Please enjoy this excerpt from Sam Sykes’ Black Halo, the second installment of the Aeons’ Gate series, out today from Pyr Books. These chapters are available exclusively through Tor.com for one full week.
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The Aeons’ Gate
The Sea of Buradan . . . somewhere . . .
Summer, getting later all the time
What’s truly wrong with the world is that it seems so dauntingly complex at a glance and so despairingly simple upon close examination. Forget what elders, kings, and politicians say otherwise, this is the one truth of life. Any endeavor so noble and gracious, any scheme so cruel and remorseless, can be boiled down like cheap stew. Good intentions and ambitions rise to the surface in thick, sloppy chunks and leave behind only the base instincts at the bottom of the pot.
Granted, I’m not sure what philosophical aspect represents the broth, but this metaphor only came to me just now. That’s beside the point. For the moment, I’m dubbing this “Lenk’s Greater Imbecile Theory.”
I offer up myself as an example. I began by taking orders without question from a priest; a priest of Talanas, the Healer, no less. If that weren’t impressive enough, he, one Miron Evenhands, also served as Lord Emissary for the church itself. He signed the services of myself and my companions to help him find a relic, one Aeons’ Gate, to communicate with the very heavens.
It seemed simple enough, if a bit mad, right up until the demons attacked.
From there, the services became a bit more . . . complicated should be the word for it, but it doesn’t quite do justice to describe the kind of fish-headed preachers that came aboard the vessel carrying us and stole a book, one Tome of the Undergates. After our services were required to retrieve this—this collection of scriptures wrought by hellbeasts that were, until a few days ago, stories used to frighten coins into the collection plates—to say that further complications arose seems rather disingenuous.
Regardless, at the behest of said priest and on behalf of his god, we set out to retrieve this tome and snatch it back from the clutches of the aforementioned hellbeasts. To those reading who enjoy stories that end with noble goals reached, lofty morals upheld, and mankind left a little better for the experience, I would suggest closing this journal now, should you have stumbled upon it long after it separated from my corpse.
It only gets worse from here.
I neglected to mention what it was that drove such glorious endeavors to be accomplished. Gold. One thousand pieces. The meat of the stew, bobbing at the top.
The book is mine now, in my possession, along with a severed head that screams and a very handy sword. When I hand over the book to Miron, he will hand over the money. That is what is left at the bottom of this pot: no great quest to save humanity, no communication with the Gods, no uniting people hand in hand through trials of adversity and noble blood spilled. Only money. Only me.
This is, after all, adventure.
Not that the job has been all head-eating demons and babbling seagulls, mind. I’ve also been collecting epiphanies, such as the one written above. A man tends to find them bobbing on the very waves when he’s sitting cramped in a tiny boat.
With six other people. Whom he hates. One of whom farts in her sleep. I suppose I also neglected to mention that I haven’t been alone in this endeavor. No, much of the credit goes to my companions: a monster, a heathen, a thug, a zealot, and a savage. I offer these titles with the utmost respect, of course. Rest assured that, while they are undoubtedly handy to have around in a fight, time spent in close quarters with them tends to wear on one’s nerves rather swiftly.
All the same . . . I don’t suppose I could have done it without them. “It” being described below, short as I can make it and ending with a shict’s ass pointed at me like a weapon as she slumbers.
The importance of the book is nothing worth noting unless it is also noted who had the book. In this case, after Miron, the new owners were the Abysmyths: giant, emaciated demons with the heads of fish who drown men on dry land. Fittingly enough, their leader, the Deepshriek, was even more horrendous. I suppose if I were a huge man-thing with a fish-head, I would follow a huge fish-thing with three man-heads.
Or woman-heads, in this case, I’m sorry. Apologies again; two woman-heads. The third rests comfortably at my side, blindfolded and gagged. It does have the tendency to scream all on its own.
Still, one can’t honestly recount the trouble surrounding this book if one neglects to mention the netherlings. I never saw one alive, but unless they change color when they die, they appear to be very powerful, very purple women. All muscle and iron, I’m told by my less fortunate companions who fought them, that they fight like demented rams and follow short, effeminate men in dresses.
As bad as things got, however, it’s all behind us now. Despite the fact that the Deepshriek escaped with two of its heads, despite the fact that the netherlings’ com- mander, a rather massive woman with sword to match, escaped, despite the fact that we are currently becalmed with one day left until the man sent to pick us up from the middle of the sea decides we’re dead and leaves and we really die shortly after and our corpses rot in the noonday sun as gulls form polite conversation over whether my eyeballs or my stones are the more tasty part of me . . .
One moment, I’m not quite sure where I intended to go with that statement.
I wish I could be at ease, really I do. But it’s not quite that easy. The adventurer’s constant woe is that the adventure never ends with the corpse and the loot. After the blood is spilled and the deed is done, there’s always people coming for revenge, all manner of diseases acquired and the fact that a rich adventurer is only a particularly talented and temporarily wealthy kind of scum.
Still . . . that’s not what plagues me. Not to the extent of the voice in my head, at least.
I tried to ignore it, at first. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t speaking in my head, that it was only high exhaustion and low morale wearing on my mind. I tried to tell myself that. . . .
And it told me otherwise.
It’s getting worse now. I hear it all the time. It hears me all the time. What I think, it knows. What I know, it casts doubt on. It tells me all sorts of horrible things, tells me to do worse things, commands me to hurt, to kill, to strike back. It gets so loud, so loud lately that I want to . . . that I just—
The issue is that I can make the voice stop. I can get a few moments respite from it . . . but only by opening the tome.
Miron told me not to. Common sense told me again. But I did it, anyway. The book is more awful than I could imagine. At first, it didn’t even seem to say anything: its pages were just filled with nonsensical symbols and pages of people being eviscerated, decapitated, manipulated, and masticated at the hands, minds, and jaws of various creatures too awful to re-create in my journal.
As I read on, however . . . it began to make more sense. I could read the words, understand what they were saying, what they were suggesting. And when I flip back to the pages I couldn’t read before, I can see them all over again. The images are no less awful, but the voice . . . the voice stops. It no longer tells me things. It no longer commands me.
It doesn’t just make sense grammatically, but philosophically as well. It doesn’t speak of evisceration, horrific sin, or demonic incursion like it’s supposed to, despite the illustrations. Rather, it speaks of freedom, of self-reliance, of life without a need to kneel. It’s really more of a treatise, but I suppose “Manifesto of the Undergates” just doesn’t have the same ring.
I open the book only late at night. I can’t do it in front of my companions. During the day, I sit on it to make sure that they can’t snatch a glimpse at its words. To my great relief, none of them have tried so far, apparently far more bothered by other matters.
To be honest, it’s a bit of a relief to see them all so agitated and uncomfortable. Gariath, especially, since his preferred method of stress release usually involves roaring, gnashing, and stomping with me having to get a mop at the end of it. Lately, however, he just sits at the rear of our little boat, holding the rudder, staring out at sea. He’s so far unmoved by anything, ignoring us completely.
Not that such a thing stops other people from trying.
Denaos is the only one in good spirits, so far. Considering, it seems odd that he should be alone in this. After all, he points out, we have the tome. We’re about to be paid one thousand gold pieces. Split six ways, that still makes a man worth exactly six cases of whiskey, three expensive whores, sixty cheap whores, or one splendid night with all three in varying degrees, if his math is to be trusted. He insults, he spits, he snarls, seemingly more offended that we’re not more jovial.
Oddly enough, Asper is the only one who can shut him up. Even more odd, she does it without yelling at him. I fear she may have been affected the worst by our encounters. I don’t see her wearing her symbol lately. For any priestess, that is odd. For a priestess who has polished, prayed to, and occasionally threatened to shove said symbol into her companions’ eye sockets, it’s worrying.
Between her and Denaos, Dreadaeleon seems to be torn. He alternately wears an expression like a starving puppy for the former, then fixes a burning, hateful stare upon the latter. At any moment, he looks like he’s either going to have his way with Asper or incinerate Denaos. As psychotic as it might sound, I actually prefer this to his constant prattling about magic, the Gods and how they’re a lie, and whatever else the most annoying combination of a wizard and a boy could think up.
Kataria . . .
Kataria is an enigma to me yet. Of all the others, she was the first I met, long ago in a forest. Of all the others, she has been the one I’ve never worried about, I’ve never thought ill of for very long. She has been the only one I am able to sleep easy next to, the only one I know will share her food, the only one I know who wouldn’t abandon me for gold or violence.
Why can’t I understand her?
All she does is stare. She doesn’t speak much to me, to anyone else, really, but she only stares at me. With hatred? With envy? Does she know what I’ve done with the book? Does she hate me for it?
She should be happy, shouldn’t she? The voice tells me to hurt her worst, hurt her last. All her staring does is make the voice louder. At least by reading the book I can look at her without feeling my head burn.
When she’s sleeping, I can stare at her, though. I can see her as she is . . . and even then, I don’t know what to make of her. Stare as I might, I can’t . . .
Sweet Khetashe, this has gotten a tad strange, hasn’t it?
The book is ours now. That’s what matters. Soon we’ll trade it for money, have our whiskey and our whores and see who hires us next. That is assuming, of course, we ever make it to our meeting point: the island of Teji. We’ve got one night left to make it, with winds that haven’t shown themselves since I began writing, and a huge, endless sea beneath us.
Hope is ill advised.
Stealing The Sunrise
Dawn had never been so quiet in the country.
Amid the sparse oases in the desert, noise had thrived where all other sound had died. Dawn came with songbirds, beds creaking as people rousted themselves for labor, bread and water sloshed down as meager breakfast. In the country, the sun came with life.
In the city, life ended with the sun.
Anacha stared from her balcony over Cier’Djaal as the sun rose over its rooftops and peeked through its towers to shine on the sand-covered streets below. The city, in response, seemed to draw tighter in on itself, folding its shadows like a blanket as it rolled over and told the sun to let it sleep for a few more moments.
No songbirds came to Anacha’s ears; merchants sold such songs in the market for prices she could not afford. No sounds of beds; all clients slept on cushions on the floor, that their late-night visitors might not wake them when leaving. No bread, no water; breakfast would be served when the clients were gone and the girls might rest up from the previous night.
A frown crossed her face as she observed the scaffolding and lazy bricks of a tower being raised right in front of her balcony. It would be done in one year, she had heard the workers say.
One year, she thought, and then the city steals the sun from me, too.
Her ears twitched with the sound of a razor on skin. She thought it odd, as she did every morning, that such a harsh, jagged noise should bring a smile to her lips. Just as she thought it odd that this client of hers should choose to linger long enough to shave every time he visited her.
She turned on her sitting cushion, observing the back of his head: round and bronzed, the same color as the rest of his naked body. His face was calm in the mirror over her washbasin; wrinkles that would become deep, stress-born crevices in the afternoon now lay smooth. Eyes that would later squint against the sunset were wide and brilliantly blue in the glass as he carefully ran the razor along his froth-laden scalp.
“I wager you have beautiful hair,” she said from the balcony. He did not turn, so she cleared her throat and spoke up. “Long, thick locks of red that would run all the way down to your buttocks if you gave them but two days.”
He paused at that, the referred cheeks squeezing together self-consciously. She giggled, sprawled out on her cushion so that she looked at him upside- down, imagining the river of fire that would descend from his scalp.
“I could swim in it,” she sighed at her own mental image, “for hours and hours. It wouldn’t matter if the sun didn’t shine. Even if it reflected the light of just one candle, I could be blinded.”
She thought she caught a hint of a smile in the reflection. If it truly was such, however, he did not confirm it as he ran the razor over his scalp and flicked the lather into her basin.
