Armed & magical, p.1
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       Armed & Magical, p.1

         Part #2 of Raine Benares series by Lisa Shearin
Armed & Magical
Page 1

  Chapter 1

  “Once again I’m glad I’m not welcome in polite society,” I muttered.

  Phaelan grunted in agreement. My cousin wasn’t welcome in polite society, either, but for a different reason. He was a pirate. Excuse me, seafaring businessman. I was a seeker. Among some magic users, seeking didn’t rate much higher than pirating. I didn’t care what some magic users thought.

  There had to be a better way to spend our first day on the Isle of Mid than listening to overeducated mage professors making long-winded speeches, but our guards hadn’t asked us what we wanted.

  Our guards were a pair of Guardians from the Conclave of Sorcerers. We were in their citadel’s tower, overlooking the town’s main square, where the boring speeches were being made. We weren’t prisoners, but we weren’t exactly guests.

  My accommodations in the citadel were bright, airy, and more than comfortable, with a sweeping view of Mid’s harbor. Being a member of the Benares family, I kind of expected something along the lines of dark and damp, with a view of iron bars. Sometimes it’s nice to be disappointed. Phaelan had opted to stay on his ship anchored in Mid’s harbor. Good choice. At least he had one.

  Phaelan was here because he’d come with me. I was here because I had to be.

  My name is Raine Benares. I’m an elf and a seeker—a finder of things lost and people missing. I can now add “finder of stones of cataclysmic power” to my resume. I found one last week, and I can’t get rid of it, or the cataclysmic power it gave me as some sort of sick and twisted finder’s fee.

  The stone with the warped sense of humor is called the Saghred. It’s a black rock about the size of a man’s fist that fell from the sky a millennium ago, more or less. I ancient times, armies that carried the Saghred before them were indestructible—and their adversaries were annihilated. You’d think something as small as the Saghred couldn’t cause all that much trouble, but you’d be wrong— apparently size really doesn’t matter.

  Every magic user who’d been bonded to the Saghred had gone crazy. Not crazy like an eccentric aunt, but take-over-the-world-and-kill-millions kind of crazy. The Saghred and I were bonded, but I couldn’t sense it now. It was locked in a containment room in the lowest level of the citadel, under heavy guard, and spellbound under layers of the strongest bindings the Guardians could weave. But it’d already done its damage to me. I no longer needed the Saghred’s help to do the things I could do now. My magical skill level used to be marginal. I didn’t know what my limits were now—or even if I had any limits. I didn’t know if the Guardians were keeping me in the citadel for my own protection or for everyone else’s. I didn’t think the Guardians were all that sure, either.

  I didn’t want a link with a legendary stone of power. That’s why I was here. One of those fancy-robed speech-making mages trying to impress new students and their parents with a lot of long words might be my only hope of getting rid of it. That thought alone was almost as scary as the stone I was attached to.

  The Isle of Mid was home to the most prestigious college for sorcery, as well as the Conclave, the governing body for all magic users in the seven kingdoms. Classes for the fall semester were starting in a few days, hence the pompous speeches. Parents with magically talented kids had to shell out a lot of gold to send their darlings to the Conclave’s college. I guess the faculty wanted to assure the parents they’d be getting their money’s worth.

  A tower room in a citadel was the last place I wanted to be. However, my guards looked downright content. Vegard and Riston were both big and human, and Vegard was endearingly homicidal. The Guardians’ sworn duty was to protect the members of the Conclave and defend the Isle of Mid against any outside threat, but they spent most of their time protecting the Conclave’s students and citizens from each other. The Guardians were sorcerers and warriors, and keeping the peace in a city of sorcerers gave them plenty of practice at being both.

  Vegard and Riston’s job today was to guard and protect me. And considering that I was in a tower room in the Guardians’ citadel, it looked like a pretty plum assignment. I mean, how much trouble could a girl get into under heavy guard in a tower room? Notice I didn’t ask that question out loud. No need to rub Fate’s nose in something when I’d been tempting her enough lately.

  Phaelan had generously offered his guard services as well, just in case something happened to me that my Guardian bodyguards couldn’t handle. Phaelan’s guard-on-duty stance resembled his pirate-on-shore-leave stance of leaning back in a chair with his feet up, but instead of a tavern table, his boots were doing a fine job of holding down the windowsill. I don’t know how I’d ever felt safe without him.

  My cousin looked like the rest of my family—dark hair, dark eyes, dark good looks, equally dark disposition. I stood out like a flaming match at night with my long red gold hair, gray eyes, and pale skin. Considering my present circumstances, I was surprised there weren’t a few white hairs among the red.

