He was a fraud. Even his name, Will Cobb, was a lie. If any of the soldiers lounging around the common room knew who he really was, they’d arrest him in a heartbeat and put him to permanent death…or worse. Why hadn’t his father or grandfather warned him that hiding in plain sight from the Empire would turn out to be such a nerve-wracking business?

He might feel safer if his friends were aware of his deception. But for their protection he had to keep up the charade even for them. It was exhausting. It was also becoming increasingly dangerous. He’d caught other people’s attention, now. Powerful people. Some of who would, without hesitation, destroy him and his companions to prevent them from succeeding in their quest.

Will glared around the common room of the Heart building out of general principles. He did not like tonight’s business in the healer’s guild, and he made no effort to hide his distaste for the proceedings. But desperate times called for desperate action.

Their nemesis, the deposed governor, Anton Constantine, was on the loose and would do everything in his power to take revenge against them. Not only had they been instrumental in ousting Anton, but they’d stolen the treasure the greedy noble coveted above all else right out from under his nose. For that, he would pursue them to the ends of Urth and obliterate them.

Anton thought they’d found gold. But they’d found something much more valuable—memory of a legendary king who could stand against the ex-governor’s precious Kothite Empire. Of course, Will and his companions still had to find a way to wake the sleeping king before Anton destroyed the king’s memory. Or them.

It wasn’t that he worried for himself, even though he was no doubt Anton’s main target. But Rosana…he worried about her.

He was still furious with the gypsy healer for giving up a piece of her spirit to save his life in their desperate flight from the Sleeping King’s lair. She knew to keep her spirit firmly where it belonged and not to tempt fate by ripping out part of hers and using it in a manner for which it was never intended.

Not that he was in any position to cast stones at her for doing the unnatural. He fingered the thumb-sized wooden disk grown firmly onto his chest. No sane person voluntarily carried around a tree spirit inside himself, either. Of course, he was grateful to Rosana for her sacrifice. She’d stabilized the unnatural union of his spirit with Lord Bloodroot’s. Which was a boon. For weeks before her stunt, he had hovered on the ragged edge of death.

Now that he was not continuously nauseated and violently ill, High Matriarch Lenora wanted to attempt a ritual to transfer the shard of Rosana’s spirit from him back into the gypsy girl where it belonged. He was all for the transfer. But he could not help being suspicious of the whole business of high magic. Forest bred and humbly raised, these fancy magics were foreign to him. They smacked of the Empire with all of its wealth and power. Or mayhap that was Bloodroot speaking. It was becoming increasingly difficult to separate his thoughts and feelings from those of the irascible treant.

Torches guttered in their sconces every time the Heart building’s door opened, casting hellish light into the corners of the wide, low-ceilinged common room. Two burly Royal Order of the Sun guardians—charged with defending the Heart, its healers, and most importantly, its resurrection heartstones—stood guard while High Matriarch Lenora painstakingly laid out five large, overlapping circles of colored silk rope upon the floor. The braided ropes were marked with intricate signs that helped shape and focus the powerful magical energies summoned in rituals. Each circle would call and contain a particular flavor of magic. As the high matriarch wasn’t entirely certain what she was doing this night, she was calling upon many types of magic all at once.

Which was not reassuring. The whole notion of “exploring” a way to restore Rosana’s spirit made him twitchy. A ritual like this had never been attempted and no scroll of instruction existed for such a thing. Lenora was making it up as she went. Which likely passed beyond desperate into foolhardy.

At least Raina was going to be present in case things did not go well. Another member of their little party of adventurers, she’d sought the Sleeping King for reasons of her own. Her magical skills were considerable. She was an arch-mage in the making and could heal a small village singlehandedly. He had faith, given the sheer volume of magic she could summon, that Raina would keep them all alive through this ritual.

Still, his gut rumbled that the whole thing was a load of glittering unicorn dung. He was half-tempted to storm out and leave them to their smoky mirrors and useless spells. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in magic. By the Void, he was rapidly becoming a formidable caster, himself.

It did not alleviate his doubts and concerns one bit that Mage’s Guildmaster Aurelius, himself, had come out of his hallowed guildhall to consult with Lenora over the particulars of casting tonight’s ritual.

Bloodroot had been able to take the piece of Rosana’s spirit without any fancy rituals. Surely, the tree lord could give it back if he so chose. And the whoreson had better so choose if he and Will no longer had need of Rosana’s spirit to stay alive. Gruff humor rumbled somewhere deep in his belly. Will cursed back at the treant silently.

He should take Bloodroot back to the Forest of Thorns from whence he came and get rid of him once and for all. Of course, there was the small problem of the enraged tribe of orcs who called the Forest of Thorns home. The Boki. Will-self’s lip curled in hatred of the cursed orcs who’d murdered his parents. But the other self trapped within him, the Bloodroot-self, reacted fondly to thought of the Boki, who revered him. Bah. Orc scum.

Lord Bloodroot was one of the thirteen tree lords of the Great Circle. Or at least he had been until the other tree lords turned on him and hacked his tree to bits. Bloodroot’s spirit, housed in one of those bits of the great bloodthorn tree’s heartwood, had nearly killed Will before Rosana pulled her healing trick a few weeks back.

Will glanced over fondly at the gypsy where she conversed in whispers with Raina. The two healers had grown close in their mutual efforts to keep him alive while they completed their quest. They’d found King Gawaine, or at least a dreaming echo of him, not surprisingly in the Realm of Dreams. Will was still not entirely clear on how extra-planar spaces existed, but he’d seen the evidence of one such place with his own eyes.

Apparently, he and his companions now needed to find the Sleeping King’s regalia and his physical body on this plane if they were to actually wake him. But those problems could wait for another day. First, they had to get Rosana’s spirit back where it belonged.

Raina’s blond hair shone pale in contrast to the gleaming sable of Rosana’s as they giggled at some joke. As if the gypsy felt his gaze upon her, Rosana looked up just then and smiled at him, her big, dark eyes worried. His irritation softened somewhat. If this cursed ritual would fix her, he would play nice and cooperate. And if it made her smile at him, all the better.

Rosana stepped wide around the ritual circles and rested her hand surreptitiously upon his forearm. Warmth and a feeling of rightness spread through him at her simple touch.

She murmured, “How do you feel, today?”

“Fine. Whatever healing you did to me in that cave holds steady.”

“You will tell me immediately if you begin to weaken or sicken again, yes?”

That must be at least the hundredth time she’d said that exact same thing to him. “Of course. I’m an open book to you, sweet gypsy rose.”

She gave his shoulder a playful swat. “On the verge of a deadly ritual and still you flirt with me? You’re incorrigible, Will Cobb.”

“Only with you, Rosie.”

She smiled up at him, a warm sparkle in her gaze. “What am I to do with you?”

“Love me always and never leave me.”

“Always and never,” she whispered back.

Her characterization of the forthcoming magic belatedly struck him. “Exactly how deadly is yon ritual?” he demanded abruptly.

She shrugged, but a shadow passed through her eyes. “Well, of course, there’s always a small risk of a flaw in the outcome. Or…” she trailed off.

“Or what?” he demanded.

“Or a backlash,” she mumbled.

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