Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Dark  ➡  Supernatural

What Was Forgotten

Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Thank You

About the Author

© 2016 Tim Mathias. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

Dedicated to anyone who reads this for giving me the most precious of things: time.

 

WHAT WAS FORGOTTEN

A Story By Tim Mathias

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 1

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

 

 

He was unaccustomed to the quiet. For months there had always been a familiar din, the work of engineers and smiths. The noises of the besiegers and the besieged echoed through and across the stony hillsides, carried off by the wind. The clamour of their great struggles would be remembered by the land; the earth that had drank its fill of the blood of both sides, and the hills that sat, observant and impartial. They would remember long after the ink of the historians turned to dust. More to be taken by the wind.

Now that the last battle of the siege was over, Zayd Cothar felt the stillness hanging over the army. The soldiers together were like the great lion: they had finally caught the soft neck of their prey and were hesitant to do anything except to wait until they were sure it was dead. Every barred door in the great foreign city of Yasri had been broken down. Every gate torn open. Every enemy cut down. It had been the last stronghold of the Dramandi, the last of their lights to be extinguished.

Zayd stood patiently in the General’s command tent listening to the silence, thinking on how odd it was, what a relief it was that they had finally won. It would only be a matter of months before his term of duty was at an end, and then he would be released.

Free to return home.

He paced, not out of nervousness but rather anticipation. As one of the few who spoke the Dramandi tongue, he knew why the general had summoned him: it was an honour to be given the responsibility to negotiate the final surrender of the Dramandi, but it was equally daunting. His failure could mean prolonging of the war which the Ryferian Empire had all but already won. Yasri was the last of the enemy’s organized resistance. There was an army that had quit the field and vanished into the wilds of the land, but surely even they would soon meet an end…

Zayd turned at the rustle of the tent flaps. General Vaetus walked in alone and quickly dismissed Zayd’s salute. “Good, you’re here. It’s Cothar, yes? Zayd?” Vaetus wasted no time in pouring himself a small cup of wine and downed it in one gulp. “Damn, I’ve been looking forward to that.” He motioned to the small wine cask on his table. “Would you care for any, Captain?”

Zayd shook his head and clasped his hands behind his back. “No, sir. It’s best if I don’t.”

“I think you’ve earned it. I know how hard you and the other Tauthri have fought. How you brought down that gatehouse. Brilliant, if you ask me. And you lost a few on that night, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sir. We lost two that night.”

“Just two? Incredible. It would have taken thirty Trueborn to do that, and half of them would have died. That’s why most of them hate your kind, you see. They’re frightened of you. Envious, even. Some of them maybe even fought against you during the conquest, and now, here you are fighting alongside them. Are you sure you won’t have some wine? I know the law about enlisted Tauthri, but it’s just you and I here, and by the Beacon you deserve a damned drink.”

“Thank you, General,” Zayd said, “but it’s been years since I’ve had any. Best if I just leave it alone.”

Vaetus paused. “Would it make the dreams stop?”

“I’d need to have more than a cup,” Zayd said.

“I don’t envy you for that… to dream of your homeland every night. Do you get used to it? Does the longing subside?”

“It takes a long time,” Zayd said. It was a lie; the longing never subsided. The wound was reopened every morning when the dreams dissipated. There were days when all he wanted was to drink himself into oblivion to deafen the yearning. Tauthri in the Ryferian army used to succumb to it all the time, but those were the months just following the defeat of Tauth and their integration into the Empire. Now, Tauthri serving in the Ryferian army were not allowed a drop.

“Very well,” Vaetus said. “To the task at hand.” The General leaned against a large table that was covered in different maps of the regions of Dramand and ran a hand over his shorn blond hair. Most men his age were greying, but the General still looked capable enough to fight amongst the rank and file.

Zayd, like most Tauthri was a head shorter than their Ryferian counterparts. He wore his dark brown hair as his father had: the sides and back of his head were shaved, and remaining hair was tied back into a tail that reached the top of his shoulders. Aside from height, the two peoples were largely similar, save for the Tauthris’ black, featureless eyes.

“You’ve likely guessed at why I summoned you,” Vaetus said. “The Dramandi have offered up someone willing to talk. Or willing to listen, at least. He’s one of the Revered, so I’m told. A seer of importance.”

“No one else has offered to speak for them?”

