The Magehound


Аннотация: Some are born with magic.

Some without.

Matteo, un-magical counselor to the mighty of Halruaa, has devoted his life to the truth — until he finds that he may have a hidden spark of magic after all. Now, with only a street waif for a companion, he's on the run from the mysterious Cabal. In the dismal Swamp of Akhlaur, Matteo will seek his own truth while battling a creature out of his nightmares.

But something even worse is on his trail: a relentless persecutor of magic. The Magehound.


Elaine Cunnigham

Counselors and Kings Trilogy

Book 1


The wizard's shoulders burned with fatigue as he forced himself to lift the machete one more time. He hacked at the flowering vines, but the tangled mass was so thick that it seemed to shrug off his blows. A burst of shrill, mocking laughter erupted from the green canopy overhead, a maniacal sound that held a rising note of hysteria. Several of the men with him froze, their dark eyes glazed with trepidation.

"Nothing but a bird," the wizard snapped, desperately hoping that he guessed correctly. "Are you masters of magic or timorous milkmaids? Has Akhlaur's treasure lost its allure? Perhaps you'd prefer to pass your remaining days as a magic-dead wench crouched beneath a cow's udder? I assure you," he added darkly, "that could be arranged. Now, get back to work." He punctuated his command with another angry whack.

He focused on his anger and goaded his men into doing the same. Anger kept them moving. Fear was something they ignored as best they could, for in the Swamp of Akhlaur, even a moment's hesitation could be deadly.

An enormous, luminous green flower snapped at the wizard, missing his ear but dusting him with pollen that glowed softly and smelled like mangoes and musk. He sneezed violently and repeatedly, until he feared that the next explosion would surely expel his liver through his nostrils. When at last the spasms passed, he lashed out with his machete and sliced the blossom from the vine. He knew better than to kick the massive flower, but he dearly wished to.

The wizard had come to loathe the swamp and everything in it, but for these flowers he reserved a special enmity. Monstrous in size and appetite, the swamp blossoms snapped randomly and unexpectedly. Their cup-shaped blossoms were ringed with thorns that curved like a viper's fangs and held poison as deadly as venom. What they caught, they kept. A spray of iridescent blue tail feathers protruded from one tightly clamped blossom. On the ground nearby, low-growing vines entwined the nearly skeletal form of a wild boar. Tendrils of green spiraled around exposed ribs. A flower bud nodded over the juncture of a dagger-sized tusk and massive skull, like a child admiring the work of its deadly parents.

The wizard redoubled his assault on the vines. His hair clung to his forehead in wet strings, and his fingers itched with the desire to cast a spell that would wither the dangerous green barrier into dry and crumbling twigs.

But he dared not. He had brought a company of wizards into the Swamp of Akhlaur, armed with enough spells and potions and enchanted weapons to take them from one new moon to the next-or so he had thought. Already their store of magic ran dangerously low.

How was it possible that in just three days they were forced to replace magic with muscle? What other equally vital errors might he have made? What secrets did the swamp hold that might prove beyond their dwindling powers?

Doubts plagued the wizard as he and his men hacked their way through the thick foliage. Three days in the Swamp of Akhlaur had thinned his patience, his confidence, and his ranks. Twenty men had followed him into the swamp, only thirteen had managed to stay alive. That was no small accomplishment, not when every day brought unexpected dangers and merely breathing was a great effort. His chest throbbed with a dull, heavy ache from battling air as thick and hot as soup.

The wizard had thought himself well accustomed to heat, for Halruaa was a southern land where seasons were denned by patterns of the rains, the winds, and the stars. But never, never had he known such heat! The swamp was a cauldron, a fetid, foul thing that simmered and bubbled and spat.

Water was everywhere. It dripped from the leaves, it enshrouded the shallow waters with mist, it sloshed about the men's ankles. At present they skirted a strangely brooding river. The surface of the water rose in slow, green bubbles that spewed stench and steam into air too moisture-laden to receive either. Odors lingered in the stagnant air, as land-bound as shadows, commingling but still distinct enough to identify: swamp gas, decay, venom flowers, sweat, fear.

Fear. The wizard could taste the sharp, metallic bitterness of it in his throat and wondered why. He, Zilgorn of Halruaa, was no coward. Wizardry was a demanding and difficult path, and no wizard without a strong will and a stronger stomach could become a necromancer. Zilgorn courted death, he bought and sold death, he shaped it to his will. It seemed reasonable to him that he should succeed in the deadly swamp where so many other wizards had failed.

He glanced at the ancient, sweat-stained map he clenched in one hand. His first master, Chalzaster, had spoken of his ancestors' lost village as a place on a hill overlooking a fair meadow, with the swamp beyond. The meadow and village were long gone, swallowed by the eerily growing swamplands, but a hill was a landmark worth seeking. It was all Zilgorn had-that, and the legends that whispered of magic-rich treasure, and the knowledge that many had died trying to claim the legacy hidden in the swamp.

"How much longer?" demanded one of his apprentices. The young man squinted up into the thick green canopy. "We've been working since dawn, and it must be nearly highsun. Yet how far have we gone? A hundred paces? Two hundred?"

"Would you rather swim the river?" snapped Zilgorn.

His retort drew no response but sullen stares. The apprentice shrugged and lifted his machete high overhead. He swung hard, and his blade grated against hidden stone.

Several of the men exchanged hopeful glances. "Akhlaur's tower?" one of them breathed.

The wizard chuckled without mirth. "Hardly! If this quest was so easy, why has no one yet succeeded?"

His followers looked doubtful. This, easy? In three days, they had spent more time in battle than in exploration. Two men had been lost in sinkholes, and another had been crushed and swallowed by a giant snake.

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