In this brave new world where old foes can become allies, so too can former friends sour into deadly enemies. With the tracker's help, Anna is propelled into a confrontation with Ramyi, her former apprentice. Grown bitter and disillusioned, Ramyi now wants to lay waste to the world-but not before she completes an apocalyptic ritual that could have dire consequences for all of existence. To stop Ramyi from unleashing chaos, and restore peace to a broken world, Anna must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
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Anna heard the old steward long before his lantern's chalky orange bloom appeared. She'd first sensed his presence from the whine of an oak door farther down the slope, its staccato creaks cutting through the hush of the predawn drizzle, the twisting wail of mountain winds. She waited in stillness by the open shutters, watching the fog shift and creep over blue-black rock, studying the ethereal glow as it grew sharper and nearer. Her legs were still awash in the prickling numbness that accompanied rising from her cushion.
Four hours since the midnight bell, seven since she'd snuffed out her chamber's lone candle and sat to follow her breath.
The razor-mind did not stir, did not blink, did not wander as the steward came to her door and rapped on the bronze face. Instead, it curiously trailed the seed of a thought blossoming in absolute stillness: Why?
"Knowing One," the steward croaked in river-tongue, "have you risen from slumber?"
Anna lifted the latch and opened the door. Her steward's wide- brimmed hat dripped incessantly, flopping about with the breeze, but could not mask his concern. Every wrinkle and weathered fold on his face bled a horrid truth. "What's happened?"
"Nothing so severe, I imagine," he replied, wringing his hands within twill sleeves. "Brother Konrad has sent for you."
"At this hour?"
"Yes," the steward said. "Precisely now. Yet the reason for this summoning will not pass his lips, Knowing One. Forgive me for my vague words."
Nothing so severe. She met the steward's blue-gray eyes, full of haunting curiosity, then gazed down at the monastery's craggy silhouette. Few truly understood the austerity of Anna's practice, the importance of cloistering herself for weeks on end. Even fewer knew better than to summon her during the rituals of purification. She counted Konrad among those few.
As she followed the narrow, stone-lined path that carved across the slope, she took in the foggy sprawl of the lowlands and the black clouds blotting eastern skies. It was dead now, free of the ravens and hawks that often wheeled over the ridges, utterly silent aside from their boots crunching over gravel and earth. The monastery was a dark mass, not yet roused for its morning rites. Not even the northern bell tower, a black stripe looming against muddy slate above her, showed any sign of the watchman and his lantern.
Yet something had come.
Jutting out over the lowlands was the monastery's setstone perch, which hadn't seen a supply delivery in close to three cycles. Only it was not empty, nor was it occupied by the violet nerashi that Golyna or Kowak often sent. Anna glimpsed a sleek, battered nerash resting behind a sheen of mist, seated directly above the iron struts that bolted the perch to an adjacent outcropping.
"What is that?" Anna asked the steward, clenching her hood against a howling gust.
"I know not." His words were thick with unease.
In the main hall, a group of Halshaf sisters worked to light the candles lining the meditative circle. Each new spark and flicker drove away another patch of blackness, revealing glimmering mosaics upon the walls, banners emblazoned with Kojadi script, the reflective bronze bowls that hummed their celestial song each morning. The sudden flurry of footsteps upon crimson carpeting did not interrupt their soft, tireless chant in a dead tongue:
With this breath, I arise. With this breath, I pass away.
After hours of meditation, the monastery always felt like another plane, another realm described in the ancient texts. It was a consequence of the formless absorption Anna invariably fell into, stripping her world of boundaries between things, of objects and observers, of concepts that lent meaning to the tapestry of colors and sensations around her. But the strange urgency in the air divided the world into definite components once more.
In some sense she hoped that Konrad had summoned her to bring news of his progress. Even his occasional plunge into panic, spurred by transient insights into a world birthed from emptiness, shed light on how profound his development had been.
"Do not shy away from existence," she'd always whispered to him, holding the sides of his head as she'd done years ago in Golyna, brushing away the man's tears as they rolled down in golden streaks. "Soon this dawn will clear away the darkness."
He was not the only one who'd changed since the war. His Alakeph brothers had grown still and sharp in the isolation of Rzolka's mountains, perhaps closer to their Kojadi roots than they'd been in a thousand years. At the very least, they were at their most populous, stationed in monasteries and settlements that extended far beyond Anna's awareness. The same held true for the Halshaf. And it had all stemmed from her guidance, they said — without her, the orders would have crumbled.
Yet she could not shake the sense that their central pillar was decaying.
Sleep brought dreams of Shem's flesh breaking apart, dissolving into the nothingness she could only experience in slivers. Flashes of ruins and bodies plagued her breathing during extended sits. Months ago, all comforts had come with a sense of imminent loss, and all pains had arisen with the dread of permanent existence. She felt herself resting on the precipice of something tremendous, something overwhelming, yet inexorable. Something that would shatter her mind if she was not ready.
But for the sake of the orders — for the sake of those who looked upon her as their pillar — she buried those thoughts. She turned her mind toward the mandala-adorned doors that led to Konrad's chamber.