“My hair is black,” he replied, “like any man’s from Cier’Djaal.”
She muttered something, rolled up onto her belly, and propped her chin on her elbows. “So glad my poetry is not lost on heathen ears.”
“‘Heathen,’ in the common vernacular, is used to refer to a man without faith in gods. Since I do not have such a thing, you are halfway right. Since gods do not exist, you are completely wrong.” This time, he did smile at her in the mirror as he brought the razor to his head once more. “And I didn’t pay for the poetry.”
“My gift to you, then,” Anacha replied, making an elaborate bow as she rose to her feet.
“Gifts are typically given with the expectation that they are to be returned.” He let the statement hang in the air like an executioner’s ax as he scraped another patch of skin smooth.
“If it was to be returned, you would just give me the same poem back. To recompense the gift means that you would give me one of your own.”
The man stopped, tapped the razor against his chin, and hummed thoughtfully. Placing a hand against his mouth, he cleared his throat.
“There once was an urchin from Allssaq—“
“Stop,” she interrupted, holding a hand up. “Sometimes, too, gifts can just be from one person to another without reprisal.”
“In this case, I believe my word fits better.” She drew her robe about her body, staring at him in the mirror and frowning. “The sun is still sleeping, I am sure. You don’t have to go yet.”
“That’s not your decision,” the man said, “nor mine.”
“It doesn’t strike you as worrisome that your decisions are not your own?”
Anacha immediately regretted the words, knowing that he could just as easily turn the question back upon her. She carefully avoided his stare, turning her gaze toward the door that she would never go beyond, the halls that led to the desert she would never see again.
To his credit, Bralston remained silent.
“You can go in late, can’t you?” she pressed, emboldened.
Quietly, she slipped behind him, slinking arms around his waist and pulling him close to her. She breathed deeply of his aroma, smelling the night on him. His scent, she had noticed, lingered a few hours behind him. When he came to her in the evening, he smelled of the markets and sand in the outside world. When he left her in the morning, he smelled of this place, her prison of silk and sunlight.
It was only when the moon rose that she smelled him and herself, their perfumes mingled as their bodies had been the night before. She smelled a concoction on him, a brew of moonlight and whispering sand on a breeze as rare as orchids. This morning, his scent lingered a little longer than usual and she inhaled with breath addicted.
“Or skip it altogether,” she continued, drawing him closer. “The Venarium can go a day without you.”
“And they frequently do,” he replied, his free hand sliding down to hers.
She felt the electricity dance upon his skin, begging for his lips to utter the words that would release it. It was almost with a whimper that her hand was forced from his waist as he returned to shaving.
“Today was going to be one such day. The fact that it is not means that I cannot miss it.” He shaved off another line of lather. “Meetings at this hour are not often called in the Venarium.” He shaved off another. “Meetings of the Librarians at this hour are never called.” He slid the last slick of lather from his scalp and flicked it into the basin. “If the Librarians are not seen—”
“Magic collapses, laws go unenforced, blood in the streets, hounds with two heads, babies spewing fire.” She sighed dramatically, collapsing onto her cushion and waving a hand above her head. “And so on.”
Bralston spared her a glance as she sprawled out, robe opening to expose the expanse of naked brown beneath. The incline of his eyebrows did not go unnoticed, though not nearly to the extent of his complete disregard as he walked to his clothes draped over a chair. That, too, did not cause her to stir so much as the sigh that emerged from him as he ran a hand over his trousers.
“Are you aware of my duty, Anacha?”
She blinked, not entirely sure how to answer. Few people were truly aware of what the Venarium’s “duties” consisted. If their activities were any indica- tion, however, the wizardly order’s tasks tended to involve the violent arrest of all palm-readers, fortune-tellers, sleight-of-hand tricksters, and the burning, electrocution, freezing, or smashing of said charlatans and their gains.
Of the duties of the Librarians, the Venarium’s secret within a secret, no one could even begin to guess, least of all her.
“Let me rephrase,” Bralston replied after her silence dragged on for too long. “Are you aware of my gift?”
He turned to her, crimson light suddenly leaking out of his gaze, and she stiffened. She had long ago learned to tremble before that gaze, as the char- latans and false practitioners did. A wizard’s stink eye tended to be worse than anyone else’s, if only by virtue of the fact that it was shortly followed by an imminent and messy demise.
“That’s all it is: a gift,” he continued, the light flickering like a flame. “And gifts require recompense. This”—he tapped a thick finger to the corner of his eye—“is only given to us so long as we respect it and follow its laws. Now, I ask you, Anacha, when was the last time Cier’Djaal was a city of law?”
She made no reply for him; she knew none was needed. And as soon as he knew that she knew, the light faded. The man that looked at her now was no longer the one that had come to her the night before. His brown face was elegantly lined by wrinkles, his pursed lips reserved for words and chants, not poems.
Anacha stared at him as he dressed swiftly and meticulously, tucking tunic into trousers and draping long, red coat over tunic. He did not check in a mirror, the rehearsed garbing as ingrained into him as his gift, as he walked to the door to depart without a sound.
There was no protest as he left the coins on her wardrobe. She had long ago told him there was no need to pay anymore. She had long ago tried to return the coins to him when he left. She had shrieked at him, cursed him, begged him to take the coins and try to pretend that they were two lovers who had met under the moonlight and not a client and visitor who knew each other only in the confines of silk and perfume.
He left the coins and slipped out the door.
And she knew she had to be content to watch him go, this time, as all other times. She had to watch the man she knew the night before reduced to his indentation on her bed, his identity nothing more than a faint outline of sweat on sheets and shape on a cushion. The sheets would be washed, the cushion would be smoothed; Bralston the lover would die in a whisper of sheets.
Bralston the Librarian would do his duty, regardless.
“Do you have to do that?” the clerk asked.
Bralston allowed his gaze to linger on the small statuette for a moment. He always spared enough time for the bronze woman: her short-cropped, businesslike hair, her crook in one hand and sword in the other as she stood over a pack of cowering hounds. Just as he always spared the time to touch the corner of his eye in recognition as he passed the statue in the Venarium’s halls.
“Do what?” the Librarian replied, knowing full well the answer.
“This is not a place of worship, you know,” the clerk muttered, casting a sidelong scowl at his taller companion. “This is the Hall of the Venarium.”
“And the Hall of the Venarium is a place of law,” Bralston retorted, “and the law of Cier’Djaal states that all businesses must bear an icon of the Houndmistress, the Law-Bringer.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to worship her as a god.”
“A sign of respect is not worship.”
“It borders dangerously close to idolatry,” the clerk said, attempting to be as threatening as a squat man in ill-fitting robes could be. “And that cer- tainly is.”
Technically, Bralston knew, it wasn’t so much against the law as it was simply psychotic in the eyes of the Venarium. What would be the point of worshipping an idol, after all? Idols were the hypocrisy of faith embodied, representing things so much more than mankind and contrarily hewn in the image of mankind. What was the point of it all?
Gods did not exist, in man’s image or no. Mankind existed. Mankind was the ultimate power in the world and the wizards were the ultimate power within mankind. These idols merely reinforced that fact.
Still, the Librarian lamented silently as he surveyed the long hall, one might credit idolatry with at least being more aesthetically pleasing.
The bronze statuette was so small as to be lost amid the dun-colored stone walls and floors, unadorned by rugs, tapestries, or any window greater than a slit the length of a man’s hand. It served as the only thing to make one realize they were in a place of learning and law, as opposed to a cell.
Still, he mused, there was a certain appeal to hearing one’s footsteps echo through the halls. Perhaps that was the architectural proof to the wizards’ denial of gods. Here, within the Venarium itself, in the halls where no prayers could be heard over the reverberating thunder of feet, mankind was proven the ultimate power.
“The Lector has been expecting you,” the clerk muttered as he slid open the door. “For some time,” he hastily spat out, dissatisfied with his previous statement. “Do be quick.”
Bralston offered him the customary nod, then slipped into the office as the door closed soundlessly behind him.
Lector Annis, as much a man of law as any member of the Venarium, respected the need for humble surroundings. Despite being the head of the Librarians, his office was a small square with a chair, a large bookshelf, and a desk behind which the man was seated, his narrow shoulders bathed by the sunlight trickling in from the slits lining his walls.
Bralston could spare only enough attention to offer his superior the cus- tomary bow before something drew his attention. The addition of three extra chairs in the office was unusual. The admittance of three people, clearly not wizards themselves, was unheard of.
“Librarian Bralston,” Annis spoke up, his voice deeper than his slender frame would suggest, “we are thrilled you could attend.”
“My duty is upheld, Lector,” the man replied, stepping farther into the room and eyeing the new company, two men and one visibly shaken woman, curiously. “Forgive me, but I was told this was to be a meeting of the Librarians.”
“Apologies, my good man.” One of the men rose from his chair quicker than the Lector could speak. “The deception, purely unintentional, was only wrought by the faulty use of the plural form. For, as you can see, this is indeed a meeting.” His lips split open to reveal half a row of yellow teeth. “And you are indeed a Librarian.”
The stench confirmed the man’s lineage long before the feigned elo- quence and vast expanse of ruddy, tattoo-etched flesh did. Bralston’s gaze drifted past the walking ink stain before him to the companion still seated. His stern face and brown skin denoted him as Djaalman, though not nearly to the extent that the detestable scowl he cast toward Bralston did. The reason for the hostility became clear the moment the man began to finger the pendant of Zamanthras, the sea goddess, hanging around his neck.
“Observant,” the Lector replied, narrowing eyes as sharp as his tone upon the Cragsman. “However, Master Shunnuk, the clerk briefed you on the terms of address. Keep them in mind.”
“Ah, but my enthusiasm bubbles over and stains the carpet of my most gracious host.” The Cragsman placed his hands together and bowed low to the floor. “I offer a thousand apologies, sirs, as is the custom in your fair desert jewel of a city.”
Bralston frowned; the company of Anacha suddenly seemed a thousand times more pleasurable, the absence of her bed’s warmth leaving him chill despite the office’s stuffy confines.
“As you can imagine, Librarian Bralston,” Annis spoke up, reading his subordinate’s expression, “it was dire circumstance that drove these . . . gentlemen and their feminine companion to our door.”
The woman’s shudder was so pronounced that Bralston could feel her skin quake from where he stood. He cast an interested eye over his shoulder and frowned at the sight of something that had been beautiful long ago.
Her cheeks hung slack around her mouth, each one stained with a purple bruise where there should have been a vibrant glow. Her hair hung in limp, greasy strands over her downturned face. He caught only a glimpse of eyes that once were bright with something other than tears before she looked to her torn dress, tracing a finger down a vicious rent in the cloth.
“Of course, of course,” the Cragsman Shunnuk said. “Naturally, we came here with all the haste the meager bodies our gods cursed us with could manage. This grand and harrowing tale the lass is about to tell you, I would be remiss if I did not forewarn, is not for the faint of heart. Grand wizards you might be, I have not yet known a man who could—”
“If it is at all possible,” Bralston interrupted, turning a sharp eye upon the Cragsman’s companion, “I would prefer to hear him tell it. Master . . .”
“Massol,” the Djaalman replied swiftly and without pretense. “And, if it is acceptable to you, I would prefer that you did not address me with such respect.” His eyes narrowed, hand wrapping about the pendant. “I have no intention of returning the favor to the faithless.”
Bralston rolled his eyes. He, naturally, could not begrudge an unenlight- ened man his superstitions. After all, the only reason people called him faith- less was the same reason they were stupid enough to believe in invisible sky- beings watching over them. Not being one to scold a dog for licking its own stones, Bralston merely inclined his head to the Djaalman.