  Phaelan leaned forward, looking down into the square. “What’s he saying?”

  “That’s Loran Abas, professor emeritus of chanting,” Vegard told him.

  My cousin blinked. “There’s a class for that?”

  “Afraid so. Trust me—you don’t want to hear what he’s saying. Though if you’d like, I can fix it so you can. ”

  Vegard didn’t say if that fixing would involve magic, but I suspected it did. Phaelan wasn’t a big fan of magic.

  “No, thanks. ”

  We were about four stories up, and the window was just an opening in the fortress wall, so I could hear snatches of what some of the professors were saying, but that was about it, and that was fine with me.

  The blond Guardian shrugged. “Your choice, but you’re missing out on some of the finest-quality droning bullshit you’ll ever hear. ”

  Phaelan’s expression never changed. “My world will go on without it. ”

  “Sat through more than your share of those?” I asked Vegard.

  “Stood through is more like it—at attention. Over the years, I’ve learned to block out the voice of virtually anyone. It’s a gift I’m glad to say I have. ”

  “It also makes it easier to hear the audience’s comments,” Riston added. “That’s the entertaining part right there. ”

  I looked back down at the sea of humanity, and elves, goblins, and dwarves. A tall and leanly muscled elf in the steel gray uniform of the Guardians stood on the raised stage just behind Archmagus Justinius Valerian’s chair at his right hand. Mychael Eiliesor. I couldn’t make out his expression, but I was sure it was a perfect, polite, professional mask.

  Mychael Eiliesor was the paladin and commander of the Guardians. He was also an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, coated in yum. The yum was apparent to any female with working eyes. What wasn’t apparent was what was going on behind Mychael’s tropical sea blue eyes.

  I liked Mychael. I think Mychael liked me, but he wasn’t about to let liking me get in the way of his duty. As paladin, protecting the Saghred was his responsibility. And since the Saghred and I were psychic roommates, that protection extended to me. He took that job very seriously. Regardless of how Mychael felt about me, he wasn’t taking any chances. That caution took the form of Vegard and Riston, tower rooms, and plush and all-too-secure accommodations. The words “gilded cage” came to mind. I didn’t like cages; it didn’t matter what they were made of.

  Archmagus Justinius Valerian rose and approached the podium as the final speaker. The archmagus had absolute authority over the Isle of Mid and everyone on it. He was also the mage Mychael had deemed most likely to help me sever my link with the Saghred.

  The audience greeted their archmagus with cheers and whistles. I didn’
t know if the cheers were for Justinius, or because he was the final speaker, or both. Either way, the wall of sound was almost deafening.

  A slow grin spread over Vegard’s face. “This is usually good. In our younger days, if we weren’t on duty, we’d meet at the tavern across the street to listen to the old man. ”

  I must have looked unenlightened at his source of amusement.

  “We did shots at every sarcastic remark,” Riston clarified.

  Vegard grinned. “We got so drunk. ”

  The archmagus stepped up to the podium. The other speakers had used notes; Justinius Valerian used his brain. As to sarcasm, his speech had plenty to go around. The old man spared no one. The loudest cheers from the student section came after snarky comments aimed directly at them. The worse the abuse, the louder the cheers. I smiled. They were probably doing shots down there, too. The students loved him.

  I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of an upper-floor window as a vantage point. Nearly every window of houses, shops, and businesses around the main square were filled with spectators. The window directly across from ours had been empty.

  It wasn’t anymore.

  Oh hell.

  The archmagus’s voice faded into the background as Banan Ryce gave me a casual salute.

  Banan Ryce was commander of the Nightshades. Nightshades were elves—they were also assassins, kidnappers, blackmailers, or whatever they had been given enough gold to do. I knew Banan; he’d met me. Let’s just leave it at that.

  Thanks to my Saghred-enhanced skills, I knew that Banan’s salute was more than a greeting for me; it was a signal, and his people in the crowd below responded. Some moved into position; others were already where they needed to be to do whatever it was they were going to do. I knew exactly which ones were there at Banan’s bidding as surely as if they had a bright red spot painted on top of their heads.

  I stood. “We’ve got trouble. ”

  I felt Vegard and Riston’s power flare behind me. It would be way too little, far too late.

  Vegard tried to shield me, with both body and wards. “Where?”

  I didn’t let him do either. “Everywhere. At least thirty Nightshades. They’re all over the square and they’re moving. That’s Banan Ryce in that window there. You know him?”

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