"Shall I bring parchment?" the steward asked. "Perhaps we should preserve your words once again."
Anna grew still with her hand on the door's latch. She turned to examine the old steward, whose eyes now gleamed with expectant hopefulness. "Forgive me, but I would prefer to see Brother Konrad alone."
"Of course." He looked down at her broken hand and crinkled his brow. "Brother Konrad could transcribe your wisdom."
"Very well," the steward said softly. "As the Knowing One desires."
His footsteps whispered off over the carpeting, fading into morning chants from the adjoining hall. Soon there was a storm of footsteps shuffling behind thin walls, moving to wardrobes and chests, padding toward the main hall.
Anna opened the door.
Konrad sat on the far side of the chamber, leaning heavily upon the armrest of his oak chair. A pair of candles burned in shallow dishes near his feet, throwing patches of dim, shifting shadows over his nascent beard and haggard eyes. The return to aging — to true living, perhaps — had been a painful transition. But the worry on his face was deeper than the days when he'd toyed with his mortality. He looked up at Anna with sluggish focus.
"What's wrong?" Anna asked.
Konrad beckoned her to approach. "Close the door, Anna."
Something about his manner disarmed her. It was a consequence of days and faces and terrors that had been stained into her memory, infusing anything cordial with the expectation of pain. She wavered for a moment, her gaze wandering around the chamber's sparse furnishings and shelves of Kojadi tomes, then entered and sealed the door behind her. The air was stale and pungent with sweat.
"Are you leaving us?" she asked.
Konrad squinted, then shook his head. "You saw the nerash, didn't you?"
"Whose is it?"
"Somebody arrived during the night," Konrad whispered. His gaze crept along the floor, edging toward the cotton partition that concealed his sleeping mat. Every swallow was a hard lump upon his throat.
Anna grimaced. "Come out."
"Very well, Anna." A voice nestled in dark dreams. Crude, low, familiar in the most inhuman sense. The song of a bird from autumn woods.
He emerged from behind the covering like a specter assuming its mortal form, letting candlelight wash over his tattered burlap folds, his bloodshot eyes, his twitching fingers. Three years of evading the vindictive masses, fleeing from whatever claws Anna could rake through the Spines and the lowlands, yet now he stood with some twisted semblance of pride.
Of comfort, even.
Anna could not speak. She longed for something — anything — to open his throat and make him scream.
"The years have been kind to you," the tracker said. He reached into the folds of his cloak and drew a rusting, serrated blade, then waved it in the candlelight. "An honest partnership, girl. Let's tie off this loose end."
"He came to settle with you," Konrad said, glaring at the tracker.
"Settle," the tracker echoed. "That sounds fitting."
But the years and pain bore down on Anna, bleeding the last of the air from her lungs. She was faintly aware of drawing a breath. Aware of murmuring beyond ringing ears, the subtle flickers of light dancing upon tempered iron. She moved closer, closer, sensing his shape looming as it had done in those damned woods, stretching up and over her until it consumed her sight, until the weight of his blade fell into her open palm and she was young once again, trapped in the memories she'd worked so feverishly to wrap in linen and tuck away in the shelves of her mind ... .
Anna drove the blade through his eye.
The tracker's head snapped back, twisting sharply toward the light as Anna forced the iron deeper. There was the low, muffled screech of a boar, then the wet churning of sinew and membranes. Yet the tracker did not advance, nor did he lash out. His burlap visage slowly spun toward Anna, plagued by a blossoming red blot, and its living eye fell upon her with placid interest.
What now, young one?
Again she was weak and helpless, dully sensing the scrape of metal over bone, the familiar yet wicked pulse of hayat's fabric, the fruitless trembling in bone-white knuckles and an aching wrist. All of her measured breaths and ascetic days meant nothing now. She craved death, she craved pain. There was no watcher behind her awareness, only an animal.
"Never had a taste for formalities," the tracker growled. "Passion. That was what we liked about you."
Hard, broken gasps. Tears winding down in tingling rivulets. Throbbing heartbeats that kicked through her sternum and up into her throat.
"Anna," Konrad said.
It was the tone she'd taken with the girl — not just a girl, but Ramyi, the girl who mattered. Collected, sharp, a warning as much as a plea to reason. Something about it cut her to the bone. She tore her hand from the leather-woven grip, fighting for every scrap of air she could pull into her lungs, and stared at the tracker. Her eyes were burning, but she focused through their vinegar sting.
"Nothing to say?" The tracker gently drew the blade from his eye. Spindle by spindle, milky tissue sealed the gaping red incision. "Not the Anna I remember."
She waited until her shoulders fell and her voice found cold stillness. "Because I'm not Anna."
"If it walks like a hound, barks like a hound ... "
"You've not felt my teeth."
The tracker studied the blade in his hand. "Spare some forgiveness if I beg to differ, girl." A huff, a ripple of breath across his burlap. "Looks like in the end, after all those banners and bodies and the rest, you'll be the one grinning. Bet you've been dreaming about this since we parted, haven't you? Never seen eyes with that sort of fire."