“Not a single soul. I’ve never seen such hate. I saw the assembled captives. I don’t know yet how many, but every single one of them looks like they would rather die than spend a day under our rule.”

“The seer, is he young or old?”

“He looks older than the damned city itself.”

Zayd shook his head. “We need to find someone younger, and not anyone from their faith. Someone from the army.”

“Everyone in the army is dead or has fled, so far as we can tell. Everyone of position, at least.”

“We’re at a disadvantage, General. The old ones can stick to their ideals since they have less to lose. We need someone who has much to lose.”

“I cannot choose who it is that these people admire, who they follow. If they won’t yield, then they won’t yield, but by the Beacon we will give them the chance. The fault is not yours or mine if they do not recognize what we are offering.”

“Yes, sir, but… it isn’t that easy when I’m the one to talk to them.”

Vaetus nodded and looked at his feet. “I know, I know. It isn’t easy. But it’s your duty, and you’ve always done it. I trust that you’ll carry it out again.”

Zayd nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. They’re ready for you in the temple.”

Zayd saluted, but Vaetus waved it off. “One more thing, Captain: I’m sending two Regiments back to the capital. Eighth and Ninth, led by Field Commander Areagus. I want you to arrange a detail of sentries to accompany it to Fort Vigil on the coast.”

“How many?”

“Ten, maybe. No more than fifteen. You’ll be taking the relic back to Lycernum.”

“The…the relic, sir?”

“Yes, yes, the relic. Have you seen the damned thing? I’ve never seen such a thing in all my life and I doubt very much that anyone else has either. That thing alone I’d bet is a year’s pay for every single soldier in the entire Empire. Not that we’ll see it distributed like that, sorry to say. If I had my way, though, I’d break that massive sheet of gold into pieces, one piece for every man that has fought in this war. But… it’s not to be. They are expecting it in Lycernum. Emperor Madriceth is wise, I’m sure he’ll find a proper use for it.”

“I had heard of something buried beneath the temple.”

Vaetus nodded. “It looks as though it’s been buried there for centuries. Beyond words, really. Why anyone would bury it is a mystery to me. Take a look when you finish with their priest.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now I’ve got to find Areagus to see if he’s found any better maps of this phantom-cursed land. The ones we’ve managed to salvage are nearly impossible to read.”

 

 

 

Zayd walked through the bent and broken remains of an immense iron portcullis. It was the largest, most well-crafted defense that many in the army had ever seen. Zayd afforded a passing thought of admiration for the skill that was evident in its creation, though in the end, the iron could not stop the unstoppable. All things yielded. It was only whether they yielded in time.

Beyond the mangled portcullis was the great Moon Temple of Aulvennic, the most sacred place for the Dramandi. The heart of their faith. He again had thoughts of admiration as he looked upon the intricate carvings on the four towers which flanked the temple’s entrance. Over the doors was an archway into which the faces of their icons had been rendered centuries ago with adulation.

For months during the siege, they had listened as the Dramandi sang devotionals here in front of the temple to their idols at sunset and sunrise, honouring the arrival and departure of the moon. It had been this place they had defended most fervently to the last. There would be no more singing, and history was already forgetting the sounds of their songs.

Zayd made his way to the temple, pausing before the archway to praise the Beacon, lest he profane himself once he stepped foot on unholy ground. “Our light, the dispeller of darkness, enemy of the shadows, keep me in your sight.”

The hall into the temple was narrow and the floor was cluttered with debris. The Dramandi priests had hastened to hide their treasure and relics, but once the last of their soldiers had surrendered, the Ryferian troops had ransacked the temple, as was their right. There were groups of soldiers there still, breaking through walls, digging up loose parts of the floor, hoping to claim some bit of plunder for their very own.

The hall opened into a round room, a sanctuary with a circular opening in the centre of the ceiling through which Zayd imagined he could see the moon at night. Dozens of books had been piled in the centre of the room. Two historians were going through them, page by page, gradually coming to a greater understanding of the blasphemous nature of their foe. Every last tome would be destroyed once the historians had taken finished their work. Only what they recorded would survive, and so history would forever remember the Dramandi exactly as the Ryferians deemed fitting.

The seer was seated on a stack of books, hunched over and diminutive. Two Ryferian soldiers stood on either side of him, swords drawn, keeping him from escaping, though it was clear just by looking at the frail old man that he could not possibly possess the fortitude, vigor, or even the willpower to flee. Quite the opposite; his hands held tightly to the books on which he sat, possibly to keep himself balanced, though Zayd thought he looked like a hen protecting eggs from a fox.

