Copyright 2016 Travis Bughi
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To my father, Tim
For being a man worth aspiring to
Patricia Hamill for the editing
Jack Baker for the cover art
Beyond the Plains
The Forest of Angor
The Fall of Lucifan
Journey to Savara
A Legend Ascends
Jabbar would never get used to the feeling of a hairless body.
The touch of skin on skin, especially sweaty skin, felt rough, vulnerable, and weak. It was, in his mind, a symbol of the pathetic human race and their inability to do anything other than breed. Humans had no claws, sharp teeth, heightened senses, nor even enough body hair to withstand Savara’s harsh sun. How they didn’t just lie down and die out was beyond him, and he hated disguising himself as one. For the past several months, he’d been forced to walk as a human, speak as a frail, aged man, and act as if he could not savagely rip out the throats of every person who bowed before him.
It made him hungry.
To add to his hatred of human skin, Savara’s relentless sun cooked those parts of him not shielded by the old shogun’s kimono, which was a problem he would not have had to face if covered by his orange- and black-striped fur. On top of this, the windblown sand rubbed itself into every crevice of his new form, causing perverse rashes that made everything from walking to sitting an annoyance. Hot, uncomfortable, and disguised as a pathetic human who’d had a weak bladder when he’d died, Jabbar would have been in a ferocious mood had he not survived being buried alive at one point in his life. Thanks to that event, the rakshasa held an ounce of patience above most of the members of his race. Still, he was agitated, to say the least, and this did not work in the warlord’s favor.
“Your grace.” The warlord bowed low before Jabbar, touching his head to the sand as instructed. “My Lord Katsu, you are generous and wise to accept my men and me into your command. I will serve you well.”
You are already planning to betray me, Jabbar thought. Pitiful fool.
“Your men will serve me well, indeed,” he said in Ichiro Katsu’s voice. “Of this, I have no doubt. As for you, however, your chance to live perished when you chose to oppose me. Your only service will be to quench Savara’s thirst.”
And then the katana fell, swiftly and accurately, parting the warlord’s head from his shoulders and drowning the desert sand in fresh blood. The warlord didn’t even cry out before his death, so sudden and clean was the samurai’s strike. Jabbar’s headsman was good at his job. She’d had lots of practice, as of late.
Jabbar waited a moment in his chair, sitting motionless as he watched Savara’s sands drink up the warlord’s red life. His thirty samurai stood rigidly at this side, mocking the stillness of the warlord’s corpse with their unyielding discipline. Of all his warriors, Jabbar liked them the most. Their fearless and disciplined natures made them the most useful tool in his army. Were it up to him, all humans would be raised with such a mentality: a slave who thought himself free. To think he’d only lost ten since arriving in Savara, and of that ten, only five had lost their lives to combat. Of the other five, one had succumbed to heat, one to disease, and three had figured out that Jabbar was a rakshasa disguised as their lord. They’d attempted to assassinate him one fateful evening, and Jabbar had thanked each of them personally for not revealing their suspicions to their fellow samurai—right before consuming them.
He suspected that more than a few others harbored similar suspicions, but they were smart enough to keep their mouths shut. Discipline, duty, and honor kept them chained to his will. That and victory. The real Katsu had brought them crushing defeat, while the new one brought them glory.
Beyond the samurai stood four hundred Savara-native warriors, and a good tenth of that were Kshatriya, or so they claimed. Almost half of that four hundred had just been acquired through the loss of the warlord’s head, and they had yet to swear their allegiance to him. They would, of course, every single one of them. Jabbar would bring them victory, fortune, and fame, and that was all any mercenary ever wanted.
The curse of humanity, Jabbar smiled. A narrow and shortsighted view of the world. It matches their existence well. I will live long enough to see the youngest of them die of old age.
“My name is Lord Ichiro Katsu,” Jabbar lied as he stood, “and I hail from Juatwa. I come as a conqueror, but will leave an emperor. You have seen this, how easily I defeated you. Know first that this was not your fault. Those who follow me are powerful and well rewarded, and the only reason you failed was incompetent leadership.
“This corpse, your former leader, will die nameless, forgotten and defeated, as will all others who stand in my way. I offer you the chance to follow me, if you’ll only take it. I am not another nameless warlord, content to sit idle and pillage squabbling villages filled with half-starved slaves and ragged cripples. I am Ichiro Katsu, and I mean to conquer the world. Join me, and together, we’ll sack Lucifan, enslave Juatwa, and bring law to Savara!”
The law part was for the Kshatriya. Many of them still followed a code of honor—as worthless as that was—and would be reluctant to join his campaign of slaughter. He gave them a way out and smiled when they took it. As one, alongside the mercenaries, his newly acquired Kshatriya cheered and shouted Jabbar’s false name.
One day they will know the real me, he thought. One day I will shed this fake skin and bask in the terror of men as they look upon me.
It took some time for all the warriors to kneel before Jabbar and swear their allegiance to him. He took great care to make sure that they chose their words carefully. Each one was to submit and yield their loyalty to him and his cause, not that false name he wore.
“I swear my allegiance to Lord Katsu,” one said incorrectly.
“No,” Jabbar stopped him. “Do not say the name as if I’m not here. You swear your allegiance to me.”
“I pledge my life to you, my lord,” the man said.
That is better. Much better.
Jabbar left the division of loot and labor to his underlings. The new soldiers would be split up and assimilated into his existing squads and troops. Each one would be given a new leader, and old leaders would be given new troops. It would make futile, or at least more difficult to execute, any thoughts of betrayal; Jabbar needed no lessons in the fickle nature of men. His own race was rife with those who sought power at all costs, and he was one of them.
You all may seek power, he looked upon his newly acquired troops, but none of you have the ability to wield it. That is a task for a rakshasa, for me.
There was no celebration. There was no time. Jabbar took his most trusted generals with him into his tent, and stood with a map of the world displayed between them. One of those taken into the tent was a man named Aiguo Mein, a former soldier upon whom Katsu bestowed the rank of samurai due to his ruthlessness and willingness to obey. Aiguo was young and wiry with a firm jaw and small ears. He had been one of Heliena’s pets, so to speak, dishing out punishments and tortures for her when her husband was away. The man’s appetite for violence rivaled even his own, and that amused him.
“My first plan to conqueror Lucifan would have required at least six hundred more,” Jabbar said in Katsu’s voice. “That was, however, assuming the city was still guarded by nothing but a handful of knights. That plan changes now. I’ll want several thousand at my command when we sail. It is my understanding that Lucifan is ruled by a vampire who helped plot the angels’ downfall, so I’ll not underestimate him. Any creature that ends a regime of that length should be taken seriously. I’ll assume he’s smart enough to realize his city is vulnerable now that the colossi no longer protect it. I want to be prepared for a war, not a battle.”
No need to tell them that one colossus still functions, Jabber thought. They’ll find out one way or another.
“In addition,” he continued, “and just as importantly, I’ll need the ships to transport that many troops. We’ll need to conquer several port towns along Savara’s west coast, and I want to make it perfectly clear that when I say ‘conquer,’ I mean that those cities will remain under my control once I have left. The days of Savara being a broken land of divided thugs and worthless humans are at an end. Under my rule, Savara will bow to one emperor, fight under one flag, and know the will of one being.”
Aiguo Mein nodded. “Worthless humans. I couldn’t agree more, my lord.”
Jabbar resisted the urge to snarl. Poor choice of words coming from a rakshasa disguised as a human. He looked at Aiguo and caught the others tensing at the gaze. Aiguo did not flinch, though. He met the gaze calmly, bowed his head in respect, and let no emotion stain his face.
This one knows, Jabbar thought. He is not fooled by my false face, yet he seems pleased to serve me.
The samurai had served one monster before, why not another? Jabbar’s lips twitched at a hidden smile. He had a feeling Aiguo would become quite useful.
“Yes, worthless humans.” Jabbar raised his chin. “Humans better served by better people. Us. Me. You.”
The others bowed their heads low, but they rose with greed in their eyes.
“That will serve for now,” Jabbar continued. “Leave me while I think on the next nameless, useless warlord I mean to slaughter.”
They did, and Jabbar scratched his hairless skin with one hand and smoothed out the map with the other. The map contained the entire world and, as far as Jabbar was concerned, represented his future empire. His eyes lingered on Savara for only a moment before they jumped to Juatwa. In that territory, Lady Xuan Nguyen, the Old Woman of the Mountain, would soon be known as the Old Woman of Juatwa. There might be a few daimyo holding out, but soon they would all be well and truly conquered. Her forces would worry his soldiers the most. If she still lived after he’d conquered Lucifan, she may come to oppose him. She had already put a bounty on Ichiro Katsu’s head, but Jabbar did not fear that. He was a rakshasa, and only one assassin would ever give him pause.
That assassin was young, strong, and swift. She had risen from nothing and defied the trappings of her birth. She had traveled the world, from one end to the next, toppled empires and killed an immortal. Worse, she had a voracious appetite for revenge, one that could only be quenched by the blood of those she hunted. She claimed to be human, but Jabbar doubted it. He would not believe a human capable of what she had accomplished. No human should be able to wield the power of an angel. No human should be able to command a colossus.
Jabbar traced a finger on the map, north from Juatwa and into the Khaz Mal Mountains. His eyes lingered, searching. She was out there somewhere, seeking a samurai that Jabbar had sold into slavery. She would find that samurai, Jabbar knew, for he had faced them both and knew their resolve.
And then Jabbar and she would dance, like two masters who held the fate of the world within their grasp.
“I hope you’re ready,” Jabbar whispered.
Emily Stout calmly drew another arrow and nocked it to the string. Her arms pulled back immediately, unable to resist the engrained reaction any more than she could resist breathing. The treantwood bow provided a tough resistance that was bittersweet and dripping with nostalgia. The feathers of the arrow touched her cheek, and her ears tested the wind. Tiny adjustments were made, starting with her hips, then her shoulders, then her elbows, and finally her fingers.
Her target was a good ways off, small, about the size of a gnome, but hideous and deformed with green skin, lanky limbs, and an ugly face—similar to an akki, but not so round. The creature had taken a decent head start after Emily had downed its partner, and she could just barely see it, shivering in fear behind a boulder blanketed by snow. She wondered briefly why goblins were green when the Khaz Mal Mountains were nothing but grey and white. Then she took a deep breath and released the arrow, expelling the air from her lungs along with the shaft.
The little goblin, so far off as to appear nothing more than a twig, squealed so loudly that its voice could be heard before the sound echoed in the rocky valley.
“Found you,” Emily whispered.
She sprinted by the first dead goblin towards the one she’d just wounded, leaping from rock to rock, trying to avoid patches of snow and ice in favor of sturdy landings. It made the going slower, but the dwarves had warned about falling in the mountains. It was easy to break a leg here, and what appeared to be thick snow was sometimes thin snow over hard rocks. In the mountains, there was no such thing as a soft landing or an easy rescue. A cry for help would echo off rocks, disguising the location, or go unheard, muffled by snow. One might never be found: alive or dead.
And that was assuming something with an appetite, like a cyclops or a dragon, didn’t come first.
The dwarves had promised that dying of cold was not so bad, quite happily claiming the pain would fade when everything went numb. Dwarves were strange, she thought, but at least they were kind about it. Emily had no intention of dying, though, neither now nor later, but a different story awaited the goblin she’d wounded, who was trying to limp away despite the arrow in its leg. Its hobbling movements hadn’t carried it far, and the blood trail it had left in the snow made Emily wonder why it had even tried.
“AH!” it squealed at the sight of her. “No! Please no! No kill me! I sorry! I do nothing! No nothing! Lots of nothing!”
“You’re a bad liar,” she said and drew her dagger.
It screamed and covered itself, but Emily did not step forward to finish it off. Her arrow had been accurate enough; she needed this one alive.
“You’ve been following us for the past two days,” she said.
“No! I not!”
“Shut up. You and your friend have been following us for the past two days, taking turns as one runs off to inform however many orcs are nearby of our movements. The dwarves talk and snore too loudly for them to hear you, but to me, you make as much racket as a behemoth. You think to capture us and make us slaves, but unfortunately for you, it’s going to be the other way around.”
Emily reached down and grabbed the ugly goblin by its arm, ignoring its cries for help. It kicked at her with its good leg, tried to scratch and bite, but a quick slap and prod of her dagger pacified it enough to let her drag it back through the snow.
She dragged it past the dead goblin and then another hundred paces beyond that to where the two dozen dwarves had made their camp. When they first saw her, they cheered in those gruff and thick voices of theirs until they noticed the goblin she was dragging. Then their mood went sour, and they hefted up axes and hammers as big as themselves.
Emily liked the dwarves. She’d liked every single clan and every single member of those clans she’d ever met. Even the rude ones, being as rude as they could possibly be, seemed to do it purely for the sake of honor and respect. They were stubborn, old, and fiercely loyal to their families. In a way, they reminded her a lot of her mother, and Emily missed her mother.
