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The dank odor of damp stone and old straw filled the room, familiar and stinging. Like all of Necropolis, this room held the stink of untold years of death magic, of power bought by the suffering of innocent and tortured souls, of blood spilled, life debased, and foul treachery revered and rewarded.
Kerraii stared impassively at the sorry collection of Elves and humans before her; they stared back with no apparent understanding of her control over their fates.
This lower room was one of many carved out of the rocky island that held Necropolis. It resided in Sarnen's tower, a building identical to the eleven others ringing the more impressive Prophet's tower. Twelve towers for the Deathspeaker Orders and another for the Dark Prophet, the bone avatar that contained the essence of the Grand Magus Tezla, father of them all. Thirteen towers, connected by complex tunnels--some of them public and some of them most decidedly not. Above ground, sky bridges connected the twelve Order buildings to one another and to the other major buildings of Necropolis; the rest of the city was a vast maze of edifices, streets, and secretive, walled courtyards that stank of blood and corruption. But here in the lower levels of Sarnen's Order, Kerraii faced this tightly packed chamber of used up slaves and contemplated their fate.
It was a fate already decided. These slaves were old, or simply too weak to be of any further use. From child to elder, they no longer served her Lord Sarnen as they should. And they offended her nose with their rank fear and unwashed bodies.
Not for much longer.
Those still showing a spark of intelligence and life regarded her with wary understanding. They knew what she was--a Nightblade, blooded and trained and battle proven, bearing blade and specialized strap harness, her sleek black hair pulled back into a tight, stern ponytail that merely served to emphasize her stunning, refined Elvish features. Nightblades. Assassins. The ultimate in cold death and beauty combined. If the Nightblade style also provided a subtle visual reminder of the stern and unquestioning loyalty expected of her and her sister Nightblades, such thoughts remained unspoken among those who served Sarnen.
As Kerraii served him. Kerraii, Deathspeaker Sarnen's own. His mistress, his most trusted Nightblade, an ex-Wylden Elf who'd moved on to new ways.
Those who resented her position and the relative security it lent her often looked for ways to annoy her, to debase her, like the Death Merchant Skulk, who'd found a way to assign her this menial duty. Skulk's vindictive hatred had been a part of Kerraii's life since her arrival in the dark city, when she'd supplanted him at Sarnen's side. Skulk had never been anything more than a momentary pet project to the Deathspeaker, a human in Dark Sect ranks . . . and he'd never been able to accept the temporary nature of that role. Instead he turned his hatred and revenge on Kerraii. She'd long ago learned to expect it.
Now she forced a bored note into her voice; her gaze skipped over the miserable slaves, never settling long in one place, or on one face. "You have served what purpose you can in your present state," she told them, using the Atlantean tongue she'd learned upon coming to this place eight years earlier. They all knew it; the humans had come here knowing it and the Elves learned it to survive, as had she. Even after all this time of interacting with humans on a daily basis, they still looked short to her--short and stout, though some much more than others. Now no one here carried enough flesh to be called stout.
"It is time to move on. In this you have no choice, but you do have the ability to affect the nature of your continuing service."
They exchanged fearful glances at that. They understood perfectly that such choices were never between anything but the lesser of two evils. But they voiced no question or protest. That, too, they had learned. On this day, Zombie guards stood by both of the chamber's exits, filling the doorways with their bulk and their faint, pervasive odor. Their simple-minded efficiency and unquestioning loyalty made them frighteningly effective guards; in this case Kerraii used them mostly for show. Should this entire chamber full of pathetic slaves choose to revolt, she could easily handle them on her own. Geared up in her battle harness of strategically aligned leather strapping, she was ready for it.
She was Sarnen's chosen.
"From here," she told them, standing as lightly poised for action as she ever was, "you will go to the pits. And in the pits you will die." She paused to let it sink in, if there were any left who could even comprehend or care.
In the middle of them all, an Elvish head lifted. Dark brown hair, lank and dirty as was the norm. Eye color hidden by the shadows of the torch- and candle-lit room. Perhaps there was an unusual spark of awareness behind the old claw wounds scarring her face. She reminded Kerraii of . . . something. Of things she might once have known but had discarded along the way.
