The ever-thickening smoke was more oppressive even than the weight of stone looming above. Black and oily, coughed up by sickly, sputtering torches, it swirled and gathered until it threatened to blot out what little light the flames produced, to transform the passageways once more into a kingdom of the blind.
The stones were old: Dark and made darker by the smoke, they were joined by mortar so ancient it was little more than powder. The corridor, a winding artery of grimy brick, smelled of neglector would have, were the air not choked by that selfsame smoke. All along those walls, clad in the sundry hues and tabards and ensigns of half a dozen Guilds and at least as many noble Houses, soldiers stood rigidly at attention, fists wrapped around hafts and hilts, and did their best to glare menacingly at one another. It was an effect somewhat ruined by the constant blinking of reddened eyes and the occasional racking cough.
At the corridor's far end, an ancient wooden door stooped in its frame like a tired old man. Cracks in the wood and gaps where the portal no longer sat flush allowed sounds to pass unimpeded. Yet something within that room seemed to hold most of the thick haze at bay.
It might have been the press of bodies, so tightly crammed together that they had long since transformed this normally chilly chamber into something resembling a baker's oven. It might have been the hot breath of so many mouths jabbering at once, speaking not so much to as at one another in diatribes laden with accusation and acrimony.
Or it might have been the tension that weighed upon the room more heavily than smoke and stone combined. Perhaps one could, as the aphorism suggests, have cut that tension with a knife, but it wouldn't have been a wise idea. The tension here might very well have fought right back.
Gathered within were the men and women to whom those soldiers in the hall were loyal, and they were doing a far better job than their underlings of glaring their hatreds at one another. Clad in brilliant finery and glittering jewels, the leaders of several of Imphallion's most powerful Guilds stood with haughty, even disdainful expressions, weathering the array of verbal abuseand occasional emphatic spittlecast their way. Across the room, separated from them only by a flimsy wooden table whose sagging planks somehow conveyed a desperate wish to be elsewhere, stood a roughly equal number of the kingdom's noble sons and daughters.
Nobles whose anger was certainly justified.
". . . miserable traitors! Ought to be swinging from the nearest gibbets, you foul . . ."
". . . filthy, lowborn miscreants, haven't the slightest idea the damage you've . . ."
". . . bastards! You're nothing but a litter of bastards! Dismiss your guards, I challenge . . . !"
And those were among the more polite harangues against which the Guildmasters were standing fast. Their plan had been to allow the initial fury to wear itself down before they broached the topic for which they'd called this most peculiar assembly, here in an anonymous basement rather than Mecepheum's Hall of Meeting. But the verbal barrage showed no signs of dissipating. If anything, it was growing worse, and the presence of the guards in the hallway no longer seemed sufficient to prevent bloodshed between these entrenched political rivals.
Perhaps sensing that precise possibility, one of the nobles advanced to the very edge of the table and raised a hand. A single voice slowly wound down, then another, until the room reverberated only with the sounds of angry, labored breathing. A red-haired, middle-aged fellow, Duke Halmon was no longer Imphallion's regentImphallion no longer had a regent, thanks to those "lowborn miscreants"but the nobility respected the title he once held.
Leaning forward, two fists on the table, the white-garbed noble spoke to his fellow aristocrats behind him even as his attention remained fixed on the Guildmasters. "My friends," he said deeply, "I feel as you do, you know this. But this is a most unusual gathering, and I'd very much like to hear the Guilds' reasons for arranging it."
"And they better be damn good ones," spat the Duchess Anneth of Orthessis. Behind her arose a muttered chorus of agreement.
Across the room, expressions of condescension turned to frowns of hesitation. Now that it was time, nobody wanted to be the first to speak.
Halmon cleared his throat irritably, and Tovin Annarasmaster of the Cartographers' Guildshuffled forward with little trace of his accustomed athletic step. Smiling shallowly, almost nervously, he took a moment to brush nonexistent dust from his pearl-hued doublet.
"Ah, my lords and ladies," he began, "I realize we've had more than our share of differences of late. I want to thank you for being willing to"
"Oh, for the gods' sakes, man!" This from Edmund, a grey-haired, slouching fellow who bitterly resented his recent defeat at the hands of middle age. Edmund was Duke of Lutrinthus and a popular hero of the Serpent's War. "Our provinces are starvingnot least because of you Guildmasters and your tariffs!Cephira's massing along the border, and many of us had to travel more than a few leagues to be here. Would you please dispense with the false pleasantries and just come to it?"
