Aral Kingslayer has nothing to lose—and only justice to gain. Torn apart by the death of his goddess, he must avenge her in order to save himself from being lost forever....
It’s been nine long years since the death of his patron, Namara, and exalted assassin Aral Kingslayer desperately misses the thrill and glory of being a higher power of justice. Now he is haunted by the ghosts of the past—and by the ghost of the lost goddess herself.
When Namara calls upon Aral in a dream to seek justice for her death and the ruination of her temple, Aral must obtain the help of his fellow former Blades and his Shade familiar, Triss, to pursue the vengeance he knows Namara deserves. Even if it means attacking Heaven’s Son—and going against one of their own—in a bloody battle of epic proportions...
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“Aral the jack, formerly the noble Aral Kingslayer, is the best kind of hero: damaged, cynical, and despondent, yet needing only the right cause to rise from his own ashes.”
—Alex Bledsoe, author of Wake of the Bloody Angel
I speak to the dead. Usually they don’t answer me back. Usually . . .
This time was different.
It’s been nine years since the death of Namara and the destruction of her temple. Nine years that saw my few remaining fellow Blades driven and harried before the forces of the archpriest called the Son of Heaven. Nine years of death and darkness and retreat. But only recently have I learned the real reasons for the fall of my goddess and her temple. . . .
My goddess was murdered by her peers for the crime of caring more about justice than the safety and comfort of those who inhabit the Empire of Heaven.
We were assassins once, killers in the service of Justice who used magic and the sword to bring death to those high lords of the eleven kingdoms who considered themselves above the law. Where courts and trials could not reach the great, we could. And they hated us for it. Us and our companion shadows, the elemental creatures of darkness known as Shades who conceal and complete us.
We knew of the hate of the mighty, and their fear, and we welcomed it. It was a sign that no one was beyond the reach of justice. What we didn’t know was that the gods themselves were also frightened, for Namara had made the swords that she gave us into a tool that might slay even a lord of Heaven, and that was the true reason for our fall. I know it now, but what to do with the knowledge? That is the question that had me calling out to the dead. That is the question that had brought me an answer.
The bar was the Gryphon’s Head, a place I knew as well as I knew the dark parts of my own soul. It was the place where I had plumbed the depths of despair back in the days when I was trying to drink myself into the grave so many of my fellows had already entered. But this time it was different. None of the regulars were in evidence, not even Jerik, the bartender, who was one of my few true friends in the world.
No, tonight, the Gryphon was peopled with the dead. When I walked through the door, the first person I saw was Alinthide Poisonhand, whom I had loved from afar as a boy and who had died trying to kill a king. She nodded to me, but she said no words, merely pointing to an empty table by the back wall. It was my usual place, and the only table without a full complement of the fallen. Most of the closer dead were Blades and priests—those I had known at the temple in my youth.
But not all. At another table sat two kings that had fallen to my swords, forever changing my name from Aral Brandarzon to Aral Kingslayer, as the world knew me now. They glared hate at me, Ashvik and his bastard half brother Thauvik. Nor were they alone. Nea Sjensdor sat with them, Lady Signet, and preceptor of the Hand of Heaven—the order of sorcerers that had destroyed my temple—and another I had slain. There were more, for somehow the taproom of the Gryphon’s Head now looked both exactly as it ought and seemed to stretch out to encompass hundreds of tables.
Here were all my dead. Those I had loved. Those I had hated. And those who had meant nothing to me at all. These last were perhaps hardest to face, for I had killed many over the years, most for no more reason than that they had stood in the way when there were those I needed to slay. I will not attempt to excuse their deaths. Not here, and not when I, in my turn, stand before the lords of judgment. I did what I felt was right at the time, and I will pay the price when it comes due.
Slowly, I walked through the ranks of the silent dead, approaching the place that waited for me. There were only two chairs there, though five could have sat at the table comfortably. That, too, was in keeping with my past experiences, for once I had called the Gryphon’s Head my office and used that table to conduct my business. One chair was mine, and one belonged to my client, whoever that might be at the time.
I paused then, looking for my shadow and, with it, my familiar Triss. For Blades are sorcerers as well, dependent on our darkling companions to focus the gift of our magic. My Shade assumes the shape of a dragon made of shadow when he is not concealing himself within my own. But, there and then, though I could feel that he lived through the link that bound our souls, I had no shadow. I missed him dearly, for I love Triss more than I love myself, and I rely on his advice in all things.
Still, I drew back my chair and sat down, as I knew that I must. When I looked up, I was no longer alone. The greatest of my dead had come. Namara. My goddess.
“Hello, Aral, I’ve been waiting a long time to speak with you.”
When I had met with her in life, she usually wore the shape of a great stone statue with six arms and skin like granite. Today, she had assumed the size and shape of a beautiful woman in a scarlet dress. The only obvious evidence of her divinity were her six arms, but even without that, I would have known her, for her image was forever burned into my soul.
“You’re dead,” I said, wishing once more for Triss to come and stand beside me.
Namara inclined her head ever so slightly. “I am.”
“The dead do not return to us.” The words came out flat and hard.
“No, we do not.”
“Then, how . . .”
“I was a goddess, Aral. I am allowed certain dispensations.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You carry me in your heart. As long as it beats, there will a tiny part of me remain. When I knew that I was to die, I took steps to see that what I cared most about might live on beyond my own ending.”
“I . . . what do you want of me?”
“Only what I have ever wanted of you. Justice.”
“Is that why you’re here? To tell me you want me to . . . what? Do justice?”
I was suddenly achingly furious. “Why now? Why not when I was in the fucking depths of despair and half dead from drinking myself unconscious every night?”