There was no place for Zayd to sit, so he sat on the floor and looked up at the Dramandi seer. If the old man noticed Zayd’s arrival, he did not show it. He simply stared down at his feet while nodding his head and moving his lips slightly, mouthing a hymn or a prayer.

“May I know your name?” Zayd asked. He had started with this question once before, and it was a good start to the conversation, though the ending was as he had feared. The seer did not respond. “Do you know why you’ve been brought here? We want to discuss an end to the war.”

Still the seer said nothing, but Zayd noticed his grip tighten on the book he was sitting on. Zayd stood and pushed the seer off the books. The stack teetered and fell, and Zayd picked up the book that was on the top. He opened it while looking at the seer and slowly tore out a page. The old man tried to scramble to his feet, but the closest soldier put a heavy hand on his shoulder and kept him in place. “Is this what you really want?” Zayd asked. “Do you want your existence in this world to vanish completely?”

“Stop!” the seer cried. “Stop it, please!” Another page fell to the floor.

Zayd stopped. “Are you willing to talk?”

“Please, just…” the seer trailed off as he began to weep. Zayd knelt in front of him and handed him the book.

“You have lost much, but you need not lose everything. I was once where you are now. Do you know of Tauth?”

The seer nodded.

“I was a young man when Tauth was invaded. We thought we would win the war against Ryferia, and when it became clear that we could not, many wanted to die fighting instead of surrendering. Part of me wanted that, too. But I made the choice. The hardest choice there was.”

“You gave up your gods,” the seer said, and he looked at Zayd in a way that surprised him. It was pity in his eyes.

“Yes, I did. My people did. We gave them up and accepted Xidius, the Beacon. We live in his light now, out from under our darkness. My people now don’t resemble the people we once were, but we remember. We were strong, and we are strong now. Stronger that we are in the emperor’s domain, and my wife and my son are alive because of the sacrifices we have made.”

“That won’t last,” the seer said softly. “There will be a time when no generation remembers, and then your people will be gone. Is your son learning the old ways, the things that your father taught you, and his father taught him?”

Zayd looked back at the pile of books and flipped open the nearest one. “You are a man made wise by knowing the wisdom of others. My son is in Lycernum, the heart of Ryferia, the centre of civilization. He is learning the wisdom of others, only he will learn a hundred times over by the time he is a grown man what you have learned your entire life. There are scores of books in the Xidian colleges, hundreds upon hundreds of tomes. My son is blessed to have the chance to be there, and many of your people may share the same chance.” Zayd closed the book forcefully. “If you yield.”

“The Dramandi will not yield. We’ll not abandon Aulvennic and Ulrodin. They’ve kept us strong in life…”

Zayd heard the words coming before they were spoken.

“… and they will keep us after death.”

“Is this your choice?” Zayd motioned to the historians behind him as they pored over the piles of books. “To have them make your people into a chapter in a book that no one will ever read? To make this country into a grave without a marker?”

The seer shook his head. “It is not my choice. There is no choice to make.” The seer spoke no further. Zayd recognized the look of utter resignation. He had seen the same look many times. He stood, looked at the soldiers and shook his head, and they picked up him and took him out of the temple.

And that was it. Hundreds upon hundreds of lives would be ended because of the pride of one old fool. Zayd hoped he would not be near enough to see or hear the executions. He had had his fill of the brutality of this war. The executioners, the warrior-giants from the province of En Kazyr, would be glad to know they would be needed as they never seemed to tire of crushing the emperor’s enemies, no matter how bloody the task.

He looked about the circular room and saw a number of doorways spaced at even intervals, except for one which was clearly out of place and, as he stepped closer, had clearly been chiseled away quite recently. The hallway beyond was without light, but Zayd could see perfectly. The black eyes were the gift of the Tauthri that Ryferian soldiers envied and also loathed, but he knew their loathing only disguised their fear, and their fear was a mark of their ignorance. General Vaetus knew his worth, Zayd assured himself. Vaetus knew how valuable the Tauthri were to the army. Not all Trueborn were fearful and unenlightened.

