. “You saw the wreckage we passed on the road days ago. That’s all that’s left of more than one Imperial expedition. Heat and thirst and the dust storms are what has stymied the Empire’s march south. That and the will of the Great Guilds.” The commander’s eyes flared with open fear. “I mean your Guild, of course, Sir Mage. The only truly great Guild.”

Alain did not acknowledge the man’s words or his apology. He had heard references to the “Great Guilds” since leaving Ihris, and had come to realize that the commons were referring to the Mage Guild and the Mechanics Guild. Odd that the commons should believe that the Mechanics had real power, but then the Mechanics, like the Mages, had Guild Halls in every city. Alain's elders had told him that like the Mages, the Mechanics hired their work out to those with the money to pay for it. While at this moment Alain was contracted to this merchant caravan treading a narrow line of neutrality between the Empire and Ringhmon, his next contract might be with the forces of the Empire, and the one after that to the enemies of the Empire. His only loyalty was to the Guild, and all that mattered to the Mage Guild was a client's ability to pay, as long as none of the clients dared to raise a hand against the Guild or failed to heed the wishes of the Guild in any matter. Anyone who tried to attack Mages, whether the minor towns of the Syndari Islands far to the west, the loose-knit cities of the Bakre Confederation in the lands beyond Ringhmon, the forest-bounded cities of the Western Alliance to the northwest, the Free Cities that held the great mountains far to the north, or the old cities of the mighty Empire that ruled the east, would find the Guild's services denied to them, and many Mages offered in the service of their enemies. Mighty the Empire might be among the commons, but even the Emperor had no choice but to do as the Mage Guild demanded.

Only the Mechanics defied the Mages, and they were beneath notice. Or so Alain had been told. The Mechanics believed that they also ruled this world. The idea would have been amusing if Mages ever allowed themselves amusement.

“What numbers and sort of bandits might we encounter?” Alain heard the continued lack of any emotion in his voice with satisfaction. This might be the first time that he had actually faced danger of this kind, but no common would be able to tell that.

The commander lost his fear in the need to offer a careful and correct response. He rubbed the stubble on his chin thoughtfully, gazing into the distance. “Not too many nor too well armed, I’d think. Any group of more than a dozen has all it can do just to survive out here. Nor is this area rich with pickings. Caravans such as ours are too infrequent. It’s doubtful that bandits out here can manage any rif— any weapons beyond sword and crossbow.”

Alain bent another impassive look on the commander, who seemed to be sweating more now after almost saying the name of the weapons the Mechanics claimed were so superior. “I can deal with any weapons.”

The commander gulped, plainly trying to find diplomatic words. “Yes, Sir Mage, of course. We have no doubt of that. I will go prepare my guards now, Sir Mage, if you no longer require my presence.”

“Go,” Alain said, his own gaze back on the road ahead of them.

“By your leave, Sir Mage.” Bowing again, a wash of relief visible on his face, the commander urged his horse to a quicker pace, anxious to put distance between himself and Alain. “Bows!” the commander called in a powerful voice that echoed across the empty land. “At ready!”

The chain-mailed guards loosened the straps holding their crossbows to their saddles, pulling back the cords to ready them and setting bolts into place. When that was done, and the crossbows resting across the front of their saddles, the guards also loosened their sabers in their scabbards.

Alain settled back, gazing ahead and feeling the power around him. A Mage never knew until he reached it how much power an area might hold, but Alain had been told to expect that all portions of the wastelands would hold little power to draw on. He wondered if bandits knew this, and if it played in their decisions to favor ambushes in this place. Commons weren’t supposed to know such things, but Alain had been informed that Dark Mages would sell almost any knowledge for a price.

The sluggish pace of the oxen slowed even more as the wagons of the caravan reached the slope and began toiling up the rise. Alain glanced around, trying to appear uninterested even though there was a strange kind of excitement in waiting for a possible battle, a thrill he could not completely suppress at the idea of finally using his talents in a life and death struggle. There was some fear there, too, though he couldn’t tell whether it was fear of failing this test or fear of being harmed. Alain could see no signs of threat ahead, but he noticed all of the caravan guards were scanning the rocks as they held crossbows ready to fire.

Alain kept looking up at the rocks, but as the time went slowly by and the caravan crawled up the road toward the pass he found the glare of the sun bouncing off the bare stone was causing his eyes to water. He looked down, blinking several times to rest his eyes, then started to look up again.

Light flashed off something high up on the wall of the pass. Armor or a weapon, warned Alain’s lessons in the military ways of the commons, but before he could react in any way the earth beneath the front wagons of the caravan erupted in a colossal bloom of dirt and rocks. Alain gaped at the sight, Mage composure seriously rattled, as rocks rained down from the sky and the thunderous sound of the explosion echoed through the pass. He had barely time to realize that the leading parts of the caravan had simply vanished in the explosion, along with the portion of the guard force around them, when the walls of the pass began to ring with repeated crashing sounds, far less massive than the first blast but still loud enough that it was as if a thunderstorm had come to rest around the caravan. Alain blinked again, staring at bright, sudden flashes of light winking into existence among the rocks.

The driver of Alain’s carriage had been staring open mouthed at the crater where the lead wagons of the caravan had once been as he fought to control the panicked oxen pulling it. Now the driver jerked backward as if he had been hit with a crossbow bolt, then flopped forward. All around, Alain could hear people shouting and screaming over the strange thunder, and see dust or splinters spurting up where some sort of projectiles were hitting. Oxen bellowed with terror and pain, dropping to the dust to lie limp in their harness. The guard commander was roaring out orders, his goggled face impossible to read but his voice frantic. Sudden gouts of dust erupted from his clothes, and he fell to lie motionless while his horse stampeded away.

Alain pulled his eyes away from the blood spreading out from the center of his driver’s body. He had to do something. A growing surge of anger and fear channeled into his spell, drawing from and building on the weak reserves of power around him. He held up his right hand, feeling the warmth gathering above it as he willed the existence of heat. The heat I feel is an illusion. I can make that illusion stronger. I can make the heat here, above my hand, so hot that it will melt rock. It is only a temporary change to the world illusion, but that is all I need.

The heat in the air above his palm bloomed into visible brightness, then Alain swung his palm to point it toward a cluster of those winking lights and willed the heat to be there.

The fireball didn’t really fly to its target, though that was what common people always thought they had seen. He had the illusion of heat here, and he could put that illusion somewhere else. In an instant, it went from being near Alain’s hand to being at the place he had aimed it. The superheated ball of air appeared at its target and rocks flew in all directions while a different kind of thunder filled the pass.

The attack on the caravan paused for only a moment, as if shocked, then resumed with even more fury than before. Alain, seeing no signs of attack from the place where his first fireball had landed, gathered another ball of heat to him. A moment later, a second big explosion marked the destruction of another nest of bandits.

Wood splintered around Alain. It took him a moment to realize that the bandits must now be trying to kill him. A moment’s fear was submerged by his training as he jumped down from the wagon and willed another spell into being, making light bend and curve around him. He looked down, seeing himself waver and then vanish from sight.

That done, Alain paused to seek more targets. Another guard screamed and dropped nearby, causing Alain’s concentration to falter. He stared at the dead guard, then all around. He could no longer see any caravan guards still fighting, just bodies lying in the dust. A couple of wagons lay on their sides, overturned when their teams panicked. One of the drivers was still fleeing on foot, but jerked and fell as Alain watched.

Am I the last? Dust flew in spurts all around him, telling Alain that the attackers were hurling their projectiles at where they thought he was. His stomach tight with fear, Alain focused on his spells again with a great effort. If I am to survive this, if I am to save anyone left alive in this caravan, I have to keep fighting.

Calling up power, Alain created fireball after fireball, placing them on the heights above the caravan. A series of explosions shattered ancient stone to cascade onto the attackers. His barrage finally caused the onslaught to falter. Clouds of dust rolled down,covering the area of the caravan and blocking Alain’s view of the devastation around him as well as the walls of the pass where the bandits were positioned.

Alain stopped, his breathing heavy and sweat covering his body. He looked down to see his hand trembling with exhaustion, and realized that he had so depleted his strength that the protection spell had failed. A foolish error worthy of an acolyte. Until he rested a little he would not be able to defend either himself or the caravan. Even then, almost no power remained here to draw on. Under his robes he carried one of the long knives Mages bore, but that would be of little use against whatever weapons these bandits were wielding.

Not that defending the caravan seemed to matter any longer. The attack continued from the front and sides, the bandits hurling death blindly into the haze of dust. More and more crossbow bolts thudded home into the dirt or the sides of wagons, as if the ambushers were running low on the deadlier, unseen projectiles. But Alain could hear no movement nearby, or sounds of any guard returning the fire.

Alain staggered back, spent from his spell work but trying to reach the wagons in the rear. Perhaps some guards still survived there. His own flurry of attacks might keep the bandits from advancing for at least a few moments longer, giving time to muster some other defense.

He stumbled through the slowly falling clouds of dust past several more wagons, all abandoned or with their former occupants dead. Tired and scared, Alain could hear his Guild elders lecturing him that a Mage must not show weakness, must not show human frailty. Alain repeated the lessons to himself, trying to block out the thunder of the bandits’ weapons, taking long, calming breaths while he attempted to deny any feelings of fear.

But along with the fear he could not totally eliminate, one thought kept intruding. What other weapons were the bandits using? The thunderous weapons which had wiped out the guards were not crossbows. They were far deadlier.

He reached one of the last wagons, a large one with barred windows whose door had been kept locked since the caravan had left on its journey. Alain had not mingled with the other members of the caravan, of course, since all were commons, but he had overheard some speculation about the occupant of this wagon possibly being a spoiled Imperial lady who had remained unseen throughout the journey. If so, and if the lady still survived, he might still be able to do something for someone.

Alain came around the side and saw that the wagon door sagged open. How could the bandits have reached it before he did? Forgetting caution and weariness for a moment, the Mage rushed forward to look inside the wagon.

A figure rose up before him, holding something in one hand that glinted dully in the dust filtered sunlight. Alain checked his own lifted hand and the two stared at each other for a long moment. A Mechanic?

There could be no doubt. Even in the scorching heat of the waste the woman wore the dark jacket which marked the members of the Mechanics Guild as surely as Alain’s robes marked his own. Unlike the garments of the Mage Guild, though, which bore symbols and ornaments to mark their ranks and special skills in a form only other Mages could read, the jackets of the Mechanics were aggressively plain, just leather stained dark. Those unadorned jackets sent a message to everyone that Mechanics thought themselves so important that they did not need to impress with their clothing or show any visible sign of rank. Her trousers were also plain, though made of tough and high quality material, and her boots dark leather like her jacket.

It took Alain a moment to overcome his shock, then look past the raven black hair cut short so it fell just to her shoulders and the frightened, angry expression, to see that the Mechanic was about his own age.. Her youth startled him, but then it surely would not take the Mechanics that long to teach even elaborate tricks to their members.

“What are you doing here, Mage?” the Mechanic demanded, pointing the object in her hand at his face. That thing she carried had no blade, nor any visible bolt like a crossbow, instead looking like an oddly shaped piece of metal with a hole in the end facing Alain. But the way the Mechanic held it made clear it was a weapon of some kind. “I’ve seen you occasionally during the journey, so I know you’re not among the attackers. Otherwise you’d already be dead!”

He could hear the fear in her voice, barely concealed beneath the bravado of her words.

“I am charged with protecting this caravan!” Alain yelled back over the crash of the bandit weapons.

“They depended on a Mage for protection?” she shouted. “What was the caravan master thinking? Who’s attacking us?”

Under normal conditions Alain would have turned his back on her, adopting a Mage’s lack of interest in anyone and anything in this world. Under normal conditions he would not speak with a Mechanic at all. But he was badly enough rattled that Alain answered instead. “Bandits, the guard commander said. He said there would be only a few, and poorly armed.”

“Bandits!” The Mechanic shook her head, eyes wild. “Impossible. There are dozens of rifles firing on us. No bandit gang could afford those.”

“Rifles?” Mechanic weapons?

“Yes.” The Mechanic held up the thing in her hand. “Like this pistol, but bigger and longer ranged. Where are the caravan guards?”

“Either dead or fled. I believe most have died. I found no one alive until you.” He had spent years being told of the evil nature of Mechanics, and wondered for just a moment if Mechanics were behind this attack. But the fear in the eyes of this female was real.

Alain realized suddenly that the thunder of the Mechanic weapons had fallen off a great deal and the thump of crossbow bolts had also subsided. He stared toward the front of the caravan. “The bandits must be advancing.”

He looked around, not knowing what to do. His training had covered such circumstances, but to actually face them, to be desperately tired and surrounded by the dead while weapons he didn’t understand hurled death over long distances, left him momentarily paralyzed. For a moment he felt his youth and inexperience so heavily that he could not even think.

The Mechanic spoke again, her voice sharp. “We need to get out of here.” Then she looked startled. “I mean…”

Alain understood her hesitation. He could not imagine spending time in her company, either, even under these conditions. “I will try to stop them while you flee. I was contracted to protect this caravan and those in it. That means I have an obligation to protect you.”

“You protect me? A Mage protect me?” The Mechanic seemed to forget her fear momentarily as outrage bloomed. “That’s—”

Hoarse shouts sounded a short distance away. Alain licked lips dry with dust. “They have reached the front of the caravan.” He had regained some control now and kept all feeling from his voice.

“Aren’t you scared, Mage?” she asked. “You sound bored. What are you planning to do?”

Alain gazed down at his hands, then shrugged, feeling overwhelmed. “I will have to stand here and fight. There is nothing else to do.”

“Yes, there is. We can run.”

“We?” The single word made no sense.

“You and me. I won’t let anyone, even a Mage, die if I can help it! I don’t leave anyone! Not even you!”

Alain, baffled by her words and feeling fear bloom inside him again at the thought of death, fell back on his earliest training. “This world is not real. Dying is but the passing from one dream to another.”

The Mechanic stared at him as if his words had been just as incomprehensible to her. “You intend dying here because you think it doesn’t matter?”

“I know it does not matter,” Alain stated in as calm and emotionless a voice as he could manage.

The Mechanic’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Fine,” she said. “Your Guild contracted you to protect this caravan? To protect me? To do that, you’ll need to stay with me. We seem to be the last two alive, and if you stay here while I go, then you’ll be breaking your contract. Now, whether you like it or not, come on!”

Alain hesitated a moment longer as the Mechanic turned to go, then followed. After so many years of obedience to authority, it wasn’t easy to shake off the Mechanic’s commands, and her argument did seem reasonable.

As soon as the Mechanic was sure Alain was behind her, she started running off to one side, beckoning him to follow. Now that he was behind her, Alain could see a large pack on her back. He wondered what it contained that could be so important the Mechanic didn’t abandon it so as to flee faster. Treasure of some kind? The elders had always said that Mechanics were ruled by greed and deception.

They scrambled over rocks and up a steep slope, dust clouds still concealing them from the bandits. Why did she insist I come with her? Why am I following her? But he stayed with the Mechanic as she climbed.

The shouts were coming slowly closer, showing the bandits had kept moving forward but were being cautious, probably because the dust kept them from seeing very far. Only an occasional crash from one of the Mechanic weapons could be heard now.

As the Mechanic reached a long ledge and swung past a cluster of rocks, some figures suddenly emerged. Two had crossbows and the third a strange weapon with a hole in the end like the Mechanic’s hand weapon. All were pointing their weapons at her.

The Mechanic had frozen in the act of bringing up her hand weapon, staring at the bandits, clearly realizing that she was trapped. The bandits had not yet noticed the Mage lagging behind her.