I’m guessing you knew the desecrator would be there, and just didn’t tell me because, well, for your own reasons.
Sorry, sorry. In order, then. From the beginning?
You were the one who said sarcasm was—Yes, m’lady.
It was several days ago that you sent me—Barlen’s balls. All right.
It was early in the morning of the third day of the month of the Phoenix in the 230th year of the Reign of Her Glorious Majesty Zerika the Fourth that you sent me to meet the desecrator. Well, sorry! You sent me to the place where I ended up meeting the desecrator. Is that better? I don’t know what you know. That’s kind of funny when you—okay, I’ll just say that I left Dzur Mountain on the third day of the month of the Phoenix in the 230th year, all right?
I had to walk a long way, and there was still snow on the ground; deep snow at the top. It was cold. No, that is not a complaint, it is a detail. You said I was to include details of what I was feeling and—thank you.
As I walked, I thought about the mission you’d given me and how I would carry it . . .
Okay, I won’t lie. I thought about how cold I was, and how annoying it was to have to walk. My sword was light on my back, but the cross guard kept smacking the back of my head when I climbed down off rocks. I tried to adjust it, but couldn’t find a position that worked.
Eventually I made it down the mountain and found the cottage of a Teckla family. They groveled and all that. I identified myself properly, as Lord Telnan, House of the Dzur, and said I would be spending the night. They didn’t have a problem with it. They had a lot of kids—I could never quite count them—who were all too loud. The mother didn’t even seem to notice the noise. Every time she’d slap a spoonful of pulped tubers on a plate, she’d make some remark, like “grow those bones,” or “this will make your hair curly,” or “you need more muscles.” She was one of those laughing, happy peasants that you hear about but never actually meet. Now I’ve met one. It wasn’t as big a thrill as you might think. I got some sleep on a lumpy bed while they slept on the floor next to the hearth, and I paid them half an imperial for their trouble, and I didn’t kill any of them.
Do I really need to give you every day? It isn’t like anything happened.
All right, all right.
Your rules were: no teleporting, no magic, no Imperial conveyances until I reached Adrilankha, so I got a ride on an oxcart from another peasant, a young one. He wasn’t interested in conversation; just grunting in response to whatever I said. But he was willing to take a few coins in exchange for letting me stay in his cottage that night. He lived alone.
The next day I walked as far as the inn in Yalata, and slept in a real bed.
My next ride was on a wagon drawn by a pair of oxen. This was from a merchant, a Jhegaala. When he finished groveling and shaking, he got talkative: he chattered about exchange rates, and margins, whatever they are, and quantity discounts, and how changes in the weather and major events can affect sales. It was annoying, but he’d given me a ride, so it would have been rude to disembowel him. He brought me all the way to the city.
You never indicated there was any hurry, so I spent three days in Adrilankha, enjoying civilization. When I sobered up and recovered enough to feel like I could teleport, I used the location you gave me and arrived in Lansord an hour after dawn.
Have you ever been to Lansord, Sethra? There’s not much to it: a speaker’s house, two silos, a store. There’s no physicker closer than Bringan, ten miles to the east. I saw two old men and an old woman, none of whom gave me so much as a glance.
The ground rises steadily as you look west, to the foothills of the Kanefthali Mountains. Mount Durilai is closest; as you start west it rises over your head; I’d have liked to climb it. Maybe I’ll go back someday and do that. Sometime when there’s less snow.
I found the path where you said I would—a rock forming a tunnel, two flat, slanted, man-sized boulders inside it like teeth, with a wide man path to the right, and a narrow animal path to the left. I went left and followed it for a day. I slept outside. I don’t care for that.
The next morning I ate bread and cheese, and washed up a bit in a stream. It was very cold.
It was around mid-morning when I found the cave, hidden by a profusion of calia. I pushed the bushes aside and went through, giving myself the first wounds of the day. There, see the back of my hand? And here, on my cheek.
The cave was dark. I did a light spell; just a dim one. The place was just wide enough for my arms, and I couldn’t see the back. I brightened the spell a bit, and still couldn’t see the back. I checked my sword and my dagger, and started in, the spell illuminating twenty feet ahead.
