Jan 28 2014 12:00pm
Read an Excerpt from Words of Radiance: Chapters Ten, Twelve, Fourteen, and Interlude I-1
Tor.com is pleased to offer the following excerpt from Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, book two of The Stormlight Archive. Be sure to check for other excerpts and sneak peeks leading up to the book’s release on March 4th!
Following the events of The Way of Kings, Sanderson returns us to the remarkable world of Roshar, where the war between humans and the enigmatic Parshendi will move into a new, dangerous phase.
Dalinar leads the human armies deep into the heart of the Shattered Plains in a bold attempt to finally end the war. Shallan is set on finding the legendary and perhaps mythical city of Urithiru, which Jasnah believes holds a secret vital to mankind’s survival on Roshar. Kaladin struggles to wear the mantle of the Windrunners as his old demons resurface. And the threat of the Voidbringers’ return hangs over them all...
Also, we’ve opened up a spoiler thread here for discussion of the new chapters.
SIX YEARS AGO
The world ended, and Shallan was to blame.
“Pretend it never happened,” her father whispered. He wiped something wet from her cheek. His thumb came back red. “I’ll protect you.”
Was the room shaking? No, that was Shallan. Trembling. She felt so small. Eleven had seemed old to her, once. But she was a child, still a child. So small.
She looked up at her father with a shudder. She couldn’t blink; her eyes were frozen open.
Father started to whisper, blinking tears. “Now go to sleep in chasms deep, with darkness all around you…”
A familiar lullaby, one he always used to sing to her. In the room behind him, dark corpses stretched out on the floor. A red carpet once white.
“Though rock and dread may be your bed, so sleep my baby dear.”
Father gathered her into his arms, and she felt her skin squirming. No. No, this affection wasn’t right. A monster should not be held in love. A monster who killed, who murdered. No.
She could not move.
“Now comes the storm, but you’ll be warm, the wind will rock your basket…”
Father carried Shallan over the body of a woman in white. Little blood there. It was the man who bled. Mother lay facedown, so Shallan couldn’t see the eyes. The horrible eyes.
Almost, Shallan could imagine that the lullaby was the end to a nightmare. That it was night, that she had awakened screaming, and her father was singing her to sleep…
“The crystals fine will glow sublime, so sleep my baby dear.”
They passed Father’s strongbox set into the wall. It glowed brightly, light streaming from the cracks around the closed door. A monster was inside.
“And with a song, it won’t be long, you’ll sleep my baby dear.”
With Shallan in his arms, Father left the room and closed the door on the corpses.
Unfortunately, we fixated upon Sadeas’s plotting so much that we did not take note of the changed pattern of our enemies, the murderers of my husband, the true danger. I would like to know what wind brought about their sudden, inexplicable transformation.
—From the journal of Navani Kholin, Jesesach 1174
Kaladin pressed the stone against the wall of the chasm, and it stuck there. “All right,” he said, stepping back.
Rock jumped up and grabbed it, then dangled from the wall, bending legs below. His deep, bellowing laugh echoed in the chasm. “This time, he holds me!”
Sigzil made a notation on his ledger. “Good. Keep hanging on, Rock.” “For how long?” Rock asked.
“Until you fall.”
“Until I…” The large Horneater frowned, hanging from the stone with both hands. “I do not like this experiment any longer.”
“Oh, don’t whine,” Kaladin said, folding his arms and leaning on the wall beside Rock. Spheres lit the chasm floor around them, with its vines, debris, and blooming plants. “You’re not dropping far.”
“It is not the drop,” Rock complained. “It is my arms. I am big man, you see.”
“So it’s a good thing you have big arms to hold you.”
“It does not work that way, I think,” Rock said, grunting. “And the handhold is not good. And I—”
The stone popped free and Rock fell downward. Kaladin grabbed his arm, steadying him as he caught himself.
“Twenty seconds,” Sigzil said. “Not very long.”
“I warned you,” Kaladin said, picking up the fallen stone. “It lasts longer if I use more Stormlight.”
“I think we need a baseline,” Sigzil said. He fished in his pocket and pulled out a glowing diamond chip, the smallest denomination of sphere. “Take all of the Stormlight from this, put it into the stone, then we’ll hang Rock from that and see how long he takes to fall.”
Rock groaned. “My poor arms…”
“Hey, mancha,” Lopen called from farther down the chasm, “at least you’ve got two of them, eh?” The Herdazian was watching to make sure none of the new recruits somehow wandered over and saw what Kaladin was doing. It shouldn’t happen—they were practicing several chasms over—but Kaladin wanted someone on guard.
Eventually they’ll all know anyway, Kaladin thought, taking the chip from Sigzil. Isn’t that what you just promised Syl? That you’d let yourself become a Radiant?
Kaladin drew in the chip’s Stormlight with a sharp intake of breath, then infused the Light into the stone. He was getting better at that, drawing the Stormlight into his hand, then using it like luminescent paint to coat the bottom of the rock. The Stormlight soaked into the stone, and when he pressed it against the wall, it stayed there.
Smoky tendrils of luminescence rose from the stone. “We probably don’t need to make Rock hang from it,” Kaladin said. “If you need a baseline, why not just use how long the stone remains there on its own?”
“Well, that’s less fun,” Sigzil said. “But very well.” He continued to write numbers on his ledger. That would have made most of the other bridgemen uncomfortable. A man writing was seen as unmasculine, even blasphemous—though Sigzil was only writing glyphs.
Today, fortunately, Kaladin had with him Sigzil, Rock, and Lopen—all foreigners from places with different rules. Herdaz was Vorin, technically, but they had their own brand of it and Lopen didn’t seem to mind a man writing.
“So,” Rock said as they waited, “Stormblessed leader, you said there was something else you could do, did you not?”
“Fly!” Lopen said from down the passage.
“I can’t fly,” Kaladin said dryly.
“Walk on walls!”
“I tried that,” Kaladin said. “I nearly broke my head from the fall.”
“Ah, gancho,” Lopen said. “No flying or walking on walls? I need to impress the women. I do not think sticking rocks to walls will be enough.”
“I think anyone would find that impressive,” Sigzil said. “It defies the laws of nature.”
“You do not know many Herdazian women, do you?” Lopen asked, sighing. “Really, I think we should try again on the flying. It would be the best.” “There is something more,” Kaladin said. “Not flying, but still useful. I’m not certain I can replicate it. I’ve never done it consciously.”
“The shield,” Rock said, standing by the wall, staring up at the rock. “On the battlefield, when the Parshendi shot at us. The arrows hit your shield. All the arrows.”
“Yes,” Kaladin said.
“We should test that,” Sigzil said. “We’ll need a bow.”
“Spren,” Rock said, pointing. “They pull the stone against the wall.”
“What?” Sigzil said, scrambling over, squinting at the rock Kaladin had pressed against the wall. “I don’t see them.”
“Ah,” Rock said. “Then they do not wish to be seen.” He bowed his head toward them. “Apologies, mafah’liki.”
Sigzil frowned, looking closer, holding up a sphere to light the area. Kaladin walked over and joined them. He could make out the tiny purple spren if he looked closely. “They’re there, Sig,” Kaladin said.
“Then why can’t I see them?”
“It has to do with my abilities,” Kaladin said, glancing at Syl, who sat on a cleft in the rock nearby, one leg draping over and swinging.