Anna looked at Konrad. "What is he talking about?"
"Treating me like a wisp?" the tracker asked.
"I have nothing to say to you," she whispered.
"Come off it. A thousand days, a thousand runts prowling in the hills. Every cracked brain from Kowak to Dulstaka knows who slipped their leashes and gave 'em a scent." The tracker shook his head. "Say what you like, Anna, but our silence doesn't suit you."
"He's come for the Breaking," Konrad explained, gazing emptily at the carpet. "I trust his words."
"The words of a serpent," Anna said. Many had sought the Breaking in the ashes of the war, but those who'd knelt before her had been wandering anchorites, guilt-wracked butchers on the verge of madness, victims who'd seen their lives torn away and left with a craving for cessation. And she'd been grateful to anoint them, staring down into blank eyes and blank flesh. It was more than the obliteration of their essence — it was a return to the welcoming void they'd known before the womb, long before existence thrust them into separation and ignorance.
But the tracker was not like the others.
He was a man who'd grown to love his cage of flesh. He'd tasted some strain of that same void, surely, but it had only fed his broken mind, sapping meaning from the world that he knew as his plaything.
Some men were beyond redemption. Aberrations of life, vessels the gods had forgotten to imbue with a conscience.
Killers who took refuge in honor.
"Taking a bite into gifted gold, aren't you?" the tracker asked. "Take what you've been after, girl. Open my throat, scrape out my marrow, stretch my skin out over cursed wood. Dance in the fucking blood, for all it's worth. Grove knows how many spirits are waiting to pick me out of their teeth."
Konrad sighed. "He means it, Anna."
"What are you playing at?" she asked.
"Death," the tracker said.
"Tell me the truth," she said softly, "or we'll carve it out of you."
"Hard work has its day of recompense," he replied. "You gave Rzolka its torch. Suppose that was its last chance, all things boiled down. A few years of glory, a few whelps put under the soil, but now — now it's all in your lap, girl. Way back when I first saw those eyes, I knew you'd wind up towering over bodies. So take your spoils and enjoy it. I'll scream as much as you like."
Anna sensed the rattled edge in his voice like a faint breeze. It was subtle, nearly imperceptible, but the razor-mind caught its warbling tail and shaking timbre. Her lips widened into a thin smile. "No."
His right eye twitched. "No?"
"Death belongs to the humble," she whispered. "Surely a god has no need for it."
"You've grown sick, haven't you? Fine. Let me squeal a bit before you open my veins."
"I'll do whatever I please."
"I know what you want."
"You know nothing about me," she said. "Not anymore. But I'm certain of what you want, because you're a hound. A sad, starving hound. You talk about knowing my eyes, but I know yours. All you crave is control."
"No control in letting you gut me."
"You want to die on your terms," she said, taking a step forward, drowning in his stench of marsh-rot and liquor and bile. "You let me believe I was in command, but you knew what scared me, didn't you? Those days are gone." Another step. "What could you possibly take away from me now? My life? Those I love? Everything burned away, but I remain. And now you'll understand fear."
The tracker's chest swelled with a spastic rhythm. "You watched Volna's men march to the gallows. Don't act like you're not after blood, girl."
"Once I knew a girl who would've given anything to see you bleed," she replied. "But she died long ago. You made sure of that."
Bones creaked along the tracker's wrists. "What do you want, then?"
"Far less than you."
"You can stomp us out. Right here, right now."
"I already have. But your death occurred in council rooms and referendums, not at the end of a blade." She tapped the tracker's chest with a crooked finger. "I want to know what has you running scared."
"Seems clear that I've had my time with running."
"You'll never outrun living," she said. "It's nipping at your heels, isn't it? It must be crushing you. Imagine how shattered your mind will be in a hundred years, a thousand ... when you've seen every being rise and fall like stalks in a field, and the weight of eternity finally breaks you." Laughter flared up in her, at once absurd and callous. Yet she held nothing back. "Oh, how I'll weep for you."
"Shattered minds," the tracker growled. "Look what the north did to you. You star-chasing, sand-blinded — "
"What broke you?"
The tracker tilted his head lower, glaring down at her with eyes that spoke of murder, of solitude among broken peaks and howling caverns.
"You've taken far too much of my time already," Anna continued. "See him off to his den, Konrad."
Anna surveyed the white-clad brother, her gust of pride taking on a sharply sour note. Nothing pleasant was born of ignorance.
"He knows where the others fled," Konrad said. His eyes flicked up at her with haunting prescience, with the weight of passions he'd learned to bury, yet had not forgotten. The Breaking was a return to emptiness, but those with dark cravings often found a way to regain their appetite.
"And what?" Anna's gaze darted between the two men. "They have no refuge in this world or the next."
"A curious sentiment from the hunter herself," the tracker mused. "How many of your precious scribes have put blades to the inquisitors' necks? Seems you're keen on dragging the beasts from their holes."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Scions"
Copyright © 2018 James Wolanyk.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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