The cave went pretty deep into the mountain. If I’d thought to set a trace-point I could tell you exactly how far, which I’m sure would make you happy. But I was walking for more than two hours, and the thing just continued. As you said, from time to time there were side passages, more as I went deeper. But it was never hard to determine the main line and stay on it. I figured out that, in spite of how rough and jagged and uneven the walls, floor, and ceiling were, it had been deliberately dug out. But it was old. Really, really old. Maybe as old as—um, as really old things.
Then it ended, just like that; and that’s where the desecrator was waiting.
Okay, well, I shouldn’t say he was waiting. He’d obviously been doing something, and he looked up when he saw my light or heard my footsteps.
He had his own light spell—brighter, but a smaller area. The combinations of the two spells made it look like he was emitting a glow. He was about my height, and wore all black. No question of his House: the dark complexion, the narrow eyes, the nose, all said Hawk.
He said, “Who are you?”
I very, very badly wanted to say Zungaron Lavode, but I was good. I said, “Telnan of Ranler. And you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“An honor to meet you, my lord What-are-you-doing-here.”
“Hmmm? Oh, no, that isn’t my name. I was asking.”
I had no idea how to reply to that, so I just waited. So did he. Eventually he cleared his throat and said, “What did you say you’re doing here?”
“I didn’t. I asked you your name.”
“How do you do? What are you doing here?”
“Me?” he said.
I almost said, “No, the other guy,” but I knew you wanted me back this year, so I said, “Yes.”
“I’m a desecrator.”
“Oh. What are you desecrating?”
“This is an abandoned Serioli dwelling that goes back to the Second Cycle. I’ve found the remains of prayer spinners, smith tools, pottery, weapons, and I just discovered this.”
He held out what seemed to be a piece of shapeless dull metal about half the size of his palm.
“What’s that?” I said.
“Um.” He put it away, took out a small notebook, consulted it, and said, “Unidentified metal object SI-089161-44B-79.”
“That’s what I thought it was,” I said.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m on a mission from Sethra Lavode.”
“You do like to jest, don’t you?”
“I suppose I do. I’m here looking for something I lost.”
“I’ll know it when I see it.”
“This is my site, Telnan.”
“On whose authority?”
“Ah. Yes. Well. I don’t believe they have any actual, you know, official authority.”
“Oh.” He considered. “We could fight.”
“I’m good with that,” I said.
He tilted his head and looked at me as if I were an odd relic he had found at his site. It occurred to me then that his weaponless state might mean he didn’t need weapons. This, I started thinking, could be fun.
I reached behind my neck for my sword, wrapped my hand around the hilt, and wondered why I had lost interest in drawing it. I stood there for a moment. Daymar still had that same look on his face.
“That,” I said, “isn’t fair.”
“Sorry,” he said.
I tried again to want to draw my weapon, and I couldn’t. I thought about an amulet that I needed to start wearing, just as soon as I could figure out how to craft it. Which reminds me, Sethra; can you tell me how to—
“Another idea,” he said, “would be for you to tell me what you’re after.”
“If you have such control over my mind, why don’t you make me tell you?”
“Causing someone to do something against his will is considerably more difficult than sapping his will to do something. Also, it wouldn’t be polite.”
I hesitated, started to speak, then wondered if he was making me do it after all.
“I’m not,” he said.
Was he reading my mind?
“Only surface thoughts. You’re well protected. Oh, very nice. Now I’m not getting those. Where did you learn to do that?”
After a moment he said, “You weren’t jesting, then.”
“I see.” He frowned. “You’re her apprentice?”
“Not exactly. She’s teaching me some things.”
“Her own reasons.”
“You never asked her why she’s teaching you?”
“Yes, in fact, I did.”
“What did she say?”
“To further her plot to destroy the Empire.”
“Oh.” He considered. “Now you’re jesting, right?”
“No, but I’m pretty sure she was.”
After a moment, he nodded. “You must be right.”
“That’s a relief. How do you do that? With my mind, I mean?”