“I am alaii’iku,” Rock said, raising a hand to his breast.
“Which means?” Sigzil asked impatiently.
“That I can see these spren, and you cannot.” Rock rested a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. “It is all right, friend. I do not blame you for being blind. Most lowlanders are. It is the air, you see. Makes your brains stop working right.”
Sigzil frowned, but wrote down some notes while absently doing something with his fingers. Keeping track of the seconds? The rock finally popped off the wall, trailing a few final wisps of Stormlight as it hit the ground. “Well over a minute,” Sigzil said. “I counted eighty-seven seconds.” He looked to the rest of them.
“We were supposed to be counting?” Kaladin asked, glancing at Rock, who shrugged.
“Ninety-one seconds,” Lopen called. “You’re welcome.”
Sigzil sat down on a rock, ignoring a few finger bones peeking out of the moss beside him, and made some notations on his ledger. He scowled.
“Ha!” Rock said, squatting down beside him. “You look like you have eaten bad eggs. What is problem?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing, Rock,” Sigzil said. “My master taught me to ask questions and find precise answers. But how can I be precise? I would need a clock for the timing, but they are too expensive. Even if we had one, I don’t know how to measure Stormlight!”
“With chips,” Kaladin said. “The gemstones are precisely weighed before being encased in glass.”
“And can they all hold the same amount?” Sigzil asked. “We know that uncut gems hold less than cut ones. So is one that was cut better going to hold more? Plus, Stormlight fades from a sphere over time. How many days has it been since that chip was infused, and how much Light has it lost since then? Do they all lose the same amount at the same rate? We know too little. I think perhaps I am wasting your time, sir.”
“It’s not a waste,” Lopen said, joining them. The one-armed Herdazian yawned, sitting down on the rock by Sigzil, forcing the other man over a little. “We just need to be testing other things, eh?”
“Like what?” Kaladin said.
“Well, gancho,” Lopen said. “Can you stick me to the wall?”
“I… I don’t know,” Kaladin said.
“Seems like it would be good to know, eh?” Lopen stood up. “Shall we try?”
Kaladin glanced at Sigzil, who shrugged.
Kaladin drew in more Stormlight. The raging tempest filled him, as if it were battering against his skin, a captive trying to find a way out. He drew the Stormlight into his hand and pressed it against the wall, painting the stones with luminescence.
Taking a deep breath, he picked up Lopen—the slender man was startlingly easy to lift, particularly with a measure of Stormlight still inside Kaladin’s veins. He pressed Lopen against the wall.
When Kaladin dubiously stepped back, the Herdazian remained there, stuck to the stone by his uniform, which bunched up under his armpits.
Lopen grinned. “It worked!”
“This thing could be useful,” Rock said, rubbing at his strangely cut Horneater beard. “Yes, this is what we need to test. You are a soldier, Kaladin. Can you use this in combat?”
Kaladin nodded slowly, a dozen possibilities popping into his head. What if his enemies ran across a pool of Light he had put on the floor? Could he stop a wagon from rolling? Stick his spear to an enemy shield, then yank it from their hands?
“How does it feel, Lopen?” Rock asked. “Does this thing hurt?”
“Nah,” Lopen said, wiggling. “I’m worried my coat will rip, or the buttons will snap. Oh. Oh. Question for you! What did the one-armed Herdazian do to the man who stuck him to the wall?”
Kaladin frowned. “I… I don’t know.”
“Nothing,” Lopen said. “The Herdazian was ’armless.” The slender man burst into laughter.
Sigzil groaned, though Rock laughed. Syl had cocked her head, zipping over to Kaladin. “Was that a joke?” she asked softly.
“Yes,” Kaladin said. “A distinctly bad one.”
“Ah, don’t say that!” Lopen said, still chuckling. “It’s the best one I know—and trust me, I’m an expert on one-armed Herdazian jokes. ‘Lopen,’ my mother always says, ‘you must learn these to laugh before others do. Then you steal the laughter from them, and have it all for yourself.’ She is a very wise woman. I once brought her the head of a chull.”
Kaladin blinked. “You… What?”
“Chull head,” Lopen said. “Very good to eat.”
“You are a strange man, Lopen,” Kaladin said.
“No,” Rock said. “They really are good. The head, he is best part of chull.”
“I will trust you two on that,” Kaladin said. “Marginally.” He reached up, taking Lopen by the arm as the Stormlight holding him in place began to fade. Rock grabbed the man’s waist, and they helped him down.
“All right,” Kaladin said, instinctively checking the sky for the time, though he couldn’t see the sun through the narrow chasm opening above. “Let’s experiment.”
Tempest stoked within him, Kaladin dashed across the chasm floor. His movement startled a group of frillblooms, which pulled in frantically, like hands closing. Vines trembled on the walls and began to curl upward.
Kaladin’s feet splashed in stagnant water. He leaped over a mound of debris, trailing Stormlight. He was filled with it, pounding with it. That made it easier to use; it wanted to flow. He pushed it into his spear.
Ahead, Lopen, Rock, and Sigzil waited with practice spears. Though Lopen wasn’t very good—the missing arm was a huge disadvantage—Rock made up for it. The large Horneater would not fight Parshendi and would not kill, but had agreed to spar today, in the name of “experimentation.”
He fought very well, and Sigzil was acceptable with the spear. Together on the battlefield, the three bridgemen might once have given Kaladin trouble.
Kaladin tossed his spear sideways at Rock, surprising the Horneater, who had raised his weapon to block. The Stormlight made Kaladin’s spear stick to Rock’s, forming a cross. Rock cursed, trying to turn his spear around to strike, but in doing so smacked himself on the side with Kaladin’s spear.
As Lopen’s spear struck, Kaladin pushed it down easily with one hand, filling the tip with Stormlight. The weapon hit the pile of refuse and stuck to the wood and bones.
Sigzil’s weapon came in, missing Kaladin’s chest by a wide margin as he stepped aside. Kaladin nudged and infused the weapon with the flat of his hand, shoving it into Lopen’s, which he’d just pulled out of the refuse, plastered with moss and bone. The two spears stuck together.
Kaladin slipped between Rock and Sigzil, leaving the three of them in a jumbled mess, off balance and trying to disentangle their weapons. Kaladin smiled grimly, jogging down to the other end of the chasm. He picked up a spear, then turned, dancing from one foot to the other. The Stormlight encouraged him to move. Standing still was practically impossible while holding so much.
Come on, come on, he thought. The three others finally got their weapons apart as the Stormlight ran out. They formed up to face him again.
Kaladin dashed forward. In the dim light of the chasm, the glow of the smoke rising from him was strong enough to cast shadows that leaped and spun. He crashed through pools, the water cold on his unshod feet. He’d removed his boots; he wanted to feel the stone underneath him.
This time, the three bridgemen set the butts of their spears on the ground as if against a charge. Kaladin smiled, then grabbed the top of his spear—like theirs, it was a practice one, without a real spearhead—and infused it with Stormlight.
He slapped it against Rock’s, intending to yank it out of the Horneater’s hands. Rock had other plans, and hauled his spear back with a strength that took Kaladin by surprise. He nearly lost his grip.
Lopen and Sigzil quickly moved to come at him from either side. Nice, Kaladin thought, proud. He’d taught them formations like that, showing them how to work together on the battlefield.