The smooth stone floors quickly gave way to jagged earth, and the path descended at a steep angle. Stones jutted up from the ground, and there were gaping holes where other rocks had been dug out. As Zayd cautiously navigated the path, he felt as though he could smell the centuries of this place. He thought he heard the echoes of stone and earth being hauled out of this darkness. The stone and earth would be the only ones to remember the people of Yasri as they were.

The path went further and deeper and became narrow until all sound vanished except for Zayd’s breathing. And then, a few steps further, the walls opened and the ceiling rose to a great height, and before him was a wall of metal, nearly ten feet high. This was the relic. His eyes adjusted further, and his breath caught in his throat.

“Gold…”

It was not just metal – it was a solid mass of gold. At the top and bottom, there were dozens of lines of text, some ancient language unknown to him, and in the centre, some calamitous tapestry. There were two silhouettes, one on each side facing each other, things that resembled men, yet they were misshapen and grotesque. This world had its own monsters, Zayd knew, but he could not bring himself to imagine these carvings as living creatures. Their spider-like arms reached, from the left and right, towards the point in the centre, as though offering some sort of sinister invitation. The space between the two hands drew the eye, but there was nothing there but a smooth, circular spot bereft of any decoration. He reached out to touch it, but his hand stopped short and hung for a moment in the air. There was a sensation he felt travel through his outstretched arm, something he had never felt before.

“I am in the light of the Beacon,” he said to himself. He imagined the creatures carved in the gold were alive and looking at him, pleading for help, for escape from being buried for centuries. But they were not pitiful; they looked like a nightmare wrapped in gold.

Zayd stood for a few moments longer, moments seeming to him to stretch out for hours, before he walked back through the darkness and out of the sanctuary. There was a feeling in him he could not name, an unease that spoke of things unknown, telling him words of caution in a language long lost.

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 2

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

Autumn had shown Lycernum little sunlight, but on the morning that Osmun Arus was summoned to the great Xidian Cathedral, the sun rose over the Whitewing Mountains unobstructed by clouds. Osmun accepted it as the clear omen it was. The Beacon had blessed him with divine sight, and he would finally be recognized for his great ability. He knew it was only a matter of time before he was officially granted the title of cleric. There were few who had the gift of divine sight, and no one who could manipulate it as he could. It was because his faith was stronger; Xidius Lycern Ryfe, the Dispeller of Darkness, the Founder of the Faith, the Beacon himself, could see into Osmun’s heart and could see that he was a truer disciple than any other. It was the reason that Osmun was about to be the youngest priest made cleric in the long history of the Xidian Church.

Osmun lived and studied in a small monastery in Lycernum, the great capital of the Empire, and every morning at sunrise he walked the streets of the city, hands clasped behind his back. It was the same route every day; from the monastery through Garrend’s Gate, where he would bow his head respectfully to the stone likeness of the great Garrend Vellix, one of the heroes of the Dominion War. Through the gate were the slums, where even the poorest of the city deferred respectfully to any man wearing the yellow-trimmed robes of white, a sun emblazoned over the heart. From there he walked past the mills and bake-houses and was invigorated by the smell of burning wood and fresh bread. Almost daily he would buy a ractha, an especially delicious bread roll from Tumanger Toron, an Ivesian immigrant to the capital.

The near-endless stalls of the market vendors would be next, many of them either still closed at the early hour or just opening up. He would make his way downhill then, as he did this morning, to the harbour. Osmun liked that there was always activity here, the one part of the city that never ceased, as if it was to the city as the heart was to the body. And if that were so, then the Cathedral surely would be the city’s soul. It was where he went next, and to the tremendous monument to the Beacon in the great open square in front of it. Half as tall as the Cathedral’s bell tower which dominated the cityscape, the monument was of Xidius himself holding a fiery sphere – the sun –– in his palm, a reminder that he was the light and the way to it. In his other hand, a sword, a reminder of a different sort; everlasting vigilance was needed against the enemies of the faith and the Empire. The monument had stood for so long, had even survived the destruction during Ivesian Storming of Lycernum, that most of its defining features had worn away. The Empire was centuries removed from when the carving was new, and its true appearance was lost to legend. Osmun thought it was more appropriate, for how does a sculptor, no matter how skilled, recreate the face of God?

From the foot of the monument, one could see the Father Whitewing to the north and the Son Whitewing to the south, the two great peaks of the mountains between which Lycernum rested.