Again, a rumble of assent from the blue-blooded half of the assemblage.
A lightning strike of emotion flashed across Tovin's face, from consternation to rage, and it was only a soothing word from behind that prevented him from shouting something angry and most likely obscene in the duke's face.
"Calm, my friend." Even whispered, Tovin knew the voice of Brilliss, slender mistress of the rather broadly named Merchants' Guild. "No turning back now."
He nodded. "None of that matters today, m'lords," he said tightly, looking from Edmund to Duke Halmon. "What we must discuss today is of far greateror at least far more immediateimport."
Scoffs burst from several of the nobles, but Halmon's eyes narrowed in thought. "And what, pray tell, could possibly qualify as more"
"Lies," Tovin interjected without allowing the question to continue. "Broken promises. Murder. Treason. Real treason!" he added, scowling at those who had hurled that word at the Guildmasters mere moments before. "Treachery that threatens us all, Guild and House alike."
It was sufficient to quiet the jeers of disbelief, though more than one noble wore an expression of doubt that was nearly as loud.
"All right," Halmon said, following a quick glance toward Edmund and Anneth, both of whom nodded with greater or lesser reluctance. "We'll hear you out, at the least. Speak."
With obvious relief, Tovin turned toward Brilliss, who moved to stand beside him. A deep breath, perhaps to steady her own nerves . . .
And the room echoed, not with her own slightly nasal tone, but with a shriek from the hallway, a scream of such despair as to bring a sudden chill to the chamber, making even the most irreligious among them contemplate the inevitable fate of his or her own soul.
More screams followed, in more than one voice. The rasping of steel on leather echoed through the hall, weapons leaping free and ready to taste blood, but it was not quite sufficient to drown out the sound of cold bodies striking the colder stone floor.
Edmund, who had stood beside the great Nathaniel Espa while leading the troops of Lutrinthus into battlewho had been present during the near destruction of Mecepheum at the hands of the crazed warlord Audrisswas the first to recover his senses. "Back! Everyone, back away from the door! Halmon! Tovin! Get that table up against it!" It wasn't much of a barricade, but it was what they had. More important, it got the wide-eyed, gape-mouthed aristocrats moving.
Not a man or woman present wore armor, for despite the animosity between Guilds and Houses, none had anticipated bloodshed . . . and besides, that's what the soldiers out in the hall were for. Several did, however, carry swords or daggers, if only for show, and these took up a stance between their unarmed compatriots and the sudden violence outside. Halmon and Tovin retreated from the table and each drew a bladethe duke a short broadsword, the Guildmaster a wicked dirkand stood side by side, mutual antagonism momentarily buried, though scarcely forgotten.
From beyond the door, battle cries melted into screams of agony, and a cacophony of many voices faded with terrifying swiftness into few. Like the chiming of old and broken bells, blades clattered as they rebounded from armor. A horrifying roar shook the walls until mortar sifted down from the ceiling. The smoke that poured through the cracks in the door grew horribly thick, redolent of roasting flesh.
"Dear gods," Duchess Anneth whispered, dagger clutched in one hand, the linked ivory squares that were the symbol of Panaré Luck-Bringer in the other. "What's out there?"
And to her an answer came, though clearly sent by neither Panaré nor any other of Imphallion's pantheon.
A sequence of lines etched themselves across the brittle door, as though it burned from the inside out. For the barest instant the portal split into eight neat sections, each peeling back from the center like a blossoming flower, before the wood gave up the ghost and disintegrated into a thousand glowing embers. Without the door to lean against, the table slumped forward, clattering into the hall to lie atop corpsesand bits of corpses.
More than two score soldiers had stood post in that hall, drawn from the various Guilds and Houses of those who met within this basement chamber. Only one figure stood there now, a hellish portrait framed in the smoldering doorway, a figure that owed fealty to none of the frightened men and women within.
Whimpers rose from what few throats hadn't choked shut in mortal dread, and more than one blade scraped the stone floor where it had fallen from nerveless fingers. For nary a Guildmaster or noble present failed to recognize the manthe thinglooming before them.