As they drew close, Kaladin let go of his spear and stuck out his leg. The Stormlight flowed out of his bare foot as easily as it did his hands, and he was able to swipe a large glowing arc on the ground. Sigzil stepped in it and tripped, his foot sticking to the Light. He tried to stab as he fell, but there was no force behind the blow.
Kaladin slammed his weight against Lopen, whose strike was off-center. He shoved Lopen against the wall, then pulled back, leaving the Herdazian stuck to the stone, which Kaladin had infused in the heartbeat they’d been pressed together.
“Ah, not again,” Lopen said with a groan.
Sigzil had fallen face-first in the water. Kaladin barely had time to smile before he noticed Rock swinging a log at his head.
An entire log. How had Rock lifted that thing? Kaladin threw himself out of the way, rolling on the ground and scraping his hand as the log crashed against the floor of the chasm.
Kaladin growled, Stormlight passing between his teeth and rising into the air in front of him. He jumped onto Rock’s log as the Horneater tried to lift it again.
Kaladin’s landing slammed the wood back against the ground. He leaped toward Rock, and part of him wondered just what he was thinking, getting into a hand-to-hand fight with someone twice his weight. He slammed into the Horneater, hurling them both to the ground. They rolled in the moss, Rock twisting to pin Kaladin’s arms. The Horneater obviously had training as a wrestler.
Kaladin poured Stormlight into the ground. It wouldn’t affect or hamper him, he’d found. So, as they rolled, first Rock’s arm stuck to the ground, then his side.
The Horneater kept fighting to get Kaladin into a hold. He almost had it, till Kaladin pushed with his legs, rolling both of them so Rock’s other elbow touched the ground, where it stuck.
Kaladin tore away, gasping and puffing, losing most of his remaining Stormlight as he coughed. He leaned up against the wall, mopping sweat from his face.
“Ha!” Rock said, stuck to the ground, splayed with arms to the sides. “I almost had you. Slippery as a fifth son, you are!”
“Storms, Rock,” Kaladin said. “What I wouldn’t do to get you on the battlefield. You are wasted as a cook.”
“You don’t like the food?” Rock asked, laughing. “I will have to try something with more grease. This thing will fit you! Grabbing you was like trying to keep my hands on a live lakefish! One that has been covered in butter! Ha!”
Kaladin stepped up to him, squatting down. “You’re a warrior, Rock. I saw it in Teft, and you can say whatever you want, but I see it in you.”
“I am wrong son to be soldier,” Rock said stubbornly. “It is a thing of the tuanalikina, the fourth son or below. Third son cannot be wasted in battle.”
“Didn’t stop you from throwing a tree at my head.”
“Was small tree,” Rock said. “And very hard head.”
Kaladin smiled, then reached down, touching the Stormlight infused into the stone beneath Rock. He hadn’t ever tried to take it back after using it in this way. Could he? He closed his eyes and breathed in, trying… yes.
Some of the tempest within him stoked again. When he opened his eyes, Rock was free. Kaladin hadn’t been able to take it all back, but some. The rest was evaporating into the air.
He took Rock by the hand, helping the larger man to his feet. Rock dusted himself off.
“That was embarrassing,” Sigzil said as Kaladin walked over to free him too. “It’s like we’re children. The Prime’s own eyes have not seen such a shameful show.”
“I have a very unfair advantage,” Kaladin said, helping Sigzil to his feet. “Years of training as a soldier, a larger build than you. Oh, and the ability to emit Stormlight from my fingers.” He patted Sigzil on the shoulder. “You did well. This is just a test, like you wanted.”
A more useful type of test, Kaladin thought.
“Sure,” Lopen said from behind them. “Just go ahead and leave the Herdazian stuck to the wall. The view here is wonderful. Oh, and is that slime running down my cheek? A fresh new look for the Lopen, who cannot brush it away, because—have I mentioned?—his hand is stuck to the wall.”
Kaladin smiled, walking over. “You were the one who asked me to stick you to a wall in the first place, Lopen.”
“My other hand?” Lopen said. “The one that was cut off long ago, eaten by a fearsome beast? It is making a rude gesture toward you right now. I thought you would wish to know, so that you can prepare to be insulted.” He said it with the same lightheartedness with which he seemed to approach everything. He had even joined the bridge crew with a certain crazy eagerness.
Kaladin let him down.
“This thing,” Rock said, “it worked well.”
“Yes,” Kaladin said. Though honestly, he probably could have dispatched the three men more easily just by using a spear and the extra speed and strength the Stormlight lent. He didn’t know yet whether that was because he was unfamiliar with these new powers, but he did think that forcing himself to use them had put him in some awkward positions.
Familiarity, he thought. I need to know these abilities as well as I know my spear.
That meant practice. Lots of practice. Unfortunately, the best way to practice was to find someone who matched or bested you in skill, strength, and capacity. Considering what he could now do, that was going to be a tall order.
The three others walked over to dig waterskins from their packs, and Kaladin noticed a figure standing in the shadows a little ways down the chasm. Kaladin stood up, alarmed until Teft emerged into the light of their spheres.
“I thought you were going to be on watch,” Teft growled at Lopen.
“Too busy being stuck to walls,” Lopen said, raising his waterskin. “I thought you had a bunch of greenvines to train?”
“Drehy has them in hand,” Teft said, picking his way around some debris, joining Kaladin beside the chasm wall. “I don’t know if the lads told you, Kaladin, but bringing that lot down here broke them out of their shells somehow.”
“How did you get to know people so well?” Teft asked.
“It involves a lot of cutting them apart,” Kaladin said, looking down at his hand, which he’d scraped while fighting Rock. The scrape was gone, Stormlight having healed the tears in his skin.
Teft grunted, glancing back at Rock and the other two, who had broken out rations. “You ought to put Rock in charge of the new recruits.”
“He won’t fight.”
“He just sparred with you,” Teft said. “So maybe he will with them. People like him more than me. I’m just going to screw this up.”
“You’ll do a fine job, Teft, I won’t have you saying otherwise. We have resources now. No more scrimping for every last sphere. You’ll train those lads, and you’ll do it right.”
Teft sighed, but said no more.
“You saw what I did.”
“Aye,” Teft said. “We’ll need to bring down the entire group of twenty if we want to give you a proper challenge.”
“That or find another person like myself,” Kaladin said. “Someone to spar with.”
“Aye,” Teft said again, nodding, as if he hadn’t considered that.
“There were ten orders of knights, right?” Kaladin asked. “Do you know much of the others?” Teft had been the first one to figure out what Kaladin could do. He’d known before Kaladin himself had.
“Not much,” Teft said with a grimace. “I know the orders didn’t always get along, despite what the official stories say. We’ll need to see if we can find someone who knows more than I do. I… I kept away. And the people I knew who could tell us, they aren’t around any longer.”
If Teft had been in a dour mood before, this drove him down even further. He looked at the ground. He spoke of his past infrequently, but Kaladin was more and more certain that whoever these people had been, they were dead because of something Teft himself had done.
“What would you think if you heard that somebody wanted to refound the Knights Radiant?” Kaladin said softly to Teft.
Teft looked up sharply. “You—”
“Not me,” Kaladin said, speaking carefully. Dalinar Kholin had let him listen in on the conference, and while Kaladin trusted Teft, there were certain expectations of silence that an officer was required to uphold.