It was said that the body of Xidius Lycern Ryfe was interred atop the Father. Sometimes Osmun wondered if that were true; after he was murdered by the Betrayer, the Beacon’s own disciples had supposedly taken his body to the peak to that he could watch over Lycernum for all of its days, but in the decades and centuries since, none of the pilgrims that climbed the mountain had ever completed the ascent. Many said it was impossible. Perhaps Ryfe’s disciples knew of a way and kept it secret so that the tomb would remain undisturbed.

Osmun whispered a prayer to himself as he knelt before the monument. The twenty-four years of his life had led him to this moment. He rose to his feet, clasped his hands behind his back once again, and walked purposefully towards the Cathedral. He had never felt such unyielding anticipation. The sounds of the awakening city were dulled by the beating of his heart. So fixated was he on what was to come that he did not see the hooded figure approach, only turning when he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Orry?” Osmun said, stupefied. Oridas Ruhla smiled and gave a slight nod. “Orry, by the Beacon, how long has it been? Three years?”

“Four, though it has felt far longer.” Time looked like it had aged Osmun’s friend far quicker than normal. Orry’s hair was black, combed back behind his ears, reaching to the base of his neck, and his thin beard that covered his cheeks and chin was almost entirely grey. It was in his eyes, though, where Osmun saw the youth and wonder his friend had once possessed had been replaced by something else, something cold… the look of a hunter after prey.

“I knew I would see you again, but I worried it would not be until we were both old men, our duties to the faith fulfilled.”

“I was in the border provinces for a time, as I believe you were as well. Then I was in Falkir.”

“You’ve returned from Falkir?” Osmun’s mouth hung open. “So that means…”

Orry nodded. “That I’m one of the Ardent now, yes.” Osmun gave his friend a smile, formed both of happiness and disappointment. The Ardent were the church’s soldiers, secretive warriors who hunted down enemies of the faith at the order of the church leadership. The wild region of the Falkir Valley was their proving ground, a place where many eager candidates had died.

Much of the time the enemies of the faith were found in the heart of Ryferia, so the Ardent worked in the shadows or while hiding in plain sight; they wore nothing to signify what they were save for the brands that were seared onto their wrists, though it was said they could convince anyone of their position by show of force.

“So when mothers tuck in their children at night and tell them to behave lest the Ardent take them away, they’ll be speaking of you now as well,” Osmun said.

Orry laughed. “Yes, I imagine so.”

“Why are you here now? Am I…wait, Orry…”

Osmun’s old friend laughed harder. “No, no. By the Beacon… I came because I know that your trial is today and I wanted to wish you luck. I always knew you were meant for great things. The blessings that Xidius has given you… You will lead the church, one day. I’m sure of it.”

“I hope so, if only so that our paths converge once more.”

Orry returned the half-sad smile to Osmun, acknowledging what they both now understood: that it might be years, or even decades, before that happened. What would their friendship mean at that point? They grew up together, but what value would that hold when they will have spent vastly more time apart than together?

Without speaking another word, Oridas hugged Osmun tightly, patted him on the shoulders, and walked away, swallowed up into the morning crowds. Osmun looked up at the building looming over him.The Cathedral’s bell tower seemed to gaze down upon him as he pushed open the heavy iron doors and walked inside.

There were scores of candles, torches, and braziers lit inside the Cathedral, making it nearly as bright inside as it was outside on a clear day. Tall, wide windows high above also helped flood the chapel with light. It was so expertly engineered that the image of the Xidian sun in the immaculate marble floor seemed to radiate its own light. Even the stone pillars seemed unable to cast a single shadow in the beauty of this place.

On the stage where the sermons were preached daily was the sun altar, and beside it was the Eternal Flame, the candle that was lit from another, and going back thusly all the way to the very creation of the faith.

“Ah, Osmun! You’ve come.” Cleric Egus looked up from the lectern, his eyes squinting to see all the way to the Cathedral entrance. “That is Osmun, yes?” The old man scratched his bald head and then rubbed his eyes.

“Yes, Cleric Egus. I have come as you asked.”

“Good, good! Please, forgive me… my sight is not what it used to be.” Egus rubbed his eyes again and stepped off of the stage. “It will not be long before I can no longer read the scriptures. What a sad day that will be, though I suppose such things are inevitable.” Egus waved Osmun forward. “Come, come, young man. Pray with me.”