The similarities were in attitude only, of course. Physically, the dwarves were far different. They were taller than gnomes, but not quite of human height. Even the tallest among them was just a hand’s width shorter than Emily, but they made up for that in width. Dwarves packed more muscle than a viking, having arms thicker than Emily’s thighs. Despite their height difference, she could hardly lift a single one of them, yet they could hold her aloft like a feather. The men—even some of the women—all had thick, well-manicured beards that they groomed lovingly every night and morning. Strangest to her were their beady eyes, despite them having thick noses and ears. They weren’t exactly a pretty race, but none would call them soft. The dwarves exemplified this as they gave the goblin hard stares that made the little green creature shiver and soil itself.
“What have ye here?” Hadkar Grumdisnev said in the thick speech of dwarves. “I was thinking ye run off looking for game.”
“I saw my prey,” Emily said, tossing the goblin among the dwarves.
It squealed as it hit the ground and the arrow twisted in its wound. The dwarves circled the thing until they stood side by side, grinding weapons and teeth alike.
“Look at me,” Emily said, waiting until the goblin did. “Pay attention to me. I’m the one you need to worry about, do you understand?”
“I ain’t so sure ‘bout that there, Emily,” Hadkar said through gritted teeth.
Emily glanced over at the young dwarf—well, young for a dwarf. Hadkar was actually over one hundred years old, but to a dwarf, that meant he was just barely old enough to be given command of their small squad. His beard was fiery red, his skin taut, and his stamina inspiring. Despite their height, Hadkar and the other dwarves could walk a full day without stopping for rest, all while climbing the treacherous slopes of the Khaz Mal Mountains. To keep pace with them, Emily had to sprint ahead so she could stop and catch her breath as they caught up. Their marches left her exhausted, and she’d slept like a rock each night despite the cold. She could hardly complain, though. This expedition was being made upon her request.
In fact, sprinting ahead had allowed her to discover the goblins following them.
“Ye got good eyes, missy,” Hadkar said. “How’d ye find this snot-green piss-bucket?”
“I listen well,” she said. “Hey! Look at me!”
The goblin pulled its eyes off Hadkar and looked at Emily, wide eyed. It was afraid, terrified even, and that was just what Emily wanted. It cowered, hopeless and lost, and Emily tore a page from a lesson she’d learned from an old enemy.
“Do you want to live?” she asked.
It nodded vigorously.
“Ack!” Hadkar cried out. “Only refuge this thing will find is under me hammer! Ye can’t offer it life. It’s a goblin!”
“We can if we want our friends and family back, Hadkar,” Emily said. “Now, be quiet.”
The other dwarves switched their attention to Hadkar. In spite of the fact that most of them were older than he was, he was their commander for this mission, appointed by the elders, and dwarves tended to take rules, lineage, and oaths very seriously to the point that even samurai seemed fickle compared to them.
However, none of them would be here were it not for Emily.
She had stumbled into the dwarven outpost out of the blue, armed with information she’d collected from the seaside ports along Juatwa’s northwestern border. She knew not only of the dwarves’ location, but also that of a small band of orcs that had been raiding the dwarves for slaves and supplies. The dwarves had lost more than a few good souls and hadn’t had much luck in fighting their agile attackers, so to some, her timely arrival seemed suspicious. It didn’t help that her sources remained unnamed—the old ninja had been very clear about that requirement—and the dwarves had been reluctant to trust her. Hadkar, however, was eager to prove himself and so had offered to take a small squad into the mountains with Emily as their guide.
It was tough being a guide in a land one had never visited—Emily had found that out soon enough—so she’d led the dwarves in the direction she’d been told and hoped for the best. As it turned out, the best was a goblin, and Emily didn’t want to ruin her only chance to find the orcs that had bought her samurai.
Hadkar didn’t want this expedition to fail, either. He wanted glory, honor, and the chance to free the dwarves his clan had lost. So when Emily told him to be quiet, he only eyed her in defiance and then looked to the goblin. The other dwarves followed suit.
“Alright then,” Emily said. “So, goblin, do you want to live?”
It nodded vigorously.
“That’s good,” she nodded along with it, “because I want you to live, too. I have no interest in you. You are worth nothing to me dead. All I want from you is information, and you can go free. Would you like that?”
“Speak up,” she said.
“Yes!” it squeaked. “I like! I live! Want live!”
“Of course you do.” Emily nodded. “Now hold still.”
She knelt down and grabbed the arrow in the goblin’s leg. It had punctured through, so she snapped off the back end and pulled the head completely out the other side. The goblin screamed, but then shuddered in relief as she began to bandage the wound.
“What you want?” it asked.
“Several months ago, your band of orcs and goblins traveled down to a small village bordering Juatwa, looking to buy fresh slaves for your mines, which had collapsed.”
“Ach!” it coughed. “How you know this?”
“Because your leader is an idiot,” she told it, “and talks too much, especially to people that sell slaves. Anyway, you and your band only bought five slaves from that village, thinking you’d capture more once you found a new place to start digging in the Khaz Mal Mountains. As it turns out, your leader didn’t know of a good place to raid and had to pay to find out about a dwarven outpost that was lightly supplied. You’ve found the dwarves, obviously, and captured more slaves by raiding them, but now I’ve found the dwarves, too, and I mean to take those slaves back from your orcs.”
The little goblin gulped and looked around. The mess it had made when it soiled itself was starting to smell, but the dwarves didn’t relax the tight circle they’d formed around it. Their faces spoke of murder, and the goblin’s attention quickly turned back to Emily.
“So,” it said, “you want what?”
“I’m looking for a samurai,” she replied.
Emily had only experienced cold a few times before venturing into the Khaz Mal Mountains. The first had been in the presence of a vampire’s aura, which made the air chilly enough that one could see their own breath. After that, she’d encountered the rivers and streams in the Forest of Angor, which her amazon friends had referred to as ‘melted ice.’ Emily had never drunk cold water before and hadn’t much cared for it since. Third, Emily had experienced the Savara desert at night, which was surprisingly frigid considering how hot it was during the day, nothing some bodily contact or a thin blanket couldn’t fix, though. Emily’s other brushes with cold temperatures had been trivial compared to those three—the ocean water could be chilly, especially in a storm—but not a single one of those experiences compared to the frosted tips of the Khaz Mal Mountains.
For one, she had been completely unprepared for snow.
Oh sure, she’d layered up. She’d spoken to anyone and everyone about how to prepare for her journey north, and nearly all had warned of the perils of dying from exposure.
“There will be snow,” they’d said, “and nights perilously cold. Shelter will be scarce and food scarcer. You might want to stock that quiver full. Even if you do find trees among the rocks, you won’t find feathers to fletch them. The only things that fly in Khaz Mal have scales and breathe fire.”
After only a few days of traveling north, she’d wished she could breathe fire. No snow had dropped yet, but each night brought an icy chill that made her shiver and tuck under her blankets like a child. She was instantly thankful that she’d traded her leather skirt and vest for fur clothing and shoes. She’d felt heartless handing them over, but metal studs had trade value, and warmer clothes would ensure her survival.
A single night in the shadows of the Khaz Mal Mountains was all it had taken to clear up any misgivings—she’d even started growing out her hair to keep the wind off of her ears—and the cold had only intensified from there. No, Emily had not been prepared for snow, neither mentally nor physically.
Mentally, her first experience had been amazing. She had been sleeping under a tree when she awoke to the sight of snow falling all around her. It floated like a feather, touching the ground so softly that it never made a sound, covering the land in pure white, like a clean blanket that sparkled and shined in the light of the rising sun. She’d touched it carefully, lips parted, astounded to find it so soft. It broke apart in her hands and cascaded down from trees. She distinctly remembered laughing with joy, making a snowball like the village kids had told her to do, and drawing circles in the snow. For what felt like the first time in a long time, she’d felt like a kid again, and the world held nothing but happiness for her.
Physically though, the snow was her worst enemy, and now Emily hoped a dragon would come and burn it all away. She didn’t even mind if the dragon killed her along with the snow, because living with the stuff was horribly exhausting. After the first storm, she’d had to fight for every step, trudging through the thick snow like it was a mass of kobolds hanging on to her legs and climbing over her body. It froze her feet and her legs, and yet still she would sweat worse than she ever had in Savara because damn was it hard to walk! The cold air made her lungs hurt, and it got colder with every hand’s width of snow that fell. Sometimes it would get so bad she’d burn an entire sunrise traveling only so far that she could throw a rock and hit where she’d started.
Even without the snow, Khaz Mal was a less than forgiving place. Its mountains rose tall and sheer, jutting out of nowhere like a fortress wall made of deadly cliffs and jagged drops. No hill in the Forest of Angor compared, and she laughed now at how impressed she’d once been by their mass. The only thing close in size to the mountains she saw were the krakens of the sea, and even those were a distant second. The mountains here rose out of nothing, delaying Emily for days and forcing her to try multiple routes to climb a single pinnacle standing in her way.
Worse yet, like she’d been warned, food was nigh impossible to find. She had the food in her pack, the occasional berry bush tucked away under a thick rock, and the leftovers of any poor creature cooked black by a dragon’s breath. That third one happened more often than one might think, and Emily had quickly learned to take cover when she heard the whoosh of wings approaching. She’d hidden from thunderbirds before; dragons weren’t much different.
She had yet to see one breathe fire, but that was fine by her.
For now, she had to concentrate. The goblin had led her and the dwarves to a snow-covered cave entrance guarded by a single, sleeping orc. They were all hiding behind the nearest mountain wall some thirty paces from the cave’s entrance, well within range of Emily’s bow. The dwarves at her back and the goblin between them held their breaths as she drew her bow.
This target was bigger than the last, still humanoid, but bigger and even uglier than the goblin. The orc’s skin was a dark green, and its brutish appearance reminded Emily a lot of the ogres back in Lucifan. A bulky body with long arms, wide shoulders, and short legs made it seem equal parts odd and atrocious. It smelled, too, like rotten eggs, which Emily got a good whiff of from being downwind of it. She crinkled her nose as she took aim, but breathed evenly through the rot and cold. When the arrow pierced the orc’s neck, it lurched awake, gripping the wound in shock and gurgling blood, falling to its knees before the cave’s entrance, unable to cry out or alert its friends deep within. Before it could crawl away, the dwarves charged and put the orc out of its misery with heavy hammers to its skull.
“You’re certain the samurai is in there?” Emily asked of the goblin.
“Yes, yes!” It nodded.
“You can go now, and if I were you, I’d go far. These dwarves aren’t likely to forget you.”
The goblin needed no second warning. It whimpered and took off as fast as it could limp. For a single moment, Emily felt bad. The goblin was unlikely to survive with an injured leg in the harsh landscape of Khaz Mal, but it was the best she could offer. The dwarves held grudges zealously, and if the goblin stayed around, he’d soon find his head under the weight of a warhammer.
“Emily,” Hadkar whispered.
The dwarves were forming up to charge into the cave. Emily shook herself from the goblin’s plight and focused on the battle at hand. It was strange how easily her mind could wander at pressing times.
“Ye are rather good with that bow, missy,” Hadkar said, “but ye best be careful inside. It’s dark, and I don’t want to get one in the back.”
“You won’t,” she scoffed, “and I have my knife if I can’t get a shot off.”
The dwarves went first and not as quietly as Emily would have liked. Their clothes were mostly fur and leather like Emily’s, but the chain links woven into the fabric chinked with their movements. Their boots were heavy, too, grinding on the rocks, then echoing off the cave walls. Amongst the noise they made, Emily couldn’t tell if she was adding any of her own. Her footsteps seemed silent, but what was the point when her allies’ were not?
What a waste, killing that orc quietly, she thought.
And then the sharp sound of metal striking rock echoed up to her ears.
Clink, clink, clink-clink, clink, clink.
An image of pickaxes driving into stone conjured itself into her mind, and swinging one of those picks was a man with long, dark hair and equally dark eyes. Emily’s heart quickened.
The dwarves descended into the cave, which quickly became a tunnel. It sloped down into the mountain, turning when crevices allowed, and occasionally, a pocket of light that pierced an unexplained hole in the cave’s roof would show the way. The striking grew louder and louder, and then they rounded a bend and the tunnel opened into a shallow, torch-lit cavern filled with a near-dozen orcs, a few less than that of slaves, and half as many goblins.
The dwarves roared and charged, and Emily released an arrow at the first orc she saw. She had considered drawing two arrows, but quickly dashed the thought. Without a steady source to make more arrows, her precious ammunition needed to be conserved. Fortunately, she had allies.
The dwarves shouted so loudly they made the cavern ring with their voices. They divided amongst the orcs like seasoned warriors, one or two for every orc while just one of them went to scatter the goblins. The orcs roared their own reply, hefting weapons and meeting the charge while the goblins shrieked and scattered like kobolds. Two of the five goblins were hacked apart by an axe, a third was cornered and surrendered, but was shown no mercy, while the last two made for the exit. They found Emily blocking it, though, and died one to an arrow and another to a dagger.
The orcs fared much better.