Dalinar is a lighteyes, part of him whispered. He wouldn’t think twice if he were revealing a secret you’d shared with him.
“Not me,” Kaladin repeated. “What if a king somewhere decided he wanted to gather a group of people and name them Knights Radiant?”
“I’d call him an idiot,” Teft said. “Now, the Radiants weren’t what people say. They weren’t traitors. They just weren’t. But everyone is sure they betrayed us, and you’re not going to change minds quickly. Not unless you can Surgebind to quiet them.” Teft looked Kaladin up and down. “Are you going to do it, lad?”
“They’d hate me, wouldn’t they?” Kaladin said. He couldn’t help noticing Syl, who walked through the air until she was close, studying him. “For what the old Radiants did.” He held up a hand to stop Teft’s objection. “What people think they did.”
“Aye,” Teft said.
Syl folded her arms, giving Kaladin a look. You promised, that look said.
“We’ll have to be careful about how we do it, then,” Kaladin said. “Go gather the new recruits. They’ve had enough practice down here for one day.”
Teft nodded, then jogged off to do as ordered. Kaladin gathered his spear and the spheres he’d set out to light the sparring, then waved to the other three. They packed up their things and began the hike back out.
“So you’re going to do it,” Syl said, landing on his shoulder.
“I want to practice more first,” Kaladin said. And get used to the idea.
“It will be fine, Kaladin.”
“No. It will be hard. People will hate me, and even if they don’t, I’ll be set apart from them. Separated. I’ve accepted that as my lot, though. I’ll deal with it.” Even in Bridge Four, Moash was the only one who didn’t treat Kaladin like some mythological savior Herald. Him and maybe Rock.
Still, the other bridgemen hadn’t reacted with the fear he’d once worried about. They might idolize him, but they did not isolate him. It was good enough.
They reached the rope ladder before Teft and the greenvines, but there was no reason to wait. Kaladin climbed up out of the muggy chasm onto the plateau just east of the warcamps. It felt so strange to be able to carry his spear and money out of the chasm. Indeed, the soldiers guarding the approach to Dalinar’s warcamp didn’t pester him—instead, they saluted and stood up straight. It was as crisp a salute as he’d ever gotten, as crisp as the ones given to a general.
“They seem proud of you,” Syl said. “They don’t even know you, but they’re proud of you.”
“They’re darkeyes,” Kaladin said, saluting back. “Probably men who were fighting on the Tower when Sadeas betrayed them.”
“Stormblessed,” one of them called. “Have you heard the news?”
Curse the one who told them that nickname, Kaladin thought as Rock and the other two caught up to him.
“No,” Kaladin called. “What news?”
“A hero has come to the Shattered Plains!” the soldier yelled back. “He’s going to meet with Brightlord Kholin, perhaps support him! It’s a good sign. Might help calm things down around here.”
“What’s this?” Rock called back. “Who?”
The soldier said a name.
Kaladin’s heart became ice.
He nearly lost his spear from numb fingers. And then, he took off running. He didn’t heed Rock’s cry behind him, didn’t stop to let the others catch up with him. He dashed through the camp, running toward Dalinar’s command complex at its center.
He didn’t want to believe when he saw the banner hanging in the air above a group of soldiers, probably matched by a much larger group outside the warcamp. Kaladin passed them, drawing cries and stares, questions if something was wrong.
He finally stumbled to a stop outside the short set of steps into Dalinar’s bunkered complex of stone buildings. There, standing in front, the Blackthorn clasped hands with a tall man.
Square-faced and dignified, the newcomer wore a pristine uniform. He laughed, then embraced Dalinar. “Old friend,” he said. “It’s been too long.”
“Too long by far,” Dalinar agreed. “I’m glad you finally made your way here, after years of promises. I heard you’ve even found yourself a Shardblade!”
“Yes,” the newcomer said, pulling back and holding his hand to the side. “Taken from an assassin who dared try to kill me on the field of battle.”
The Blade appeared. Kaladin stared at the silvery weapon. Etched along its length, the Blade was shaped to look like flames in motion, and to Kaladin it seemed that the weapon was stained red. Names flooded his mind: Dallet, Coreb, Reesh… a squad before time, from another life. Men Kaladin had loved.
He looked up and forced himself to see the face of the newcomer. A man Kaladin hated, hated beyond any other. A man he had once worshipped.
Highlord Amaram. The man who had stolen Kaladin’s Shardblade, branded his forehead, and sold him into slavery.
Mateform meek, for love to share,
Given to life, it brings us joy.
To find this form, one must care.
True empathy one must employ.
—From the Listener Song of Listing, 5th stanza
It’s been a while,” Adolin said, kneeling and holding his Shardblade before him, point sunken a few inches into the stone ground. He was alone. Just him and the sword in one of the new preparation rooms, built alongside the dueling arena.
“I remember when I won you,” Adolin whispered, looking at his reflection in the blade. “Nobody took me seriously then, either. The fop with the nice clothing. Tinalar thought to duel me just to embarrass my father. Instead I got his Blade.” If he’d lost, he would have had to give Tinalar his Plate, which he’d inherited from his mother’s side of the family.
Adolin had never named his Shardblade. Some did, some didn’t. He’d never thought it appropriate—not because he didn’t think the Blade deserved a name, but because he figured he didn’t know the right one. This weapon had belonged to one of the Knights Radiant, long ago. That man had named the weapon, undoubtedly. To call it something else seemed presumptuous. Adolin had felt that way even before he’d started thinking of the Radiants in a good light, as his father did.
This Blade would continue after Adolin died. He didn’t own it. He was borrowing it for a time.
Its surface was austerely smooth, long, sinuous like an eel, with ridges at the back like growing crystals. Shaped like a larger version of a standard longsword, it bore some resemblance to the enormous, two-handed broadswords he’d seen Horneaters wield.
“A real duel,” Adolin whispered to the Blade. “For real stakes. Finally. No more tiptoeing around it, no more limiting myself.”
The Shardblade didn’t respond, but Adolin imagined that it listened to him. You couldn’t use a weapon like this, a weapon that seemed like an extension of the soul itself, and not feel at times that it was alive.
“I speak so confidently to everyone else,” Adolin said, “since I know they rely on me. But if I lose today, that’s it. No more duels, and a severe knot in Father’s grand plan.”
He could hear people outside. Stomping feet, a buzz of chatter. Scraping on the stone. They’d come. Come to see Adolin win or be humiliated.
“This might be our last fight together,” Adolin said softly. “I appreciate what you’ve done for me. I know you’d do it for anyone who held you, but I still appreciate it. I… I want you to know: I believe in Father. I believe he’s right, that the things he sees are real. That the world needs a united Alethkar. Fights like this one are my way to make it happen.”
Adolin and his father weren’t politicians. They were soldiers—Dalinar by choice, Adolin more by circumstance. They wouldn’t be able to just talk their way into a unified kingdom. They’d have to fight their way into one.
Adolin stood up, patting his pocket, then dismissing his Blade to mist and crossing the small chamber. The stone walls of the narrow hallway he entered were etched with reliefs depicting the ten basic stances of swordsmanship. Those had been carved elsewhere, then placed here when this room was built—a recent addition, to replace the tents that dueling preparation had once happened in.