“Sorcery is a particular form of energy used to manipulate matter.”
“Uh, yeah, I know.”
“This is just energy in a different form.”
“But the mind isn’t matter.”
“Of course it is.”
“Well, what are thoughts?”
“They’re, well, they’re thoughts. They aren’t matter!”
“Yes they are. Very highly organized matter, in fact. And, just like with sorcery, the more highly organized the matter, the less energy and the more technique is required to—”
“I still say thought isn’t matter.”
“Oh. Well.” He frowned. “Then I guess what I do doesn’t work. So, then, what are you after? If you’re here from Sethra, I may be inclined to help you.”
And that was the first point when I really wanted to talk to you. But you said the blip would scramble psychic communication outside the area, and you were right; I couldn’t reach you.
“All right,” I said. “I really don’t know what I’m looking for. Sethra noticed a blip at this—”
“I don’t know. She called it something else. She was scanning, like she does now and then just to see if any sorcerous energy is doing anything odd, and she—”
“An amorphic anomaly.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
He should have been sitting, so he could have suddenly stood dramatically. “Here?”
“Yes. There’s an amorphic anomaly here.”
“Uh.” I pulled out a locator rod, studied it, and said, “About twenty feet down.”
I felt an obscure pride at having reduced the desecrator to monosyllables. I nodded. “How do we get down?” I stamped on the rock floor. “This seems pretty solid.”
He looked dumbfounded. “You’ve explored the area, right, Daymar?” He nodded. “No sign of a way down?”
He shook his head.
I went to the back wall and began a close inspection, looking for any concealed catches, or signs of a false wall. After a moment, Daymar began doing the same.
We checked every inch of that wall. I mean, carefully. Then the others. After hours of this, we agreed there wasn’t anything there. I had a headache.
I said, “How well organized is this floor?”
Daymar glanced over at me, with that same head tilt. “I beg your pardon?”
“You said that the more organized matter—”
“Oh. I see. Not very. Why, are you proposing to blast through the rock?”
“Can you think of a reason not to?”
A moment later I said, “Well?”
“Why not. What’s the reason?”
“Oh. There are specialists for this sort of thing. To blast through rock, you either have to pump in sufficient energy that it takes a master to control it and prevent the entire mountain from blowing up, or sufficiently detailed knowledge of each particle that it will take days to prepare the spell. And in either case, it is liable to destroy whatever is underneath.”
“Okay, so, not such a good idea.”
“And you don’t sense anything?”
“Below us. You aren’t sensing anything with your, uh, whatever it is you do?”
“Oh. I haven’t checked.”
“I see. Well, perhaps you should.”
His brow furrowed, then cleared. “There’s something down there.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“It’s tremendously powerful.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I touched its mind. It was asleep.”
Daymar nodded. “I believe I woke it up,” he said.
The ground beneath my feet began to move. I flailed my arms around gracefully to keep my balance, and said, “Why yes, I believe you did.”
This was bound to be interesting.
The ground settled, and a form appeared in front of us, nearly filling the alcove. I had evidentially drawn my sword at some point in there. I was aware of Daymar to my right, there was a wall to my left, and I was using both hands on my sword in the Brendwith overhand guard position. I know you prefer the Ipeth Balance Pose for unknown situations, but that was where I found myself, and I decided to trust my instincts.
The thing in front me, yeah. Nine feet high, six feet wide, brown, two tiny yellow eyes, a mouth as wide as my arm with tusks jutting up, and wicked sharp teeth curling down. Its breathing was loud, and its breath smelled like rotting vegetables. It had four short, thick legs. It looked like it was about to pounce, and I wondered if I’d survive even if I nailed it.
“It isn’t real,” said Daymar.
“There’s nothing there,” he said.
“It’s pretty big to be nothing.”
“Close your eyes when it pounces.”
“I don’t—” It leapt.
I cursed and closed my eyes.
I opened them a moment later, and there was nothing there.
“Damn good illusion,” I said.
The floor of the cave shifted again, then cracked. I jumped back as a fissure opened up. I took my stance again, waiting for something to emerge from the opening.