Kerraii met the Elf's gaze with a cold, black-eyed look and judged she'd given them all long enough. "It is your fate to serve as baiting partners for blood-pit trainees and champion warm-up exercises." Kerraii knew those pits. The blood, the screams, the stench of horrible, agonizing death. In those pits, the Dark Sect Elves earned their notoriety and clawed their way up the ranks of Necropolis. The pits held no mercy, no quarter, and the promise of gruesome demise for any who were not quick enough, clever enough . . . or cruel enough.
The slaves knew those pits as well. Many of them had hauled away the horribly mangled bodies it produced.
Kerraii watched her words sink through to them and added, "The choice you make is this. Fight well and provide a challenge for your opponent, and a Necromancer will immediately return you to life, essentially intact--including your spirit. Provide a poor showing, and several hours will pass before your body is brought back to be inhabited by a random spirit, turning your body into a dumb shell, a Zombie. Your existence will be an endless tragedy."
Kerraii paused then, glancing meaningfully over her shoulder where a shuffling female Zombie entered the room to attend her one and only chore: trimming candlewicks. She was one of several Zombies who made the endless rounds of Sarnen's tower rooms, snuffing out candles, pinching off the wicks so the candles would burn clean and long, and relighting them. Layers of wax covered her fingers, dripping down her hands and along her ragged sleeves; soot marked her hands and shift; and her bare feet walked cold stone floors, picking up stains and dirt. Her feet had gone unwashed for so long that the filth crept up her ankles and shins. This mindless chore would be hers until some accident befell her, or until she shuffled in front of the wrong person at the wrong time and earned a final death.
Her presence here was hardly a coincidence. Where Kerraii's words meant little to a wrung out batch of slaves accustomed to misery and threats, the sight of the Zombie woman caught their attention. They were used to Zombie guards, big and hulking and barely human; they barely truly looked at them anymore. But they could easily see what Kerraii saw in this Zombie woman--that she had been young and pretty and had a mouth meant for smiling. Kerraii gave her own little smile, but it had a dry and bitter edge.
She turned back to the slaves and found that same scarred Elvish woman watching her. While the others reacted with moans of fear and despair and useless expressions of determination--all things Kerraii was used to seeing, and all of which would do them no good whatsoever--this woman's face remained calm. Calm, and touched by . . .
Was that pity?
Startled, Kerraii looked back long enough to be sure. Yes. Pity. In an instant fury flashed through her. She was Kerraii of the Sect Elves, and she'd risen to her status in record time. She was favored of Sarnen, superbly trained and tutored, and had as much security as anyone in this city--enough to raise the envy that had spurred Skulk to maneuver her into this job. She needed no one's pity.
But through her fury--a fury she allowed to show nowhere but in her black eyes--she understood. The pity was for the very thing she was now forced to do, to send these miserable people from their sorry lot to a fate literally worse than death.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a scuff of sound in the corridor. The Elf woman heard it too; Kerraii saw it in her eyes as they broke contact, impressed despite herself that the woman was so alert. The others were as expected, far too immersed in their own fate to heed such subtle clues.
Kerraii turned an annoyed look toward the entrance as the Zombie guard moved aside. Not much to her surprise at all, Skulk came into view at the door, cloaked and cowled and shadowed to hide his features, as if his short stature weren't enough to reveal his human nature. Here within the Ring of Towers, he usually kept a modest pose--but as one of very few humans to have advanced so far in the Necropolis meritocracy, in the city and countryside he did not fail to present himself in the hard-earned bone helm and armor he'd earned.
Unless he was trying to bully Kerraii.
"Why are these slaves not processed yet?" he demanded, gesturing forward the Seething Knight who had escorted him here. The knight eyed Kerraii, assessing her. Skulk said, "Is there a reason for the delay?"
Kerraii was more interested in the third figure lurking behind him, the one attired in simpler robes and a respectful posture. She did not rise to Skulk's verbal prod. "Merely assuring they are properly motivated before they go to the pits," she said, using the language of the Sect Elves for privacy . . . and because she knew he preferred Atlantean.