“Go on, then,” he said.
“We fished this woman out of the Buradan weeks ago,” the sailor called Massol began without reluctance. “Found her bobbing in a ship made of blackwood.”
A shipwreck victim, Bralston mused, but quickly discarded that thought. No sensible man, surely, would seek the Venarium’s attention for such a triviality.
“Blackwood ships do not sail that far south.” Massol’s eyes narrowed, as though reading the Librarian’s thoughts. “She claimed to have drifted out from places farther west, near the islands of Teji and Komga.”
“Those islands are uninhabited,” Bralston muttered to himself.
“And her tale only gets more deranged from there,” Massol replied. “Sto- ries of lizardmen, purple women . . .” He waved a hand. “Madness.”
“Not that the thought of seeking them out didn’t cross our minds,” Shunnuk interrupted with a lewd grin. “Purple women? The reasonable gen- tleman, being of curious mind and healthy appetite, would be hard-pressed not to wonder if they are purple all over or—”
“I believe it is time to hear from the actual witness.” Lector Annis cut the man off, waving his hand. He shifted his seat, turning a scrutinizing gaze upon the woman. “Repeat your story for the benefit of Librarian Bralston.”
Her sole reply was to bend her neck even lower, turning her face even more toward the floor. She folded over herself, arms sliding together, knees drawing up to her chest, as though she sought to continue collapsing inward until there was nothing left but an empty chair.
Bralston felt his frown grow into a vast trench across his face. He had seen these women who had sought to become nothing, seen them when they were mere girls. There were always new ones coming and going in Anacha’s place of employ, young women whose parents found no other way out of the debt they had incurred, girls snatched from the desert and clad in silk that made their skin itch. Often, he saw them being escorted to their new rooms to waiting clients, the lanterns low as to hide the tears on their faces.
Often, he had wondered if Anacha had cried them when she was so young. Always, he wondered if she still did.
And this woman had no tears left. Wherever she had come from bore the stains of her tears, bled out from her body. Violently, he concluded, if the bruises on her face were any indication. He slid down to one knee before her, as he might a puppy, and strained to look into her face, to convey to her that all would be well, that the places of law were havens safe from violence and from barbarism, that she would have all the time she needed to find her tears again.
Lector Annis did not share the same sentiment.
“Please,” he uttered, his voice carrying with an echo usually reserved for invocations. He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers to suggest that he did not make requests.
“I was . . .” she squeaked at first through a voice that crawled timidly from her throat. “I was a merchant. A spice merchant from Muraska, coming to Cier’Djaal. We were passing through the Buradan two months ago.”
“This is where she begins to get interesting,” the Cragsman said, his grin growing.
“Silence, please,” Bralston snapped.
“We were . . . we were attacked,” she continued, her breath growing short. “Black boats swept over the sea, rowed by purple women clad in black armor. They boarded, drew swords, killed the men, killed everyone but me.” Her stare was distant as her mind drifted back over the sea. “We were . . . I was taken with the cargo.
“There was an island. I don’t remember where. There were scaly green men unloading the boats while the purple women whipped them. Those that fell dead and bloodied, they were . . . they were fed to . . .”
Her face began to twitch, the agony and fear straining to escape through a face that had hardened to them. Bralston saw her hands shake, fingers dig into her ripped skirt as though she sought to dig into herself and vanish from the narrowed gazes locked upon her.
She’s terrified, the Librarian thought, clearly. Do something. Postpone this inquisition. You’re sworn to uphold the law, not be a callous and cruel piece of—
“The important part, please,” Lector Annis muttered, his breath laced with impatient heat.
“I was taken to the back of a cavern,” the woman continued, visibly trying to harden herself to both the memory and the Lector. “There were two other women there. One was . . . tired. I couldn’t stop crying, but she never even looked up. We were both taken to a bed where a man came out, tall and purple, wearing a crown of thorns upon his head with red stones affixed to it. He laid me down. . . . I . . . He did . . .”
Her eyes began to quiver, the pain finally too much to conceal. Despite the Lector’s deliberately loud and exasperated sigh, she chewed her lower lip until blood began to form behind her teeth. Having failed to fold in on her- self, having failed to dig into herself, she began to tremble herself to pieces.
Bralston lowered himself, staring into her eyes as much as he could. He raised a hand, but thought better of it, not daring to touch such a fragile crea- ture for fear she might break. Instead, he spoke softly, his voice barely above a whisper.
As he had spoken to Anacha, when she had trembled under his grasp, when she had shed tears into his lap.
“Tell us only what we need,” he said gently. “Leave the pain behind for now. We don’t need it. What we need”—he leaned closer to her, his voice going lower—“is to stop this man.”
The woman looked up at him and he saw the tears. In other circum- stances, he might have offered a smile, an embrace for her. For now, he returned her resolute nod with one of his own.
“When the other woman wouldn’t scream anymore,” the female con- tinued, “when she wouldn’t cry, the man burned her.” She winced. “Alive.” She paused to wipe away tears. “I’d seen magic before, seen wizards use it. But they always were weak afterward, drained. This man . . .”
“Was not,” the Lector finished for her. “She witnessed several similar instances from this man and three others on the island. None of them so much as broke into a sweat when they used the gift.”
And this couldn’t have been sent in a letter? Discussed in private? Bralston felt his ire boil in his throat. We had to drag this poor thing here to relive this? He rose and opened his mouth to voice such concerns, but quickly clamped his mouth shut as the Lector turned a sharp, knowing glare upon him.
“Your thoughts, Librarian.”
“I’ve never heard of anything purple with two legs,” Bralston contented himself with saying. “If it is a violation of the laws of magic, however, our duty is clear.”
“Agreed,” Annis replied, nodding stiffly. “Negating the physical cost of magic is a negation of the law, tantamount of the greatest heresy. You are to make your arrangements swiftly and report to Port Destiny. You can find there—”
A ragged cough broke the silence. Lector and Librarian craned their gazes toward the grinning Cragsman, their ire etched into their frowns.
“Pardon us for not living up to your expectations of noble and self- sacrificing men of honor, kind sirs,” Shunnuk said, making a hasty attempt at a bow. “But a man must live by the laws his fellows put down, and we were told that gents of your particular calling offered no inconsequential sum for reports of all deeds blaspheming to your peculiar faith and—”
“You want money,” Bralston interrupted. “A bounty.”
“I would not take money from faithless hands,” the Djaalman said sternly. “But I will take it from his.” He gestured to Shunnuk.
Bralston arched a brow, certain there was a deeper insult there. “A report of this nature carries the weight of ten gold coins, typical for information regarding illegal use of magic.”
“A most generous sum,” the Cragsman said, barely able to keep from hit- ting the floor with the eager fury of his bow. “Assuredly, we will spend it well with your honor in mind, the knowledge of our good deed only serving to enhance the luster of the moment.”
“Very well, then.” The Lector hastily scribbled something out on a piece of parchment and handed it into a pair of twitching hands. “Present this to the clerk at the front.”
“Most assuredly,” Shunnuk replied as he spun on his heel to follow his companion to the door. “A pleasure, as always, to deal with the most generous caste of wizards.”
Bralston smiled twice: once for the removal of the stench and twice for the relief he expected to see upon the woman’s face when she learned of the justice waiting to be dealt. The fact that she trembled again caused him to frown until he noticed the clenched fists and murderous glare on her face. It was then that he noticed the particular hue of the purple discoloration on her face.
“These bruises,” he said loudly, “are fresh.”
“Yes, well . . .” The Cragsman’s voice became much softer suddenly. “The laws that man has set upon us and such.” Seeing Bralston’s unconvinced glare, he simply sighed and opened the door. “Well, it’s not as though we could just give her a free ride, could we? After what she’d been through, our company must have been a mercy.”
“Not that such a thing means anything to heathens,” the Djaalman muttered.
Bralston didn’t have time to narrow his eyes before the woman cleared her throat loudly.
“Do I get a request, as well?” she asked.
The two sailors’ eyes went wide, mouths dropping open.
“You did give us the actual report,” the Librarian confirmed.
“You . . .” Shunnuk gasped as he took a step backward. “You can’t be serious.”
“What is it you desire?” the Lector requested.
The woman narrowed her eyes and launched her scowl down an accusing finger.
“No! It’s not like that!” The Cragsman held up the parchment as though it were a shield. “Wait! Wait!”
“Librarian Bralston . . .” Lector Annis muttered.
“As you wish.”
The next words that leapt from the Librarian’s mouth echoed off of the very air as he raised a hand and swiftly jerked it back. The door slammed, trapping the two men inside. The Cragsman barely had time to blink before Bralston’s hand was up again. The tattooed man flew through the air, screaming as he hurtled toward Bralston. The Librarian uttered another word, bringing up his free palm that glowed a bright orange.
Shunnuk’s scream was drowned in the crackling roar of fire as a gout of crimson poured out of Bralston’s palm, sweeping over the Cragsman’s face and arms as the tattooed man helplessly flailed, trying desperately to put out a fire with no end.
After a moment of smoke-drenched carnage, the roar of fire died, and so did Shunnuk.
“Back away!” Massol shrieked, holding up his holy symbol as Bralston stalked toward him. “I am a man of honor! I am a man of faith! I didn’t touch the woman! Tell them!” He turned a pair of desperate eyes upon the woman. “Tell them!”
If the woman said anything, Bralston did not hear it over the word of power he uttered. If she had any objection for the electric blue enveloping the finger that was leveled at the Djaalman, she did not voice it. Her face showed no horror as she watched without pleasure, heard Massol’s screams without pity, no tears left for the carnage she watched lit by an azure glow.
When it was done, when Bralston flicked the errant sparks from his finger and left the blackened corpse twitching violently against the door, the Librarian barely spared a nod to the woman. Instead, he looked up to the Lector, who regarded the smoldering bodies on his floor with the same dis-taste he might a wine stain on his carpet.
“Tomorrow, then?” Bralston asked.
“At the dawn. It’s a long way to Port Destiny.” The Lector raised a brow. “Do bring your hat, Librarian.”
With an incline of his bald head and a sweep of his coat, Bralston vanished out the door. The Lector’s eyes lazily drifted from the two corpses to the woman, who sat staring at them with an empty stare, her body as stiff as a board. It wasn’t until he noticed the pile of ash still clenched in the charred hand of the Cragsman that he finally sighed.
“Waste of good paper . . .”
To Murder The Ocean
There was no difference between the sky and the sea that Lenk could discern.
They both seemed to stretch for eternity, their horizons long having swallowed the last traces of land to transform the world into a vision of indigo. The moon took a quiet departure early, disappearing behind the curtain of clouds that slid lazily over the sky. With no yellow orb to disperse the monotony, the world was a simple, painful blue that drank all directions.
The young man closed his eyes, drawing in a breath through his nose. He smelled the rain on the breeze, the salt on the waves. Holding up his hands as though in acknowledgment for whatever god had sent him the unchanging azure that emanated around him, he let the breath trickle between his teeth.
And then, Lenk screamed.
His sword leapt to his hand in their mutual eagerness to lean over the edge of their tiny vessel. The steel’s song a humming contrast to his maddening howl, he hacked at the ocean, bleeding its endless life in frothy wounds.
“Die, die, die, die, die!” he screamed, driving his sword into the salt. “Enough! No more! I’m sick of it, you hear me?” He cupped a hand over his mouth and shrieked. “Well, DO YOU?”
The water quickly settled, foam dissipating, ripples calming, leaving Lenk to glimpse himself in ragged fragments of reflections. His silver hair hung in greasy strands around a haggard face. The purple bags hanging from his eyelids began to rival the icy blue in his gaze. Lenk surveyed the pieces of a lunatic looking back at him from the water and wondered, not for the first time, if the ocean was mocking him.