They met the dwarves, roaring in bloodlust, apparently unfazed by the overwhelming odds they faced. All of them carried bladed weapons that must have weighed as much as Emily herself, but one wouldn’t think so by how easily they swung them. The orcs’ ugly faces twisted with glee, looking downright terrifying in the low light as they fought against opponents half their size. The two sides clashed like waves in a storm. Hammer and axe met greatsword and cleaver. One orc lost a leg to an axe and then immediately died when a hammer struck its face. Another took a blow to the gut, fell back, and then screamed as the hammers continued to fall, beating it to a bloody pulp upon the unforgiving rock. One orc attempted to dodge its foes, leaping aside to avoid a swinging axe only to be cleaved from behind by another. Some orcs did better, kicking one dwarf in the face and sparring with a second until other dwarves joined in. Only two dwarves were struck down, their orc attackers getting in a kill before being mercilessly hacked down themselves.
One of those two dwarves was Hadkar. He had been the first to charge. Eager to see combat and holding his hammer high, he hadn’t been prepared to either parry or dodge. The orc’s giant cleaver took him in the collarbone, slicing down into his lungs. The blade caught there, and both the orc and the dwarf died before the weapon could be freed.
Admittedly, Emily felt only a twinge of remorse. She had liked Hadkar, and he had been one of the few to throw his support to her cause. Unfortunately, she’d been long numbed to death, and that alone pained her more than anything else.
An angel would weep, she thought. I am growing colder by the day.
She also turned a cold shoulder because she was distracted. As the battle with the orcs came to a swift end, her eyes swept the torch-lit pit for the slaves they had just freed. There were ten in all; six were dwarves, and only four were human. Among those humans, one had long, dark, straight hair and nearly black eyes, and though he shivered in the filthy rags of what had once been a samurai’s kimono and looked perilously thin, that had not stopped him from turning his pickaxe upon the first orc within range once the dwarves had charged.
“Takeo!” Emily shouted and sprinted to him.
The samurai’s lips parted, but he had no voice. The disbelief on his face did not dissipate until Emily’s arms wrapped about him, and then he collapsed into her embrace. Emily felt his face nuzzled into her neck and his cheeks wet against her skin.
“You’re alive,” she said, heart soaring.
“You gave me a command,” he managed to whisper back.
His skin was like ice, and he reeked, but Emily ignored both. She pulled him down to sit on the cavern floor, his pickaxe forgotten where he’d left it buried in the nearest orc. His wrists and ankles were in shackles, and Emily glanced around for a key.
The dwarves were embracing their enslaved kin. They were not as reserved as Emily or Takeo and openly bawled as they held each other close, though a few stood around Hadkar and the other fallen dwarf, maintaining silence with bowed heads. The other three humans, two men and a woman in as bad a shape as Takeo, huddled together and shared both relieved and apprehensive glances as they looked at the unfolding scene.
“Where are the keys?” Emily asked Takeo, grabbing the shackles around his wrists and ankles.
“There aren’t any,” came a gruff voice behind her.
Emily looked to see Helga Grumdisnev, Hadkar’s older cousin, standing over them with a two-handed axe.
“The orcs don’t use shackles that can be removed,” Helga explained. “Ye’ll have to break them. Stand aside.”
Emily did so, and Takeo parted his legs as wide as the shackles would let him, leaving the chain on the rock. Helga spilt the chain in a single swing and then did the same for the chain between his wrists.
“The rest will be removed when ye get back to our home,” she said. “Name’s Helga Grumdisnev.”
“Takeo Karaoshi,” the samurai said, “and thank you. I’m sorry for your fallen comrades. I owe you my life.”
“Aye,” Helga said flatly. “Don’t mention it.”
The dwarf turned and marched toward Hadkar’s body. The others were cutting strips of clothing off the orcs and wrapping them between two of the orc weapons to make stretchers. They placed Hadkar and the other dwarf onto those stretchers and lifted them up. Other strips of clothing were cut from the orcs to make blankets for the former slaves. The orcs were large so there was plenty to go around, even for the three huddled humans, who seemed less apprehensive once their chains had been broken.
“Everyone up,” Helga said. “We need to leave afore the other orcs get back. I don’t want to be losing anyone else.”
“Can you walk?” Emily asked Takeo.
“For you, I could fly.”
It did not take nearly as long to get back to the dwarven outpost as it did to get to orc pit. For a day and a half, they traveled as straight as the mountains would allow at a relentless pace. Helga would not tolerate rest. In her words, they could either sleep at the outpost or sleep in their graves.
“Only ten orcs,” she muttered. “They only left ten orcs to guard that place. Cocky bastards, thinking we’d never find them. I don’t know where the others be hiding, but we’ll find them and kill them.”
“Aye!” came a chorus of cheers from the other dwarves.
The dwarven elders estimated that a good thirty orcs and goblins, combined, had come to stake a claim on their dwarven land. In bands of ten, they had been raiding small scouting parties of dwarves, who traveled in groups of less than five. After only two attacks, the elders had learned their lesson, and that was why they hadn’t allowed Emily to travel with fewer than twenty dwarves, thinking such a number would discourage the orcs from attacking. The original plan had just been to find the orcs and send back for reinforcements, but when Emily’s captured goblin said that only ten orcs were in the cave at any one time, Hadkar had decided that the glory was worth the risk.
Emily didn’t think Hadkar held that same opinion now.
Helga certainly didn’t. She didn’t like the idea of being caught in that cave when a second orc party returned home. Worse yet, as Emily had shown, the dwarves were already being scouted by goblins. Fighting then and there would have been a huge risk, and Helga wasn’t about to make it worse by lingering in the open.
“Orcs and goblins,” Helga spat in a conversation with Emily, “they be a step above beasts and a step below us. Just smart enough to be trouble, but too stupid to know they be fighting a losing battle. They won’t care that their fellows are dead, but they might get angry anyway and come after us in the night. We rescued our kin. That was the goal. I want to go home and bury me cousin.”
The cold kept the two fallen dwarves from decaying, and when the group reached the outpost, those carrying the stretchers entered first. Silence was their only greeting.
The outpost was an impressive structure built into the land with little care for aesthetics. Rock had been hewn into large square blocks of a size that would hold up the weight of a mountain. Most of the outpost was tunneled into the mountain, leaving very little exposed to the elements. There were several small exits and entrances, no larger than a dwarf, that perforated the place, but one large entrance dominated the view of the outpost. It was tall enough for a mounted knight to enter and wide enough for ten dwarves to walk abreast. The iron gates blocking their path were dragged back on thick hinges, allowing the group entrance.
Within, the outpost was just tall enough for Emily to walk without hunching, though she occasionally had to duck under a doorframe. Everything was made of stone, from the walls to the beds to the tables to the benches, even the nightstands. There was no such thing as moving furniture. If one desired to sit where no chair had been permanently built, the floor would do just fine, and the dwarves saw nothing wrong with this. They also saw nothing wrong with stone beds, though Emily had not understood this until she was provided enough blankets to keep warm. After a couple of layers had been set out, her stone bed had proven far more forgiving than the cold ground she’d been sleeping on for months now.
The group was led in single file down the long, square corridors to the outpost’s banquet hall, which was the only room large enough to accommodate all two hundred of the dwarves who dwelled in the mountain. From what Emily had been told, this outpost was one of the many that made up the dwarven kingdom. Each outpost acted independently, for the most part, governing itself according to the laws written and agreed upon by all dwarves, eons ago. When Emily had first arrived at the outpost, she’d wanted to know more, but the dwarves insisted such questions could wait until her expedition returned.
Now that it had, those questions still seemed inappropriate.
The stretchers bearing the dead entered the banquet hall, which was already filled with food. From the outpost’s vantage, their approach would have been noticed several hours before they’d arrived, so it came as no surprise to Emily that the place was already prepared. Hard bread, wheels of cheese, and hunks of cooked meat had been brought out to fill the tables, as had what seemed like every keg of ale. The tables were also lined with dwarves; nearly every inhabitant of the outpost was in that hall. All stood in stoic silence with solemn faces, and Emily was shocked to see they already knew of the deaths. This wasn’t a celebration, but a funeral. When she glanced to Helga, though, the dwarf showed no signs of surprise. She took her place and stepped forward to announce those who had fallen.
The funeral was long. Any dwarf who had a tale to tell about either of the fallen was allowed to speak, and amongst a group of two hundred, that turned out to be quite a few. No tale was short, either, for each one started out with how the speaker knew the fallen, and how their ancestors knew each other, and then how their ancestor’s ancestors knew each other. It was worse if they were related, for then the speaker would be damned if the whole outpost didn’t know which set of parents had forever bound the both of them in blood.
The speeches went on well into the night, and it would have been difficult to stay awake had the festivities not gone on alongside the speeches. Endless food and ale were provided, leading to many brawls, some horrid singing, and more than a few tears. Dwarves were many things, but reserved was not one of them. When they were pained, they let it be known, and promises and oaths were sworn to avenge the fallen two to a hundredfold.
To Emily’s surprise, more than a few toasts were raised in her honor, and a good half of those were led by the elders.
Old dwarves were a sight to see. Despite faces wrinkled worse than pruned skin and voices hoarser than death’s rasp, they never faltered in their steps nor needed assistance in rising. According to Helga, dwarven strength did not perish until the moment they died from old age, and Emily could see that from the way the elders carried themselves and spoke to her.
Their speeches—at least the ones she could hear over the racket of dwarves feasting—spoke of apology. They lamented their reluctance to trust her, seeing that she had come back with those they had lost to slavery. The elders bestowed her with stories of Hadkar’s bravery and willpower, lamenting how he had shown them the errors of their ways and had paid the ultimate price for their negligence.
“Could I go back,” one old dwarf said, scratching her chin, “I’d give ye twice as many as we did. Ye have me deepest apologies, little missy. I wish every human was like ye.”
Emily tried to shake off the compliments, but it seemed the more she refused, the stronger the dwarves insisted. In short time, she was accepting the compliments with a nod and a toast, and then suddenly she was being encouraged to speak, and all feelings besides apprehension were washed from her mind.
“Speak!” the dwarves chanted. “Speech! Go on, missy!”
She wanted to deny them, or perhaps flat out refuse, but her short time with the dwarves had made her realize that would only encourage or insult them, and she was too much in their debt to be held back by pride. She stood on the table, towering over them all, and held her drink in hand.
“Uhm,” her voice cracked.
To her shock, the room quieted down. It was still loud, with a good half of the dwarves engaging each other in conversation, tests of strength, or loud boasts, but the hall quieted enough to be noticeable, and Emily felt the attention of nearly one hundred dwarves focusing on her. She tensed up, and her tongue felt thick, making her stutter as yet more dwarves turned to look her way.
Get ahold of yourself, she scolded. You’ve faced a charging bugbear.
Emily tried to think of something to say, something fierce or passionate, but nothing came to mind. The silence grew worse until she couldn’t bear it anymore. Her mouth fell open, and she let the truth pour out.
“I want to thank you all.”
“Louder, missy!” someone yelled, and many concurred.
“I want to thank you all!” she shouted. “I know you all have been thanking me for coming to you, but it’s really me who is most grateful. When I came to you, I had nothing. I had no way to free those I came to save, and without your help, I would have died trying. I want you to know I was never offended by your skepticism, and that I would have acted the same in your situation. In truth, I was skeptical of you, too. I’d never met dwarves and was unsure of how I, a human, would be treated. It’s easy to see now that I never had anything to fear, only much to gain. We had the same cause, and it was Hadkar who saw that. Everyone we freed, all we have gained, we owe it all to Hadkar. He was a great dwarf! To Hadkar!”
She held her drink high, and a thunder of cheers rose before the hall drank in unison. When Emily was seated again, she winced as a plethora of dwarven hands clapped her back.
“Aye, fine speech!” yelled one.
“Real honor, that was, missy,” said another.
“I think Hadkar would have liked that,” Takeo said.
Emily regarded her love with a smile, which he returned. Takeo was still in drabs, as were the other former slaves, but no one seemed to mind. The funeral was given precedence, and Takeo was not offended by that. He seemed happy, smiling more than Emily had ever seen him do before. He had even laughed with the dwarves, exchanging stories while sweeping aside his long hair.
Emily would cut that hair again. She liked Takeo with shorter hair. First, though, he needed a bath. She intended to help him with that, too.
The funeral went until morning. By then, a good half of the dwarves had passed out in the hall itself, lying on the tables, the stone benches, or even the floor, considering it was just as comfortable as every other surface. Another quarter of the party had sneaked off at some point, and the last few were stumbling out, both drunk and exhausted.
Emily and Takeo were part of that last group, and as tired as she was, she was determined to get some direction before the dwarves passed into food- and ale-induced comas.
“Helga,” Emily called to the dwarf. “Is there a place for a bath?”
“Aye.” She waved, smirking. “We don’t call it ‘the bath house’ for nothing, missy. It’ll be cold unless ye haul some hot water up from the boiler, but it’s down that hall, ye’ll find.”
The bath house was, indeed, easy to find, and the water was, indeed, cold. That didn’t stop Takeo, though, and he slipped into the chilled water without hesitation, though a few cries and sharp intakes of breath discouraged Emily from joining him.
“Cold as it is,” Takeo sighed, “this feels lukewarm compared to sleeping barefoot in that cave.”
“I came as quickly as I could.” Emily lay down on the stone floor beside Takeo. “I’m sorry I couldn’t reach you sooner. I had to travel by foot the whole way.”