Then I felt like I was hurled backward, except that I didn’t move. There was an assault on my mind like I’d never experienced. My vision blurred, and all I could hear was a scream that I eventually realized came from Daymar.
When I could see again, there was a man in front of me—tall, muscled, naked, holding a sword that—yeah. A sword. It was a dull black, giving off no gleam. That would have told me it was Morganti even without the way it was crying into my mind. The man—I couldn’t tell anything about him. No noble’s point, but he didn’t look like a Teckla. His skin was a shade of gold I’d never seen before. His eyes were blue, his hair was long and brown. I don’t know. Couldn’t guess. He was staring at me with all the expression of a Jhereg assassin.
Daymar wasn’t screaming anymore.
I said, “I suppose you’re going to tell me he isn’t real either?”
“He isn’t,” said Daymar.
“The sword, however, is real.”
I made sure my wrist was relaxed, fingers loose, elbows in, knees bent. No matter how many times you’ve fought, it never hurts to review the basics.
“Oh good,” I said.
It was bigger than mine—a two-hander with a plain, simple cross guard. From where I stood, I could make out the blood groove running nearly the whole length.
The guy who didn’t exist seemed to know his business. His movements were careful, precise, and matched my own, the point of that monster weapon pointed at my eye—just the form I’d been taught. The odd thing was that the man’s eyes didn’t seem to be focused on me, or on anything else. It was weird, and it was scary.
Fortunately, I enjoy being scared; sharpens my senses and makes everything tingly and—well, you know.
There was no warning before the non-man struck—no eye or muscle twitches—just, there was that blade going for my abdomen. I parried low, moved, and looked for a place to strike, but there was nothing.
“Ignore the man,” said Daymar. “Insubstantial, you can’t touch him.”
“Then how do I win?”
“Interesting question,“ he said. “I’ll have to think about that.”
Another strike, this one at my head. So very fast. I leaned back and I felt the swish of its passing. With a Morganti weapon, any wound is fatal, and worse than fatal. With one that powerful, any scratch would do.
An ugly, unclean way to go. No Deathgate, no rebirth, just, well, done. Nothing. I didn’t care for it.
But those thoughts were far in the back of my head; mostly I was concentrating on stillness in movement, motion in tranquility, as I watched for the next attack. The minor, unimportant fact that there was no way to actually stop it was annoying, but didn’t change anything. I watched the sword, not the man, which goes counter to everything I’ve learned.
“It is certainly hard to talk to,” remarked Daymar.
“Because it’s an illusion?” I suggested.
The sword came right at my eyes, which should have been an easy parry, but it was so unexpected—yeah, I got my weapon in the way and the strike slid past my head.
“No, no,” said Daymar. ”The sword.”
“It has a mind?”
“It’s what I woke up.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I’ve been trying to talk to it, but it seems not to like me.”
“Hard to believe.”
It came down crosswise, from my left shoulder angled toward my right hip.
I rolled forward, through the non-existent man, and came to my feet.
“What can you tell about it?”
“Does the term ‘pure evil’ bring anything to mind?”
“Not really, no.”
I faced the sword, keeping my own weapon up. It started weaving, small motions. I had to match them, of course. High right, low left, high right, low left. Bugger. Eventually he’d break the pattern, and I’d be out of line.
The piece of metal was a tactician.
“Pure evil,” said Daymar. “Killing for the sake of killing. Pleasure in hearing death screams. Joy in the fear of others.”
“Oh, that’s evil?”
“I never realized I was evil. Can you be a conduit? Let me talk to it?”
“Hmmm. I think so. I’ll try.”
It broke the pattern, going high twice, then came at me, swinging for my head. I leaned back and swung clumsily.
There was a horrid jarring in my hand. I found myself on my feet again, and I realized I’d rolled backward, then realized it had missed me.
And I was holding about a foot and a half of sword—the other had sheared right through my steel. I was annoyed. It was a good blade, made for me by Hennith two hundred years ago. And this was going to make things significantly more challenging.
“Got it,” said Daymar.
He needn’t have spoken; I felt it.