They stood before the sun altar and prayed silently. Egus kept his head bowed and eyes closed for far longer than Osmun did, but the young priest kept his head bowed and waited for the old man to speak first. Osmun eyed the Eternal Flame and noticed it flicker almost down to nothing. Egus lifted his head.

“Are you ready, Osmun?”

“I am. I saw it flicker, Cleric Egus.” Osmun pointed to the Eternal Flame. “Do we need to move it somewhere safer?”

“This place is old and drafty. Not to worry.”

“But the Flame might go out.”

Egus smiled at the naivety of the young priest. “The Flame? Oh, my dear Osmun, the Flame has gone out many times. Don’t be concerned. I know the Tenet of the Eternal Flame is a holy one…”

“‘The light of Xidius will be a Beacon, unending, a flame that survives all things,’” Osmun recited.

Egus began to walk and motioned Osmun to follow. “Too humourless of a reading, I fear. The instruction was not for us to keep a flame lit for all eternity. Such an endeavour would be bound to fail. Let the historians make such an attempt. They have much more time to tend to such things.” Egus laughed. “The flame is the one in here.” The cleric tapped his chest. “This is the fire which must remain lit. [_Here _]is where we fight evil, where the battles against the darkness are won and lost. Xidius taught his followers to be vigilant, always vigilant. The fire inside allows us to drive the darkness from this world.”

Osmun put his hand to his chest and looked back at the flame before the altar, drawing connections between the symbolism of the Tenet and the intangible aspects within him.

“You have a question,” Egus said.

“Just a thought.”

“Thoughts and ideas can be a valuable currency.”

Osmun stopped walking so he could form his thoughts into a phrase less impious than he felt it was. “Can our flame within also flicker and die?”

Egus tilted his head and continued walking, nodding as he spoke. “It is the telltale mark of wisdom to look into poetry and metaphor and discern the truth of our nature. Well done, Osmun. Yes, the light within will flicker and become dim. You will be tested, and you will fail. Perhaps you may feel as though your light, your strength, has gone out completely.” A look of sadness flashed across the cleric’s face, a memory of some great sadness or terror. Osmun almost pried, but remained silent.

“As long as you are in the light of the Beacon, He will give you strength,” Egus said, smiling again. “Have you prepared for your trial?”

The offhanded nature of the question surprised Osmun. Did Egus not take the trials seriously? Or did he think that Osmun would not succeed? Surely Egus had heard of his exploits. He had not only communed with malign spirits of the Beyond, he had commanded them. Like the Beacon. He had spent a year campaigning with General Cassurus’ army in their war against the Dramandi. After the fall of Altyri, the soldiers had been too fearful to sack the temples because of the presences that could be felt there. Osmun had driven the spirits from the place, and he had done so alone, a feat that few others could claim. What was more, he had done so with relative ease. Cleric Lavus, a veteran of many campaigns and a high-ranking member of the Assembly of Elders, had been unable to seal the rift to the Beyond through which the spirits were able to pollute this world.

Osmun had done it in a scant few hours. He recalled the sensation; communing was like being thrust deep underwater, into total darkness. This was not the Beyond; it was like a meeting ground between their world and the black despair of the Beyond that men were fortunate enough not to see. They called the meeting ground the silhouette, the place where the priests and clerics fought against the darkness. Combating the spirits in the silhouette was like being surrounded by a mass of entities with countless voices. It never was like talking to just one individual. The energy of the spirits hardly stayed still, rushing around like dust whipped up in a sandstorm. It seemed sometimes that they were aimless, as though they were fumbling in the dark of their own damnation. Osmun knew it was only the sensation, though. When the spirits of the Beyond seeped into this world, they haunted and tainted the living, driving them to evil and blasphemy. And these Dramandi actually worshipped the darkness. The young priest shook his head at the perversion. The sinners deserved the cleansing that they had received.

“Has Cleric Andrican already returned from Yasri?” Osmun asked.

“Two nights ago.”

“Should the trial not wait? Surely he must be weary from such a lengthy travel.” Osmun hoped he was, and that he would not attend the trial; Cleric Andrican had a reputation as an obstacle to those he saw as potential threats to his own position.

“Andrican has been anticipating your trial for quite some time. He is eager to begin. Afterward he will likely tell us about the fall of Yasri and the wondrous relics they found there. He does like to prattle on, you know.”