“You came. That is all that matters. I couldn’t ask for more. I missed you.”
“I missed you, too.”
They kissed, and Emily helped scrub the dirt and grime that had collected on Takeo’s body and in his hair. Then she cut the hair to just above his shoulders, ignoring his hesitation.
“It’s okay to be a ronin,” she explained. “You serve no lord. People should know that.”
The bath darkened with dirt, and afterwards, Emily pulled the chain that drained the murky water away. It was mesmerizing to watch the innovative technology at work. The whole place was filled with such useful contraptions. Chains that would bring flowing water in, levers that would lift gates and doors, and even small mechanical devices that counted the passage of time. It was all truly impressive.
Emily had been allowed the use of one of the guest rooms. Although the room was small by human standards and had only one bed and no door—like most of the rooms in this outpost—none of this bothered them. After such a long funeral, she did not expect to be disturbed. She and Takeo fell into each other’s arms, whispering sweet nothings and sharing long kisses between short breaths. Their exhaustion was forgotten as their passions ignited. Emily kissed those thin lips she loved and ran her fingers through Takeo’s straight, wet hair. She pulled his body close, feeling his noticeably thinner, yet still rigidly strong, muscles push against her own. She took in sharp breaths when his hands gripped her thighs, and she whispered to him over and over that she loved him.
When they finally let sleep overtake them, Emily passed into a deep slumber with her nose pressed into Takeo’s chest. That night, she dreamed her favorite dream, which was no dream at all.
Beneath the dark seas, Emily felt a masterwork of stone trudge ever forward along the ocean floor. For months, the colossus had been too deep for light to reach it, casting Emily’s dreams in darkness, but now it had traveled high enough for tiny rays of light to reach her human eyes trapped within the colossus’ empty, stone head.
The ocean floor was beautiful. Colored coral mixed with blue water and tiny, sparkling flakes to make a foreign landscape so unique that Emily could think of none like it.
So this is what the merfolk and naga see, she thought. How privileged am I to know their world?
The colossus was getting closer to her with every step. Currently, it was climbing a steep mountain beneath the sea, slamming its rocky fists to make handholds when none could be found. It was unstoppable, this moving statue given life by angels, and Emily felt empowered every time she dreamed of it.
It was closing in on her. She didn’t know how much longer it would take to reach her—at least a few months, she guessed—but as it got closer, her connection to it strengthened. Her dreams came more frequently and felt more vivid. The commands she issued the colossus were obeyed more readily, and sometimes when she was conscious, she could swear she felt its presence.
Come to me, she repeated her command, and then awoke to a rap of knuckles on stone.
When her eyes cracked open, she saw Helga standing in the doorway. The dwarf had a thin grin on her face as she stared, unabashed, at the intertwined humans. Emily jumped and stared back, covering herself with the blankets. Takeo awoke, too, and breathed deeply as he blinked the sleep from his eyes.
“Sorry to disturb ye two,” Helga said, voice teasing, “but I was told to come fetch ye after the funeral was over. Ye have visitors, Emily.”
Emily blinked twice: once in shock that the funeral had still been going on and a second time for Helga’s last words.
“Visitors?” Emily balked.
She shouldn’t have visitors. Only Katsu and the ninjas knew she was here, and neither had the combined reason and ability needed to reach her.
Unless those ninjas had sold that information to the highest bidder.
“Damn,” Emily swore. “Who?”
“Five samurai.” Helga demonstrated by holding up her hand. “They arrived while we were out and were made to wait to speak with ye until after the funeral was done.”
Emily and Takeo shared a glance at the word ‘samurai.’
“Did they say whom they serve?” Takeo asked.
“Aye.” The dwarf nodded. “Lady Xuan Nguyen, Empress of Juatwa.”
Takeo was given a spare set of winter clothing from the dwarven stores. They had precious few for humans, but fortunately Takeo only needed one set. He donned it as quickly as he could while following Emily and Helga down the halls.
“Ye don’t seem pleased,” Helga said. “They assured us they meant no harm. They even relinquished their weapons, though only upon request. Say the word, missy, and we’ll dump them out in the cold.”
“It might come to that,” Emily replied, “but if they only want to talk, then I want to listen. If you and a few others could stay close by, though, I’d much appreciate it.”
“Ye still aren’t explaining why ye’re nervous at all. They gave up their weapons, assuming ye could call them that. Those flimsy blades could hardly cut freshly fallen snow.”
“You underestimate the katana,” Takeo said. “As for why we’re nervous, the last we knew of Lady Xuan, she’d paid to have me killed.”
“And she didn’t even know I existed,” Emily added.
Five samurai were waiting patiently at one of the tables in the banquet hall when Emily arrived. The hall was still in disarray from the previous evening’s festivities, but the dwarves were nothing if not mannerly, and no other hall would do to receive guests. Leftover food and ale was being swept up along with leftover dwarves who had yet to awaken from their slumbers. Those who were awake helped carry their comrades out, while others worked to put things back together. Amazingly enough, nothing had been broken, despite how rowdy the night had gotten. Stone benches and tables combined with metal plates, utensils, and cups were to thank for that. The hall was still bustling with activity, and that made Emily’s tension ease a hair.
One of the elders, a dwarf with pure white hair and bushy eyebrows, was seated with the samurai, pontificating in a boastful voice of his deep past and honorable ancestors who had done their entire race proud. All five samurai listened with stoic faces, the middle one nodding at times that seemed appropriate. When Emily and Takeo entered, they all looked to her and stood from their seats.
That made Emily stop, and her hand twitched toward her dagger’s hilt. For a moment, she thought they’d stood up with the intent to charge her, but they only bowed deeply.
Calm yourself, she huffed. They came to talk.
And she was vastly interested in what Lady Xuan had to say.
The samurai wore laminar armor with a green hue. It wasn’t the most elegant garment Emily had seen, but she had to commend the samurai for being more prepared than she was. Around the armor’s edges, patches of fur fluffed out to reveal how they had been readied for Khaz Mal’s harsh weather. True to Helga’s word, none of the samurai were armed as far as Emily could tell, which did wonders for relaxing her tensed muscles. It was no simple thing for a samurai to relinquish his katana, especially when such a sword was as much a family heirloom as it was a weapon.
“Miss Emily Stout,” the middle samurai called across the hall, still bowing. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Emily squinted and wondered why he’d called out to her from so far away, but then realized she was hesitating in the doorway. Feeling embarrassed, she crossed the hall and took a seat opposite from the samurai. Only once she was seated did they sit as well. The elder dwarf and Helga took their leave from the group but stayed in the hall, directing and assisting other dwarves in cleaning up the place.
Emily regarded the samurai who’d spoken. He was at least a good foot taller than her, and only a few years older at the most. He had a very thin mustache and gaunt cheeks that made him look older at a distance. The rest of his party, which included three men and one woman with greying hair, was young, too. Emily wondered for a moment at why this young woman had grey strands of hair, but then cast the curiosity aside. None of them introduced themselves, and Emily cleared her throat.
“Hello,” she said, “and who are you?”
“Oh,” the same samurai said, “I’m sorry. Where are my manners? I was just surprised. I was expecting someone . . . taller.”
“How tall was I supposed to be?”
“I was never told. I didn’t mean to offend; it’s just that the way others speak of you, one would think you taller.”
Emily paused and swallowed. Her ears told her she’d just been complimented, but her mind had not been prepared to receive. Her eyes blinked away the confusion, and her fingers lightly touched her dagger’s handle for comfort.
“Your name?” she asked.
“Oh.” The samurai pursed his lips. “I am truly sorry. I am Hyun Jee, and I serve Lady Xuan Nguyen, the Empress of Juatwa.”
“She is empress already?” Emily asked. “No one is left to challenge her?”
“There are a few daimyo who hold out,” Hyun admitted. “The Katsu family fell into infighting upon his defeat since he left no heir. Many of his family are claiming the right to his seat but have yet to take it. They function together well enough to form a loose alliance, but we expect them to be stamped out before my return to Juatwa. It’s entirely possible they’ve already fallen.
“And as for Lord Jiro’s wife and son, they were much smarter. They abdicated the shogun title in exchange for some of the hostages we took during the sacking of Katsu’s Keep. They’ve already knelt to Lady Xuan, and so have the vast majority of the daimyo who followed Lord Jiro. It wasn’t difficult for them. Lady Xuan stayed out of the war for the most part, so she did not incur the ire that Katsu and Jiro earned for each other. So yes, when you speak of Lady Xuan, know that you speak of all of Juatwa.”
Hyun’s tone held just a hint of smugness, which for a samurai was like a wave of superiority. Emily watched him carefully. Most of what he’d said came as no surprise, but she had heard one thing that mattered.
“You said, ‘Katsu left no heir.’ Does that mean he’s dead?”
“No.” Hyun sighed. “It seems his family is fighting for his throne in spite of the fact that he’s still alive and apparently amassing forces in Savara. It’s nothing to fear, though. He’d need nearly a hundred thousand warriors to oppose Lady Xuan at this point, and considering that it’s Savara mercenaries he’s recruiting, he’ll need over twice that number to face off against samurai.”
Again Hyun’s tone was smug, and Emily narrowed one eye. If she didn’t know any better, she could have sworn Hyun was a rather happy guy. Underneath that stern, samurai-trained face, there lurked a huge grin begging to be released. Takeo had been that way once, a stark wall that lacked emotion, but he had broken that mold and now sat smirking next to Emily.
“Katsu’s problems have caught up with him at last,” Takeo said. “My old lord trusted in greed over loyalty, thinking of humans as simply another breed of animals, and it’s good to see that finally working against him. However, that attitude should go over well in Savara, I think. Do you or Lady Xuan know how he fares in the Great Desert?”
“He fares well enough for his bounty to remain unclaimed.” Hyun shrugged. “Lady Xuan has set aside a small fortune for his death, which should be enough to entice every ninja in Juatwa, but whoever wishes to claim that bounty had better do so soon. Once Juatwa has been fully conquered, Katsu’s head won’t be worth its weight in sand.”
Emily’s mind was swimming with questions. This man seemed eager to talk, so she was content to listen for the most part, but she also wanted to direct the conversation. She cleared her throat and shuffled in her seat.
“You haven’t asked me who this is,” she said, pointing at Takeo. “Do you know?”
Hyun nodded. “Takeo Okamoto. I was informed you went to rescue him, and that was the trail we were sent to follow. It seems you’ve succeeded, and I’m not surprised.”
“You’re unconcerned with him?” she noted.
“I came here only for you.”
“Are you going to tell me why?”
“The Lady Xuan would have you hear her words first,” Hyun replied, reaching into his armor.
Emily’s hand flew to her dagger and unsheathed it. With the other, she grabbed Hyun by the edge of his clothing and jerked him forward until her dagger’s point touched his throat. He went still, but the other samurai near him leapt back from their seats, hands instinctively touching their sides where their katanas would have hung. Takeo was up, too, grabbing a knife off the counter, and then suddenly there were dwarves all around them with axes and hammers held high.
The once noisy hall went deathly silent and still as everyone froze in place. Only the quiet snores of a few passed-out dwarves broke the calm.
“Did I say something wrong?” Hyun’s voice trailed off, calm as falling snow, while his throat bounced against the dagger’s edge.
“What’s in your armor?” Emily asked, tightening her grip as his hand began to move. “Slowly.”
He carefully withdrew a scroll, and Emily’s cheeks turned red. She released him and gave the dwarves a look that she hoped was apologetic. They seemed to take it as such and went back to their duties, but only after eyeing all five samurai coldly. Takeo and the others returned to their seats. It seemed all parties, minus Hyun, were equally embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” Emily said. “The last I knew of the Old Woman, she’d paid to have Takeo killed.”
“I did not know this.” Hyun straightened the cloth under his armor. “So I will accept your apology.”
Emily broke the seal on the scroll, unfurled it, and read.
Dear Emily Stout,
Although we have never met, I feel I’ve learned enough about you in the past few days to consider you an old acquaintance. I can assure you that if you had been born my daughter, I would be the proudest mother in the world. Instead, fate, or rather two late husbands, cursed me with nothing but sons. I will not be taking a third.
By the time this letter reaches you, I will be known as the Empress of Juatwa. I have more royalty waiting at my door to speak with me than I have patience for, so please understand the level of importance this letter represents. I am old, my eyes not well, and yet here I am humbling myself to a girl who could be my granddaughter, perhaps even great-granddaughter. To my knowledge, you hold no title, lands, or armies, and yet here I—the being who holds the grandest of all three—am seeking you out. I’m certain you wish to know why.
After I defeated Lord Ichiro Katsu, I captured many of those close to him. I have since learned of his plans for Lucifan and also of his involvement with the death of the angels. More to the point, I have also learned that the colossi are not fully dormant. At least one is still active, and I am told it obeys your command.
Normally, I am a skeptical person. I would not believe such a boast without proof or at least credible testimony. It seems I will have to settle for Katsu’s fears. He thought your power true enough to hold you prisoner, so I will hold it true enough to write you a letter. I hope you find my hospitality more pleasing than his.