Does the term “dark spirit” mean anything to you?
I mean, you know me, Sethra. I’m a Dzur. Put me in a place with swords flashing and spells sizzling and plenty of bodies to carve up, and I’m a happy guy. But I tell you, this sword—it likes to kill the way a landlord likes to eat. It’s a being that exists to create as much mayhem as it can. If malice had consciousness, that’s how it would feel.
The illusionary man raised the too-real sword. Parrying with the remains of my sword would be interesting, I decided, but not impossible.
Can we negotiate? I thought at it.
Die, it suggested, and swung at my face.
I ducked, twisted, and more or less threw my blade up in the right direction. Elegant it was not, but I survived.
Now look, I said. Kill me, and then what? You lie here for another ten thousand years. Come with me, and think of all the carnage.
The illusionary man held it motionless; I had the impression the sword was thinking about it.
Do you have the soul of a killer?
Yes, I told it.
How can I know?
You aren’t serious!
“Daymar,” I said aloud.
“Yes?” he said, drawing the word out.
“If this doesn’t work, could you get a message to Sethra?”
I told him.
“No,” he said carefully. “I do not believe I would care to repeat that to Sethra Lavode.”
I sighed. “No, I suppose not.”
I lowered the stump of my sword. All right, go ahead.
I made up my mind not to scream, just because Daymar was there. So let’s say I didn’t scream when the sword entered my heart; let’s say I made a very loud, high-pitched, sustained groan.
Great. You killed me even if—
I can heal you. Stop whining.
It hurt a lot. In case you’ve never had a piece of steel shoved into your heart, it hurts a lot. It had told me not to whine, so I couldn’t ask him if this would take long.
What’s your name?
Call me Nightslayer.
Nightslayer. All right. Do you think—
Do not speak or move.
It was there, it was me, it was disembodied fingers reaching through me, touching, touching—
My memories unfolded like a Yendi glove box.
I remember falling down. I was young, so young the memory is just a haze, but I remember a flagstone floor, and feeling I’d been pushed, and a deep voice saying, “Don’t cry.”
I remember my mother blowing up a stone in a flash of fire and light, and I thought, “I want to do that!”
The first time I drew blood in anger I was ninety, and met a Dragonlord on the narrows of Hondra. We exchanged words, and used some terms that angered. When my sword entered his bowels, I twisted it because I wanted to hear him scream, and I did, and I liked it.
Once three peasants coming toward me on the road didn’t get out of my way fast enough. I didn’t kill them, but I did make the ground under their feet rise up so they fell over.
I did once kill a Jhegaala merchant who tried to cheat me with a quick-count. I don’t feel bad about that.
I served in Yinsil’s Private Army, hoping to learn what war was like, but there was an altercation after two months when I killed three Dragonlords in my squad, so that never went anywhere.
I got drunk once and tried to provoke a wizard into a fight, but he laughed me off. I found out later it was Calfri, who could have burned me to ashes without effort.
Then I decided to destroy Sethra Lavode, so I went to Dzur Mountain, and after she’d immobilized me, she offered to teach me.
You’ll do. Nightslayer pulled out of me.
That hurt too, and I once again did the thing that I’d prefer not be called a scream.
Then the pain was gone, and Nightslayer was in my hand.
Can we start by killing that Hawklord?
I guess that’s when I figured out why you made me take the slow way to Adrilankha, and you needn’t have bothered. I don’t need to meet a few peasants to not want to slaughter them, and if I wanted to slaughter them, meeting a few wouldn’t have changed my mind. Uh, where was I? Right.
Sure, I said. Then, Oh, I guess he’s gone.
Smart. Can we go kill some innocents?
Let’s negotiate, I said. How about if we start with the less than completely guilty?
I guess that’ll do, said Nightslayer.
Once we were out of the cave, I teleported. I don’t think you need to know who, I mean, what we did for the next few days. Then I came back here.
So, anyway, that’s the story. You know Nightslayer’s power will stand out like a Lyorn at a harvest festival. Can you help me make a sheath?
Copyright © 2011 by Steven Brust
Edited for Tor.com by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.