Osmun had heard about the relics. Most of Lycernum had. Particularly the monolith made of pure gold unearthed from Dramandi holy ground. The army had worked for nearly two weeks continuously, day and night, to remove it from the earth.

“I think it unwise to bring such unholy remnants here.”

“I had the same thought,” Egus said. “However, Andrican was able to determine quite quickly that the monolith is not Dramandi.”

“It’s not? What was it doing in their temple?”

Egus smiled and shrugged. “Andrican said there are images and writings carved into it in a language he has never seen. Whatever it is, it seems it was buried long before the Dramandi built their great city on top of it.”

The two men walked from the hall of the Great Cathedral, through several small cloisters, and down a long hallway. Osmun felt a chill despite the dozens of torches that kept the hallways brightly lit. They turned into the Cathedral’s library, a large room which was sparing in everything but shelf after shelf of books on every subject Osmun could imagine, though they were not the books written by the historians, the records of dozens of cultures that had been defeated and erased by the Empire.

Daylight poured through tall, opaque windows, keeping the library illuminated through all daylight hours. Osmun was always awestruck by the sheer amount of knowledge that had been amassed in this one place. This day was no different, and as he marveled once again at the countless pages that surrounded him, he nearly failed to notice Egus produce a small iron key from his robes.

“This way.”

Egus walked between two stacks that jutted out from the wall opposite the windows to a small iron door that Osmun had never noticed before. It was in the wall parallel to the stacks; one would have to walk all the way to the wall in order to see it. Even then, in the half-darkness between the tall, densely-packed shelves, it looked more like a faded tapestry hanging on the wall than anything else.

The door opened inward without a sound, revealing a steep and narrow staircase going down. Osmun followed Egus into the sparsely lit corridor. The stairs descended for a long way, and Osmun could only see the faint silhouette of Egus in front of him from the light that flickered at the bottom of the steps.

“We’ve always had the trials down here,” Egus said, breaking the silence.

“What do you keep down here?” Osmun asked.

Egus slowed his step just barely before answering, “The most dangerous of things.”

There was another iron door at the bottom of the stairs, which Egus opened with the same key. Osmun noted the unusual sequence of turns and counter-turns need to release the lock. Cleric Andrican stood waiting for them as the door opened.

“Welcome, Cleric Egus… Brother Osmun…”

The young priest almost did not notice Andrican at all. Instead his eyes fixed on the massive chest in the middle of the otherwise empty room. It looked as though it was composed almost entirely of steel, though the engravings of scripture into every inch of metal gave the container a sort of elegance. Andrican stepped between Osmun and the chest. “Brother Osmun?”

“Yes, Cleric Andrican. Forgive me. Welcome back to Lycernum.”

“Thank you, Brother Osmun. Cleric Egus has told me much of you. I have looked forward to helping oversee your trial. Very much so. I often wondered how you would have fared in one of the many Dramandi temples I cleansed.”

“I would have done what was necessary.”

“Is that so?” Andrican asked, his tone more inquisitive than doubtful.

“I do believe… I know I would have. You may have heard of my successes in Altyri, although, now that the campaign is nearly ended, I’ll not have another chance to show you firsthand.”

“You may yet.” Andrican motioned for Osmun to sit in front of the chest. He and Egus sat on either side, facing each other. It was then that Osmun noticed the walls of the room; the walls had looked at first glance like stone, however in the flickering torchlight Osmun could see now that they were massive panels of iron.

“Before we begin, you must swear to us, to yourself, and to the Beacon that you will not discuss anything that takes place here, in this room. The events of your trial are and shall be forever something which is never discussed with anyone, inside or outside of the church. Not other clerics, not the elders. Not even the emperor, should you meet him one day.”

“I understand,” Osmun said.

“Swear it.”

“I swear by the Beacon.” Osmun looked Andrican directly in the eye as he spoke, until he was certain the cleric was convinced of his sincerity.

“Good. Now, you are going to perform a cleansing,” Andrican said. “Ready yourself.”

Osmun nearly laughed. “You mean to say there is darkness here? On holy ground?”

“Not exactly,” Egus said. “We are going to bring the darkness in.”

Osmun was stunned. “You’re going to… create a rift to the Beyond?”