I want you to know that I have no ill intentions for the city of Lucifan. Unlike Katsu, I do not hold visions of forcing the world to submit to my will. I will not live long enough for that, and I am not so foolish as to believe such an empire would survive my death even if I did accomplish such a task in my lifetime. Lucifan will remain unmolested as long as I live, and I expect to remain unmolested by colossi in return.
I would not go as far as to say that I knew the angels better than you—I never met them, while I am told that one gave his life to you. However, that being said, I’d like to remind you that the angels built those monstrosities for the defense of their people, and they were never used for that purpose. Were it up to me, I’d like to see such a record upheld. This world sees enough bloodshed without the help of good intentions.
If you find the time, I’d very much like to meet with you in person. Otherwise, if I never hear from you again, I will be equally pleased. I hope you understand.
Lady Xuan Nguyen
Empress of Juatwa
The letter ended with an extravagant and illegible signature. Emily set the scroll on the stone bench where it rolled itself back up. Emily licked her cold lips and then stared at Hyun, who, transfixed by Emily, was hardly breathing. It made her feel uneasy.
“Do you know what it says?” she asked.
“The gist.” He nodded. “I had to, in case something happened to it, so I could still deliver the message. I must ask. How true is it?”
“How true is what?”
“The colossi,” Hyun whispered, glancing sideways at the nearby dwarves. “Do you really control them?”
Emily took a deep breath and let it out. Then she huffed, chuckled, and finally shook her head.
“Only one,” she answered. “I’ve commanded it to come to me, though I’m not sure why. I’m just going to send it back to Lucifan. Perhaps I just need to see it for myself.”
“What are your intentions in Lucifan?”
“Is that you asking, or the Old Woman?” Emily asked.
“A samurai keeps no secrets from his lord or lady,” Hyun replied, lifting his chin high. “Every question I ask is in service to her, and every word you speak to me will be repeated in her presence.”
“Admirable,” Emily said.
She thought for a moment, wondering just how much she wanted to tell this samurai, his allies, and thus Lady Xuan. In truth, she wanted to tell Lady Xuan everything. The Old Woman had thoroughly impressed her by destroying Katsu’s army in Juatwa and going out of her way to track down Emily in the Khaz Mal Mountains. Emily felt she owed the lady much and decided there was no harm in telling this samurai what she planned to do. He couldn’t stop her. No one could.
“Well fine, I’ll give you the honest answer.” Emily nodded. “I’m sure it will please the Old Woman. My business in Lucifan is both personal and professional. Well, actually, I don’t have professional business. It’s all personal. Lucifan is ruled by an old knight-turned-vampire named Sir Mark O’Conner. He was left in charge after the previous vampire, Count Drowin, was killed.”
“I thought vampires were immortal?” Hyun squinted.
“There are no such things as immortals, only beings harder to kill. A pirate told me that once.”
“I take it you killed this previous vampire?”
“I did, and I mean to kill his successor, too. Sir Mark had a deliberate hand in killing the angels, and I’m not one to let such crimes go unpunished, especially not when I’m only alive thanks to an angel.”
Hyun’s eyes drifted to Takeo, his look revealing his curiosity at why they traveled together, but he did not voice his thoughts.
Wise, Emily thought. You know Takeo was involved in the angels’ downfall, too, but you’re smart enough to keep your mouth shut. The Old Woman was right to send you, apparently.
“And, if I may ask,” Hyun went on, “what are your intentions then? Will you rule Lucifan as its queen?”
“Me? A queen?” Emily laughed. “I doubt that. I honestly hadn’t thought that far. I wish my butcher’s bill were done after that, but if what you say is true, and Katsu is amassing forces in Savara, I might have one more task to complete. On the other hand, though, going to Lucifan might solve both issues if my timing is good.”
“Lord Katsu’s plan, if he was defeated,” Takeo spoke up, “was to raise a force in Savara and capture Lucifan for himself. There he would raise an army, using Lucifan’s wealth, and oppose the shogun who defeated him with knights and ogres. Emily means to stop that from happening, too. She is the will of the angels. Their souls live on through her.”
Black as the thought may be, Emily had come to terms with what Quartus had intended for her to be: a force of retribution.
Hyun nodded, his gaze fixed on Emily. “Then you must be pleased to read my lady’s letter. It must be a relief to have only two enemies to fight.”
“You have no idea. Now, I don’t mean to be blunt, but does Lady Xuan have any other questions for me? If not, I really must be going. Takeo and I need to be leaving soon. It’s a long way to the frigid north from here.”
“The north?” Hyun balked. “But the closest harbor is in the south.”
“And I would have to sail all the way around Savara’s southern end before heading to Lucifan,” Emily answered, standing from the bench. “Meanwhile, if I leave from the north, it will be a straight shot to the angels’ city, only a few months at most. It will be a much shorter trip for both me and my colossus, not to mention the other personal business I have.”
“No,” Emily said. “A brother.”
Hyun did have more questions, and he asked them hurriedly as Emily set about preparing for her long journey through the heart of Khaz Mal. Most of the questions he asked she did not have answers to, such as what she intended to do with the other two colossi or how long she thought it would take to kill Katsu. A few others, she answered as honestly as she could.
“No, I won’t write a response to Lady Xuan,” she said, packing up stores of food. “I really wouldn’t know what to say in it other than, ‘I agree.’ And yes, when I say my brother, I do mean my actual brother.”
Emily could understand the confusion about how she had a brother in The North. She’d grown up on the Great Plains, far to the west, along with her two brothers and her parents. Of them, only Emily and her younger brother, Nicholas, had left the farm they called home, separately and in opposite directions, with Emily becoming an amazon and Nicholas a viking. The last time she’d seen him, he’d saved her from being enslaved to a cruel pirate.
Emily still remembered that pirate’s name, Carlito Hacke, and that made her shudder. Just the thought of him gave her a bad taste in her mouth. She wondered if he was still alive. He probably was, being that he was immortal so long as he was at sea. She couldn’t decide whether she hoped to see him again or not, expecting him to be chained to an oar as a slave or perhaps buried beneath an arm’s length of snow-covered dirt.
“After Katsu?” Emily sucked in air before answering another one of Hyun’s questions. “I have yet more personal business. It’s none of your concern, really, but I’ll be heading to the Forest of Angor to deliver a letter to a werewolf. Haha! You thought you were confused before, weren’t you? Don’t bother asking. Like I said before, it’s personal.”
Emily and Takeo were given plenty of supplies by the dwarves, who were extremely gracious hosts, providing dense food that would keep for many months, water-resistant leather with fur lining to keep them warm and dry through the nights, gloves and hoods, and, of course, thick boots. Their gift of a map made Emily sigh deeply in relief; finding the dwarven outpost had been grueling with nothing to travel by but the sun’s passage and secondhand explanations of landmarks. The dwarves also gifted Emily a block of wood to make more arrows and some coveted feathers to fletch them with, but even more shockingly, they found a single katana in their armory and gave it to Takeo without him ever asking for it.
“There ain’t no weapon in the world we dwarves haven’t made at least once,” Helga explained. “We even have a pair of gunslinger pistols, but those never leave the hold. It’d be dark times if an orc ever got their slimy, green hands on them. Not that they’ll do you much good on the outside, anyway. If the powder gets wet, they won’t shoot. How worthless is that in a place where everything is wet and cold all the time? None, I tell ye.”
Takeo tested the katana by giving it a few swings. His wrists flicked, making it cut through the air with a whistle.
“Seems heavier than it should be,” he noted.
“Aye,” Helga nodded. “That’s because it was made by dwarven hands, rather than by some shoddy human. Ye’ll find that blade cuts better than anything ye’ve wielded afore.”
“I believe you. And thank you. I’m forever in your debt. I won’t forget this.”
“See that ye don’t. We dwarves never do.”
The goodbyes were short and formal. They passed only two elders on their way out into Khaz Mal’s snowy embrace. Out of courtesy, Emily asked Hyun if he and his samurai would like to accompany them for the first bit of their journey, but he declined.
“I am in no hurry to leave this place,” he admitted, “and first I’ll have to record all you told me. I don’t want to trust my memory to survive the long months I’ll need to return to my lady. Best of luck to you, Emily. I hope all your personal business fares well.”
“You too,” was all Emily could muster in response. “Oh, and I’m sorry for being so jumpy when we first met.”
“Don’t be. I understand. You have too many enemies not to be cautious.”
Emily was sure Hyun hadn’t meant any offense by those parting words, but still they stung as she and Takeo made their way out of the dwarven outpost. They took one of the long tunnels headed north, which was also conveniently opposite the end where the main entrance was. That was the safest route, Helga insisted, to avoid the lingering orcs that might be out there now—and would continue to be out there for at least another couple of weeks.
Yes, Emily had to agree, she did have too many enemies.
She never meant for that to happen. She remembered her first enemy very clearly, back when she’d been only a little, 16-year-old farmer’s daughter who couldn’t shoot a bow and had no idea how to leave the farm she’d grown up on. Only the land had been her enemy then, a trap despite its lack of any physical boundary beyond size. When she’d conquered that, all the other problems had begun. She’d lost her grandmother to betrayal and her savior to her own incompetence. In the process, she’d earned her first true enemy, a woman named Heliena, and many more of Emily’s friends had died helping her bring that evil wench down. Heliena was dead now by Emily’s hand in the name of revenge, and yet Emily was not fulfilled. More enemies seemed to have popped up since then, greater ones with darker purposes. She frowned, feeling emptier than she had before, less passionate.
“What are you thinking?” Takeo asked.
“Just reminiscing about the past and the future,” she muttered.
When they exited the dwarf tunnel, they emerged into a long valley. A brisk breeze kicked up and bit her exposed nose, and she tucked her head into her hood. Otherwise, the sky was a beautiful blue, and the sun a yellow beacon overhead. If Emily faced it, the light was just strong enough to warm her cheeks, and that brought a smile back to her lips.
“You’re confusing me,” Takeo said to her. “First you looked sad, and now you’re happy.”
“I guess that’s what happens when you contemplate life,” she said with a shrug.
Takeo paused and glanced up at the clear skies. She imagined him contemplating his own life, the hardships he had faced and the brother he’d lost, and then ending with the realization that he was with her. She hoped that made him happy, and perhaps it did because his dark eyes lightened when they fell back on her.
“I suppose it does,” he agreed. “Are you ready?”
“Then lead the way.”
They climbed out the valley and down the next hill, trudging through snow and wind, sweating and breathing out hot steam into the cold. Emily was constantly pulling down her hood when she got too hot and then putting it back on again when her ears went numb. Her gloves were forever getting in the way, too. Every time she had to pull them off to consult her map or manage something in her pack, the biting chill dug into her fingers to sap what precious heat reached them. When she put her gloves back on, it took a long while for the chill to subside. Her fingers never actually grew warm, but rather, with proper care, she kept them from turning frostbitten.
A part of her was willing to take that risk, though. She’d never be able to shoot a bow with these gloves on, and with the possibility of orcs lingering nearby, she kept her bow strung at all times. It would be painful to shoot, as she’d learned when she got her first taste of cold weather several months ago, but pain was better than death. She would know, having almost died once herself.
Luckily, her worries over orcs turned out to be for naught. They neither saw nor encountered any flashes of green skin in the distance, and that was enough to satisfy them both. The orcs would not lie in hiding at the sight of only two humans walking, so no disturbances meant no orcs. Still, though, when night fell, they made no fire.
Yet they slept warmly.
Under piles of thick blankets, huddled beneath a shallow, rocky overhang, Emily’s body intertwined with Takeo’s to heat both their skin and their hearts. In the dim light of the moon, they watched snow fall from the sky while they whispered to each other with weapons an arm’s length away.
“Did you ever fear I wouldn’t find you?” Emily asked, cupping Takeo’s exposed ear to keep it warm.
“It was the only fear I had.” He smiled and kissed her. “Well, that, and that I might disobey you and die. The orcs were cruel. I was whipped bloody so many times I think it was only the cold that saved me from bleeding out. Ah, I’m sorry. You don’t want to hear that.”
“No, don’t hold back.” She shook her head. “You bear no burden alone while I’m here. Remember that.”
He smiled and held her close. She pulled his head down to nestle under her chin so she could comb his hair with her fingers. She loved to touch his hair.
“Every night was cold,” he said, chin rubbing against her chest as he spoke. “They let us huddle for warmth, but otherwise gave us no cover. Food was scarce and—are you sure you want to hear this? Okay, I’ll go on. Out of the five of us slaves they bought, they killed one the first night out of the village. He was an older man, a bit heavier than the rest of us. I don’t know how he became a slave, but I don’t think he anticipated dying so soon. The orcs made his corpse our only food. The others refused to eat him, at first, and they treated me with apprehension when I didn’t hesitate. I suppose it seemed barbaric of me, but I couldn’t be willfully ignorant like them. I knew that I would die unless I ate and that the orcs would see me die before they shared their own food. The others saw it, too, eventually, and they ate the old man, too. They never looked at me the same, though. For me, it was just one more horror to add to my list of sins, and they saw that. They could see that I was a monster at heart. They knew that I’d seen worse.”