Plates of steel armor, enameled black as the inside of a closed casket, encased him from head to toe, showing only thin gaps of equally dark mail at the joints. Across the chest, the shoulders, and the greaves were riveted plates of pale white bone. Spines of black iron jutted from the shoulder plates, and from those dangled a worn purple cloak. But it was the helm, a gaping skull bound in iron bands, to which all eyes were drawn.
It was a figure out of nightmare: the nightmare of an entire nation, dreamt first more than two decades ago, and again six years past. A nightmare that should never have been dreamt again.
"You promised us . . ." It was a whisper as first it passed through Duke Edmund's lips, but rose swiftly into a scream of lunatic terror. "You promised!"
And the unseen face behind the skull laughed, even as he strode forward to kill.
A vicious clatter, a sullen clank, and the grotesquely armored figure stepped through a very different doorway, entering a wood-walled room several streets away from that cellar-turned-abattoir. Soot and crimson spatters marred the armor, as did the occasional scrape where a soldier's blade had landed in vain. Without pause he moved to the room's only chair and slumped into it, oblivious to any damage he did the cheap furniture.
And there he waited, so motionless within his cocoon of bone and metal that the armor might have been vacant. The sun drifted west, its lingering rays worming through the slats in the shutters, sliding up the walls until they vanished into the night. The room grew dark as the armor itself, and still the figure did not move.
A latch clicked, hinges creaked, and the door drifted open and shut in rapid succession. This was followed by a faint thump in the darkness, which was in its turn followed by a sullen cursing from the newcomer and a brief snigger from the armored figure.
"Gods damn it," the new arrival snapped in a voice made wispy with age, "is there some reason you didn't bother to make a light?"
"I'd rather hoped," echoed from within the horrid helm, "that you might trip and break something. Guess I'll have to settle for what sounded like a stubbed toe."
"As you demand, O fossil." Fingers twitched, grating slightly against one another as the gauntlet shifted, and a dull glow illuminated the room's center. It revealed the newcomer to be a tall, spindly fellow clad in midnight blues, with an equally dark cloak thrown over bony shoulders. His bald head was covered in more spots than the face of the moon; his beard so delicate that he appeared to be drooling cobwebs; his skin so brittle it threatened to crack and flake away at the joints.
The old man scowled. "Better, what?" he demanded in a near screech.
The sigh seemed to come from the armor's feet. "Better, Master Nenavar?"
"Yes," the old man said with a toothy grin. "Yes, it is." He looked around for another seat, spotted none, and apparently decided not to give his servant the satisfaction of asking him to move. "I assume it's done?" he said instead. "You smell like someone set fire to a butcher's shop."
"Nope, not done. Actually, I explained your entire plan to them and led them back here. He's all yours, gentlemen."
Nenavar actually squeaked as he spun, arms raised before him in a futile gesture of resistanceonly to find nothing more threatening behind him than cheap paint slowly peeling off the walls.
"I imagine you think you're funny," he growled, crossing his arms so as not to reveal the faint trembling in his hands. The man in the armor was too busy chortling to himself to answerwhich, really, was answer enough.
"Of course it's done," he said finally, once he could draw sufficient breath to speak. "They're all dead."
"All?" Nenavar asked, his brow wrinkling.
Another sigh, and somehow the helm conveyed the eye-rolling within. "Almost all. A few guards survived. I actually do know how to follow a plan, Master Nenavar."
"You could've fooled me."
Nenavar glared. "You stink. Get rid of that thing."
The skull tilted upward, as though the wearer were lost in thought, and then it, and the armor, were simply gone.
Every man, woman, and child in Imphallion had heard the description of that armor, heard the horror stories of the warlord and wizard Corvis Rebaine, who had come so near to conquering the kingdom entire. But the man who sat revealed by the disappearance of the bone and steelnow clad in mundane leathers and a cloak of worn burgundy, his features shadowed in the feeble illuminationappeared far too young to be the infamous conqueror.
"You know what you have to do now, Kaleb?" Nenavar pressed.
"Why, no, Master." Kaleb's expression slackened in confusion, and he somehow managed to unleash a single tendril of drool as his lips gaped open. "Could you tell me again?"