Windstance, Stonestance, Flamestance… There was a relief, with depicted stance, for each of the Ten Essences. Adolin counted them off to himself as he passed. This small tunnel had been cut into the stone of the arena itself, and ended in a small room cut into the rock. The bright sunlight of the dueling grounds glared around the edges of the final pair of doors between him and his opponent.
With a proper preparation room for meditation, then this staging room to put on armor or retreat between bouts, the dueling arena at the warcamps was transforming into one as proper as those, back in Alethkar. A welcome addition.
Adolin stepped into the staging room, where his brother and aunt were waiting. Stormfather, his hands were sweating. He hadn’t felt this nervous when riding into battle, when his life was actually in danger.
Aunt Navani had just finished a glyphward. She stepped away from the pedestal, setting aside her brushpen, and held up the ward for him to see. It was painted in bright red on a white cloth.
“Victory?” Adolin guessed.
Navani lowered it, raising an eyebrow at him.
“What?” Adolin said as his armorers entered, carrying the pieces of his Shardplate.
“It says ‘safety and glory,’” Navani said. “It wouldn’t kill you to learn some glyphs, Adolin.”
He shrugged. “Never seemed that important.”
“Yes, well,” Navani said, reverently folding the prayer and setting it in the brazier to burn. “Hopefully, you will eventually have a wife to do this for you. Both the reading of glyphs and the making of them.”
Adolin bowed his head, as was proper while the prayer burned. Pailiah knew, this wasn’t the time to offend the Almighty. Once it was done, however, he glanced at Navani. “And what of the news of the ship?”
They had expected word from Jasnah when she reached the Shallow Crypts, but none had been forthcoming. Navani had checked in with the harbormaster’s office in that distant city. They said the Wind’s Pleasure had not yet arrived. That put it a week overdue.
Navani waved a dismissive hand. “Jasnah was on that ship.”
“I know, Aunt,” Adolin said, shuffling uncomfortably. What had happened? Had the ship been caught in a highstorm? What of this woman Adolin might be marrying, if Jasnah had her way?
“If the ship is delayed, it’s because Jasnah is up to something,” Navani said. “Watch. We’ll get a communication from her in a few weeks, demanding some task or piece of information. I’ll have to pry from her why she vanished. Battah send that girl some sense to go with her intelligence.”
Adolin didn’t press the issue. Navani knew Jasnah better than anyone else. But… he was certainly concerned for Jasnah, and felt a sudden worry that he might not get to meet the girl, Shallan, when expected. Of course, the causal betrothal wasn’t likely to work out—but a piece of him wished that it would. Letting someone else choose for him had a strange appeal, considering how loudly Danlan had cursed at him when he’d broken off that particular relationship.
Danlan was still one of his father’s scribes, so he saw her on occasion. More glares. But storm it, that one was not his fault. The things she’d said to her friends…
An armorer set out his boots, and Adolin stepped into them, feeling them click into place. The armorers quickly affixed the greaves, then moved upward, covering him in too-light metal. Soon, all that remained were the gauntlets and the helm. He knelt down, placing his hands into the gauntlets at his side, fingers in their positions. In the strange manner of Shardplate, the armor constricted on its own, like a skyeel curling around its rat, pulling to comfortable tightness around his wrists.
He turned and reached for his helm from the last armorer. It was Renarin.
“You ate chicken?” Renarin asked as Adolin took the helm.
“And you talked to the sword?”
“Had an entire conversation.”
“Mother’s chain in your pocket?”
“Checked three times.”
Navani folded her arms. “You still hold to those foolish superstitions?”
Both brothers looked at her sharply.
“They’re not superstitions,” Adolin said at the same time Renarin said, “It’s just good luck, Aunt.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I haven’t done a formal duel in a long time,” Adolin said, pulling on the helm, faceplate open. “I don’t want anything to go wrong.”
“Foolishness,” Navani repeated. “Trust in the Almighty and the Heralds, not whether or not you had the right meal before you duel. Storms. Next thing I know, you’ll be believing in the Passions.”
Adolin shared a look with Renarin. His little traditions probably didn’t help him win, but, well, why risk it? Every duelist had his own quirks. His hadn’t let him down yet.
“Our guards aren’t happy about this,” Renarin said softly. “They keep talking about how hard it’s going to be to protect you when someone else is swinging a Shardblade at you.”
Adolin slammed down his faceplate. It misted at the sides, locking into place, becoming translucent and giving him a full view of the room. Adolin grinned, knowing full well Renarin couldn’t see the expression. “I’m so sad to be denying them the chance to babysit me.”
“Why do you enjoy tormenting them?”
“I don’t like minders.”
“You’ve had guards before.”
“On the battlefield,” Adolin said. It felt different to be followed about everywhere he went.
“There’s more. Don’t lie to me, Brother. I know you too well.”
Adolin inspected his brother, whose eyes were so earnest behind his spectacles. The boy was too solemn all the time.
“I don’t like their captain,” Adolin admitted.
“Why? He saved Father’s life.”
“He just bothers me.” Adolin shrugged. “There’s something about him that is off, Renarin. That makes me suspicious.”
“I think you don’t like that he ordered you around, on the battlefield.”
“I barely even remember that,” Adolin said lightly, stepping toward the door out.
“Well, all right then. Off with you. And Brother?”
“Try not to lose.”
Adolin pushed open the doors and stepped out onto the sand. He’d been in this arena before, using the argument that though the Alethi Codes of War proscribed duels between officers, he still needed to maintain his skills.
To placate his father, Adolin had stayed away from important bouts— bouts for championships or for Shards. He hadn’t dared risk his Blade and Plate. Now everything was different.
The air was still chill with winter, but the sun was bright overhead. His breath sounded against the plate of his helm, and his feet crunched in sand. He checked to see that his father was watching. He was. As was the king.
Sadeas hadn’t come. Just as well. That might have distracted Adolin with memories of one of the last times that Sadeas and Dalinar had been amiable, sitting together up on those stone steps, watching Adolin duel. Had Sadeas been planning a betrayal even then, while laughing with his father and chatting like an old friend?
Focus. His foe today wasn’t Sadeas, though someday… Someday soon he’d get that man in the arena. It was the goal of everything he was doing here.
For now, he’d have to settle for Salinor, one of Thanadal’s Shardbearers. The man had only the Blade, though he’d been able to borrow a set of the King’s Plate for a bout with a full Shardbearer.
Salinor stood on the other side of the arena, wearing the unornamented slate-grey Plate and waiting for the highjudge—Brightlady Istow—to signal the start of the bout. This fight was, in a way, an insult to Adolin. In order to get Salinor to agree to the duel, Adolin had been forced to bet both his Plate and his Blade against just Salinor’s Blade. As if Adolin weren’t worthy, and had to offer more potential spoils to justify bothering Salinor.
As expected, the arena was overflowing with lighteyes. Even if it was speculated that Adolin had lost his former edge, bouts for Shards were very, very rare. This would be the first in over a year’s time.
“Summon Blades!” Istow ordered.
Adolin thrust his hand to the side. The Blade fell into his waiting hand ten heartbeats later—a moment before his opponent’s appeared. Adolin’s heart was beating more quickly than Salinor’s. Perhaps that meant his opponent wasn’t frightened, and underestimated him.
Adolin fell into Windstance, elbows bent, turned to the side, sword’s tip pointing up and backward. His opponent fell into Flamestance, sword held one-handed, other hand touching the blade, standing with a square posture of the feet. The stances were more a philosophy than a predefined set of moves. Windstance: flowing, sweeping, majestic. Flamestance: quick and flexible, better for shorter Shardblades.
Windstance was familiar to Adolin. It had served him well throughout his career.
But it didn’t feel right today.
We’re at war, Adolin thought as Salinor edged forward, looking to test him. And every lighteyes in this army is a raw recruit.
It wasn’t time for a show.
It was time for a beating.
As Salinor drew close for a cautious strike to feel out his opponent, Adolin twisted and fell into Ironstance, with his sword held two-handed up beside his head. He slapped away Salinor’s first strike, then stepped in and slammed his Blade down into the man’s helm. Once, twice, three times. Salinor tried to parry, but he was obviously surprised by Adolin’s attack, and two of the blows landed.
Cracks crawled across Salinor’s helm. Adolin heard grunts accompanying curses as Salinor tried to bring his weapon back to strike. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. Where were the test blows, the art, the dance?
Adolin growled, feeling the old Thrill of battle as he shoved aside Salinor’s attack—careless of the hit it scored on his side—then brought his Blade in two-handed and crashed it into his opponent’s breastplate, like he was chopping wood. Salinor grunted again and Adolin raised his foot and kicked the man backward, throwing him to the ground.
Salinor dropped his Blade—a weakness of Flamestance’s one-handed posture—and it vanished to mist. Adolin stepped over the man and dismissed his own Blade, then kicked down with a booted heel into Salinor’s helm. The piece of Plate exploded into molten bits, exposing a dazed, panicked face.
Adolin slammed the heel of his foot against the breastplate next. Though Salinor tried to grab his foot, Adolin kicked relentlessly until the breastplate, too, shattered.
Adolin halted, lowering his foot beside Salinor’s head, looking up at the highjudge. The woman stood in her box, face red, voice furious.
“Adolin Kholin!” she shouted. “This is a duel, not a wrestling match!”
“Did I break any rules?” he shouted back.
Silence. It struck him, through the rush in his ears, that the entire crowd had gone quiet. He could hear their breathing.
“Did I break any rules?” Adolin demanded again.
“This is not how a duel—”
“So I win,” Adolin said.
The woman sputtered. “This duel was to three broken pieces of Plate. You broke only two.”
Adolin looked down at the dazed Salinor. Then he reached down, ripped off the man’s pauldron, and smashed it between two fists. “Done.”
Adolin knelt beside his opponent. “Your Blade.”
Salinor tried to stand, but with the breastplate missing, doing so was more difficult. His armor wouldn’t work properly, and he’d need to roll onto his side and work his way to his feet. Doable, but he obviously didn’t have the experience with Plate to perform the maneuver. Adolin slammed him back down to the sand by his shoulder.
“You’ve lost,” Adolin growled.
“You cheated!” Salinor sputtered.
“I don’t know how! It just—It’s not supposed to…”
He trailed off as Adolin carefully placed a gauntleted hand against his neck. Salinor’s eyes widened. “You wouldn’t.”
Fearspren crawled out of the sand around him.
“My prize,” Adolin said, suddenly feeling drained. The Thrill faded from him. Storms, he’d never before felt like this in a duel.
Salinor’s Blade appeared in his hand.
“Judgment,” the highjudge said, sounding reluctant, “goes to Adolin Kholin, the victor. Salinor Eved forfeits his Shard.”
Salinor let the Blade slip from his fingers. Adolin took it and knelt beside Salinor, holding the weapon with pommel toward the man. “Break the bond.”
Salinor hesitated, then touched the ruby at the weapon’s pommel. The gemstone flashed with light. The bond had been broken.
Adolin stood, ripping the ruby free, then crushing it in a gauntleted hand. That wouldn’t be needed, but it was a nice symbol. Sound finally rose in the crowd, frantic chattering. They’d come for a spectacle and had instead been given brutality. Well, that was how things often went in war. Good for them to see it, he supposed, though as he ducked back into the waiting room he was uncertain of himself. What he’d done was reckless. Dismissing his Blade? Putting himself in a position where the enemy could have gotten at his feet?
Adolin entered the staging room, where Renarin looked at him wide-eyed. “That,” his younger brother said, “was incredible. It has to be the shortest Shard bout on record! You were amazing, Adolin!”
“I… Thanks.” He handed Salinor’s Shardblade toward Renarin. “A present.”
“Adolin, are you sure? I mean, I’m not exactly the best with the Plate I already have.”
“Might as well have the full set,” Adolin said. “Take it.”
Renarin seemed hesitant.
“Take it,” Adolin said again.
Reluctantly, Renarin did so. He grimaced as he took it. Adolin shook his head, sitting down on one of the reinforced benches intended to hold a Shardbearer. Navani stepped into the room, having come down from the seats above.
“What you did,” she noted, “would not have worked on a more skillful opponent.”
“I know,” Adolin said.
“It was wise, then,” Navani said. “You mask your true skill. People can assume this was won by trickery, pit-fighting instead of proper dueling. They might continue to underestimate you. I can work with this to get you more duels.”
Adolin nodded, pretending that was why he’d done it.
The Rhythm of Resolve thrummed softly in the back of Eshonai’s mind as she reached the plateau at the center of the Shattered Plains.
The central plateau. Narak. Exile.
She ripped the helm of the Shardplate from her head, taking a deep breath of cool air. Plate ventilated wonderfully, but even it grew stuffy after extended exertions. Other soldiers landed behind her—she had taken some fifteen hundred this run. Fortunately, this time they’d arrived well before the humans, and had harvested the gemheart with minimal fighting. Devi carried it; he had earned the privilege by being the one to spot the chrysalis from afar.
Almost she wished it had not been so easy a run. Almost.
Where are you, Blackthorn? she thought, looking westward. Why have you not come to face me again?
She thought she’d seen him on that run a week or so back, when they’d been forced off the plateau by his son. Eshonai had not participated in that fight; her wounded leg ached, and the jumping from plateau to plateau had stressed it, even in Shardplate. Perhaps she should not be going on these runs in the first place.
She’d wanted to be there in case her strike force grew surrounded, and needed a Shardbearer—even a wounded one—to break them free. Her leg still hurt, but Plate cushioned it enough. Soon she would have to return to the fighting. Perhaps if she participated directly, the Blackthorn would appear again.
She needed to speak with him. She felt an urgency to do so blowing upon the winds themselves.
Her soldiers raised hands in farewell as they went their separate ways. Many softly sang or hummed a song to the Rhythm of Mourning. These days, few sang to Excitement, or even to Resolve. Step by step, storm by storm, depression claimed her people—the listeners, as they called their race. “Parshendi” was a human term.
Eshonai strode toward the ruins that dominated Narak. After so many years, there wasn’t much left. Ruins of ruins, one might call them. The works of men and listeners alike did not last long before the might of the highstorms.
That stone spire ahead, that had probably once been a tower. Over the centuries, it had grown a thick coating of crem from the raging storms. The soft crem had seeped into cracks and filled windows, then slowly hardened. The tower now looked like an enormous stalagmite, rounded point toward the sky, side knobbed with rock that looked as if it had been melted.
The spire must have had a strong core to survive the winds so long. Other examples of ancient engineering had not fared so well. Eshonai passed lumps and mounds, remnants of fallen buildings that had slowly been consumed by the Shattered Plains. The storms were unpredictable. Sometimes huge sections of rock would break free from formations, leaving gouges and jagged edges. Other times, spires would stand for centuries, growing—not shrinking—as the winds both weathered and augmented them.
Eshonai had discovered similar ruins in her explorations, such as the one she’d been on when her people had first encountered humans. Only seven years ago, but also an eternity. She had loved those days, exploring a wide world that felt infinite. And now…
Now she spent her life trapped on this one plateau. The wilderness called to her, sang that she should gather up what things she could carry and strike out. Unfortunately, that was no longer her destiny.
She passed into the shadow of a big lump of rock that she always imagined might have been a city gate. From what little they’d learned from their spies over the years, she knew that the Alethi did not understand. They marched over the uneven surface of the plateaus and saw only natural rock, never knowing that they traversed the bones of a city long dead.
Eshonai shivered, and attuned the Rhythm of the Lost. It was a soft beat, yet still violent, with sharp, separated notes. She did not attune it for long. Remembering the fallen was important, but working to protect the living was more so.
She attuned Resolve again and entered Narak. Here, the listeners had built the best home they could during the years of war. Rocky shelves had become barracks, carapace from greatshells forming the walls and roofs. Mounds that had once been buildings now grew rockbuds for food on their leeward sides. Much of the Shattered Plains had once been populated, but the largest city had been here at the center. So now the ruins of her people made their home in the ruins of a dead city.
They had named it Narak—exile—for it was where they had come to be separated from their gods.
Listeners, both malen and femalen, raised hands to her as she passed. So few remained. The humans were relentless in their pursuit of vengeance.
She didn’t blame them.
She turned toward the Hall of Art. It was nearby, and she hadn’t put in an appearance there for days. Inside, soldiers did a laughable job of painting. Eshonai strode among them, still wearing her Shardplate, helm under her arm. The long building had no roof—allowing in plenty of light to paint by—and the walls were thick with long-hardened crem. Holding thick-bristled brushes, the soldiers tried their best to depict the arrangement of rockbud flowers on a pedestal at the center. Eshonai did a round of the artists, looking at their work. Paper was precious and canvas nonexistent, so they painted on shell.
The paintings were awful. Splotches of garish color, off-center petals… Eshonai paused beside Varanis, one of her lieutenants. He held the brush delicately between armored fingers, a hulking form before an easel. Plates of chitin armor grew from his arms, shoulders, chest, even head. They were matched by her own, under her Plate.
“You are getting better,” Eshonai said to him, speaking to the Rhythm of Praise.
He looked to her, and hummed softly to Skepticism.
Eshonai chuckled, resting a hand on his shoulder. “It actually looks like flowers, Varanis. I mean it.”
“It looks like muddy water on a brown plateau,” he said. “Maybe with some brown leaves floating in it. Why do colors turn brown when they mix? Three beautiful colors put together, and they become the least beautiful color. It makes no sense, General.”
General. At times, she felt as awkward in the position as these men did trying to paint pictures. She wore warform, as she needed the armor for battle, but she preferred workform. More limber, more rugged. It wasn’t that she disliked leading these men, but doing the same thing every day— drills, plateau runs—numbed her mind. She wanted to be seeing new things, going new places. Instead, she joined her people in a long funeral vigil as, one by one, they died.
No. We will find a way out of it.
The art was part of that, she hoped. By her order, each man or woman took a turn in the Hall of Art at their appointed time. And they tried; they tried hard. So far, it had been about as successful as trying to leap a chasm with the other side out of sight. “No spren?” she asked.
“Not a one.” He said it to the Rhythm of Mourning. She heard that rhythm far too often these days.
“Keep trying,” she said. “We will not lose this battle for lack of effort.”
“But General,” Varanis said, “what is the point? Having artists won’t save us from the swords of humans.”
Nearby, other soldiers turned to hear her answer.
“Artists won’t help,” she said to the Rhythm of Peace. “But my sister is confident that she is close to discovering new forms. If we can discover how to create artists, then it might teach her more about the process of change—and that might help her with her research. Help her discover forms stronger, even, than warform. Artists won’t get us out of this, but some other form might.”
Varanis nodded. He was a good soldier. Not all of them were—warform did not intrinsically make one more disciplined. Unfortunately, it did hamper one’s artistic skill.
Eshonai had tried painting. She couldn’t think the right way, couldn’t grasp the abstraction needed to create art. Warform was a good form, versatile. It didn’t impede thought, like mateform did. As with workform, you were yourself when you were warform. But each had its quirks. A worker had difficulty committing violence—there was a block in the mind somewhere. That was one of the reasons she liked the form. It forced her to think differently to get around problems.
Neither form could create art. Not well, at least. Mateform was better, but came with a whole host of other problems. Keeping those types focused on anything productive was almost impossible. There were two other forms, though the first—dullform—was one they rarely used. It was a relic of the past, before they’d rediscovered something better.
That left only nimbleform, a general form that was lithe and careful. They used it for nurturing young and doing the kind of work that required more dexterity than brawn. Few could be spared for that form, though it was more skilled at art.
The old songs spoke of hundreds of forms. Now they knew of only five. Well, six if one counted slaveform, the form with no spren, no soul, and no song. The form the humans were accustomed to, the ones they called parshmen. It wasn’t really a form at all, however, but a lack of any form.
Eshonai left the Hall of Art, helm under her arm, leg aching. She passed through the watering square, where nimbles had crafted a large pool from sculpted crem. It caught rain during the riddens of a storm, thick with nourishment. Here, workers carried buckets to fetch water. Their forms were strong, almost like that of warform, though with thinner fingers and no armor. Many nodded to her, though as a general she had no authority over them. She was their last Shardbearer.
A group of three mateforms—two female, one male—played in the water, splashing at one another. Barely clothed, they dripped with what others would be drinking.
“You three,” Eshonai snapped at them. “Shouldn’t you be doing something?”
Plump and vapid, they grinned at Eshonai. “Come in!” one called. “It’s fun!”
“Out,” Eshonai said, pointing.
The three muttered to the Rhythm of Irritation as they climbed from the water. Nearby, several workers shook their heads as they passed, one singing to Praise in appreciation of Eshonai. Workers did not like confrontation.
It was an excuse. Just as those who took on mateform used their form as an excuse for their inane activities. When a worker, Eshonai had trained herself to confront when necessary. She’d even been a mate once, and had proven to herself firsthand that one could indeed be productive as a mate, despite… distractions.
Of course, the rest of her experiences as a mate had been an utter disaster.
She spoke to Reprimand to the mateforms, her words so passionate that she actually attracted angerspren. She saw them coming from a ways off, drawn by her emotion, moving with an incredible speed—like lightning dancing toward her across the distant stone. The lightning pooled at her feet, turning the stones red.
That put the fear of the gods into the mateforms, and they ran off to report to the Hall of Art. Hopefully, they wouldn’t end up in an alcove along the way, mating. Her stomach churned at the thought. She had never been able to fathom people who wanted to remain in mateform. Most couples, in order to have a child, would enter the form and sequester themselves away for a year—then would be out of the form as soon after the child’s birth as possible. After all, who would want to go out in public like that?
The humans did it. That had baffled her during those early days, when she’d spent time learning their language, trading with them. Not only did humans not change forms, they were always ready to mate, always distracted by sexual urges.
What she wouldn’t have given to be able to go among them unnoticed, to adopt their monochrome skin for a year and walk their highways, see their grand cities. Instead, she and the others had ordered the murder of the Alethi king in a desperate gambit to stop the listener gods from returning.
Well, that had worked—the Alethi king hadn’t been able to put his plan into action. But now, her people were slowly being destroyed as a result.
She finally reached the rock formation she called home: a small, collapsed dome. It reminded her of the ones on the edge of the Shattered Plains, actually—the enormous ones that the humans called warcamps. Her people had lived in those, before abandoning them for the security of the Shattered Plains, with its chasms the humans couldn’t jump.
Her home was much, much smaller, of course. During the early days of living here, Venli had crafted a roof of greatshell carapace and built walls to divide the space into chambers. She’d covered it all over with crem, which had hardened with time, creating something that actually felt like a home instead of a shanty.
Eshonai set her helm on a table just inside, but left the rest of her armor on. Shardplate just felt right to her. She liked the sensation of strength. It let her know that something was still reliable in the world. And with the power of Shardplate, she could mostly ignore the wound to her leg.
She ducked through a few rooms, nodding to the people she passed. Venli’s associates were scholars, though no one knew the proper form for true scholarship. Nimbleform was their makeshift substitute for now. Eshonai found her sister beside the window of the farthest chamber. Demid, Venli’s once-mate, sat next to her. Venli had held nimbleform for three years, as long as they’d known of the form, though in Eshonai’s mind’s eye she still saw her sister as a worker, with thicker arms and a stouter torso.
That was the past. Now, Venli was a slender woman with a thin face, her marblings delicate swirling patterns of red and white. Nimbleform grew long hairstrands, with no carapace helm to block them. Venli’s, a deep red, flowed down to her waist, where they were tied in three places. She wore a robe, drawn tight at the waist and showing a hint of breasts at the chest. This was not mateform, so they were small.
Venli and her once-mate were close, though their time as mates had produced no children. If they’d gone to the battlefield, they’d have been a warpair. Instead, they were a researchpair, or something. The things they spent their days doing were very un-listener. That was the point. Eshonai’s people could not afford to be what they had been in the past. The days of lounging isolated on these plateaus—singing songs to one another, only occasionally fighting—were over.
“So?” Venli asked to Curiosity.
“We won,” Eshonai said, leaning back against the wall and folding her arms with a clink of Shardplate. “The gemheart is ours. We will continue to eat.”
“That is well,” Venli said. “And your human?”
“Dalinar Kholin. He did not come to this battle.”
“He will not face you again,” Venli said. “You nearly killed him last time.” She said it to the Rhythm of Amusement as she rose, picking up a piece of paper—they made it from dried rockbud pulp following a harvest—which she handed to her once-mate. Looking it over, he nodded and began making notes on his own sheet.
That paper required precious time and resources to make, but Venli insisted the reward would be worth the effort. She’d better be right.
Venli regarded Eshonai. She had keen eyes—glassy and dark, like those of all listeners. Venli’s always seemed to have an extra depth of secret knowledge to them. In the right light, they had a violet cast.
“What would you do, Sister?” Venli asked. “If you and this Kholin were actually able to stop trying to kill each other long enough to have a conversation?”
“I’d sue for peace.”
“We murdered his brother,” Venli said. “We slaughtered King Gavilar on a night when he’d invited us into his home. That is not something the Alethi will forget, or forgive.”
Eshonai unfolded her arms and flexed a gauntleted hand. That night. A desperate plan, made between herself and five others. She had been part of it despite her youth, because of her knowledge of the humans. All had voted the same.
Kill the man. Kill him, and risk destruction. For if he had lived to do what he told them that night, all would have been lost. The others who had made that decision with her were dead now.
“I have discovered the secret of stormform,” Venli said.
“What?” Eshonai stood up straight. “You were to be working on a form to help! A form for diplomats, or for scholars.”
“Those will not save us,” Venli said to Amusement. “If we wish to deal with the humans, we will need the ancient powers.”
“Venli,” Eshonai said, grabbing her sister by the arm. “Our gods!”
Venli didn’t flinch. “The humans have Surgebinders.”
“Perhaps not. It could have been an Honorblade.”
“You fought him. Was it an Honorblade that struck you, wounded your leg, sent you limping?”
“I…” Her leg ached.
“We don’t know which of the songs are true,” Venli said. Though she said it to Resolve, she sounded tired, and she drew exhaustionspren. They came with a sound like wind, blowing in through the windows and doors like jets of translucent vapor before becoming stronger, more visible, and spinning around her head like swirls of steam.
My poor sister. She works herself as hard as the soldiers do.
“If the Surgebinders have returned,” Venli continued, “we must strive for something meaningful, something that can ensure our freedom. The forms of power, Eshonai…” She glanced at Eshonai’s hand, still on her arm. “At least sit and listen. And stop looming like a mountain.”
Eshonai removed her fingers, but did not sit. Her Shardplate’s weight would break a chair. Instead, she leaned forward, inspecting the table full of papers.
Venli had invented the script herself. They’d learned that concept from the humans—memorizing songs was good, but not perfect, even when you had the rhythms to guide you. Information stored on pages was more practical, especially for research.
Eshonai had taught herself the script, but reading was still difficult for her. She did not have much time to practice.
“So… stormform?” Eshonai said.
“Enough people of that form,” Venli said, “could control a highstorm, or even summon one.”
“I remember the song that speaks of this form,” Eshonai said. “It was a thing of the gods.”
“Most of the forms are related to them in some way,” Venli said. “Can we really trust the accuracy of words first sung so long ago? When those songs were memorized, our people were mostly dullform.”
It was a form of low intelligence, low capacity. They used it now to spy on the humans. Once, it and mateform had been the only forms her people had known.
Demid shuffled some of the pages, moving a stack. “Venli is right, Eshonai. This is a risk we must take.”
“We could negotiate with the Alethi,” Eshonai said.
“To what end?” Venli said, again to Skepticism, her exhaustionspren finally fading, the spren spinning away to search out more fresh sources of emotion. “Eshonai, you keep saying you want to negotiate. I think it is because you are fascinated by humans. You think they’ll let you go freely among them? A person they see as having the form of a rebellious slave?”
“Centuries ago,” Demid said, “we escaped both our gods and the humans. Our ancestors left behind civilization, power, and might in order to secure freedom. I would not give that up, Eshonai. Stormform. With it, we can destroy the Alethi army.”
“With them gone,” Venli said, “you can return to exploration. No responsibility—you could travel, make your maps, discover places no person has ever seen.”
“What I want for myself is meaningless,” Eshonai said to Reprimand, “so long as we are all in danger of destruction.” She scanned the specks on the page, scribbles of songs. Songs without music, written out as they were. Their souls stripped away.
Could the listeners’ salvation really be in something so terrible? Venli and her team had spent five years recording all of the songs, learning the nuances from the elderly, capturing them in these pages. Through collaboration, research, and deep thought, they had discovered nimbleform.
“It is the only way,” Venli said to Peace. “We will bring this to the Five, Eshonai. I would have you on our side.”
“I… I will consider.”
Words of Radiance © Brandon Sanderson, 2014
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