“Okamoto guides you even in death,” Emily said. “He raised you to survive in the harshest of realities, and he was successful.”
“How cold does it make me, Emily?” Takeo asked, voice suddenly strained. “How terrible is it that I don’t mourn what I did? It should haunt me. I should have trouble sleeping. I should remember it like I do all those villagers I killed under Katsu’s command. Do you remember those three other slaves you saved alongside me? Did you notice that they disappeared early during the funeral? It’s because they could not stand to be near me. I could see it in their eyes. They knew what I was, a murderer. The angels made me see that, made me see the wrong in what I do, and yet it does not stop me from doing it. I will kill again. More horrors await us, and yet I will not hesitate to charge into them. Both you and me, we will kill again. We are just like the orcs. We are monsters.”
“Ssshhh,” Emily cooed and pulled him close. “Hush now, don’t say that. You’re starting to sound like I did back in Juatwa. Do you remember that? Do you remember when I faced the reality of war for the first time? Of course you do. You helped me then, so I will help you now. I have a story for you if you’ll only listen.
“I knew a knight in Lucifan once, named Sir Gavin Shaw. Yes, that knight. He was a rogue once, too, stealing from people without a care. He did it to survive and was only regretful once that he’ll admit. Thankfully, that regret resulted in him earning both a friend and a position in the Knight’s Order, and that would change everything. He met the angels and, just like you, saw all the wickedness inside himself. The light from their eyes revealed the blackness in his soul. Gavin realized the evil he was capable of—the crimes he’d already committed—and sought to correct the error of his ways. He became good and honorable, swore an oath to the angels, and set himself firmly on the side of the righteous. He would obey the laws rather than break them, enforce them even when others did not. Well, almost—he helped me rob a bank.
“During that robbery, though, we had a chance to kill Count Drowin’s leprechaun ally. Do you remember Jack Borgan? Also, do you remember Adelpha? The big, strong amazon? She was all for killing Jack, but Gavin wouldn’t let her. He said it was wrong, that death was too harsh a punishment for the leprechaun’s crimes. I sided with Gavin, reluctantly, and Adelpha promised that she would see the knight kill in cold blood before it was over. However, Gavin never did, not even when Sir Mark begged him for it.
“What I want you to see is that Gavin’s actions did not make this world a better place. Lucifan is not better off with Jack Borgan and Sir Mark alive. Imagine if I had been like Gavin. There would still be a Count Drowin, and a Heliena, and a Jabbar. The world would not be safer. Sure, perhaps I am a colder person for what I’ve done. Maybe I am not the good and honorable knight nor the little girl from the plains I once was. Maybe, just maybe, some could find cause to call me just as wretched as those I’ve killed. I would disagree, but say nothing. Just like the orcs, you and I do not balk at death, but that does not make us the same as our enemies. Quartus knew that, and he acted accordingly.
“When Lucifan faced its greatest threat—that of total annihilation from within and without—Quartus did not give his blessing to Gavin, despite his years of training and dedication. He did not place his trust in the good and honorable knight who was sworn to him. Quartus instead chose a little farmer’s daughter from the Great Plains whom he knew would not shy from the reality of what had to be done. Some places in this world are too dark for light to shine, and in those places, only darkness can fight.
“You should know that that little girl didn’t chose Gavin either. He was too rigid to accept the woman she would become. He was bound too tightly to his ideals, and so he lost her. Now that little girl lies with a samurai in the frigid mountains of Khaz Mal, sleeping well, in spite of all the enemies that surround her, because she knows that she can trust the samurai to do what he must. You might have been there for the angels’ death, Takeo, but that doesn’t mean you can’t become a part of what keeps their dream alive. You and I are not orcs. You are mine, and I am yours. And I love you.”
Takeo stayed silent for a moment, circling his fingers along her side while she continued to stroke his hair. The night grew darker, the snow fell faster, and Takeo took a deep breath.
“I love you, too,” he whispered.
She kissed his forehead, and the two drifted off to sleep.
Lucky for them, the snow stopped falling in the night, and they only had to deal with one layer of puffy white no higher than their shins. The powder crunched under their boots and leached warmth from the air, but at least the snow wasn’t getting any higher. Each time Emily stopped, she had to sweep a spot clean with one gloved hand before plopping down on a cold rock, breathing in enough air until either she regained her breath or her cheeks started to freeze, whichever came first. As they traveled further north, it tended to be the latter.
The mountains grew steeper, but thanks to the map, they found paths and valleys that kept their climbing to a minimum. Emily was relieved to have it, honestly believing it to be the single most important item she carried. There were few times she’d been so fearful of getting lost in the wilderness, and this journey through the Khaz Mal mountains was definitely on that list.
Finding food was a blessing of gargantuan proportions, but ironically, doing so made the going worse because everything needed to be carried. Other dwarven outposts were marked on the map, but they were few, far between, and too much out of the way. Instead, Emily and Takeo turned into the unashamed scavengers they’d been in Savara, taking what they could and eating what could be eaten, no matter how it tasted. None of it was really much worse than the plain bread she’d eaten all her life. Truthfully, it was only the water that bugged her. Cold, always cold, no matter if she stored it or heated melted snow, it was rarely warm enough not to make her stomach churn when she drank it. Her lips would go cold, too, first by the water and then by the wind as it swept across her moistened lips. They dried and cracked, along with Takeo’s, and she found herself sucking them in constantly to keep them warm.
The trip sounded worse than it was, though. They always slept warm at night, intertwined and holding each other close, making whatever happened earlier in the day worth it. Emily was thankful it was just the two of them out in the middle of nowhere, and as they let their walls and boundaries fall, Emily felt closer to Takeo than she ever had before. For once, he even shared her fascination with their surroundings, for as harsh as Khaz Mal could be, it was honestly and truly beautiful.
The white snow covered the rocks and scattered trees like a blanket frozen in mid shake. White, sparkly mounds rolled like grassy hills over all, leaving only those things at least waist high—like trees and large rocks—to jut out like tiny boats in a frozen ocean.
Only the ocean had been in a storm, the greatest storm of all time, creating the largest mountains Emily had ever seen. Their sheer size and steep rises made her jaw drop and her head shake in wonderment, contemplating how such a thing was even possible. Some mountains were so steep that they seemed like swords sized for a creature of unimaginable height and strength, thrust into the air, point up. Their shadows, both deep and long, covered Emily and Takeo’s travels for hours. For the first time in her life, Emily felt like she was in a place where she could escape from the life she’d chosen. In Savara, she’d felt like she was in a land that time forgot. In Khaz Mal, she felt like she was in a land that time had never touched.
And then a dragon would come, and the world would shatter.
Huge, magnificent, and powerful, they flew in solitude across the skies. They were larger than thunderbirds, but smaller than rocs—the only things Emily had ever seen fly without feathers. Their scaly bodies were always a solid color—whether red, white, blue, green, or black—and this made them seem regal and uniform, almost purposeful and deliberate, as if they’d chosen their colors at birth. Emily envied their ability to traverse the mountains so easily, soaring through the cold air and over the mountain peaks without any concern for the difficulty such terrain posed to the likes of humans.
“They breathe fire,” she remembered one villager, a former pirate, in the foothills warning her. “It comes out like a jet of water, only it’s liquid fire they breathe, so hot it melts stone. They are hot to touch, them dragons, or so goes the legend. That’s why they stay up in the mountains, see? It’s the only place with enough food and cold weather for their liking. The frozen wastes beyond is too scarce of game and no caves for them to make their lairs out of, lucky damned vikings.” She recalled him wagging a wrinkled finger at her, saying, “Don’t go sleeping in no caves bigger than they have a right to be! If you hear one of them fire-breathers coming, you best find some place to hide from the skies, you hear?”
She did hear, but so did her curiosity, and so when a dragon came, it was with great reluctance that she dove for the nearest cover. On average, she saw one every two days, usually at an extreme distance, but occasionally too close for comfort. No matter which, though, she watched them with parted lips and unblinking eyes.
Once, just once, a dragon had landed nearby and breathed fire. That moment had been one of the few times Emily had been as equally terrified as she had been mesmerized.
She and Takeo had heard the dragon coming before they saw it. The two of them had been trudging through a shallow, open valley when they heard a distant roar, like a battle horn echoing off the mountains all around them. With such an echo, they had no way of knowing from which direction the dragon was coming, so the two shared a frantic, knowing glance and dashed for the nearest valley peak, which they hoped would hold an overhang or oversized boulder to hide under. It was the safest bet, they thought.
They dashed through the snow as fast as their legs could carry them, breathing the icy air so deeply that it hurt their lungs. White steam flew from their mouths, but they kept going until they had scaled up and over the nearest ridge. On the other side, they stopped, locking eyes with a cyclops headed straight for them.
Humanoid in appearance with two arms and legs, the cyclops was three times as tall as Emily and as ugly as an ogre. Its one eye, placed in the center of its forehead, topped a bulbous nose and a mouth with smashed and crooked teeth. It wore nothing but a giant loin cloth, apparently unfazed by the biting cold, and in one of its hands was a wooden club the size of Takeo, which it dragged in the snow behind it. The two humans and the one cyclops stared at each other for a moment, both shocked to see the other.
And then they all heard a whoosh of giant wings.
Emily and Takeo dove for the nearest cover—a boulder wedged atop the crest overlooking the valley where the snow and ice had eroded a crevice beneath it—while the cyclops roared and charged for the same space. None would ever know whether or not it would have fit because the cyclops stopped when the dragon landed in front of it.
The dark red dragon shook the earth so hard with its landing that Emily and Takeo bounced completely off the ground. Its huge body and grand wings blocked nearly their entire view, and its swishing tail whipped long and fast over where they hid. They heard the cyclops roar again, this time closer to a shriek, and in return, the dragon gave a deafening roar and breathed fire.
Its whole body seemed to glow, and despite it breathing fire in the opposite direction, Emily could feel the heat all the way through her thick layers of clothes. It was so hot she couldn’t even watch, having to close her eyes and turn her head to protect her face. The cyclops screamed for one brief moment as the thunderous roar of flames overtook it, making Emily’s ears ring and her whole body shake.
And then the flames stopped, and total silence held sway for a moment before she heard the clomp of jaws smacking shut and felt the ground shake again.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh faded into the distance, and Emily opened her eyes.
The valley’s edge was still burning. Raw stone was melted, glowing red and still alight with flames in some areas, while in others, it flowed like a river to the lowest point. All the snow was gone, and not a single drop of water remained—all had been turned to white, hot steam. There was no dragon, nor cyclops corpse.
After that, Emily decided she’d seen enough dragons for one lifetime.
They walked in silence for the rest of that day, but when they settled down for the night, their encounter was the only thing they could talk about.
“I have never seen anything like that,” Takeo said, slowly shaking his head. “That was unbelievable, amazing.”
“It was.” Emily nodded. “When I was warned about them, they didn’t seem much different from thunderbirds but . . . wow. That was incredible.”
“It’s too bad you don’t control one of them.”
Emily laughed and slipped under their pile of skins and into Takeo’s arms.
“That certainly would be terrifying, wouldn’t it?” She kissed his neck. “And think of all the useful things I could have it do, like light a fire or carry us out of here. I would love to fly again. I hope there’s still a pegasus left in Lucifan when I return.”
“You don’t think there will be?” Takeo asked, suddenly concerned.
“Well, you tell me. I don’t want to sound harsh, my love, but it was Sir Mark O’Conner we left in control of Lucifan. Count Drowin had planned to slaughter all the pegasi during his brief reign from the shadows. Who’s to say Sir Mark won’t carry out that same plan? For all I know, it could have been his plan, originally, and Drowin agreed to it. I don’t want to think about it, honestly, but I have to prepare myself for the worst. O’Conner helped assassinate the angels. Who knows what else he’s capable of?”
Takeo didn’t offer his opinion. It might have been that he felt guilty at the mention of the angels, or perhaps he didn’t want to add his own dark insight to Emily’s brutal outlook. Instead, he held her close, and their combined heat warded off the ever increasing chill.
“It would be nice if your colossus was here already,” he said. “I’d feel better, I think, not that I’m uncomfortable being in danger. However, I prefer to face enemies I can kill—or at least those I have a chance of surviving. It’s not even the dragons, really. I keep worrying about running into orcs or a cyclops. Did you see the size of that last one? He could have used my katana for a toothpick.”
“Don’t you worry about the cyclops. They only have one eye, and I have a bow. If they have any intelligence at all, they’ll back away slowly. If not, and they ask me who blinded them, I will tell them no one did.”
“That still leaves the orcs,” he said, tracing a finger down her spine. “And as skilled as I am, it will count for nothing in an open landscape with nowhere to run. It will only get worse once we’re beyond these mountains and out on the frigid, northern wastelands. There will be nowhere to hide out there, and we are only a few days away.”
She didn’t have an answer to that. She let Takeo trace her skin and enjoyed the feel of it. He always made it so difficult to fall asleep when he did that.
“You’re still having the colossus come to you, right?” he asked.
“I am,” she said and sighed. “I second guess myself a lot, thinking I should just have it head back to Lucifan and squish Sir Mark, but it’s moments like that, with the dragon, that make me think I’d be better off with the colossus nearby. Not to mention if it was here, we could ride on its shoulders. It wouldn’t be flying, but it would beat walking.”
“I’d like to fly one day. I imagine that’d be something to remember. How much longer do you think it will take for the colossus to reach us?”
“The last I saw, it was still climbing the ocean floor.” Emily shivered as her foot slipped off the mat beneath them and touched the ice-cold ground. “It’s getting closer, though. Nearly close enough to feel it. Sometimes, if I lose myself, I will daydream and see through its eyes. Not a single night goes by I don’t dream of it. It’s almost crazy, but I swear I feel stronger as it nears, and also colder, like it takes part of my capacity for emotion into its vast emptiness. I think . . . I think it makes me less human. I don’t feel like I used to.”
Takeo grabbed her by the chin and pressed his lips to hers, kissing her long and hard. She felt his lips part, and so did hers, and his tongue swept in to touch hers. Then he ended it suddenly, breaking off to hover just out of reach.
“Did you feel that?” he asked.
“No,” she whispered. “Try again.”
In her dream, she felt the colossus scale another canyon beneath the seas, completely encompassed in both the darkness of the water and the lack of sunlight above. She knew not how it saw, nor how it knew where to go, but it never faltered, slipped, or tripped. Each step and grasp was done with massive strength, infallible stamina, and a complete lack of hesitation. Onwards in silence it traveled, ever working toward the goal its master had set for it. For good measure, Emily repeated her command.
Come to me, she said. Protect me.
The colossus did not respond, mentally or physically, in any other fashion than complete obedience.
With you, I could conquer the world, she thought. If only I was tempted by such things.
She remembered Katsu once saying that a colossus could strangle a dragon with its bare hands. Thinking back on the melted rock, she no longer believed that possible. While she could hope the angels had covered the colossus in magic that could keep back the effects of such fire, she would not risk it.
Emily made a silent, dream-bound wish that no dragon would mistake her colossus for food.
And then she awoke, and all around her the sky rained thick patches of white snow that touched the ground without a sound. The sun had not yet risen, and the cold bit her nose. Takeo breathed heavily as he slept, and she stirred him. They rose, ate, and packed, for the days were getting shorter and the nights longer, and they could ill afford to let the shortening days drag out their journey. They weren’t carrying enough food for that.
They traveled in the dark until there was enough light to read the map, noting with glee that they were nearing the northern edge of the Khaz Mal Mountains. There were other signs, as well. The mountains were shorter, as were the days, and the nights colder. The snow was getting thicker, too, and not just because it was currently falling from the sky. Emily felt both relieved and hesitant. She didn’t know what to expect in The North, nor was she sure how to reach her brother. In truth, she wasn’t convinced he’d be there at all. He lived a life as dangerous as her own, and she accepted the fact that the only things that might await her were memories and tales of his heroic death.
“Nicholas will be with me,” Ragnar had said. “We might be out on a voyage, but my steward can put you up until we return. After you pass Khaz Mal, just mention Ragnarson, my family name. People should be able to point you to my land.”
She could only hope Ragnar’s land was easy to reach. Emily missed Nicholas as much as she did the rest of her family, maybe even a little more if she was honest. It was always her and Nicholas to get in trouble, ask questions they shouldn’t, and fight together against their older brother. When he ran away from home, she wasn’t so much surprised as she was sorry she hadn’t gotten to say goodbye.
So the thought of seeing him again made her press on through the snow and wind and rocks. Takeo followed, and their conversations were kept to a minimum as they covered their mouths from the icy wind with thick wool. The exception to this came one day when the sun was setting, and the two of them crested another peak and gazed out beyond the mountains.
A flat, endless expanse of solid white with pale skies greeted their eyes. Not a tree, a rock, or a hill could be seen. Nothing moved except the white snow kicked up by the wind to travel across the frozen desert. The North.
Emily might have whistled had she not been gasping for air, and she turned back to look at the way they’d come.
“The climb wasn’t even that far,” she said through ragged breaths. “How am I exhausted?”
“I don’t know.” Takeo shook his head and wiped cold sweat from his forehead. “I feel it, too. It’s like there isn’t enough air up here. Wow, okay, I’m sitting. Does your head feel light?”
They both sat to catch their breaths—and also to split some hardened bread and a canteen of water. Emily glanced around.
“Where should we sleep tonight?”
“I’d prefer at the bottom of this place,” he said. “We’ll need cover from the snow if we don’t want to be buried alive while we sleep.”
“Sounds reasonable,” she said and smirked.
She looked back the way they had come, gazing in wonder at the vast peaks that dominated everything in sight. She remembered seeing that same view from the other end, the southern end, and thinking what an intimidating sight it all was. Yet here she was, on the other side of it all, no worse for the wear. She had the dwarves to thank for that—and Takeo for keeping her warm at night. She felt thankful that she could still make friends in faraway lands, although that happened less often than she’d prefer. Maybe one day, if she craved it, she might visit those dwarves again. If nothing else, it would be an excuse to see another dragon.
And then something caught her eye.
Amongst the many peaks, she spied a hint of movement, something dark moving against the backdrop of solid white. Emily shook her head before focusing on it. This time, she saw several humanoid looking figures on a distant peak directly south. They were larger, though, certainly bulky, maybe a good fifteen of them in all, traveling in a line.
Then she realized they were green, and that wasn’t the worst of it. They were climbing the same peak Emily and Takeo had climbed that morning.
“How could they find us?” Takeo called out as he and Emily half-ran, half-slid down the mountain. “It was snowing when we left the dwarves! Our tracks should have been covered!”
“Well they found them anyway!” Emily shouted back.
She leapt from one rock to the next, scampered down any surface stable enough to hold her, and didn’t hesitate to slide on her butt when the ground became too steep. Behind her, Takeo followed her every step, jumping and sliding where she did. Snow, pebbles, and dirt came tumbling down past Emily, but she did not stop, not even when they reached the bottom and night was settling in.
“Do we hide?” she asked, using what little light was left to trudge through the ever thickening snow.
Steam poured from her mouth as she gasped for air, rising hot and fast to warm and cloud her eyes to the point where she had to blink to clear them. She couldn’t cover her mouth anymore. It was too difficult to breathe with a cover on.
“I don’t know,” Takeo answered honestly through his own ragged breaths. “They’ll just find our tracks if we do. Not enough snow is falling to hide them quick enough.”
“Can we double back?” she asked. “How about splitting up?”
Anything to buy us time, she thought. The orcs are too close!
“In the dark?” Takeo responded. “How would I find you again? They’ll follow one or both of the tracks, and then we’ll be in the same situation, just separated. The best splitting up will do is ensure only one of us dies. Is that what you want?”
No, Emily thought but left it unsaid. Neither she nor Takeo feared death. It was the prospecting of living without the other that truly frightened her.
“Alright, new plan then,” she said. “We make it to the mountain’s edge, out of these valleys. I don’t think it was snowing there, in The North, did you see? It was just flat and ice covered. I don’t think we’ll leave tracks. We can flee in The North.”
“How do you know that?”
Emily’s voice echoed off the mountains, repeating over and over her inability to form a proper plan. Takeo stopped midstride, and Emily paused, too. She took a deep, haggard breath and bent over until her hands rested on her knees.
“Don’t be,” he cut her off. “You’re right. We don’t have a better option. Maybe our tracks will be lighter beyond these mountains, and maybe we can reach the ice while it’s still dark. That will help. At night, it gets too dark out here for even snow tracks to be seen. Let’s move. There’s no better plan.”
“You’ll let me know if you think of one, though, right?”
“The moment I do,” he said and nodded, “and don’t you stop thinking of one either.”
They ran through the night, as fast as their legs could carry them through the snow and as fast as their feet could find purchase in absolute dark. The snow continued to fall around them, blocking out the stars and any chance of the moon’s light granting them aid. Emily fell more than once, but Takeo stayed close enough to grab her when she did. Exhaustion might have taken her if she hadn’t been so practiced at fleeing. This wasn’t the first time she’d had to charge on through the night to escape pursuing enemies, and she even dared hope it wouldn’t be her last. It also helped that her sleep had been so thorough the previous nights with no lingering dream this time around to keep interrupting her. She had slept long and hard—and eaten well enough, too. There was also the fact that they weren’t moving very quickly. Darkness kept their pace slow, as they both feared twisting an ankle in such uneven terrain, so there was no need to stop for rest.
The cold, though, Emily was convinced that it might kill her. She hadn’t truly realized just how cold it could get without the sun’s meager rays. Despite their constant movement, her teeth were chattering the entire way, and her fingers and toes were almost too numb to feel. Her nose and ears hurt so bad it made tears form in her eyes, but they froze upon her cheeks before they could fall from her skin.
To make matters worse, they couldn’t consult their map. Sheer mountains rose out of nowhere, completely invisible until Emily or Takeo stumbled into them, and they had no way of knowing whether the rocks were passable. They made more than one unfortunate mistake, climbing too high only to find their progress checked, and then they’d have to double back and try another route. They hoped it might confuse the orcs come morning. It was hard to tell, though. With no light, they could hardly trace their previous path, let alone their previous footsteps.
“We should have been clear of the mountains by now,” Emily whispered, unsure of why she did so. “We should have already passed into The North.”
“Were it still daylight, we would have,” Takeo replied, not whispering. “I’ve been thinking.”
“How many arrows do you have?”
Emily stumbled and heard the tumble of rocks and snow beneath her feet. They were descending into yet another valley, and Emily listened carefully as the rocks bounced until they hit the bottom.
“Takeo,” she replied sternly, “I saw fifteen orcs.”
“How many arrows?” he repeated.
“Twenty-five, but you’re not hearing me. I can’t kill fifteen orcs before they reach us, not even in an open field. If they so much as jog, the best I could do is perhaps eight. You and I can’t take the remaining seven alone, not if they’re orcs. If they were akki, or goblins, then we’d stand a chance, but these orcs are like ogres. It’ll take more than an arrow in the leg to incapacitate them. You saw the dwarves fight them.”
“I did,” Takeo’s voice grew louder, “and I’m not entirely convinced it’s all orcs. Some might be goblins.”
“You want to take that risk?”
“If we reach the mountain’s edge by daylight, then yes. I would rather we set up in a place advantageous to us than die running in an open ice field. If you shoot and kill enough of them quickly, maybe the others will hesitate.”
“I still don’t like it.”
“Neither do I,” Takeo agreed. “That’s why I’m only suggesting it if daylight comes and our first plan doesn’t work.”
As if summoned by Takeo’s words, the sun began to rise.
It lit the world slowly thanks to its terribly slow ascent. The landscape lightened at a rate that was hardly noticeable, to the point where it didn’t dawn upon Emily that the morning was coming until she looked up at the sky and realized she could once again see the clouds that rained snow upon her. Once she did, she frantically pulled out her map and consulted it on the run, glancing at peaks and ridges and trying to trace the path they’d most likely used.
“No,” she whispered, “Damn it! NO!”
“We’re using your plan,” she said and pointed ahead.
Through the narrow valley they traveled, one end tapered to a crevice between two mountains. As the sun rose and they approached, the hint of a flat land covered in ice became visible through the crevice. Emily swore.
“Damn it!” she said. “What perfect timing.”
“Emily, it’s worse. Look behind us.”
She did, and atop the crest behind them, an orc climbed up to the top. Its green skin was a stark contrast to the white, and even at this distance, she could see it tense as it saw them. A flash of light gleamed off the old metal of the gigantic cleaver it held, and it started to howl. Suddenly it was joined by another orc, then another, and another, and they came barreling down the hill toward the valley floor.
“How?” she stammered, eyes wide. “That can’t be possible. How did they do that? How could they gain on us like that? Can they see in the dark?”
“Don’t ask. Just run!”
Emily turned and bolted through the snow, Takeo catching pace and falling in step beside her. They heard another lone, beastly howl, first from behind them and then over and over as it echoed across the valley. Suddenly more howls joined in like a chorus of war cries, hounding after them as they sped through the valley toward the crevice.
Emily risked a glance over her shoulder and was shocked to see the orcs were already nearing the valley’s bottom. They ran in a scattered line, leaping from rock to rock and occasionally pushing off with their huge arms to plunge fearlessly into the darkness beneath them. The ground they covered was astounding, and their pace did not slow when they hit the valley floor. To Emily’s shock, they ran with all four limbs, swinging on their long, huge arms like pendulums.
It was terrifying, but Emily and Takeo had a head start.
“We can make it!” she said, looking ahead.
“I’ll guard the entrance,” he said. “You have that bow ready?”
Emily hoped the crevice would be small, but to her dismay, it was large enough for several people to run abreast through it. Takeo would be at a great disadvantage. As they sprinted on, they slid as their feet left snow-covered dirt for snow-covered ice.
Takeo gave a cry as he stumbled and fell face first into the ice. Emily skated along, swinging her arms widely, but maintained balance.
“Damn!” Takeo said, picking himself up and steadying his feet. “I’ll have to fight them in the crevice. Can you still shoot?”
“Yes,” she replied, dropping to her knees.
Emily had slid far enough away to shoot her bow. She dared not move further, fearing that she wouldn’t be able to reach Takeo in time once the orcs entered into the melee with him. Damn was ice slippery! She’d encountered it first in patches along Khaz Mal, but never in so large a place as this. It stretched everywhere, and she’d never stepped on anything like this.
Takeo stumbled and slid back toward solid ground while Emily dumped her pack and brought out her bow. She ripped off her gloves and tried to string it, but the bottom slid along the ice.
I should have strung you the moment I saw those orcs, she cursed.
From the valley, the howls grew louder, and a new chill ran up her spine.
“Hurry!” Takeo called.
She steadied the bow’s bottom end on her boot, bent back, and strung her bow. She couldn’t feel the string because her fingers were so cold, but the movement was so engrained that she did not need to. Numb, yet pained, her fingers knew what to do, and Emily stood up and nocked an arrow, her hands shaking uncontrollably.
I can’t shoot two arrows like this, she realized, gritting her teeth. I’ll hardly have the accuracy to shoot one.
Ahead of her, Takeo drew his katana and ditched his pack. He held the sword at the ready, snow blowing around him, and Emily noticed he’d also dropped his gloves. His bare hands gripped the handle so hard they went bone-white, or was that the cold? Emily shook the question from her mind, the movement making her ankles twitch as they tried to hold her still.
Ahead, the orcs were charging on all four limbs, barreling through the snow like it wasn’t even there. They screamed and howled, drawing weapons and switching to a two-legged run as they neared. They wore hardly any clothing, and their green skin clashed strongly with everything else around them. When they were close enough for Emily to see their red eyes, she let loose her first arrow.
The orc in the lead garbled a scream as an arrow pierced his left cheek, striking something vital and sending forth red blood to stain the white snow. Emily cursed her shaking hands, hating herself for missing the orc’s eye by so far, but taking no more time on her next shot. There was no time to be picky.
Numb fingers drew an arrow she could hardly feel and pulled back on a string she only knew was there by sight. The arrow released, sliding across her fingers as it went and causing enough pain to jolt her body awake and cease the shaking in her hands. As for the arrow, it found a new home in the next orc’s nose, killing the creature so quickly that it didn’t scream like the first one had. Emily pulled back for another arrow, only dimly aware that her fingers were bleeding.
The orcs never balked. They flung themselves eagerly, still howling like animals, over their fallen comrades. The third and fourth arrows flew, knocking one to the ground and making another stumble as the arrow pierced its ear. Yet not even that injured one stopped its charge, and Emily swore as she continued to draw and release.
They were nearly on Takeo, and Emily managed to get off three more arrows before they clashed with him. She downed each target, killing all but one, which she left writhing in blood-drenched snow, barely able to crawl. Its howls turned to screams, and it flailed its weapon like it could still reach the battle if it only tried. The single-mindedness of its murderous brain unnerved Emily as she drew another arrow and prepared to save Takeo’s life.
The first orc came at the samurai in a dead sprint, howling so loud that it made Emily’s ears ring. Takeo sidestepped, dodging the cleaver and opening the orc at the stomach, sending it sliding across the ice behind him, smearing the land red with its blood.
Seven more, Emily counted off in her head. Too many.
The next two came together, and Takeo had only enough time to dodge one and parry the other. The orcs’ swings were so brutal that Takeo stumbled as he parried, tripping and staggering back onto the frigid ice. Emily’s arrow leapt into the air and pierced the nearest orc’s throat, letting loose another jet of dark red blood to dirty the snow.
Takeo quickly cut down the remaining one, hacking the beast down at the knee and then finishing it with an upward cut across its face. He was just in time because three more descended upon him, and he staggered to keep his footing as they charged into him. He dodged one, then another, and only just got his blade up in time to block the final blow. That orc’s swing was too much, though, and it sent Takeo flying into the air. When he hit the ground, he slid for several paces, but even then, he never had a moment to breathe because the orcs followed him, still howling like mad.
Emily’s hands and fingers danced, drawing and shooting, downing another orc before she realized the last two were charging for her. The next arrow took one of them in the gut, which was enough to cause that one to stumble and strike the callous ice face first. It did not rise—either dead or unconscious—but Emily barely had time to notice because the last one was on her.
It came at her, leaping in the air, legs and arms back, weapon held in both hands, screaming like a thing possessed. Emily gave her own cry and tumbled back, barely dodging the blade as it struck the ground where she’d stood a moment before. Huge splinters of ice exploded into the air, spiraling in all directions, and the orc fumbled its landing and fell prone on the ice. Emily was on her back, scrambling away, trying desperately to grab her knife with hands too numb to feel it.
The orc howled and screamed, wrenching its blade free and swinging it at her again, hacking apart more chunks of ice, while Emily frantically swung her legs back and forth to dodge the massive cleaver. For every bit she scampered away, the orc scampered closer.
I cannot reach it, she realized. Not with my knife.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Takeo faring no better. He had managed to wound one, leaving it limping along with a bloody stump for a left hand, but the orc did not seem to care. Blood poured from its wound, and still it howled and fought and swung alongside its partner, preventing Takeo from doing anything other than fending for his life against two swinging blades the size of himself. The ice seemed to help in this regard, preventing his enemies from gaining the mobility to flank him.
Emily’s attention was forced back to the orc as it swung again, cleaving open another wound in the ice while it clawed across the slippery surface on two knees and one hand. It found purchase in the holes it created and scampered faster toward her. Emily’s hand finally found her knife, and she drew it.
I’m going to die, she realized. This is what it all comes down to.
In a last, desperate hope, she tried in vain to reach out to the colossus.
Go to Lucifan, she commanded, hoping that it would obey her in death. Kill Sir Mark O’Conner.
There was no hollow reply, nor did she feel her mind tugged off to a faraway place. She searched frantically for the colossus’ empty shell of a soul, but found nothing.
And then there was light—sudden, inexplicable, bright light on herself, on the orc, on the ice, all around her—bright, yellow light, and heat. Warmth touched her cheeks, her clothes, even her frigid, bloodied fingers. And then came a whistle in the air, like an arrow through the sky, and Emily knew not what to think because the orc was still trying to kill her. It had closed the gap between them, ignoring Emily’s kicks to its green, ugly face. It snarled and howled and raised its sword high to cut Emily in two.
And then she saw the source of the whistle and the light: the most beautiful angel, encased in leathered armor, soaring in on feathered wings with a sword in hand and light pouring out from behind her. She dove from the clouds, hardly more than a blur, reaching Emily and the orc in the span of a heartbeat. Her sword, held in front, drove straight into the orc’s back.
The orc screamed, and a fountain of blood erupted from its wound. The death strike it had prepared for Emily fell limp as the orc howled, and the creature was lifted up into the air on the angel’s sword alone, sliding down the blade until it settled on the hilt, still screaming in agony.
The angel, hardly bigger than Emily, appeared calm and collected as she hoisted the orc into the air without effort. She continued to hover over the ground on feathered wings—her golden hair spun in spirals down her back and fluttered from the wind created by her own flight. Her eyes sparkling green like emeralds—
Green eyes, Emily’s mind blared. Green eyes!? That’s no angel!
Emily gasped as the warrior woman—the orc impaled on her sword like a helpless toy—looked back and smiled warmly.
“Hello, Emily,” she said. “My husband sends his regards.”
The winged creature flung the orc off her sword and through the air, where it conveniently crashed into the injured one that was still trying to kill Takeo. Both orcs fell to the ground with the sword-impaled one dead and the injured one snarling as it tried to break free.
It never did.
The woman shot through the air on feathered wings and slammed her sword down through both orcs and a layer of ice, killing the injured one and sending a pool of blood leaking out from them both. When she ripped her sword clean, it was drenched, and Emily scrambled further back.
Her husband sends his regards, Emily repeated the line. Who is her husband? Who is she? WHAT is she?
The woman turned her eyes to focus on Takeo and the orc. Both had stopped to gaze in shock at the winged warrior, now caked with thick blood.
“Takeo.” The woman flashed a warm smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Takeo!” Emily called out in warning.
The woman soared across the ice, bolting faster than a bugbear’s charge. Takeo’s blade came up in defense, but it was perilously slow in comparison. He only just got it up in the air before the woman’s blade reached the last orc and decapitated it in one swing. The orc died with its face frozen in shock, slumping to the ground where its head fell free to roll on the ice.
“Pesky orcs,” the woman tisked.
She rested her sword, point down, thrusting its tip into the ice, despite that she was still floating a hand’s width above the ground, wings flapping in long strokes. Around her, the scene looked like the aftermath of a battle in Juatwa with corpses all around and a silence so deafening it rang. Only the wind, weak compared to the howling of orcs, made noise now. Blood dripped thickly down the woman’s sword, clotting fast and pooling at the bottom. On either side of her, Emily and Takeo were both gasping into the biting cold, their attention completely absorbed by the miracle before them.
That was until Emily felt a sharp sting and took her hands off the ice. They were starting to turn blue. She grimaced and buried each one inside the opposite sleeve before struggling to stand.
“Are . . . are you an angel?” Takeo asked, standing awestruck.
The woman turned away from the orc and gave Takeo a motherly smile. She was beautiful, like the way Heliena had been beautiful. It took one’s breath away, only paling when compared to an angel. The woman’s golden locks fell down to her back, and her green eyes flashed brilliantly. The yellow light still pierced a small hole in the clouds above, and as the snow drifted through it, it melted and dropped as water.
Wait, Emily thought. Where is that light coming from? That’s not where the sun is.
“Of course not, dear,” the woman said. “I’m a valkyrie.”
“I. . .” Takeo’s lips opened and closed. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Thank you,” Emily stuttered. “Thank you so much for saving us. Um, uh, ma’am? Can I, um, ask who your husband is? If you don’t mind?”
“Oh!” the woman covered her mouth with a dainty, blood-soaked hand. “Dearest me! I’m so sorry. You don’t know who I am, do you? I do apologize. I’m not used to having to introduce myself. Silly me! My husband is an old friend of yours, he tells me. You two helped him reach me, and he is very thankful for that. Me, too, of course. Would you by chance remember a Kollskegg Ludinson the Sturdy?”
Emily’s jaw would have hit the ground had it not already been wide open. All tension evaporated, and her body went limp, exhausted and amazed, too elated and shocked to care that the snow clung to her hair and clothes. She was alive, saved, and for a brief moment, she remembered what it was like not to worry.
“Yes,” Emily whispered, voice hoarse, a tear forming in her eye.
“That is good.” The woman smiled. “Oh! Takeo dearest! Please, come here. You must be freezing. Step into the light. Come, come.”
He stumbled as he obeyed, but the moment the light touched his skin, he shuddered and sighed.
“Don’t worry about it melting the ice,” she insisted. “The ground is too cold here to be warmed so easily. You too, Emily. Can you feel it?”
Emily realized her hands were no longer cold. Neither was any part of her body that wasn’t in contact with the ice. Even the biting wind did little to chill her ears when the light touched them. She took her hands out of her sleeves and touched her nose, ecstatic at the fact that she could feel it again.
“I know who you are,” Takeo said. “Your name is Ingrid. Yes, I remember now. Koll told us about you, his wife. The golden hair and green eyes, I thought you were dead?”
“Oh, I still very much am.” Ingrid chuckled. “You truly know nothing of valkyries, do you, my dear?”
“I don’t either,” Emily said, standing up to soak in more light. “However, I’d like to know.”
Ingrid wiped her gigantic sword on the nearest orc corpse and sheathed it diagonally across her back. She floated on her white-feathered wings—never once touching the ground—until she was centered between them. With hands still covered in blood, she gestured for them to come closer, and they obeyed, closing the gap between them until Takeo’s fingers intertwined with Emily’s.
“Valkyries are chosen when they die,” Ingrid said, “to become keepers of Valhalla. It is our duty to decide who is worthy to reach that heavenly hall full of warriors who died brave deaths. That is where my husband is now, you see? He died a legend, fighting a legendary battle, and I chose him to become an einherjar, a champion who will fight for the forces of good when the world comes to an end. We do not normally interfere with the lives of mortals, as I have just done, but I find it hard to say no to my Sturdy. He has a message for you two, and he claimed we both owe you a great debt for reuniting us.”
“Consider it paid,” Emily replied, breathless. “Thank you so much for saving us.”
“You are too kind.” Ingrid reached out and gave Emily’s cheek a pinch, leaving blood smeared on her cheek. “And so sweet, your mother must be so proud of you. Such a bright, strong girl. I would have liked to have had daughters like you.”
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Of all the things Emily Stout expected to discover on her quest for vengeance, love and destiny were not among them. Yet she found both only to lose them for the most pitiful of rewards: her life. Leaving the blood-soaked fields of Juatwa behind, Emily now journeys to the treacherous Mountains of Khaz Mal to track down and rescue the other half of her soul from slavery. Such a feat will require both careful planning and experience. Emily must accomplish it with neither. Even so, her destiny looms before her. Lucifan, former city of angels, faces annihilation at the hands of a tyrant, and only Emily can save it and, by extension, the world. For she has the ultimate weapon at her disposal, and should she fall, there will be no other to take it up in her place.