Andrican nodded towards the chest. “This contains sacred relics taken from the Dramandi temples. The historians will soon take possession of them, but we are using them now for your trial. The holy aspects of the relics should draw forth some strong spirits… it will be up to you, Osmun, to drive them out and repair the breach.”

“Do the elders approve of this? Creating a rift? Is it not a violation of our teachings?”

“The elders know,” Andrican said. “And it is only permitted for this purpose, for the trials. We must be able to assess your skills, to know whether or not you are ready.”

“Even with everything I’ve already done? Surely you must have heard of my accomplishments besides Altyri. In the border provinces , especially.”

“We have, but stories have a tendency to be exaggerated and embellished. We have to see for ourselves.”

Osmun shook his head. “This is…”

“Necessary,” Andrican said.

“I was going to say ‘foolish’,” Osmun said. “What if I fail?”

Egus motioned towards the walls. “If you lose control of them, the iron will slow them down, but only for a few moments.”

“So, try not to fail,” Andrican added. Osmun thought he could see the hint of a smirk.

“I will not,” Osmun said, straightening his back as he placed his hands on his knees. He rubbed them slightly to dry the sweat from his palms.

The two clerics closed their eyes and began. Osmun observed carefully. Their bodies tensed and their brows furrowed in concentration. They began to breathe deeply, and Osmun nearly jumped as the iron walls around him groaned slightly, as if welcoming a new visitor. He knew, then, it was time.

Osmun closed his eyes and, in darkness, saw the room with his mind, felt the cold iron walls and the heat of the torches. He could sense himself and the two clerics, all sitting motionless.

The rift felt like a scar on his consciousness, as they always did, and as Osmun felt his awareness wrapping around it, he could feel it pushing back against him as it tried to grow and expand.

Then the voices came.

It started with whispers that circled around him, barely audible but impossible to ignore. The whispers grew in number and intensity, and Osmun’s perception of his surroundings dimmed, as if a fog had suddenly settled in the room. They pushed back against him even more, so he withdrew and let the voices in the darkness focus on something else. Soon enough, it was the chest. Osmun could sense it had become the focal point to the spirits, as Andrican had assumed. He withdrew himself even further, barely keeping his perception on the spirits so that they would not notice him. And then, with sudden force, he felt the tendrils of his mind stretching out, racing over every surface of the room, and pushing the darkness back towards the rift. It was so swift that they were hardly able to resist. Osmun exhaled heavily and his hands clenched around his knees as the rift was sealed with his invocation of the Beacon’s light. Osmun remained focused and still; he heard no more whispers, but remained in his trance until he was certain they were gone.

He opened his eyes and felt a wide smile spread across his face. Even though the passage of time was different when communing with the Beyond, he was certain he had closed the rift in short order.

“I was going to allow more of the darkness through, but I didn’t want to chance it,” Osmun said. His voice trailed off as he noticed that Egus and Andrican still sat perfectly motionless, eyes closed. Even the flames of the torches were frozen. Osmun tried to rise, but there was something keeping him motionless. Daggers of cold surged down from his shoulders through his spine, and he tried to cry out in agony, but could not budge an inch. A shadow stepped around from behind him, walked behind Andrican and Egus in turn. No matter where it was, it always seemed to hide in Osmun’s periphery.

This was not right. He had banished all the spirits! He knew he had…

The shadow walked to the chest, yet somehow Osmun could tell it was disinterested.

There was a low rumble, steady and jarring, with an unnatural rhythm. It was speaking… There were many tones, but only one voice, impossible to discern, yet somehow Osmun knew the spirit had intention… intelligence… something which should not be possible. He felt his heart pounding in his chest. He could feel his body trying to run, yet it was held perfectly in place.

At once, he was looking up at the ceiling, gasping for air.

“Are you alright?” Egus asked. Osmun coughed and tried to sit up. There was pain, or perhaps only the memory of pain, running through his body.

“You did well,” Andrican said, slowly standing to his feet. “However, I did not realize it would take so much out of you.”

Osmun looked at them, confused by their nonchalance. Had they not seen what he had? Had they not heard it or felt it?

“Did you hear a voice?” he asked.

Egus laughed. “There are always voices, Osmun.”

“There was one voice that remained after the rift was closed. It spoke to me.”

The two clerics exchanged glances. Andrican extended his hand to help Osmun off the floor. “You seem to have pushed yourself quite hard,” he said dismissively.

“Did you not see it? It walked around us…” