Prologue

Five years was a long time to run.

Jowy Atriedes looked at the long, worn cloak he’d don before leaving the room. It had been green, once. Now, it was mostly grey. But it had held up well enough. He was not in the habit of visiting tailors.

His fingers, like the rest of him long and lean and muscular, closed around one of his thick leather boots. Unlike his cloak, the boots had a tendency to wear out. He’d worn... how many pair? He’d lost count somewhere around eight.

The first rays of sunlight began to poke through the dirty window of his room.

“I’m late,” he said, and sighed.

He had nowhere to go, but he would certainly get there fast.

He didn’t take the time to reflect on the state of his sword - battered, stained and serviceable - as he belted it to his waist, or, once he’d slipped the cloak over his shoulders and pulled its wide cowl forward, on the quality of his staff, which had been with him since before he’d begun his journey.

He’d paid for his room the night before, since he’d intended to leave before sun-up. But the innkeeper was already awake, and Jowy was hardly surprised when he stuck out a swarthy hand and demanded payment. Innkeepers were, in Jowy’s experience, all of a breed.

“I paid last night,” Jowy said quietly. He did not turn, nor did he stop walking. He would leave this place before it mattered, anyway.

“I do not remember it,” the innkeeper said. He sounded like he was going to make an issue of it.

Jowy was too close to... what had been home... to cause any commotion. He turned and fixed his accuser with a glare that was, after half a decade of greedy proprietors, entirely forced. But since his face was hidden in the shadows of his cloak, the smile Jowy couldn’t quite banish would offer no comfort to the innkeeper. Though his face was hidden, his eyes, just for an instant, blazed with the power of the Black Sword Rune.

And then, he left.

No one stopped him.

The innkeeper would wonder, of course. But what could he say? It could have been just a trick of the light. And if not, well, who would be fool enough to try and halt a sorcerer, especially over money he’d already paid?

Jowy shook his head and kept walking. The town was on the border of two nations he’d never heard of five years ago, and didn’t care about now. The desert to the south of him had been difficult, the mountains to the north - haunted, according to the locals - no doubt the same.

It didn’t matter.

But then, Jowy thought, shaking the last sand from his cloak as he began his ascent, what did?

Which was, of course, the question he’d been asking himself ever since L’Renouille had burned down around him.

What place was there for a defeated ruler?

He had no interest in rebellion. His loss had proven the right of the conflict did not lay with Highland, certainly.

Though he’d intended to send them to Harmonia, it was just as well that Jillia and Pilika had been captured by Jowston troops. There would be no fear for their safety in those hands. And after seeing much of Harmonia himself, Jowy knew it was more than just as well.

And... destiny?

Well, destiny was what he’d been running from for five years.

His foot nearly slipped on the rough gravel path, bringing him back from his thoughts.

He cocked his head. So close to a desert, he hadn’t expected there to be mist. And what mist it was! Perhaps the villagers had been right. These mountains could well be haunted.

“Too bad for the ghosts,” Jowy said. Any ghosts there were would probably not be intimidated by his voice. But if they had any sense, they would be intimidated by the True Rune he bore.

Of course, five years had taught him that sense was a rare commodity in the living. Why should the dead be any different?

More dangerous to him than what lived - or unlived - in the mountains was the path itself. The gravel, hardly steady footing to begin with, was slick and slippery from the mist. He slowed his pace.

Jowy was familiar enough with magic to feel its presence through his Rune. And there was a great deal of magic about him on this path. He closed his eyes and probed the mist with his second sight.

Yes, he was surrounded by magic. Magic strong enough to conceal its nature, even before a True Rune.

Such strong magic could only come from one source.

Another True Rune.

Jowy’s hand went to his sword. Cold steel was surprisingly effective against Runecasters, particularly when wielded by the bearer of a True Rune. Whoever, or whatever, was out there, it would find him up to its challenge.

“Sheath thy sword, Bearer of a True Rune.”

Jowy narrowed his eyes. The voice seemed to speak from all the mist at once, quiet, feminine, and, despite the echo, familiar. But he’d heard many voices. He rifled through his memories.

“Thine manner is that of one ill-pleased by what he sees... or hears. Sheath thy sword, for I mean thee no harm.”

“Very well,” Jowy said. He let go of the hilt, and his sword slid back into its scabbard. “Now, show yourself.”

“I shall, Bearer,” the voice answered. But not from the mist.

Jowy spun around, fighting the urge to draw his blade once more. But his challenge died in his throat.

“Thou need not fear me, Bearer,” Leknaat the Seeress said.

Jowy shook his head. “I’m not afraid.”

She nodded.

“But I suppose I’m... curious. Why, six years since we last met, have you called on me in this manner?”

Leknaat’s face clouded. “This is... difficult to explain to thee.”

Why? Jowy wanted to ask. But he kept that to himself - as much as he could in her presence, anyway. Instead, he said, “Then perhaps you will answer another question.”

“I shall answer, as best I am able,” she said. “Ask thy question.”

“Which one?” Jowy wondered aloud. He held up his hand before the seeress could answer. He wasn’t sure if he was more worried that she would be able to tell him... or that she wouldn’t. Quickly, he asked, “Why did you help Jowston?”

Rather than answer, she asked, “Why did thou do the same?”

And yes, he had helped Jowston. He and Leon Silverburg had conspired to send Luca Blight into a trap and had informed their ‘enemies’ of how to close that trap. “That was different. Defeating Luca Blight was more important than nations. I mean afterwards.”

“Thou helped Jowston by thine disappearance, as well.”

“I suppose I did.” Jowy met Leknaat’s eyes. “Then a better question is, are you still my enemy?”

Her gaze did not waver from his face. “I was never thine enemy, Bearer. But thy destiny is greater than any one nation. Thy destiny is greater e’en than our world.”

“Greater than our world?” Jowy frowned. “You speak in riddles, or in nonsense.”

“My apologies, Bearer. I cannot explain all in terms thee could comprehend. Not yet. But I shall endeavor to make clear all that I may.” Leknaat paused. It seemed like hours ticked by, but Jowy doubted it was near that long. “Thou art the Bearer.”

“I know. As are you, Lady Leknaat.” Jowy pointed to the Rune of the Gate emblazoned on Leknaat’s forehead.

But she shook her head. “No. I am but a Bearer of a True Rune. Thou art the Bearer. Thine role is far greater.”

He took a halting step back. A thousand more questions popped into his head. They could wait.

Leknaat continued. “The day will come, Bearer, when thou wilt understand the meaning of my words, and of my nature. Yet I think that day far off. For now, it is enough that thou knowest thy purpose.”

Jowy drew in a slow, deep breath. He’d been searching for just that. In five years, he hadn’t found his purpose. Now, to have it handed to him on a silver platter... Could such an offer be trusted? Did he dare accept it?

“Thou must gather the twenty seven True Runes, and make them one. When thou hast them, thine path will be made clear.”

The silence which descended around them was surely magical itself. All movement, all sound, seemed to have stopped.

Such a task as she proposed had never been undertaken, in all the history of the world. For one man to possess such power, and such responsibility, was unimaginable.

Jowy met her gaze. “Tell me how.”