“Because I am dead. I’m not really here, Aral. I exist now only in your heart, and the hearts of those who once served me and may yet again. I do not speak from beyond the grave, I speak from within it. I could not come to you before you yourself summoned me up. Only in following the path I would have wished of you have you become again the man who can hear this message.”
“And your message is to seek justice?”
“That, and nothing more.”
“How?” I yelled. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I want justice, but I don’t even know where to look to find it.”
“Here,” she said, and reached a hand across, placing her palm on my chest above the heart. Her touch burned.
“That’s no answer.”
“It’s all the answer there is or ever was. You have found the path. Follow it.”
“But I can’t see it.”
“Neither could I. To seek to follow justice is to walk in shadows. Some days they part and you can see clearly where to put your feet. Some days they thicken and you may stray far from the road, at great cost in blood and souls. Know that now, for a little while, your feet are exactly where they need to be. That is all there is.” She began to fade.
“Wait, will I see you again?”
“I have delivered my message.”
“That’s no answer.”
“It’s the only one I have. Now let me leave you with a gift.”
One of her hands turned over and a cascade of efik beans spilled out of it. I looked at them with a sort of horror, expecting the drug craving again, the hunger that had been slowly devouring my soul. But I felt nothing.
“I . . . I don’t want them.”
“When you passed through smoke you left the flesh behind for a time and, with it, the needs of the flesh. That broke the physical desire in a way that only the power of a god could. What the Smoldering Flame began, I can finish here in this place and time, sealing the wound that was opened by the Kitsune.” She seemed little more than a ghost now.
“Will it last?” I asked, needing desperately to believe that it would.
She shrugged. “My power is broken. So that is up to you. It always was.”
“And the alcohol . . .” I couldn’t even ask the question.
“Was never sacred to me. That demon you must fight alone.”
I sat bolt upright in my bed at the Roc and Diamond gasping for air.
What just happened? Triss spoke into my mind, his mental voice sounding muzzy and confused as though he were rising up from a deep and enchanted sleep. I had the strangest dream. . . .
“Aral?” It was Siri, waking beside me. “What . . .” Her voice trailed off as she touched the skin over my heart.
I looked down. Clearly visible in the late-morning light was a mark on my chest—like an old burn scar. It took the shape of a six-fingered hand.
I speak to the dead. My fallen brethren. The people I have killed unjustly whose forgiveness I beg in the small hours of the night. Most of all, my goddess. Usually, they don’t answer me back.
I think it’s better that way.
* * *
The Roc and Diamond was a typical example of architecture in the city of Wall. The ground floor was sixteen feet wide and sixty feet long, its shape determined by the nature of the gigantic magical ward that separated the lands of the Sylvani Empire from the human kingdoms to the north. The ward took the shape of a wall eight feet tall and eight feet wide, enclosing and confining the magics of the First within a perfect half circle that started and ended on the shore of the great eastern ocean. It was thousands of miles long and served as the only street of the strangest city in the world—a city a thousand miles long and forty feet wide.
The gods had created the wall as a sort of prison for the First, and they had endowed it with certain magical properties. Nothing could be built upon or remain atop the wall for any length of time. Stand still on the wall and you would find yourself slowly and inexorably sliding toward the nearest edge. Nothing could breach or harm the wall. For exactly sixteen feet on either side, the ground was as hard as granite, perfect footing for buildings, and the foundation of the city. For another hundred yards beyond that the ground looked normal but acted more like slow quicksand. Holes filled themselves in. Trees of any size couldn’t root properly and quickly fell over. And any attempt at erecting a building met with a similar fate. They called it the Fallows.
The wall was a bizarre place to build a city, but that interface between the human lands and the older Sylvani Empire provided opportunities that could be found nowhere else in the world.
My childhood mentor, Kelos Deathwalker, had once quoted a scrap of an ancient lay describing the place, and now that I was temporarily living on the wall, it came back to me often: “A stone snake five thousand miles long coils its way around the empire, a city riding on its back. Within is the oldest and mightiest civilization in the world, a dreaming land of decadence and corruption ruled over by ancient immortals fallen from grace. Beautiful and terrible they were in the power of their youth, and beautiful and terrible they remain, though they are ruined now and their strength broken—a decayed remnant of the world that was, bound forever within a wall built by the gods.”
The requirements of magic kept the city from growing out into the Fallows or over the wall, and the crowding of centuries prevented much expansion side to side. That meant that the more successful buildings went up. The Roc was no exception, with a number of towers reaching as high as six or seven stories—more than that made the edifice vulnerable to tipping in the wind, for there was no way to fasten the building to its footing.
The eight of us had taken rooms in the tallest of the towers while we sorted out what happened next. Four of us were human and Blades once; me, Siri, Faran, and Kelos the Traitor. Four were Shades. Triss, Kyrissa, Ssithra, and Malthiss. The first and most pressing question we had to deal with was the matter of Kelos.
What to do with the traitor who had betrayed the Temple of Namara to the Son of Heaven? It seemed a simple enough question to answer. The man certainly deserved to die, and there wasn’t one of us who didn’t want to kill him. But he was stuffed full of secrets, secrets that we might desperately need in the days to come. Especially if we decided to move against Heaven’s Son.
That didn’t even take into account that Kelos had all but raised Siri and me. A Blade enters the temple somewhere around the age of four or five. I have vague shadowy memories of the man who had begot me, but when I thought of a father, I pictured Kelos Deathwalker. Him I loved as much as I hated, and Siri felt likewise.
There was Malthiss to consider as well. Killing Kelos would kill his familiar, since the death of either half of a familiar-bonded pair always killed the other. How complicit was Malthiss in the crimes of his partner? Had Kelos compelled his familiar to join his treason? Persuaded him? Moved in harmony with him?
It was a tangle, and not the worst we faced. That was Heaven’s Son.
“Namara wants you to go after the Son of Heaven.” Kelos rose from his perch in the bay window to pace our small parlor. He was a big man with one eye covered by an old leather patch, and heavy with muscle, his skin a maze of scars and tattooed snakes’ coils. His familiar took the shape of a shadow basilisk, lying mostly invisible amongst the tattoos at the moment. “That was the message of Namara’s visit. Isn’t it obvious?”
I was beginning to wish that I’d had the sense to keep my dream a secret. But Siri had demanded an explanation for the fresh burn over my heart. And, whatever had happened to the temple, Siri was the last of us to wear the title of Namara’s First Blade—my superior in the order still. When she asked a question, old loyalties read an order.
“No,” I replied. “It’s not obvious. Not to me anyway, and I was told to follow my own heart in this and all things. She cautioned me, too, about how easy it is to stray from the path of justice and spoke of the great costs that follow. For that matter, I’m not sure the dream was anything more than wish fulfillment.”
“Which left you with a burn scar on your chest?” Siri asked mildly from her place beside the fire.
Wisps of smoke wafted off the fire to coil and curl around her before sliding back to roll up the chimney. More smoke ran through the long thick braids that hung down her back and across the coal black skin of shoulders exposed by the tight vest she wore instead of a shirt. Likewise exposed was the fresh stump of her left arm, which ended just below the elbow. Her familiar, Kyrissa, took the form of a winged serpent. Alone among the Shades she was no longer a thing purely of shadow, but wore feathers of smoke on her wings and the coils of her body.
“Briefly . . . and maybe.” I opened my shirt to expose the smooth skin over my heart—the print had faded away. “Do you see a scar there now?”
“No, but it was there in the morning. Both Triss and Kyrissa witnessed it.”
Triss nodded, and whispered into my mind, Sorry, but I have to agree with Siri here.
“There,” said Kelos. “The word of a First Blade is good enough for me.”
I shook my head. “Even if the dream was real, and Namara was somehow speaking to me from beyond death, that doesn’t mean I’m supposed to hare off after the Son of Heaven at this late date. She said I was already on the right path, and that I should follow justice. I had no plans to face the Son of Heaven when she said that. It could as easily have been a warning not to move against him.”
“What could be more just than killing the man who destroyed the temple?” demanded Kelos.
“You know”—Faran spoke up for the first time in several hours—“he’s got a point there.”
I started at that—Faran agreeing with Kelos? That would be a first. I turned to look at my apprentice. She was taller now than when I’d first met her, a young woman rather than a girl, and lovely in a hard and cold sort of way. Her hair was long and brown, her skin a bit paler than my own deep brown. A vicious scar carved its way down her forehead and across her cheek where she had nearly lost an eye—a scar that burned red now with barely suppressed anger.
“Those who destroyed the temple do deserve to die.” Faran drew her swords as she rose—swords of the goddess that had once belonged to a traitor Blade by the name of Parsi. “I think we should start with this one.” She lifted the point of one of her swords to prick the skin at the base of Kelos’s throat.
Kelos shrugged, but didn’t otherwise move. “I’ve certainly earned it. I won’t stop you.”
Faran’s arm remained perfectly still, but a drop of blood welled up on Kelos’s skin and began to roll its way down the length of the sword toward her hand. Tension hovered in the air like the bright moment before lightning rips open a stormy sky. She was a child of nine at the fall of the temple, thrown out into the world to make her own way. None of us had suffered more than she had.
“Well,” she demanded after a few long beats, “isn’t one of you going to order me to back off again?”
“No,” I said, my voice flat.
“No?” She turned her head to look at me, but kept her sword up.
“No. You know all the arguments against killing him as well as the arguments for it. If you aren’t yet convinced, demanding that you change your mind isn’t going to change anything. The goddess told me to seek justice. I say the same to you.”
I waited for the lightning to strike, vaguely relieved that I wouldn’t be the one who had to make that decision. The red drop rolled on down the sword until it finally touched the lapis oval of the guard—Namara’s all seeing eye. It clung there for a long moment, then dripped to the floor like a bloody tear.
Faran muttered a curse and flicked the blade back and up, away from Kelos’s throat. Slamming it home in the sheath on her back, she turned and stalked silently out of the room.
“Interesting play there, Aral.” Kelos raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know whether she’d go for it or not.”
“And I didn’t care,” I replied. “You’re on your own with her from now on.” I followed Faran out.
The dead should stay dead.
For six years after the fall of the temple I believed that Kelos had died defending our goddess and our people. Then I discovered what really happened and that he was still alive. I wish that he’d stayed dead.
I had climbed to the top of our little tower, an octagonal deck surrounded by a low wooden wall. The sun had long since set, but the moon was more than bright enough for eyes trained to the darkness, and I could see as well as I needed to. The wall stretched away east and west, its shape picked out by the magelights and oil lanterns glowing along its length, like some phosphorescent eel from the deep ocean.
“I liked him better when he was a corpse,” I said.
“It’s never too late. . . .” Faran’s voice spoke from behind me.
I turned, looking for the deeper bit of shadow I must have missed when I first came out on the rooftop. I found it in an angle of the wall not far from the stairhead. Or, at least, thought that I did—a shrouded Blade is all but invisible, especially at night. I crossed my arms and waited silently. A moment later the shadow thinned and resumed Ssithra’s phoenix shape, revealing Faran, who sat cross-legged with her back against the boards.
She lifted her chin. “It’s really not too late, you know. I could go back downstairs and kill him right now. Or . . . you could.”
“That wouldn’t solve the problem.”
“It would put an end to it.”
“No, it would only put an end to Kelos. It wouldn’t undo the fall of the temple or the death of Namara or any of the other horrors he helped perpetrate.”
And it wouldn’t salvage your memories of the man he was before he did those things, Triss said quietly into my mind. That man is already dead, and with him a part of you.
Faran rose to face me, and her eyes were on a level with mine. “Then what is the lesson?”
“Huh?” I asked.
“You took me on as your apprentice, right?”
“So, teach me. How can you stand to let him live after all that he’s done? How can that be right? Namara’s Blades exist to bring justice to those who would not otherwise receive it, those who are protected by power from the results of their actions. Doesn’t Kelos fit the bill?”
“Namara’s Blades are gone.”
“That’s a dodge, Aral, and a pretty bad one at that. You’re still here and the ghost of the goddess told you herself that you should seek justice, that you should continue down the path she set you on.”
“I don’t know.” I turned my back on Faran and looked out into the darkness again. “I don’t want to kill him.”
“Not two minutes ago you said that you ‘liked him better as a corpse.’”
I nodded. “I did that. But the corpse I liked him as was a martyr to our goddess, not a traitor to her. That ship sank. Now, he wants me to kill him, or if I won’t do it, Siri or you. He believes that he deserves to die for his treachery.”
Faran put a hand on my shoulder and turned me to face her. “He’s not wrong.”
“No, he’s not. But what will it accomplish? He wants to die for his crimes, but he doesn’t repent them. He would do the same thing tomorrow in the same circumstances. He believed then and still does that by giving people hope for justice, Namara was relieving pressure that otherwise would have destroyed a corrupt system of governance. Is he wrong about that?”
“I don’t know.” Faran sighed. “In the lost years I made my way in the world by spying and commissioned theft. I saw a lot of corruption in the ruling classes, and I didn’t do anything about it because: hey, my goddess is dead and it’s not my fucking job. Then, I found you, and you showed me that there may be something to this whole justice business even without Namara to show us the way. But I don’t see it as clearly as you do. Is the system so corrupt that the only thing to do is burn it down and start over? Or is it more important that we keep righting the individual wrongs?”
“That’s really the question, isn’t it?” asked Triss. “The big one that we’re all fighting over without actually talking about it. Do we kill Kelos because of what he did to Namara, or do we back his play and move against the Son of Heaven?”
“Even that oversimplifies things,” I growled. “Is killing Heaven’s Son justice of the kind we were raised to deliver, or is it revenge? He is practically the personification of injustice rendered untouchable by power. If ever there was a man who deserved to die on the sword of a Blade, it’s the Son of Heaven. Killing him alone would certainly serve the old ideal.”
“But then there’s the problem of the risen,” said Faran.
I nodded and began to pace. The Son was more than just a priest, he was a rapportomancer—a very specialized sort of magic user, one with the familiar gift but no talent for actual magery, and his familiar . . . that was the rub. His familiar was a sort of death elemental, a strand of the curse of the restless dead—the one that gave birth to the risen. Once the curse had advanced far enough, the risen were easy to spot, with their rotting hides, and mindless hunger for the flesh of the living. But there were ways to prevent or hold off that deterioration for months, or even years if you were willing to spill enough fresh blood.
In the shape of the hidden risen, the Son’s strain of the curse wore the bodies of thousands of nobles and priests all through the eleven kingdoms, maybe even tens of thousands. They bathed in the blood of the living to disguise their undead condition and they gave the Son of Heaven de facto control over much of the East. Individually, killing them was as just as killing the Son himself. But, all at once . . . that was another thing entirely. What happens to a civilization when you remove the structures that rule it? The people with the experience of governing? In destroying the risen we might destroy kingdoms entire. Would it be just to ignore that cost?
Kelos believed that a new, more just, system would arise from the ashes of the old, that the inevitable civil wars and banditry and bloodshed would all ultimately prove to be worth it. But his vision of justice had led to the death of Namara and nearly all of my brethren, and that was a cost I could never accept.
Nuriko Shadowfox, his sometime lover, sometime foe who had started him down the path he now walked, had been even more radical in her plans. She didn’t believe in government at all, that somehow eliminating it entirely would lead to a new and better world. Her plan had been to destroy the system and then to spend the rest of her life preventing a new one from growing in its place at a blood cost I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
I didn’t know what I believed, but I knew damned well that killing the Son of Heaven would result in a bloodbath of epic proportion. For every one of the risen that died with him, tens or even hundreds of innocents would fall in the chaos left behind. If the weight of my dead was already crushing me when they numbered in the hundreds . . .
“I don’t know what to do, Faran. It was so much easier when the goddess told me where to go and who to kill. The responsibility was hers. I hate being the one who has to make the decisions.”
“Would you go back to living that way . . . ? If you could?” Faran’s tone was gentle, her expression sympathetic, but the question was as sharp as any knife, and it cut straight through to the pain that knotted my gut.
I desperately wanted to say yes. But . . . “No. I have seen too much of life’s grays to ever go back to that kind of certainty. Even knowing, as I now do, that Namara herself was uncertain . . . No. I lie to myself when I say the responsibility was hers. My actions were and always have been my own, and somewhere down deep I’ve always known that. If the responsibility for what I do belongs to me, so do the choices. I couldn’t go back to being a tool in another’s hand if my soul depended on it.”
“Then, stop letting Kelos manipulate you.”
Her mind is as sharp as her blades, sent Triss. She’s grown so much since we first found her.
I laughed a grim little laugh. “That would be much easier to do if I knew what he was trying to bend me into doing, and whether or not what he wants of me is the wrong thing to do. Because the flip side of the risen problem is that allowing the Son of Heaven to live is a decision with heavy consequences of its own. How much of the evil done by and for him am I responsible for if I refuse to end his life?”
That was the question that made me feel as though I was carrying shards of broken glass around in my chest.
Triss rose up and wrapped his wings around my shoulders. “Sometimes you come to a place where there are no right decisions and all paths lead to fell ends.”
“And then?” I whispered.
“You still must choose your way,” said Triss.
“But I don’t know how. . . .”
Faran stepped closer then, taking my hands in her own. “You do, you know.”
“If so, I can’t see it.”
“That’s because you’re looking at it the wrong way. The question is not, what should you do? It’s: who do you want to be?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You can’t control everything that will result from your actions, you can only control the actions themselves. If you died tomorrow, how would you want to be remembered?” She put one palm on my chest where the goddess had touched me. “Who are you, in here?”
I thought back to the decisions I had made over the last few years as I crawled my way back out of the gutter, what I had done that had made me proud, where I had failed. . . .
I took a deep breath. “I fear that I must face the Son of Heaven.”
Faran nodded, but she also asked, “Why?”
“I am a hunter of monsters in human guise. It’s what I was born to do. It’s what I trained to do. It’s who I am. Who knows? That might even make me into something of a monster myself. But, if so, I am a monster whose job is taking greater monsters out of the world. I may not be able to stop new ones from rising up where I have brought down the old, but I can’t let that stop me from doing the job I was made for, and the Son is a very great monster indeed.”
Going after the Son of Heaven was a scary decision, but it felt like the right one in that moment and in my heart, where it beat under Faran’s hand. I covered it with my own. “How did you get to be so wise, my young monst—apprentice?” I clumsily switched words there as I realized that my usual nickname for her carried a different weight in this discussion.
She grinned. “This is the part where I’m supposed to say that I have a good teacher, right?” She pulled her hand free of mine and very gently leaned forward to kiss me on the cheek. “Which, I do, and he is also a good man, and no monster.” She turned and walked back to the head of the stairs.
“Thank you,” I said as she started to descend.
She nodded, but didn’t answer me back.
“What about Kelos?” asked Triss.
“I don’t know. But it matters less now.”
“How so?” asked Triss.
“If I seek to confront the Son of Heaven, Kelos can help me—none better. But even with all the help in the world, this will be a very difficult play. The chances that either of us will survive the attempt are not great, much less both of us.”
Triss snorted. “What you mean is that you’re hoping to push off the decision long enough for it to become somebody else’s problem.”
“Or no problem at all, yes. Is that so wrong?”
“No. If we’re going to go against the Son of Heaven we will need all the help we can get, and, sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is enough to get you through to the end.”
I had made my choice, or thought I had, and I desperately hoped it was the right decision. But somewhere, down deep in the back of my mind, a voice kept saying: But what is the cost if you’re wrong?
* * *
I appreciate irony as much as the next man. I just wish it didn’t have to be quite so biting when you were on the receiving end.
“Absolutely not.” I slammed my palm down on the tabletop. “I will not have anything to do with that woman.” Faran had already stormed out, while Siri sat quietly behind me radiating a sort of cold rage.
Kelos looked stubborn. “Don’t go all squishy on me now, Aral. We need allies and I can’t think of a better one. At least talk to her. We share a common enemy.”
“Yes, and she’s part of it.”
Kelos crossed his arms and waited. Siri leaned forward and put her hand on my shoulder. It reminded me of the one she’d lost—a price willingly paid for ending a greater evil.
I sighed. “All right, I’ll talk to her, but I won’t promise not to kill her when we’re done.”
Kelos grinned. “That works for me. If you come to an agreement, we advance things in one manner. If you kill her, we do it in another. Chaos to our enemy either way. I’ll tell her you’ll be along momentarily.”
He went to the stairs and headed down into the pub below.
“Siri, am I doing the right thing here? I mean, this is the fucking Signet of Heaven we’re talking about.”
She shrugged. “Probably, but I wouldn’t let Jax in on this part of the deal when we bring her into the matter.”
I shuddered at the very thought. The Signet was the head of Heaven’s Hand, the Son’s own personal sorcerous storm troopers—the people who had tortured Jax more than half to death when she was taken prisoner in the fall of the temple. Actually, there were any number of things I didn’t want to mention to Jax. Like the way Siri had lost her hand, for one. Jax was my ex-fiancée as well as one of the handful of remaining Blades, and I didn’t fancy explaining the weird magical mess that was my brief and unexpected marriage to Siri, or the bloody but amicable divorce that had ended it. . . .
Triss had followed Kelos to the head of the stairs. Now he looked back at me, his posture questioning.
“All right, I’m coming.” As I reached the head of the stairs he let his dragon shape go and faded back into my shadow.
The taproom below was all but empty, a very unusual circumstance here in the early hours of the night. The only members of the local crowd who remained belonged to the staff of the inn, and they didn’t look any too happy about being there. I couldn’t fault them for wanting to leave given the newcomers—a half-dozen members of Heaven’s Hand. Priests and sorcerers of the most deadly and fanatical sort. I wanted to leave, too.
They had shed their uniforms for loose dark pants and shirts cut in the style of the steppe riders of the Kvanas. They weren’t fooling anyone. Everything about them spoke to their true origins, from the hard, cold expressions on their faces, to their military bearing and the many weapons that hung in use-worn sheathes at hips and shoulders or tucked into boot tops. Long ponytails bound with the ritual knots of their order identified them more exactly for any who knew what to look for. And then there were the Storms.
Each of the six companioned a cloud-winged familiar. The Storms were elemental creatures of air that assumed a myriad of forms, everything from the lucent shapes of huge gemstones, to wheels of golden flame, or abstract swirls of color. Their only commonality, one to another, was that they flew on wings of cloud.
The obvious leader of the troop was partnered by a tight bundle of colors and tentacle-like streamers that reminded me of nothing so much as an octopus trying to conceal itself on a bright coral reef. She had taken a seat at a small table not far from the base of the stairs, where she sat as ramrod straight as if she were occupying a bench in the front row of the master temple at Heaven’s Reach. Her followers had ranged themselves around the room in a loose cordon that allowed them to see every entrance and exit and to cover each other as needed in case of attack. I had to give them points for execution at the same time I deplored their very existence.
Kelos, being Kelos, had taken a stool at the bar with his back to almost everyone, as though he was daring someone to stick a knife in it. Tempting as that idea sounded from time to time, I ignored him in favor of approaching the woman at the table. A second glance refined my first impression. For one, she was absolutely ancient, her hair bone-white rather than the blond I had first thought, and the lines in her face many and deep.
If she were not a sorcerer I might have guessed her age at eighty, but her life was tied to her familiar’s, and the Storms, like the Shades, may live for hundreds of years. For her to have aged so much, she must be at least three hundred, and maybe as old as six.
“I am five hundred and thirty eight,” she said, her voice crisp and more than half-amused. “Also, I don’t read minds, just faces, and I’ve had lots of practice. My name is Toragana, and this is my second time wearing the ring.”
She waved her right hand, where the Signet’s insignia of office circled her thumb. “After a hundred and ninety years of retirement in a peaceful hermitage I have been drafted back into the role of head of my order and I am not at all pleased about it. Now, sit. We have much to talk about and our time is short. The Son would kill us all if he knew I were here talking to you. Besides, I’m ancient and angry. Apoplexy could carry me off at any moment.”
I suppressed a grin and sat. Despite all of the weight of history and blood that lay between our two orders, I found myself instinctively liking this woman. “Angry?” I prompted.
“Extraordinarily so. Mostly at Corik Nofather. First, for failing to succumb decently to the risen curse fifty years ago, thereby sparing me the trouble of doing something about his continued reign as the Son of Heaven. Second, for doing such a horrible job on the throne, necessitating my doing something about it. Third, for being an inhuman monster that makes doing something about it a task that requires me to seek help. And, before you put on that curious tone and say ‘Mostly?’ I’m also mad at myself for hiding away in my hermitage and missing out on the chance to simply kill the little bastard off before he got too powerful for one old woman to handle.”
I like her, Triss sent rather bemusedly.
So do I. This time I couldn’t stop a grin. “So, you know what he is, then—” She cut me off with a chop of her hand.
“Yes, and all of his history, though I haven’t been able to do anything with the information, since he’s converted the bulk of the curia into undead slaves.” She sighed. “I admit it’s an improvement in some cases, but still, it complicates things. The only ones I’ve been able to bring in on this are certain members of my own order and that idiot Devin Nightblade.”
I started at the name of my onetime best friend, now head of the Blades who had gone over to the Son of Heaven after the fall of the temple. He had been Kelos’s chief pawn in the matter, and he hated me with a rare vigor.
She nodded at my reaction. “A piece of work that one. Venal, dumb in a clever sort of way, and more than half a coward. He speaks very highly of you, which would have been enough for me to look elsewhere for help if it weren’t for the fact that it’s obvious he despises you and that it pains him to feel the way he does about your abilities.”
“So, he sent you here?”
“No, I sent me here. Devin—gods help us—heads one of the five branches of Heaven’s forces on earth. I head another. Together we ought to be able to push the Son of Heaven off his throne without any help. But in addition to Devin’s cowardice, his traitor Blades are bound by terrible oaths that prevent them from acting directly against this Son of Heaven, and my own order is a hollow shell of what it once was. For which, curse Corik’s name for five thousand generations.” She spat on the floor.
“As much as I agree with you about the Son of Heaven, I’m finding it hard to feel a lot of sympathy for you after what your order did to mine.”
Her mouth tightened at that, but she nodded. “I can understand your position on that conflict. What would you say if I told you that I mostly shared it?”
“I . . . what?” That was not what I had expected.
“That attack killed over half of the active members of my order, and it utterly destroyed our command structure. Nor was that result unintentional. The Son of Heaven cannot convert mages without revealing himself, and that means that his control over the Hand has always been the weakest element of his command of the forces of the church. Since he took office, he has been systematically throwing our most powerful and independent members into the riskiest of situations, and the pace has accelerated dramatically of late.
“Seven Signets have died in the last ten years. Two at the fall of your temple, counting Taral’s single hour in that role. One in an ill-planned mission to Aven. Another, you killed two years ago at the abbey outside Tavan along with more than thirty of the Hand. One vanished shortly afterward, no one knows where. One fell in the battle understairs during the conflict over the Key of Sylvaras. His replacement was executed for treason three weeks later. For comparison, we lost three in the hundred years before that. Discounting half-trained novices and dotards like myself, the order has one fifth the number of members it did before your temple fell.”
She slammed a fist down on the table. “The Son has killed far more of us than your Blades ever did. Following the death of the last Signet there were only three active officers left who had held significant command roles in the organization, and not one of them felt up to the task of assuming the office—which is why they came to me. Privately, and before I took the ring, the three of them told me that they thought it would be a death sentence for any of them to do so. All of them were willing to offer up their lives if they thought it would save the order, but not one of them believed they could make a difference.”
“And you think you can?” I asked.
“I honestly don’t know. But I had to try. That’s why I’m here. The Son of Heaven has made this into little more than a shiny bauble.” She took off the ring and tossed it to me.
Reflexively, I caught it out of the air. When I opened my hand to look at it I realized for the first time what was missing. “What happened to the magic . . . ?”
I held it up to my eye and looked through the circle at Toragana. I had held the ring of a Signet before. Two of them, actually, and each had glowed brightly in magesight, infused as they were with many spells. Among other enchantments, they were, or had been, keys that opened every one of the many wards that guarded the great temple at Heaven’s Reach.
“Two years ago someone slipped into the Son of Heaven’s bedroom.” Toragana gave me a pointed look.
“Really?” I asked, my face as blank as I could make it.
“Really. Though the story has not been widely shared beyond the upper echelons of the temple, the intruder stabbed two swords of your goddess into the headboard of the Son of Heaven’s bed, bare fractions of an inch above his face. When the Son of Heaven woke up, he ran into them, putting twin slices into the flesh over his cheekbones. Those wounds have never healed.”
“That’s fascinating,” I said.
“Oh, do stop. Kelos was the one outlawed for the thing—losing his place as head of Heaven’s Shadow to Devin and garnering a death sentence in absentia—which is part of why I sought him out. But he’s already told me who actually marked the Son of Heaven’s face, and how, and why. That’s also when he told me that you’re the one I have to deal with if I want your people to help us with the Son of Heaven.”
“Me, not Siri?” Toragana nodded, and I glanced over her shoulder to where Kelos continued to pointedly ignore us all, wondering what he was up to. “Interesting.”
“Look, I don’t care about your internal politics. What I care about is rescuing my order and my religion from the half-risen monster who currently heads it, at any cost. If bringing him down means I have to work with the sworn enemies of the Hand and start the biggest war in a thousand years, well, that’s what I intend to do. My duty to Shan demands nothing less.”
“Do you believe that killing the Son will mean war?” I feared that it would, but I wanted to hear the Signet’s feelings on the matter.
Toragana nodded, her expression grim. “Half a dozen civil wars at the very least. How could it not? Corik Nofather controls most of the ruling houses of the East. When the old rulers fall, there will be a rush to fill that opening, the likes of which the eleven kingdoms have never seen. There will be pretenders, and wars of distraction, and bloody crusades to root out more of the hidden undead. I don’t like it, but I don’t see any way around it. We cannot allow a half-risen monster to sit the throne of Heaven’s Reach.”
Triss hissed silently in my mind. Do you think she’s right?
I don’t know, I sent, though I very much feared that she was. “How did you discover the Son’s true nature?”
“After you left him with those slices on his cheeks, the Son of Heaven went a little mad—paranoid and vindictive. He executed every guard who had been within a hundred yards of his rooms that night. Then he cut off all access to the innermost temple for the Hand, the Shadow, and those members of the Sword who are also mages.
“He restricted entry to a very few at first, his risen slaves within the priestly hierarchy and the military orders. But that also restricted his ability to get things done, so he started converting more and more risen. Concealing their true nature takes enormous amounts of blood. Too much to hide from someone with my connections and history in the church. Combine that with things that I scared out of Devin, and I knew what the truth had to be.”
“That’s when you decided to come to me.”
“Well, Kelos initially, but yes. Will you help me make war upon Heaven’s Son?”
I took a deep breath, as I tried to decide how to answer her. That’s when a large boulder smashed right through the Fallow-side wall of the Roc and Diamond at shoulder height. It passed directly over the table where Toragana and I faced each other before punching out the wall on the other side. A few inches left or right and it would have killed one or the other of us.
Triss wrapped me in a shroud of darkness as I rolled backward out of my chair. In a hand-off we had practiced thousands of times, he released control over his senses and substance to me as I bounced to my feet. My view of the world changed as my own vision became irrelevant and I shifted to seeing through Triss’s borrowed darksight. Color went away as textures and how they reflected or absorbed light became central to my awareness, and shadows took on a depth of meaning beyond anything I can ever hope to describe. . . .
As I drew my swords, a tattered horde of risen came pouring up the main stairway from the lower level.
The Son of Heaven had moved first.
Death or Justice?
Sometimes, when I’m being especially honest with myself, I wonder what impulse I truly serve. The memory of my goddess? Or the darkness of the grave? I have always tried to kill only those whom Justice demanded I slay, but how far does Justice’s writ go?
Ashvik was my first, King of Zhan, and as clear a case for the justice of the sword as you could ask for. But he was not the last. Many have died at my hand since that day. Some deserved their deaths as clearly as Ashvik deserved his. Some put themselves between me and my rightful prey. Others . . . others merely stood too close.
I might say that I took no pleasure in their deaths, that I would have spared them the edge if I could have, but I would not be telling the whole truth. For I love my work. There are few pleasures that can compare with being one of the best in the world at what you do. I do not like being responsible for the deaths of those who do not deserve it, but the cut and the parry, the interplay of steel and spell and knowing that the ultimate price will be paid by the less skilled player . . . that is another thing entirely. To deny the shock of joy that went through me as I unsheathed my swords and prepared to wade into the ranks of the risen would be to deny who I am.
I would like to believe that I wouldn’t have felt the same way if my opponents were living breathing humans with wills of their own. I would like to believe that very much.
I do not.
The Hand met the risen at the stairhead with spells and steel and the miniature lightnings of their familiars. Heads fell, rotting skin crisped and burned, a score of the restless dead fell in a matter of seconds. But more came bounding up the stair. Indifferent to their fallen comrades as anything more than an impediment to decent footing, they came on in their hundreds. By sheer weight of undead flesh they forced the Hand back and back again, establishing a bridgehead.
Kelos had shrouded himself at the same time that I did, but I could trace his path across the room toward me by the line of fallen bodies he left in his wake. The swords of Namara are one of the most effective tools against the undead. Even now, after the death of the goddess, that part of their enchantment will work for the proper wielder. But, the next wave of the risen rushed toward the Signet and me then, and I lost track of Kelos and his swords. Before the dead reached us, another great rock smashed through the inn.
It killed one of the Hand and tore a dozen of the risen into rotting shreds—not that they seemed to care. The death of the sorcerer-priest engulfed his familiar Storm, causing a great roar of thunder to shake the inn as the heavens mourned one of their own. Though I couldn’t see it, I knew that the clouds would already be forming overhead—a harbinger of the wind and rain to come.
The Signet drew a pair of short, leather-bound rods from her belt, like a pair of truncated axe handles. Crossing them in front of her face, she snapped them down and out in the manner of twinned whips. Bright coils of lightning lashed outward, crisping the entire front row of the oncoming horde, but more of the dead quickly flowed in behind. She struck again and again, but the risen kept coming. I moved to one side to intercept a couple that had slipped around the edge of the zone of death described by her lightning whips.
She was one of the most accomplished magical warriors I’d ever seen, but even with me guarding her blinds, the dead forced us back, and back again, until we were wedged into one corner of the long common room. That uncovered the base of the spiral stairs that led to the apartments above, and more of the risen swarmed upward. I hadn’t the time or breathing space for more than a passing worry about what that might mean for Faran and Siri.
Periodically, the engine hurling stones from outside would fling another through the inn. Mostly they killed the restless dead, but I had just beheaded another—the surest way to make this their last rising—when a lucky shot turned the Signet’s legs into a mass of pulped flesh and shattered bone. She fell at my feet and faceup, her eyes somehow seeming to pierce the shadow that hid me from my foes.
“You must end Corik. He profanes the world by his very existence.” She coughed then, and red bloomed on her lips. “Do what I could not,” she whispered, and was gone. Thunder boomed again and again and again, as a mighty wind hammered the inn.
Though I had only just met Toragana, I felt her passing with a sharp pain—mourning the friendship that might have come with time. I wanted to stay and make those who had killed her pay, but she was right. The risen might fall here like autumn leaves before a northern wind, but there was no end to them, and they seemed to care nothing for the final death. If I remained longer I would die as surely as the Signet had.
A glance around the room reinforced the futility of our situation. All but one of the Hand were dead or taken, as were the inn’s staff. I couldn’t speak to Kelos, nor Siri and Faran for that matter—if they’d even come down to join the fight here instead of meeting the dead above. I couldn’t see any of them—though that would be as true if they were simply shrouded as it would if they’d fallen under the seething horde of the dead. The building itself stood on the brink of collapse after all the rocks that had ripped their way through its walls. The growing storm was already causing it to creak and sway. When it fell it would bring ruin to any who remained within.
By dint of a very controlled sort of manic flailing I cleared a brief hole in the fighting and sent up a shock of magic. Pink and orange—invisible to the mortal eye, but a bright burst for those with magesight—the colors my order traditionally used to signal one another. The flare formed itself into a blazing arrow pointing toward the side of the inn that faced the wall and the Sylvain, slipped through a hole, and then shot away, paralleling the magical wall’s top in the direction of the sea. I hoped that my companions would see it, but I couldn’t wait around to find out. I cut my way to the nearest window and vaulted through, dropping toward the wall below.
The risen were thinner here, but still present in great numbers, so it was more luck than skill that allowed me to land in a clear space. Even through the pounding rain I could see that many of the nearer buildings had their doors and windows broken in. Here and there knots of fighting had sprung up where the restless dead had met with some resistance, particularly on the empire side of the wall.
As I watched a swarm of them bring down a tall Sylvani lord in his shining crystalline armor, I revised my estimate of the scope of the battle radically upward. It wasn’t just the inn under attack, but this entire section of the city of Wall. The living were losing badly, and too many of those who weren’t torn apart or devoured would join the ranks of the enemy over the next few days as they rose from their graves in turn.
The thought of it made me sick at heart. Again, I found myself wanting desperately to stay and fight. Again, I forced myself to move on. My goddess-forged swords and their enchantments might give me an advantage against the restless dead, but even if I slew scores before I fell, hundreds would remain. There was no winning this battle. The dead were simply too many. It was hard to believe the scale of the thing. Nothing like it had happened in more than a thousand years, not since Master Corvin and Resshath Ssura ended the Necrotariat that had risen in Dan Eyre of old before the merging of my order and the worshippers of Namara.
Over the next quarter of an hour I fought and shadow-slipped my way through the horde of dead mobbing the wall. The warm rain was my ally in the latter, making my shrouded presence even more invisible than usual. I finally broke free of them a half mile or so east of the inn.
There, a small group of heavily armed and armored Sylvani nobles had taken a position on the wall with a more slapdash force of human irregulars backing them up. Facing a sharp and organized defense heavy with magic and enchanted weapons, this ragged edge of the army of the dead was faring badly. I pressed myself into the shadow of a broken door and took a momentary rest while the dead focused on the Sylvani and their human allies.
The Sylvani all stood at least a head taller than their human auxiliaries, with one or two taller yet—close to the seven feet and change of my friend Ash. The Sylvani had donned full armor and close-faced helms against the threat of the risen, all in varying hues and shades of crystal. As I watched, one of the risen struck their leader in the center of her breast plate with the terrible strength of the dead. The point of impact flared and sparked, sending light crazing away from the spot like cracks running through a dropped mug, refracting the force of the blow by a sort of elemental light magic.
The Sylvani struck back, whipping a slender dueling blade up and around with inhuman speed to stab the risen in the eye. A bright spark of light flashed down the length of the crystalline blade from the hand that wielded it toward the point of the sword. It vanished for a moment when it passed the point where sword met rotting flesh, but the risen’s head started to glow from within a moment later, like a bright lamp glimpsed through paper walls. The glow spread down and out, filling the risen with light. Then, there was a bright flare—viciously so to my borrowed darksight—and the risen collapsed in on itself.
Excerpted from "Darkened Blade"
Copyright © 2015 Kelly McCullough.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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“Aral...is the best kind of hero: damaged, cynical, and despondent, yet needing only the right cause to rise from his own ashes.”—Alex Bledsoe, author of Wake of the Bloody Angel
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Really ! GOOD series ! If you are looking for adventure here it is :)
Loved every minute of it. Re-reading might have been even better!
The series needed another book to sort out the fallout of the climax instead of the short epilogue we got.