No, he decided, it’s far too impassive to mock me. . . .
How could it be anything but? After all, it didn’t know what it was requested to stop any more than Lenk did. Stop being the ocean? He had dismissed such thoughts as madness on the first day their tiny sail hung limp and impotent on its insultingly thin mast. But as the evening of the second day slid into night, it didn’t seem such an unreasonable demand.
The sea, he thought scornfully, is the one being unreasonable. I wouldn’t have to resort to violence if it would just give me some wind.
“Hasn’t worked yet, has it?”
His eyes went wide and he had to resist hurling himself over the ledge in desperation to communicate with the suddenly talkative water. Such delusional hope lasted only a moment, as it always did, before sloughing off in great chunks to leave only twitching resentment in his scowl.
Teeth grating as he did, he turned to the creature sitting next to him with murder flashing in his scowl. She, however, merely regarded him with half-lidded green eyes and a disaffected frown. Her ears, two long and pointed things with three ragged notches running down each length, drooped beneath the feathers laced in her dirty blonde hair.
“Keep trying,” Kataria sighed. She turned back to the same task she had been doing for the past three hours, running her fingers along the fletching of the same three arrows. “I’m sure it will talk back eventually.”
“Zamanthras is as fickle as the waters she wards,” Lenk replied, his voice like rusty door hinges. He looked at his sword thoughtfully before sheathing it on his back. “Maybe she needs a sacrifice to turn her favor toward us.”
“Don’t let me stop you from hurling yourself in,” she replied without looking up.
“At least I’m doing something.”
“Attempting to eviscerate the ocean?” She tapped the head of an arrow against her chin thoughtfully. “That’s something insane, maybe. You’re just going to open your stitches doing that.” Her ears twitched, as though they could hear the sinewy threads stretching in his leg. “How is your wound, anyway?”
He attempted to hide the wince of pain that shot up through his thigh at the mention of the wicked, sewn-up gash beneath his trousers. The agony of the injury itself was kept numb through occasional libations of what remained of their whiskey, but every time he ran his fingers against the stitches, any time his companions inquired after his health, the visions would come flooding back.
Teeth. Darkness. Six golden eyes flashing in the gloom. Laughter echoing off stone, growing quiet under shrieking carnage and icicles hissing through his head. They would fade eventually, but they were always waiting, ready to come back the moment he closed his eyes.
“It’s fine,” he muttered.
Her ears twitched again, hearing the lie in his voice. He disregarded it, knowing she had only asked the question to deflect him. He drew in his breath through his teeth, tensing as he might for a battle. She heard this, too, and narrowed her eyes.
“You should rest,” she said.
“I don’t want—”
“In silence,” she interrupted. “Talking doesn’t aid the healing process.”
“What would a shict know of healing beyond chewing grass and drilling holes in skulls?” he snapped, his ire giving his voice swiftness. “If you’re so damn smart—”
Her upper lip curled backward in a sneer, the sudden exposure of her unnervingly prominent canines cutting him short. He cringed at the sight of her teeth that were as much a testament to her savage heritage as the feathers in her hair and the buckskin leathers she wore.
“What I mean is you could be doing something other than counting your precious little arrows,” he offered, attempting to sound remorseful and failing, if the scowl she wore was any indication. “You could use them to catch us a fish or something.” Movement out over the sea caught his eye and he gestured toward it. “Or one of those.”
They had been following the vessel for the past day: many-legged creatures that slid gracefully across the waters. Dredgespiders, he had heard them called—so named for the nets of wispy silk that trailed from their upraised, bulbous abdomens. Such a net would undoubtedly brim with shrimp and whatever hapless fish wound up under the arachnid’s surface-bound path, and the promise of such a bounty was more than enough to make mouths water at the sight of the gray-carapaced things.
They always drifted lazily out of reach, multiple eyes occasionally glancing over to the vessel and glistening with mocking smugness unbefitting a bug.
“Not a chance,” Kataria muttered, having seen that perverse pride in their eyes and having discounted the idea.
“Well, pray for something else, then,” he growled. “Pray to whatever savage little god sends your kind food.”
She turned a glower on him, her eyes seeming to glow with a malevolent green. “Riffid is a goddess that helps shicts who help themselves. The day She lifts a finger to help a whiny, weeping little round-ear is the day I renounce Her.” She snorted derisively and turned back to her missiles. “And these are my last three arrows. I’m saving them for something special.”
“What use could they possibly be?”
“This one”—she fingered her first arrow—“is for if I ever do see a fish that I would like to eat by myself. And this . . .” She brushed the second one. “This one is for me to be buried with if I die.”
He glanced at the third arrow, its fletching ragged and its head jagged.
“What about that one?” Lenk asked.
Kataria eyed the missile, then turned a glance to Lenk. There was nothing behind her eyes that he could see: no hatred or irritation, no bemusement for his question. She merely stared at him with a fleeting, thoughtful glance as she let the feathered end slide between her thumb and forefinger.
“Something special,” she answered simply, then turned away.
Lenk narrowed his eyes through the silence hanging between them.
“And what,” he said softly, “is that supposed to mean?” There was something more behind her eyes; there always was. And what-ever it was usually came hurtling out of her mouth on sarcasm and spittle when he asked such questions of her.
For the moment, she simply turned away, taking no note of his staring at her. He had rested his eyes upon her more frequently, taking in the scope of her slender body, the silvery hue the pale skin left exposed by a short leather tunic took on through the moonlight. Each time he did, he expected her ears to twitch as she heard his eyes shifting in their sockets, and it would be his turn to look away as she stared at him curiously.
In the short year they had known each other, much of their rapport had come through staring and the awkward silences that followed. The silence she offered him now, however, was anything but awkward. It had purpose behind it, a solid wall of silence that she had painstakingly erected and that he was not about to tear down.
Not with his eyeballs alone, anyway.
“Look,” he said, sighing. “I don’t know what it is about me that’s got you so angry these days, but we’re not going to get past it if we keep—”
If her disinterested stare didn’t suggest that she wasn’t listening, the fact that the shict’s long ears suddenly and swiftly folded over themselves like blankets certainly did.
Lenk sighed, rubbing his temples. He could feel his skin begin to tighten around his skull and knew full well that a headache was brewing as surely as the rain in the air. Such pains were coming more frequently now; from the moment he woke they tormented him well into his futile attempts to sleep.
Unsurprisingly, his companions did little to help. No, he thought as he looked down the deck to the swaddled bundle underneath the rudder-seat at the boat’s rear, but I know what will help . . .
Gooseflesh formed on his bicep.
“The book only corrupts, but even that is for naught. You can’t be corrupted.” A chill crept down Lenk’s spine in harmony with the voice whispering in his head. “We can’t be corrupted.”
He drew in a deep breath, cautiously exhaling over the side of the ship that none might see the fact that his breath was visible even in the summer warmth. Or perhaps he was imagining that, too.
The voice was hard to ignore, and with it, it was hard for Lenk to con- vince himself that it was his imagination speaking. The fact that he continued to feel cold despite the fact that his companions all sweated grievously didn’t do much to aid him, either.
Don’t answer it, Lenk urged himself mentally. Ignore it.
“Too late,” the voice responded to his thoughts, “but this is a good one. Speak, what does it matter what the shict thinks of us? What changes?”
Ignore it. He shut his eyes. Ignore it, ignore it, ignore it.
“That never works, you know. She is fleeting. She lacks purpose. They all do. Our cause is grander than they can even comprehend. We don’t need them. We can finish this ourselves, we can . . . Are you listening?”
Lenk was trying not to. He stared at the bundle beneath the bench, yearning to tear the pages free from their wooly tomb and seek the silence within their confines.
“Don’t,” the voice warned.
Lenk felt the chill envelop his muscles, something straining to keep him seated, keep him listening. But he gritted his teeth and pulled himself from the ship’s edge.
Before he knew what was happening, he was crawling over Kataria as though she weren’t even there, not heeding the glare she shot him. She didn’t matter now. No one else did. Now, he only needed to get the book, to silence the voice. He could worry about everything else later. There would be time enough later.
“Fine,” the voice muttered in response to his thoughts. “We speak later, then.”
Ignore it, he told himself. You can ignore it now. You don’t need it now. All you need is . . .
That thought drifted off into the fog of ecstasy that clouded his mind as he reached under the deck, fingers quivering. It wasn’t until he felt his shoulder brush against something hard that he noticed the two massive red legs at either side of his head.
Coughing a bit too fervently to appear nonchalant, he rose up, peering over the leather kilt the appendages grew from. A pair of black eyes stared back at him down a red, leathery snout. Ear-frills fanned out in unambiguous displeasure beneath a pair of menacing curving horns. Gariath’s lips peeled backward to expose twin rows of teeth.
“Oh . . . there you are,” Lenk said sheepishly. “I was . . . just . . .”
“Tell me,” the dragonman grunted. “Do you suppose there’s anything you could say while looking up a Rhega’s kilt that would make him not shove a spike of timber up your nose?”
“I . . . uh . . . suppose not.”
“Glad we agree.”
Gariath’s arm, while thick as a timber spike, was not nearly as fatal and only slightly less painful as the back of his clawed hand swung up to catch Lenk at the jaw. The young man collapsed backward, granted reprieve from the voice by the sudden violent ringing in his head. He sprawled out on the deck, looking up through swimming vision into a skinny face that regarded him with momentary concern.
“Do I really want to know what might have driven you to go sticking your head between a dragonman’s legs?” Dreadaeleon asked, cocking a black eyebrow.
“Are you the sort of gentleman who is open-minded?” Lenk groaned, rubbing his jaw.
“Not to that degree, no,” he replied, burying his boyish face back into a book that looked positively massive against his scrawny, coat-clad form.
From the deck, Lenk’s eyes drifted from his companion to the boat’s limp sail. He blinked, dispelling the bleariness clinging to his vision.
“It may just be the concussion talking,” he said to his companion, “but why is it we’re still bobbing in the water like chum?”
“The laws of nature are harsh,” Dreadaeleon replied, turning a page. “If you’d like that translated into some metaphor involving fickle, fictional gods, I’m afraid you’d have to consult someone else.”
“What I mean to say,” Lenk said, pulling himself up, “is that you can just wind us out of here, can’t you?”
The boy looked up from his book and blinked.
“‘Wind us out of here.’”
“Yeah, you know, use your magic to—”
“I’m aware of your implication, yes. You want me to artificially inflate the sails and send us on our way.”
“And I want you to leave me alone.” He tucked his face back in the pages. “Looks like we’re all unhappy today.”
“You’ve done it before,” Lenk muttered.
“Magic isn’t an inexhaustible resource. All energy needs something to burn, and I’m little more than kindling.” The boy tilted his nose up in a vague pretext of scholarly thought.
“Then what the hell did you take that stone for?” Lenk thrust a finger at the chipped red gem hanging from the boy’s neck. “You said the netherlings used it to avoid the physical cost of magic back at Irontide, right?”
“I did. And that’s why I’m not using it,” Dreadaeleon said. “All magic has a cost. If something negates that cost, it’s illegal and thus unnatural.”
“But I’ve seen you use—”
“What you saw,” the boy snapped, “was me using a brain far more colossal than yours to discern the nature of an object that could very well make your head explode. Trust me when I say that if I ‘wind us out’ now, I won’t be able to do anything later.”
“The only thing we might possibly need you to do later is serve as an impromptu anchor,” Lenk growled. “Is it so hard to just do what I ask?”
“You’re not asking, you’re telling,” Dreadaeleon replied. “If you were asking, you’d have accepted my answer as the decisive end to an argument between a man who is actually versed in the laws of magic enough to know what he’s talking about and a bark-necked imbecile who’s driven to desperation by his conflicts with a mule-eared savage to attempt to threaten the former man, who also has enough left in him to incinerate the latter man with a few harsh words and a flex of practiced fingers, skinny they may be.”
The boy paused and drew in a deep breath.
“So shut your ugly face,” he finished.
Lenk blinked, recoiling from the verbal assault. Sighing, he rubbed his temples and fought the urge to look between Gariath’s legs again.
“You have a point, I’m sure,” he said, “but try to think of people besides yourself and myself. If we don’t reach Teji by tomorrow morning, we are officially out of time.”
“So we don’t get paid in time,” Dreadaeleon said, shrugging. “Or don’t
get paid at all. Gold doesn’t buy knowledge.”
“It buys women with knowledge,” another voice chirped from the prow. Both of them turned to regard Denaos, inconsiderately long-legged and slim body wrapped in black leather. He regarded them back, a crooked grin under sweat-matted reddish hair.
“The kind of knowledge that involves saliva, sweat, and sometimes a goat, depending on where you go,” he said.
“A lack of attachment to gold is an admirable trait to be nurtured and admired,” Asper said from beside him, “not met with advice on whoremongering.”
Denaos’s scowl met the priestess’s impassively judgmental gaze. She brushed his scorn off like snow from her shoulders as she tucked her brown hair behind a blue bandana. Her arms folded over her blue-robed chest as she glanced from Denaos to Dreadaeleon.
“Don’t let it bother you, Dread,” she said, offering a rather modest smile. “If we don’t make it, what does it matter if we go another few weeks without bathing?” She sighed, tugging at the rather confining neck of her robes to expose a bit of sweat-kissed flesh.
The widening of the boy’s eyes was impossible to miss, as was the swivel of his gaze to the aghast expression Asper wore. Powerful as the boy might be, he was still a boy, and as large as his brain was, Lenk could hear the lurid fantasies running wild through his skull. Asper’s movement had sparked something within the boy that not even years of wizardly training could penetrate.
A smirk that was at once both sly and vile crossed Lenk’s face.
“Think of Asper,” he all but whispered.
“Huh? What?” Dreadaeleon blinked as though he were emerging from a trance, color quickly filling his slender face as he swallowed hard. “What . . . what about her?”
“You can’t think she’s too comfortable here, can you?”
“None . . . none of us are comfortable,” the boy stammered back, intent on hiding more than one thing as he crossed his legs. “It’s just . . . just an awkward situation.”
“True, but Asper’s possibly the only decent one out of us. After all, she gave up her share of the reward, thinking that the deed we’re doing is enough.” Lenk shook his head at her. “I mean, she deserves better, doesn’t she?”
“She . . . does,” Dreadaeleon said, loosening the collar of his coat. “But the laws . . . I mean, they’re . . .”
Lenk looked up, noting the morbid fascination with which Denaos watched the unfurling discomfort in the boy. A smile far more unpleasant than his gaze crept across his face as the two men shared a discreet and wholly wicked nod between them.
“Give me your bandana,” Denaos said, turning toward Asper.
“What?” She furrowed her brow. “Why?”
“I smudged the map. I need to clean it.” He held out his hand expectantly, batting eyelashes. “Please?”
The priestess pursed her lips, as though unsure, before sighing in resignation and reaching up. Her robe pressed a little tighter against her chest. Dreadaeleon’s eyes went wider, threatening to leap from his skull. Her collar, opened slightly more than modesty would allow at the demands of the heat, slipped open a little to expose skin glistening with sweat. The fantasies thundered through Dreadaeleon’s head with enough force to cause his head to rattle.
She undid the bandana, letting brown locks fall down in a cascade, a single strand lying on her breasts, an imperfection begging for practiced, skinny fingers to rectify it.
Lenk watched the reddening of the boy’s face with growing alarm. Dreadaeleon hadn’t so much as breathed since Denaos made his request, his body so rigid as to suggest that rigor had set in before he could actually die.
“So . . . you’ll do it, right?” Lenk whispered.
“Yes,” the boy whispered, breathless, “just…just give me a few moments.”
Lenk glanced at the particular rigidity with which the wizard laid his book on his lap. “Take your time.” He discreetly turned away, hiding the overwhelming urge to wash apparent on his face.
When he set his hand down into a moist puddle, the urge swiftly became harsh enough to make drowning seem a very sensible option. He brought up a glistening hand and stared at it curiously, furrowing his brow. He was not the only one to stare, however.
“Who did it this time?” Denaos growled. “We have rules for this sort of vulgar need and all of them require you to go over the side.”
“No,” Lenk muttered, sniffing the salt on his fingers. “It’s a leak.”
“Well, obviously it’s a leak,” Denaos said, “though I’ve a far less gracious term for it.”
“We’re sinking,” Kataria muttered, her ears unfolding. She glanced at the boat’s side, the water flowing through a tiny gash like blood through a wound. She turned a scowl up at Lenk. “I thought you fixed this.”
“Of course, she’ll talk to me when she has something to complain about,” the young man muttered through his teeth. He turned around to meet her scowl with one of his own. “I did back on Ktamgi. Carpentry isn’t an exact science, you know. Accidents happen.”
“Let’s be calm here, shall we?” Asper held her hands up for peace. “Shouldn’t we be thinking of ways to keep the sea from murdering us first?”
“I can help!” Dreadaeleon appeared to be ready to leap to his feet, but with a mindful cough, thought better of it. “That is, I can stop the leak. Just. . . just give me a bit.”
He flipped through his book diligently, past the rows of arcane, incomprehensible sigils, to a series of blank, bone-white pages. With a wince that suggested it hurt him more than the book to do so, he ripped one of them from the heavy tome. Swiftly shutting it and reattaching it to the chain that hung from his belt, he crawled over to the gash.
All eyes stared with curiosity as the boy knelt over the gash and brought his thumb to his teeth. With a slightly less than heroic yelp, he pressed the bleeding digit against the paper and hastily scrawled out some intricate crimson sign.
“Oh, now you’ll do something magical?” Lenk threw his hands up.
Dreadaeleon, his brow furrowed and ears shut to whatever else his com- panion might have said, placed the square of paper against the ship’s wound. Muttering words that hurt to listen to, he ran his unbloodied fingers over the page. In response, its stark white hue took on a dull azure glow before shifting to a dark brown. There was the sound of drying, snapping, creaking, and when it was over, a patch of fresh wood lay where the hole had been.
“How come you never did that before?” Kataria asked, scratching her head.
“Possibly because this isn’t ordinary paper and I don’t have much of it,” the boy replied, running his hands down the page. “Possibly because it’s needlessly taxing for such a trivial chore. Or, possibly, because I feared the years it took me to understand the properties of it would be reduced to performing menial carpentry chores for nitwits.” He looked up and sneered. “Pick one.”
“You did that . . . with paper?” Asper did not conceal her amazement. “Incredible.”
“Well, not paper, no.” Dreadaeleon looked up, beaming like a puppy pissing on the grass. “Merroscrit.”
“What?” Denaos asked, his face screwing up.
“Merroscrit. Wizard paper, essentially.”
“Like the paper wizards use?”
“No. Well, yes, we use it. But it’s also made out of wizards.” His smile got bigger, not noticing Asper’s amazement slowly turning to horror. “See, when a wizard dies, his body is collected by the Venarium, who then slice him up and harvest him. His skin is carefully dried, sliced off bit by bit, and sewn together as merroscrit. The latent Venarie in his corpse allows it to conduct magic, mostly mutative magic, like I just did. It requires a catalyst, though, in this case”—he held up his thumb—“blood! See, it’s really . . . um . . . it’s . . .”
Asper’s frown had grown large enough to weigh her face down considerably, its size rivaled only by that of her shock-wide eyes. Dreadaeleon’s smile vanished, and he looked down bashfully.
“It’s . . . it’s neat,” he finished sheepishly. “We usually get them after the Decay.”
“The Decay. Magical disease that breaks down the barriers between Venarie and the body. It claims most wizards and leaves their bodies brim- ming with magic to be made into merroscrit and wraithcloaks and the like. We waste nothing.”
“I see.” Asper twitched, as though suddenly aware of her own expression. “Well . . . do all wizards get this . . . posthumous honor? Don’t some of them want the Gods honored at their funeral?”
“Well, not really,” Dreadaeleon replied, scratching the back of his neck. “I mean, there are no gods.” He paused, stuttered. “I—I mean, for wizards. . . . We don’t . . . we don’t believe in them. I mean, they aren’t there, anyway, but we don’t believe in them, so . . . ah . . .”
Asper’s face went blank at the boy’s sheepishness. She seemed to no longer stare at him, but through him, through the wood of the ship and the waves of the sea. Her voice was as distant as her gaze when she whispered.
And she remained that way, taking no notice of Dreadaeleon’s stammer- ing attempts to save face, nor of Denaos’s curious raise of his brow. The rogue’s own stare contrasted hers with a scrutinizing, uncomfortable closeness.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“What?” She turned on him, indignant. “Nothing!”
“Had I said anything remotely similar to the blasphemies that just dribbled out his craw, you’d have sixty sermons ready to crack my skull open with and forty lectures to offer my leaking brains.”
His gaze grew intense as she turned away from him. In the instant their eyes met as his advanced and hers retreated, something flashed behind both their gazes.
“Asper,” he whispered, “what happened to you in Irontide?”
She met his eyes and stared at him with the same distance she had stared through the boat.
“You would know, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, then.” Lenk interrupted rogue, priestess, and wizard in one clearing of his throat. “If we’re spared the threat of drowning, perhaps we can figure out how to move on from here before we’re left adrift and empty-handed tomorrow morning.”
“To do that, we’d need to know which direction we were heading.” She turned and stared hard at Denaos, a private, unspoken warning carried in her eyes. “And it wasn’t my job to do that.”
“One might wonder what your job is if you’ve given up preaching,” the rogue muttered. He unfolded the chart and glanced over it with a passing interest. “Huh . . . it’s easier than I was making it seem. We are currently . . .” He let his finger wander over the chart, then stabbed at a point. “Here, in Westsea.
“So, if we know that Teji is northwest, then we simply go north from Westsea.” He scratched his chin with an air of pondering. “Yes . . . it’s simple, see. In another hour, we should see Reefshore on our left; then we’ll pass close to Silverrock, and cross over the mouth of Ripmaw.” He folded up the map and smiled. “We’ll be there by daylight.”
“What?” Lenk furrowed his brow. “That can’t be right.”
“Who’s the navigator here?”
“You’re not navigating. Those aren’t even real places. You’re just throwing two words together.”
“Am not,” Denaos snapped. “Just take my word for it, if you ever want to see Teji.”
“I’d rather take the map’s word for it,” Asper interjected.
Her hand was swifter than her voice, and she snatched the parchment from the rogue’s fingers. Angling herself to hold him off with one hand while she unfurled the other, she ignored his protests and held the map up to her face.
When it came down, she was a twisted knot of red ire.
The map fluttered to the ground, exposing to all curious eyes a crude drawing of what appeared to be a woman clad in robes with breasts and mouth both far bigger than her head. The words spewing from its mouth: “Blargh, blargh, Talanas, blargh, blargh, Denaos stop having fun,” left little wonder who it was intended to portray.
Denaos, for his part, merely shrugged.
“This is what you’ve been doing this whole time?” Asper demanded, giving him a harsh shove. “Doodling garbage while you’re supposed to be plotting a course?”
“Who among us actually expected a course to be plotted? Look around you!” The rogue waved his hands. “Nothing but water as far as the eye can see! How the hell am I supposed to know where anything is without a landmark?”
“I said I could read charts, not plot courses.”
“I suppose we should have known you would do something like this.” She snarled, hands clenching into fists. “When was the last time you offered to help anyone and not either had some ulterior motive or failed completely at it?”
“This isn’t the time or the place,” Kataria said, sighing. “Figure out your petty little human squabbles on your own time. I want to leave.”
“Disagreements are a natural part of anyone’s nature.” Lenk stepped in, eyes narrowed. “Not just human. You’d know that if you were two steps above an animal instead of one.”
“Slurs. Lovely.” Kataria growled.
“As though you’ve never slurred humans before? You do it twice before you piss in the morning!”
“It says something that you’re concerned about what I do when I piss,” she retorted, “but I don’t even want to think about that.” She turned away from him, running her hands down her face. “This is why we need to get off this stupid boat.”
They’re close to a fight, Gariath thought from the boat’s gunwale.
The dragonman observed his companions in silence as he had since they had left the island of Ktamgi two days ago. Three days before that, he would have been eager for them to fight, eager to see them spill each other’s blood. It would have been a good excuse to get up and join them, to show them how to fight.
If he was lucky, he might have even accidentally killed one of them.
“Why? Because we’re arguing?” Lenk spat back. “You could always just fold your damn ears up again if you didn’t want to listen to me.”
Now, he was content to simply sit, holding the boat’s tiny rudder. It was far more pleasant company. The rudder was constant, the rudder was quiet. The rudder was going nowhere.
“Why couldn’t you just have said you didn’t know how to plot courses?” Asper roared at Denaos. “Why can’t you just be honest for once in your life?”
“I’ll start when you do,” Denaos replied.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The humans had their own problems, he supposed: small, insignificant human problems that teemed in numbers as large as their throbbing, populous race. They would be solved by yelling, like all human problems were. They would yell, forget that problem, remember another one later, then yell more.
The Rhega had one problem.
One problem, he thought, in numbers as small as the one Rhega left.
“Because we shouldn’t be arguing,” Kataria retorted. “I shouldn’t feel the need to argue with you. I shouldn’t feel the need to talk to you! I should want to keep being silent, but—”
“But what?” Lenk snapped back.
“But I’m standing here yelling at you, aren’t I?”
Things had happened on Ktamgi, he knew. He could smell the changes on them. Fear and suspicion between the tall man and the tall woman. Sweat and tension from the pointy-eared human and Lenk. Desire oozed from the skinny one in such quantities as to threaten to choke him on its stink.
“It’s supposed to mean exactly what it does mean,” Denaos spat back. “What happened on Ktamgi that’s got you all silent and keeping your pen- dant hidden?”
“I’ve got it right here,” Asper said, holding up the symbol of Talanas’s Phoenix in a manner that was less proof and more an attempt to drive the rogue away like an unclean thing.
“Today, you do, and you haven’t stopped rubbing it since you woke up.” Denaos’s brow rose as the color faded from her face. “With,” he whispered, “your left hand.”
“Shut up, Denaos,” she hissed.
“Not just accidentally, either.”
“But you’re right-handed, which leads me to ask again. What happened?”
“She said,” came Dreadaeleon’s soft voice accompanied by a flash of crimson in his scowl, “to shut up.”
Their problems would come and go. His would not. They would yell. They would fight. When they were tired of that, they would find new humans to yell at.
There were no more Rhega to yell at. There never would be. Grahta had told him as much on Ktamgi.
You can’t come.
Grahta’s voice still rang in his head, haunting him between breaths. The image of him lurked behind his blinking eyes. He did not forget them, he did not want to forget them, but he could only hold them in his mind for so long before they vanished.
As Grahta had vanished into a place where Gariath could not follow.
“It’s not like this is exactly easy for me, either,” Lenk snapped back.
“How? How is this not easy for you? What do you even do?” Kataria snarled. “Sit here and occasionally stare at me? Look at me?”
“Oh, it’s all well and good for you to—”
“Let. Me. Finish.” Her teeth were rattling in her skull now, grinding against each other with such ferocity that they might shatter into powder. “If you stare, if you speak to me, you’re still human. You’re still what you are. If I stare at you, if I speak to you, what am I?”
“Same as you always were.”
“No, I’m not. If I feel the need to stare at you, Lenk, if I want to talk to you, I’m not a shict anymore. And the more I want to talk to you, the more I want to feel like a shict again. The more I want to feel like myself.”
“And you can only do that by ignoring me?”
“No.” Her voice was a thunderous roar now, cutting across the sea. “I can only do that by killing you.”
The wind changed. Gariath could smell the humans change with it. He heard them fall silent at the pointy-eared one’s voice, of course, and saw their eyes turn to her, wide with horror. Noise and sight were simply two more ways for humans to deceive themselves, though. Scent could never be disguised.
An acrid stench of shock. Sour, befouled fear. And then, a brisk, crisp odor of hatred. From both of them. And then, bursting from all the humans like pus from a boil, that most common scent of confusion.
His interest lasted only as long as it took for him to remember that humans had a way of simplifying such complex emotional perfumes to one monosyllabic grunt of stupidity.
“What?” Lenk asked.
Whatever happened next was beyond Gariath’s interest. He quietly turned his attentions to the sea. The scent of salt was a reprieve from the ugly stenches surrounding the humans, but not what he desired to smell again. He closed his eyes and let his nostrils flare, drinking in the air, trying to find the scent that filled his nostrils when he held two wailing pups in his arms, when he had mated for the first time, when he had begged Grahta not to go, begged to follow the pup.
He sought the scent of memory.
And smelled nothing but salt.
He had tried, for days now he had tried. Days had gone by, days would go by forever.
And the Rhega’s problem would not change.
You cannot go, he told himself, and the thought crossed his mind more than once. He could not go, could not follow his people, the pups, into the afterlife. But he could not stay here. He could not remain in a world where there was nothing but the stink of . . .
His nostrils flickered. Eyes widened slightly. He turned his gaze out to the sea and saw the dredgespider herd scatter suddenly, skimming across the water into deeper, more concealing shadows.
That, he thought, is not the smell of fear.
He rose up, his long red tail twitching on the deck, his batlike wings folding behind his back. On heavy feet, he walked across the deck, through the awkward, hateful silence and stench surrounding the humans, his eyes intent on the side of the tiny vessel. The tall, ugly one in black made no movement to step aside.
“What’s the matter with you, reptile?” he asked with a sneer.
Gariath’s answer was the back of his clawed hand against the rogue’s jaw and a casual step over his collapsed form. Ignoring the scowl shot at his back, Gariath leaned down over the side of the boat, nostrils twitching black eyes searching the water.
“What . . . is it?” Lenk asked, leaning down beside the dragonman.
Lenk was less stupid than the others by only a fraction. Gariath tolerated the silver-haired human with a healthy disrespect that he carried for all humans, nothing personal. The dragonman glowered over the water. Lenk stepped beside him and followed his gaze.
“It’s coming,” he grunted.
“What is?” Kataria asked, ears twitching.
Not an inch of skin was left without gooseflesh when Gariath looked up and smiled, without showing teeth.
“Fate,” he answered.
Before anyone could even think how to interpret his statement, much less respond to it, the boat shuddered. Lenk hurled himself to the other railing, eyes wide and hand shaking.
“Sword,” he said. “Sword! Sword! Where’s my sword?” His hand appar- ently caught up with his mind as he reached up and tore the blade from the sheath on his back. “Grab your weapons! Hurry! Hurry!”
“What is it?” Kataria asked, her hands already rifling through the bundle that held her bow.
“I . . . was looking into the water.” Lenk turned to her. “And . . . it looked back.”
It took only a few moments for the bundle to lie open and empty as hands snatched up weapons. Lenk’s sword was flashing in his hand, Kataria’s arrow drawn back, Denaos’s knives in his hand, and Dreadaeleon standing over Asper, his eyes pouring the crimson magic that flowed through him.
Only Gariath stood unconcerned, his smile still soft and gentle across his face.
The boat rocked slightly, bobbing with the confusion of their own hasty movements. The sea muttered its displeasure at their sudden franticness, hissing angrily as the waves settled. The boat bobbed for an anxiety-filled eternity, ears twitching, steel flashing, eyes darting.
Several moments passed. An errant bubble found its way to the surface and sizzled. Denaos stared at it and blinked.
“What?” he asked. “That’s it?”
And then the sea exploded.
The water split apart with a bestial howl, its frothy life erupting in a great white gout as something tremendous rose to scrape at the night sky. Its wake tossed the boat back, knocking the companions beneath a sea of froth. Only Gariath remained standing, still smiling, closing his eyes as the water washed over him.
Dripping and half blind with froth, Lenk pulled his wet hair like curtains from his eyes. His vision was blurred, and through the salty haze he swore he could make out something immense and black with glowing yellow eyes.
The Deepshriek, he thought in a panic, it’s come back. Of course it’s come back.
“No,” the voice made itself known inside his head. “It fears us. This . . . is . . .”
“Something worse,” he finished as he looked up . . . and up and up.
The great serpent rose over the boat, a column of sinew and sea. Its body, blue and deep, rippled with such vigor as to suggest the sea itself had come alive. Its swaying, trembling pillar came to a crown at a menacing, serpentine head, a long crested fin running from its skull to its back and frill-like whiskers swaying from its jowls.
The sound it emitted could not be described as a growl, but more like a purr that echoed off of nothing and caused the waters to quake. Its yellow eyes, bright and sinister as they might have appeared, did not look particularly malicious. As it loosed another throat-born, reverberating noise, Lenk was half tempted to regard it as something like a very large kitten.
Right. A kitten, he told himself, a large kitten . . . with a head the size of the boat. Oh, Gods, we’re all going to die.
“What is it?” Asper asked, her whisper barely heard above its songlike noise.
“Captain Argaol told us about it before, didn’t he?” Denaos muttered, sinking low. “He gave it a name . . . told us something else about it. Damn, what did he say? What did he call it?”
“An Akaneed,” Dreadaeleon replied. “He called it an Akaneed. . . .”
“In mating season,” Kataria finished, eyes narrowed. “Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t make any loud noises.” She turned her emerald scowl upward. “Gariath, get down or it’ll kill us all!”
“What makes you so sure it won’t kill us now?” Lenk asked.
“Learn something about beasts, you nit,” she hissed. “The little ones always want flesh. There’s not enough flesh around for this thing to get that big.” She dared a bit of movement, pointing at its head. “Look. Do you see a mouth? It might not even have teeth.”
Apparently, Lenk thought, the Akaneed did have a sense of irony. For as it opened its rather prominent mouth to expose a rather sharp pair of needle-like teeth, the sound it emitted was nothing at all like any kitten should ever make.
“Learn something about beasts,” he muttered, “indeed. Or were you hoping it had teeth so it would kill me and save you the difficulty?”
Her hand flashed out and he cringed, his hand tightening on his sword in expectation of a blow. It was with nearly as much alarm, however, that he looked down to see her gloved hand clenching his own, wrapping her fingers about it. His confusion only deepened as he looked up and saw her staring at him, intently, emerald eyes glistening.
“Not now,” she whispered, “please not now.”
Baffled to the point of barely noticing the colossal shadow looming over him, Lenk’s attention was nevertheless drawn to the yellow eyes that regarded him curiously. It seemed, at that moment, that the creature’s stare was reserved specifically for him, its echoing keen directing incomprehensible queries to him alone.
Even as a distant rumble of thunder lit the skies with the echoes of lightning and split the sky open for a light rain to begin falling over the sea, the Akaneed remained unhurried. It continued to sway; its body rippled with the droplets that struck it, and its eyes glowed with increasing intensity through the haze of the shower.
“It’s hesitating,” Lenk whispered, unsure what to make of the creature’s swaying attentions.
“It’ll stay that way,” Kataria replied. “It’s curious, not hungry. If it wanted to kill us, it would have attacked already. Now all we need to do is wait and—”
The sound of wood splitting interrupted her. Eyes turned, horrified and befuddled at once, to see Gariath’s thick muscles tensing before the boat’s tiny mast. With a grunt and a sturdy kick, he snapped the long pole from its base and turned its splintered edge up. Balancing it on his shoulder, he walked casually to the side of the boat.
“What are you doing?” Lenk asked, barely mindful of his voice. “You can’t fight it!”
“I’m not going to fight it,” the dragonman replied simply. He affixed his black eyes upon Lenk, his expression grim for but a moment before he smiled. “A human with a name will always find his way back home, Lenk.”
“Told you we should have left them,” the voice chimed in.
The dragonman swept one cursory gaze over the others assembled, offering nothing in the rough clench of his jaw and the stern set of his scaly brow. No excuses, no apologies, nothing but acknowledgment.
And then, Gariath threw.
Their hands came too late to hold back his muscular arm. Their protests were too soft to hinder the flight of the splintered mast. It shrieked through the air, its tattered sail wafting like a banner as it sped toward the Akaneed, who merely cocked its head curiously.
Then screamed. Its massive head snapped backward, the mast jutting from its face. Its pain lasted for an agonized, screeching eternity. When it brought its head down once more, it regarded the companions through a yellow eye stained red, and opened its jaws and loosed a rumble that sent torrents of mist from its gaping maw.
“Damn it,” Lenk hissed, “damn it, damn it, damn it.” He glanced about furtively, his sword suddenly seeming so small, so weak. Dreadaeleon didn’t look any better as the boy stared up with quaking eyes, but he would have to do. “Dread!”
The boy looked at him, unblinking, mouth agape.
“Get up here!” Lenk roared, waving madly. “Kill it!”
Whether it was the tone of the young man or the roar of the great serpent that drove him to his feet, Dreadaeleon had no time to know. He scrambled to the fore of the boat, unhindered, unfazed even as Gariath looked at him with a bemused expression. The boy’s hand trembled as he raised it before him like a weapon; his lips quivered as he began to recite the words that summoned the azure electricity to the tip of his finger.
Lenk watched with desperate fear, his gaze darting between the wizard and the beast. Each time he turned back to Dreadaeleon, something new looked out of place on the wizard. The crimson energy pouring from his eyes flickered like a candle in a breeze; he stuttered and the electricity crackled and sputtered erratically on his skin.
It was not just fear that hindered the boy.
“He is weak,” the voice hissed inside Lenk’s head. “Your folly was in staying with them for this long.”
“Shut up,” Lenk muttered in return.
“Do you think we’ll die from this? Rest easy. They die. You don’t.”
“I won’t let you.”
There was the sound of shrieking, of cracking. Dreadaeleon staggered backward, as if struck, his hand twisted into a claw and his face twisted into a mask of pain and shame. The reason did not become apparent until they looked down at his shaking knees and saw the growing dark spot upon his breeches.
“Dread,” Asper gasped.
“Now?” Denaos asked, cringing. “Of all times?”
“T-too much.” The electricity on Dreadaeleon’s finger fizzled as he clutched his head. “The strain . . . it’s just . . . the cost is too—”
Like a lash, the rest of the creature hurled itself from the sea. Its long, snaking tail swung high over the heads of the companions, striking Dreadaeleon squarely in the chest. His shriek was a whisper on the wind, his coat fluttering as he sailed through the air and plummeted into the water with a faint splash.
The companions watched the waters ripple and re-form over him, hastily disguising the fact that the boy had ever even existed as the rain carelessly pounded the sea. They blinked, staring at the spot until it finally was still.
“Well.” Denaos coughed. “Now what?”
“I don’t know,” Lenk replied. “Die horribly, I guess.”
As though it were a request to be answered, the Akaneed complied. Mist bursting from its mouth, it hurled itself over the boat, its head kicking up a great wave as it crashed into the waters on the other side. The companions, all save Gariath, flung themselves to the deck and stared as the creature’s long, sinewy body replaced the sky over them, as vast and eternal. It continued for an age, its body finally disappearing beneath the water as a great black smear under the waves.
“It was going to leave us alone,” Kataria gasped, staring at the vanishing shape, then at Gariath. “It was going to go away! Why did you do that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Denaos snarled, sliding his dagger out. “He wanted this. He wanted to kill us. It’s only fair that we return the favor before that thing eats us.”
“Gariath . . . why?” was all Asper could squeak out, a look of pure, baffled horror painting her expression.
The dragonman only smiled and spoke. “It’s not like you’re the last humans.”
Lenk had no words, his attentions still fixed upon the Akaneed’s dark, sinewy shape beneath the surface. He watched it intently, sword in hand, as it swept about in a great semicircle and turned, narrowing its glowing yellow eye upon the vessel.
“It’s going to ram us!” he shouted over the roar of thunder as the rain intensified overhead.
“The head!” Kataria shrieked. “Use the head!”
He wasted no time in hurling himself to the deck, jamming his hand into their stowed equipment. He searched, wrapped fingers about thick locks of hair, and pulled free a burlap sack. Holding it like a beacon before him, he outstretched his hand and pulled the sack free.
The Deepshriek’s head dangled in the wind, eyes shut, mouth pursed tightly. It regarded the approaching Akaneed impassively, not caring that it was about to be lost with every other piece of flesh on board. In fact, Lenk had the presence of mind to think, it’s probably enjoying this.
No time for thought, barely enough time for one word.
“Scream,” he whispered.
And he was obeyed.
The head’s jaws parted, stretching open impossibly wide as its eyelids fluttered open to expose a gaze golden with malevolence. There was the faint sound of air whistling for but a moment before the thunder that followed.
The head screamed, sent the air fleeing before its vocal fury, ripped the waves apart as the sky rippled, and threatened to become unseamed. The blast of sound met the Akaneed head-on, and the yellow gaze flickered beneath the water. The dark, sinewy shape grew fainter, its agonized growl an echo carried on bubbles as it retreated below the water.
“I got it,” Lenk whispered excitedly. “I got it!” He laughed hysterically, holding the head above his own. “I win!”
The water split open; a writhing tail lashed out and spitefully slapped the hull of the boat. His arms swung wildly as he fought to hold onto his balance, and when he looked up, the Deepshriek’s head was gone from his grasp.
“Oh . . .”
The eyes appeared again, far away at the other side of the boat, bright with eager hatred. The sea churned around it as it growled beneath the surface, coiled into a shadowy spring, then hurled itself through the waves. Lenk cursed, then screamed.
He spared no words for Gariath, who stood with arms hanging limply at his sides, snout tilted into the air. The dragonman’s eyes closed, his wings folded behind his back, as he raised his hands to the sky. Though he could spare but a moment of observation before panic seized his senses once more, Lenk noted this as the only time he had ever seen the dragonman smile pleasantly, almost as though he were at peace.
He was still smiling when the Akaneed struck.
Its roar split the sea in half as it came crashing out of the waves, its skull smashing against the boat’s meager hull. The world was consumed in a horrific cracking sound as splinters hurled themselves through the gushing froth. The companions themselves seemed so meager, so insignificant among the flying wreckage, their shapes fleeting shadows lost in the night as they flew through the sky.
Air, Lenk told himself as he paddled toward the flashes of lightning above him. Air. Air. Instinct banished fear as fear had banished hate. He found himself thrashing, kicking as he scrambled for the surface. With a gasp that seared his lungs, he pulled himself free and hacked the stray streams out of his mouth.
A fervent, panicked glance brought no sign of his companions or the beast. The boat itself remained intact, though barely, bobbing upon the water in the wake of the mayhem with insulting calmness. The rations and tools it had carried floated around it, winking beneath the surface one by one.
“Get to it, fool,” the voice snarled. “We can’t swim forever.”
Unable to tell the difference between the cold presence in his head and his own voice of instinct, Lenk paddled until his heart threatened to burst. He drew closer and closer, searching for any sign of his companions: a gloved hand reaching out of the gloom, brown hair disappearing into the water.
Green eyes closing . . . one by one.
Later, he told himself as he reached for the bobbing wooden corpse. Survive now, worry later. His inner voice became hysterical, a frenzied smile on his lips as he neared. Just a little more. Just a little more!
The water erupted around him as a great blue pillar tore itself free from a liquid womb. It looked down at him, its feral disdain matching his horror. It wasn’t until several breathless moments had passed that Lenk noticed the fact that the beast now stared at him with two glittering yellow eyes, whole and unskewered.
“Sweet Khetashe,” he had not the breath to scream, “there’s two of them.”
The Akaneed’s answer was a roar that matched the heavens’ thunder as it reared back and hurled itself upon what remained of the boat. Its skull sent the timbers flying in reckless flocks. Lenk watched in horror, unable to act as a shattered plank struck him against the temple. Instinct, fear, hate . . . all gave way to darkness as his body went numb. His arms stopped thrashing, his legs stopped kicking.
Unblinking as he slipped under the water, he stared up at the corpse of the ship, illuminated by the flicker of lightning, as it sank to its grave with him. Soon, that faded as his eyes forgot how to focus and his lungs forgot their need for air. He reached out, halfhearted, for the sword that descended alongside him.
When he grasped only water, he knew he was going to die.
“No,” the voice spoke, more threatening than comforting. “No, you won’t.” The seawater flooded into his mouth and he found not the will to push it out. The world changed from blue to black as he drifted into darkness on a haunting echo.
“I won’t let you.”
One Thousand Paper Wings
Poets, she had often suspected, were supposed to have beautiful dreams: silhouettes of women behind silk, visions of gold that blinded their closed eyes, images of fires so bright they should take the poet’s breath away before she could put them to paper.
Anacha dreamed of cattle.
She dreamed of shoveling stalls and milking cows. She dreamed of wheat and of rice in shallow pools, dirty feet firmly planted in mud, ugly cotton breeches hiked up to knobby knees as grubby hands rooted around in filth. She dreamed of a time when she still wore such ugly clothing instead of the silks she wore now, when she covered herself in mud instead of perfume.
Those were the good dreams.
The nightmares had men clad in the rich robes of money-lenders, their brown faces red as they yelled at her father and waved debtor’s claims. They had her father helpless to resist as he signed his name on the scrolls, and the men, with their soft and uncallused hands, helped her into a crate with silk walls. She would dream of her tears mingling with the bathwater as women, too old to be of any desire for clients, scrubbed the mud from her rough flesh and the calluses from her feet.
She used to have nightmares every night. She used to cry every night.
That was before Bralston.
Now she dreamed of him often, the night she met him, the first poem she ever read. It was painted upon her breasts and belly as she was ordered into her room to meet a new client, her tears threatening to make the dye run.
“Do not cry,” the older women had hissed, “this is a member of the Venarium. A wizard. Do what you do, do it well. Wizards are as generous with their gold as they are with their fire and lightning.”
She couldn’t help but cry the moment the door closed behind her and she
faced him: broad-shouldered, slender of waist, with not a curl of hair upon his head. He had smiled at her, even as she cried, had taken her to the cushion they would sit upon for many years and had read the poetry on her skin. He would read for many days before he finally claimed what he paid for.
By then, he needn’t take it.
She began to yearn for him in her sleep, rolling over to find his warm brown flesh in her silk sheets. To find an empty space where he should be wasn’t something she was unused to; a strict schedule was required to keep his magic flowing correctly, as he often said. To find her fingers wrapping about a scrap of paper, however, was new.
Fearing that he had finally left her the farewell note she lived in perpetual terror of, she opened her eyes and unwrapped her trembling fingers from the parchment. Fear turned to surprise as she saw the slightly wrinkled form of a paper crane sitting in her palm, its crimson painted eyes glaring up at her, offended at her fingers wrinkling its paper wings. Without an apology for it, she looked around her room, and surprise turned to outright befuddlement.
In silent flocks, the cranes had perched everywhere: on her bookshelf, her nightstand, her washbasin, her mirror, all over her floors. They stared down at her with wary, bloodred eyes, their beaks folded up sharply in silent judgment.
So dense they were, she might never have found him among the flocks if not for the sound of his fingers diligently folding another. He straightened up from his squat on her balcony, casting a glower over his bare, brown back.
“That wasn’t precisely easy to fold, you know,” he said.
She started, suddenly realizing she still held the wrinkled paper crane in her hand. Doing her best to carefully readjust the tiny creature, she couldn’t help but notice the unnatural smoothness to the parchment. Paper was supposed to have wrinkles, she knew, tiny little edges of roughness. That paper had character, eager to receive the poet’s brush.
This paper . . . seemed to resent her touching it.
“None of these could have been easy to fold,” Anacha said, placing the crane down carefully and pulling her hand away with a fearful swiftness that she suspected must have looked quite silly. “How long have you been up?”
“Hours,” Bralston replied.
She peered over his pate to the black sky beyond, just now beginning to turn blue.
“It’s not yet dawn,” she said. “You always get fussy if you don’t sleep enough.”
“Anacha,” he sighed, his shoulders sinking. “I am a hunter of heretic wizards. I enforce the law of Venarie through fire and frost, lightning and force. I do not get fussy.”
He smiled, paying little attention to the fact that she did not return the expression. She was incapable of smiling now, at least not in the way she had the first night she had met him.
“This is a lovely poem,” he had said, as she lay on the bed before him. “Do you like poetry?”
She had answered with a stiff nod, an obedient nod scrubbed and scolded into her. He had smiled.
“What’s your favorite?”
When she had no reply, he had laughed. She had felt the urge to smile, if only for the fact that it was as well known that wizards didn’t laugh as it was that they drank pulverized excrement and ate people’s brains for the gooey knowledge contained within.
“Then I will bring you poetry. I am coming back in one week.” Upon seeing her confused stare, he rolled his shoulders. “My duty demands that I visit Muraska for a time. Do you know where it is?” She shook her head; he smiled. “It’s a great, gray city to the north. I’ll bring you a book from it. Would you like that?”
She nodded. He smiled and rose, draping his coat about him. She watched him go, the sigil upon his back shrinking as he slipped out the door. Only when it was small as her thumb did she speak and ask if she would see him again. He was gone then, however, the door closing behind him.
And the urge to smile grew as faint then as it was now.
“This is . . . for work, then?” she asked, the hesitation in her voice only indicative that she knew the answer.
“This is for my duty, yes,” he corrected as he set aside another paper crane and plucked up another bone-white sheet. “Librarian helpers, I call them. My helpful little flocks.”
She plucked up the crane beside her delicately in her hand and stared into its irritated little eyes. The dye was thick and didn’t settle on the page as proper ink should. It was only when the scent of copper filled her mouth that she realized that this paper wasn’t meant for ink.
“You . . . This is,” she gasped, “your blood?”
“Some of it, yes.” He held up a tiny little vial with an impressive label, shook it, then set it in a decidedly large pile. “I ran out after the one hun- dredth one. Fortunately, I’ve been granted special privileges for this particular duty, up to and including the requisition of a few spare pints.”
Anacha had long ago learned that wizards did laugh and that they rarely did anything relatively offensive to brains from those not possessing their particular talents. Their attitude toward other bodily parts and fluids, however, was not something she ever intended to hear about without cringing.
She had little time to reflect on such ghastly practices this morning.
“Why do you need so many?”
At this, he paused, as he had when she had discovered wizards could lie.
“What is your duty?” she had asked, their sixth night together after five nights of reading.
“I’m a Librarian.” He had turned at her giggle and raised a brow. “What?”
“I thought you were a wizard.”
“A member of the Venarium.”
“Librarians stock shelves and adjust spectacles.”
“Have you learned nothing of the books I’ve brought you? Words can have multiple meanings.”
“Books only make me wonder more . . . like how a Librarian can go to Muraska and afford whores?”
“Well, no one can afford whores in Muraska.”
“Why did you go to Muraska, then?”
“What kind of duty?”
“Difficult duties. Ones that demand the talents of a man like myself.”
“Fire and lightning talents? Turning people to frogs and burning down houses talents?”
“We don’t turn people into frogs, no. The other talents, though . . . I use them sometimes. In this particular case, some apprentice out in the city went heretic. He started selling his secrets, his services. He violated the laws.”
“What did you do to him?”
“Did you kill him?”
He had paused then, too.
“No,” he had lied then, “I didn’t.”
“No reason,” he lied now.
“I’m not an idiot, Bralston,” she said.
“I know,” he replied. “You read books.”
“Don’t insult me.” She held up a hand and winced. “Please . . . you never insult me like clients insult the other girls.” She sighed, her head sinking low. “You’re bleeding yourself dry, creating all of these little birds. . . .” She crawled across the bed, staring at his back intently. “Why?”
“Because of my—”
“Duty, yes, I know. But what is it?”
He regarded her coldly. “You know enough about it to know that I don’t want you to ever have to think about it.”
“And you know enough about me that I would never ask if I didn’t have good reason.” She rose up, snatching her robe as it lay across her chair and wrapping it about her body, her eyes never leaving him. “You want to be certain of carrying out your duty this time, I can tell . . . but why? What’s special about this one?”
Bralston rose and turned to her, opening his mouth to say something, to give some rehearsed line about all duties being equal, about there being nothing wrong with being cautious. But he paused. Wizards were terrible liars, and Bralston especially so. He wore his reasons on his face, the frown-weary wrinkles, the wide eyes that resembled a child straining to come to terms with a puppy’s death.
And she wore her concern on her face, just as visible in the purse of her lips and narrow of her eyes. He sighed and looked down at his cranes.
“A woman is involved.”
“Not like that,” he said. “A woman came to the Venarium . . . told us a story about a heretic.”
“You get plenty of stories about heretics.”
“Not from women . . . not from women like this.” He winced. “This heretic . . . he . . . did something to her.”
She took a step forward, weaving her way through the cranes.
“What did he do?”
“He . . .” Bralston ran a hand over his head, tilted his neck back, and sighed again. “It’s a gift that we have, you know? Wizards, that is. Fire, lightning . . . that’s only part of it. That’s energy that comes from our own bodies. A wizard that knows . . . a wizard that practices, can affect other people’s bodies, twist their muscles, manipulate them, make them do things. If we wanted to, we wizards, we could . . .
“This heretic…this…this…” For all the books he had read, Bralston apparently had no word to describe what the rage playing across his face demanded. “He broke the law. He used his power in a foul way.”
“That’s why they’re sending you out?” she whispered, breathless.
“That’s why I’m choosing to go,” he replied, his voice rising slightly. She took a step back, regardless, as crimson flashed behind his eyes.
She could only remember once when he had raised his voice.
“What happened?” he had asked as he came through the door.
It had been a month since he had begun paying for her, not yet to the point when he began to pay for exclusive visitations. She had lain on the bed, the poetry smeared across her breasts with greasy handprints, her belly contorted with the lash marks upon it, her face buried in her pillow, hiding the redness in her cheeks.
“What,” he had raised his voice then, “happened?”
“Some . . .” she had gasped, “some clients prefer to be rough . . . I’m told. This one . . . he brought in a cat.”
“A whip? That’s against the rules.”
“He paid extra. Someone working for the Jackals with a lot of money. He . . . he wanted it . . .” She pointed to the hall. “He’s going down the halls . . . to all the girls. He had a lot of . . .”
Bralston rose at that point and turned to walk out the door again. She had grabbed his coattails in her hand and pulled with all that desperation demanded. No one troubled the Jackals. It wasn’t as hard a rule then as it was now, the Jackals being a mere gang instead of a syndicate back then, which was the sole reason Bralston never had to raise his voice again. No one troubled them; not the nobles, not the guards, not even the Venarium.
Bralston pulled away sharply and left the room. His boots clicked the length of the hall. She heard the scream that ensued, smelled the embers on his coat when he returned and sat down beside her.
“What did you do?” she had asked.
He had paused and said. “Nothing.”
She had barely noticed him pulling on his breeches now. He did not dress so much as gird himself, slinging a heavy belt with several large pouches hanging from it and attaching his massive spellbook with a large chain. He pulled his tunic over the large amulet, a tiny red vial set within a bronze frame, hanging from his neck. It wasn’t until he reached for his final garment that she realized he wouldn’t be stopped.
“Your hat,” she whispered, eyeing the broad-rimmed leather garment, a steel circlet adorning its interior ring. “You never wear it.”
“I was requested to.” He ran a finger along the leather band about it, the sigils upon it briefly glowing. He traced his thumb across the steel circle inside it. “This is . . . a special case.”
She watched him drape the great coat across his back and cinch it tight against his body. She watched the sigil scrawled upon it shrink as he walked to the balcony. She never thought she would get used to the sight of it.
“You’ve . . . come back.” She had gasped not so many years ago, astonished to find him standing on her balcony, clad in his coat and hat. “You said it was a special case.”
“It was. I came back, anyway.” He smiled and shrugged off his coat. “I’ve already paid.”
“Paid? Why?” She pulled away from him, tears brimming in her eyes. “I thought . . . you were going to take me away when you came back. You said . . .”
“I know . . . I know.” The pain on his face had been visible then, not hidden behind years of wrinkles. “But . . . the case got me noticed. I’m being made . . .” He had sighed, rubbed his eyes, shook his head. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I won’t lie again.”
“But . . . you . . . you said . . .”
“And I never will again. It was stupid of me to say it in the first place.”
“It wasn’t! You were going to—”
“It was. I can’t. I’m a Librarian. I have duties.”
“But why?” she asked then. “Why do you have to be a Librarian?”
“Why?” she asked now, shaking her head. “Why do you have to be the one to avenge her?” She held up a hand. “Don’t say duty . . . don’t you dare say it.”
“Because I have a gift,” he said without hesitation. “And so rarely do I get the chance for that gift to be used in a way that I consider more worthwhile than duty.”
“Will I see you again?”
He paused as he opened his coat and held open his pocket.
“Maybe,” he answered.
His next word was something she couldn’t understand, something no one else but a wizard could understand. She certainly understood what it was, however, for no sooner did he speak it than the sound of paper rustling filled the room.
Silent save for the rattle of their wings, the cranes came to life. Their eyes glowed in little pinpricks of ruby; their wings shuddered in a thousand little whispers. They fell from bookshelf and basin, rose from tile and chair, hung a moment in the air.
She shrieked, shielding herself from the thousand paper wings as the room was filled with bone-white cranes and the sound of tiny wings flapping. In a great torrent, they flew into Bralston’s coat pocket, folding themselves neatly therein.
She kept her eyes closed, opening them only when she heard the larger wings flapping. Opening her eyes and seeing nothing standing at her balcony, she rushed to the edge and watched him sail over the rooftops of Cier’Djaal on the leather wings his coat had once been. And with each breath, he shrank until he wasn’t even bigger than her thumb.
And then, Bralston was gone.
© 2011 Sam Sykes