The Poison Ember – Serpentstone Book 2
by A.M. Obst
Her arrival forced him to put aside the letter.
He should be grateful, but part of him yearned to read it again, to find some benign meaning he’d missed the first time.
“Good morning, Sarnd!” The force of her greeting pushed him back a half-step, though he’d been expecting it. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m a little early for my lesson today. And I promise you, I have been practising! I know that makes a change, for me, but now my son has left home I have so much more time than I ever had before…”
The monologue continued as she squeezed herself and her bulging bag past him down the narrow corridor to the centre of his small studio. She was more eager than impolite, but over the last two years Sarnd had learned enough about the customs of this city to realise she should have waited for his invitation.
But, well, she was content to keep paying him for weekly drawing lessons, and Sarnd was absurdly grateful for that. His student numbers were growing at an acceptable rate, though it would be a while before he was confident enough to be more assertive with any of them.
After all he’d been through back in his home town, he knew the trouble that being assertive could bring.
The letter squatted on his table like a bird of prey, its folds springing open as if about to launch itself across the room at him. He felt compelled to read it again, to pore over the blunt sentences and tease out its hidden text, while at the same time the idea of burning it to ashes was hard to ignore.
You are summoned to come at once.
Was it the message he’d been dreading all these years?
“… so don’t you think this is much better?” A drawing thrust in front of his nose made him wonder how much he’d missed of the student’s one-sided conversation.
“Yes, it’s good,” he replied automatically, then winced. False platitudes to keep others happy did nobody any good; not his students’ progress, and not his own self-respect. He was still trying to break out of the habit. But as his eyes focussed on the sketch, he realised it was a great improvement on her previous efforts. Parts of it were still awkward, and the composition needed further refinement, but her ability to capture an image was getting somewhere.
“It is good!” he said, his smile now genuine rather than forced.
“Thank you! I’m sorry I’ve been so slow, but I feel it’s all coming together now. I can practise even harder between lessons, and I’m sure in time—and with your guidance—I’ll really be able to do well.” She paused and skewered him with a penetrating stare. “Are you all right? You seem a bit distracted.”
It was too late to conceal it. “Sorry, yes I am, a little. It’s just that…”
“Well, I might not be able give you any lessons for a while. I think I have to go away.”
She arched an eyebrow. “You think? Or you will?”
He took a breath. “I will. Sorry but it’s out of my control.”
“Oh! Is everything all right with your… family?”
“Yes,” he said as he struggled to remember what he’d told her about his background. Very little, as per his usual policy; after the way people in Naerun had treated him, he didn’t want anyone in his new home city to guess anywhere near the truth. But he may have let something slip over the course of her lessons. “Well, no. I’m not sure.”
Her face fell. “How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know. It might be a few weeks.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth formed an ‘O’. “But your exhibition is opening in a month! Will you be ready for it?”
All the worry caused by the letter had almost driven the thought from his head. He’d hardly believed the offer of holding his first exhibition ever, and in one of the prestigious local galleries, no less. None of his existing paintings were good enough for that, so he’d resolved to spend every moment creating new ones worthy of such a major step in his career as an artist.
Since that Fissuring missive had arrived that morning, all thought of the exhibition had evaporated. And, if he was honest with himself—though he would prefer not to be—he was beginning to wonder if he’d ever return to hold any public display of his works.
He should do the right thing and cancel the exhibition. They could give the space to another, more worthy artist, someone reliable and organised. More talented, and without a secret that would cause the people of the city to cast him from their gates.
A small voice in his head, one he’d started hearing a few years ago, began to scold him. I thought you’d stopped thinking like that. You deserve that exhibition as much as anyone else! More, in some cases, after all the hard work. After leaving your past behind.
The voice was right, and he needed to heed it more. Closing his eyes, he made a vow to the voice, to himself, that he would return and have his hard-earned exhibition after all. He managed to get through the rest of the lesson, though his student did most of the talking with the occasional suggestion where she stopped to allow his input.
But all the time, the shadow of the letter grew and grew. It was the longest hour Sarnd had ever spent, but at last the student was packing up her gear.
“Now, you didn’t seem very certain whether you have to go away,” she said as she tied her drawing pens into a neat bundle and slipped them into her bag. “Do you need to go at all?”
He hesitated. It was tempting to simply ignore the summons, pretend he’d never received the letter. Messages went missing all the time, despite what was claimed about the wonders of the Damenian Postal Service.
But they’d come looking for him, he was sure of that. He’d be forced to abandon his new life and go into hiding somewhere. He would need to ensure he did nothing to attract attention, so holding any exhibition would be out of the question.
And he’d need to be careful who he revealed his whereabouts to. He’d been more than happy to leave most of the people of Naerun behind after what they’d said and done, but he could never cut himself off from his sisters. And they were probably the greatest danger. His older sister Betharad would respect his request for confidentiality, but if she was put in a position where she felt it was her duty to reveal his location, or if she decided it was for his own good, she would do so.
As for his twin sister Jessa, he hadn’t seen her for over a year, but he had no doubt that if she thought he was shirking his obligations she would march here and drag him out by his ear. Especially when she was faced with the same obligations.
No, running away to avoid his fate was nothing more than an escapist daydream.
“Sarnd? Are you listening?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” He smiled to cover up his turmoil. “No, I think I do need to go. It may be nothing, with any luck, and I’ll be back soon.”
Her furrowed brow made it clear she was far from convinced by his words. “Well, promise me you’ll send a message as soon as you return, and we can continue our lessons… I haven’t told you this, but you’re the best art teacher I’ve come across.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Take care of yourself.”
He stood there as if turned to rock, too shocked to move as she disappeared down the narrow stairway. But soon the letter pulled at him once more, and he closed the door.
He made himself a cup of tea, not so much because he wanted one, but because it seemed the right thing to help prepare for re-reading the lines.
My dear Sarnd,
—the lines of ink forming his name were starting to resemble a noose—
I hope you are well and enjoying your life in Halef. Your sister informs me you have an exciting development coming up soon–I am so pleased for you, and I hope it goes well!
That was all well and good, but the rest of the words were going to cut all that off at the roots, leaving his dreams to wither and die. Sarnd shook his head and read on.
I have been ordered to call you and Jessa to an important meeting in Ynavare, the capital of Ynavec. A map and directions are enclosed.
You are summoned to come at once. I am bound not to tell you more, but all will be revealed after you have both arrived.
I wish you a pleasant journey and look forward to seeing you soon.
The letter was typical of the man, starting with light pleasantries as if he was a friend, then, when the writer arrived at a topic he found awkward, stepping back and becoming formal.
Sarnd suspected the Academy loomed between the lines of the message. Who else would demand he and his twin sister attend a mysterious meeting in such an obscure location, without any concession to what other commitments they had in their lives?
And like Sarnd’s parents, Relchen was a custodian, trained by the Academy to harness the magical energy known as the Lifespring. Though Sarnd knew Relchen resented the Academy for what it had done to him and his friends, he still worked for them.
The last six years had seen Sarnd and Jessa both subjected to various inspections and interrogations by all sorts of officials from the Academy in Eisilath. Each time, he’d braced himself for some pronouncement that would have severely curtailed their lives; his knowledge of the Academy’s justice was poor, but he could imagine imprisonment or execution were within the bounds of possibility. But each time, nothing of the sort had transpired.
The frequency of these ‘interviews’ had tailed off in the last two years or so, and he’d begun to hope everyone was finally losing interest in the twins and their unusual origins.
Until now, it seemed.
And Ynavare? Why there? Relchen’s map was nothing more than a series of curving lines representing a rough street plan of the city. It held no answers.
Sarnd went to his tall cupboard and rummaged around between the loosely stacked canvasses, until his fingers met the stiff leather cover of his bound book of maps. He didn’t normally need to refer to it, as his memory held images without any effort on his part, but he enjoyed the artistry in the lines and lettering.
Back at his work table, he found the map he wanted, headed The Southern Lands of the Damenian Union. Almost in the centre was the dot of gold paint—the most expensive colour available—labelled Halef, capital of Saguinth, where he was now. South of that, beyond the Ynhegin Hills, drawn as small green domes—he was sure those hills had never looked green—was a smaller black dot. That was the town of Naerun where he’d grown up. Betharad still lived there, with her husband Kavilas, their two sons, and Elian. Maenna, too, on the odd occasion she was around.
But not him, not any more. The townspeople had made it clear he was no longer wanted there.
A long way east of Halef, on the coast of the Inner Ocean—he preferred the more poetic name Armoriskelath—was another gold dot for Ravella, capital of Calcerti, where Jessa now lived. He wondered whether his sister was right then poring over the implications of a disconcerting letter from Relchen.
They’d hardly spoken for the past year. Not because of any deliberate decision; it had simply happened, a slow drifting apart as their lives had taken different directions. Stupid really, and now he wanted to talk through his fears with her. Her preference for action over words meant she could sometimes cut through the unnecessary background noise and find the heart of the matter. He needed that today.
At the top of the map, just beyond the deep blue ribbon that marked where the River Hebris cut the continent in two, was another gold dot. Ynavare. A strange city in a small, strange land. He knew very little about its people, and as far as he could recall had never met anyone from that part of the world.
Sarnd rubbed his temples. If he’d been asked to name the oddest place he could think of for a meeting with custodians from the Academy, he could have said that place.
All he knew was that Ynavare was famed for its thick, impenetrable walls, and was perched above the Calatine River on a spur of foothills of the Eobar Mountains. Perhaps he would finally get to see the peaks where human life was considered to have started, if he went. When he went.
At least the meeting wasn’t taking place here in Halef, which gave him some comfort. He quite liked his small apartment, though it had taken several months to get used to the space. The main room was big enough—and had the right amount of indirect light—for him to devote more than half to a studio, though it did make his living quarters a little cramped. Still, that was where he created his art and taught others. The whole place wasn’t luxurious by any means, but it was his, and he was beginning to feel he belonged here.
A visit by prying custodians would take away the sense of achievement and security he felt there, no matter how tenuous.
The studio was the only space where he permitted a state of disarray. Unframed canvasses were stacked everywhere, holding paintings and drawings in various stages of completion. More canvas was rolled up on shelves, along with boxes of charcoal sticks, pens and brushes. One whole cupboard was filled with paint of every colour he could get his hands on at the artists’ market. Several easels waited in the corners like huge, long-legged insects.
Off to one side, covered by a cloth, was Sarnd’s pitiful first attempt to teach himself sculpture. He was relieved no student had asked him what was hidden there, though he’d caught them eyeing it from time to time. From the off-white dust that now covered the floor along with the speckles of paint, they must have had some idea. Sarnd was undecided as to whether it was worth paying money for proper lessons. Now he might never get the chance to find out.
He sought fresh air at one of the three generous windows. Two storeys below he could see the tops of people’s heads as they went about their business—perhaps heading to the small fruit market a couple of blocks away, or meeting friends at one of the fashionable cafes that had sprung up everywhere lately.
They’re so lucky, able to live their lives without impending doom hanging over them.
The owner of the local bar was fixing wooden poles at the corners of the large brown awning, providing essential shade for her customers. Sarnd could have been one of them, but the journey to Ynavare would take at least two days, and he’d learned the hard way what the Academy meant by ‘at once’. He was left with no time for a final drink, for telling the friends he bumped into at the bar…
What would he tell them?
He enjoyed their company because they were content to chat about subjects of no real consequence, and asked no prying questions. They had never tried to dig up his history, to uncover the secret that had caused people he’d grown up with to shun him, and the principal at the school tell him some parents found it ‘uncomfortable’ to have Sarnd teach their children.
So he made an effort to ensure nobody in his new life had any reason to do the same. But even his drinking acquaintances would be suspicious of the vague excuses he’d fed to his student this morning. If he failed to turn up for a drink at some stage in the next few days, they might grow worried and try to seek him out. The bar owner knew where he lived. His landlord would ban him from the building if someone broke down the door. Sarnd wanted to become known in this city for his art, not for disappearing in mysterious circumstances.
As he stared at the scene of normal life going on around him, feeling sorry for himself, that inner voice spoke up again: If you are foolish enough to go, you have to do whatever it takes to ensure you’re coming back here. Whatever the Academy wants, just give it to them and then depart.
He returned to his table to take up his pen to craft messages to the bar owner and the gallery where his exhibition was going to be held. As he struggled to come up with the right words, his eyes snagged on a section of the map he’d been avoiding. A little below the dot of Naerun, on an island in the River Elleboran, was a place considered so inconsequential by the mapmaker, it didn’t merit a dot or a name.
The ruined fortress of Creonze.
It was the place where everything started, both good and bad. It was where he and his twin sister had been born—or created. The place where they’d faced down the murderous sorcerer Urzed, and prevented the ravenous demon Karrti from decimating their world by throwing the Serpentstone through the huge Fissure there.
Sarnd still had to force himself to think about the Serpentstone rather than let his mind shy away from it. Like most people, Sarnd had grown up believing it was no more than a legend to frighten children and adults alike. But six years ago, he’d learned it was very real. Known to the Academy as the Orufasu, the Stone was the greatest concentration of magical power ever discovered. Unfortunately, the Stone also had a mind of its own, and Sarnd had discovered for himself just how angry and vindictive that mind could be. It had corrupted the monarchs of Cathrubas, resulting in the downfall and abandonment of that once great city-state. Sarnd had seen the Stone kill and maim people without a second thought.
The worst thing was—and surely all that was bad enough—they’d discovered he and Jessa had been created using the Serpentstone’s power by a group of renegade custodians, including Relchen, as well as Veric and Maenna who he’d believed were his parents. The Stone had found it so, so easy to turn Sarnd and his sister Jessa into extensions of its destructive self, stripping away all that made them human.
Relchen’s precipitous summons must be connected with that history he’d rather forget. The endless prodding and questioning by the Academy. The open revulsion by his own townspeople when the truth had been revealed.
Will you ever leave all that behind?
A shudder dashed down his back, and he forced himself to breathe. The Serpentstone and Karrti were trapped in another world; Betharad would have informed him if the cursed Fissure at Creonze had reopened to spill out any of its horrors.
Then again, Jessa might have done something to cause renewed interest by the Academy. She always rushed in without thinking, and had once been obsessed by the idea that she might have the ability to use the power of the Lifespring. She can’t have changed that much in the last year.
Changes in him had been minimal, despite his best efforts; still working himself up into a panic over very little information. Never mind the question about whether he was a good artist—one thing he excelled at was thinking in circles, until the circles became knots, and the knots became a tangled web of indecision with no clear way out.
He should emulate Betharad and Kavilas, with their ability to analyse all the facts with a clear head.
He forced his mind back to what he was going to say in his messages without getting anyone offside. He would discover what this meeting was about soon enough.
Do you want to know what this meeting is about? Or what Sarnd’s sister Jessa has been doing lately, and how she reacts to the same letter? Find out what the return of the Serpentstone means to the twins’ lives, and what they do about it. Click here to get The Poison Ember from your favourite online retail bookstore.
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