"A waste of time," he said. "The important thing is not how they perform, but what use we can make of them. The pits await sparring partners, and I have eager students prepared to practice necromantic arts. You waste their time."
Kerraii gave the lurking figure a sharp glance, suddenly understanding. A Sect Elf Grave Digger, just now learning his skills. Clever of Skulk, indeed . . . the chance to display dominance over her, and the opportunity to deal with these slaves outside the usual pattern, leaving himself as the only one who knew of their scheduling, and therefore with the opportunity to turn his favored sycophants loose to practice on the pit-killed slaves.
And also ensuring that no matter how much spirit the slaves showed against their pit partners, they had no chance of becoming anything but the basest of Zombies. These apprentices could not work quickly or skillfully enough to restore anyone's spirit to their own body. Not in time.
Kerraii told herself that she cared not about the fate of the slaves. But she was not pleased to be used by this human Death Merchant for such a cleanly pierced ruse. It showed no respect for her master. If she allowed it to happen, Sarnen would lose status in the meritocracy, Sarnen--one of the original founders of the Dark Sect, one of the few remaining who had been in Atlantis when Tezla lived--made a joke by this human pretending to be a Necromancer.
He would rightly blame Kerraii.
"I understand," she told Skulk, inclining her head slightly. In fact, she understood perfectly. With deliberate obscurity, she added, "I will hasten the processing."
"Enough time has been wasted. This knight will escort them to the pits immediately."
"What makes you think so?" she asked, cocking her head as if in genuine curiosity. The knight stiffened. Where Kerraii wore a simple harness of leather strapping tailored to fit her elegant body and spelled to repel blades, the knight wore an armor chestplate over his black tunic, greaves on his legs and vambraces over his arms. Her attire allowed her to move swiftly, silently and decisively; his merely protected him from poorly aimed blows. Her sword was light and keen and nimble; his was a chunk of metal meant for hacking. She'd witnessed just that when the company of Necropolis Seething Knights had taken her village.
At first glance, it might seem as though the knight had the advantage. But Kerraii knew better.
Skulk reacted to her question almost eagerly. He planned this. He hoped for this. Kerraii saw it on his face, the way his eyes widened as any human's in the Vurgra Divide would when catching a glimpse of a Deathspeaker. Delight. In this case, meant to be secret, but not. Skulk said, "These are my orders. If you see fit to resist them, I am not responsible for the consequences."
Kerraii smiled inside. She gave him her most black velvet tones in reply. "My own orders came from my Lord Sarnen, that I should assist you in this fashion. Those are the orders I follow, as they were given."
Skulk shrugged in the most insincere way and flicked negligent fingers at the slaves. They cowered, well aware they were under discussion, and of the hostility hidden beneath the casual tones of a conversation they couldn't understand. Skulk said to the knight, "Take them. Eliminate any resistance you encounter. I trust that is clear enough."
"Perfectly clear," said the knight, his voice gravely and entirely lacking in subtlety of tone. He disregarded the Zombies, knowing they had been set to guard the chamber and would not take the initiative to respond to the changing situation. He drew his sword and in loud, poor Atlantean demanded of the slaves, "You will come with me!"
They immediately glanced at Kerraii, as if she represented their safety as opposed to their fate--when in fact she represented nothing other than Sarnen. She did not yet draw her blade; she allowed faint amusement to show as she asked the knight, "Was your most recent meal good enough to be your last?"
He puzzled out the threat, scowled at her, and moved in toward the slaves, causing a rippled reaction of retreat toward the second doorway.
Kerraii drew her sword, placing herself between the slaves and the knight. She pricked him in half a dozen places while he was still jerking his sword into a sloppy initial guard: his inner elbow, his stomach, his thigh, his neck. Small blood spots bloomed in quick succession, and then she'd moved back and out of his range. "Were you never warned about letting a Nightblade make the first close strike?" She arched an eyebrow at Skulk. "You chose the wrong tool, Death Merchant Skulk. I can wait here while you go choose another--although it does seem like the delay would simply waste time."
From the Paperback edition.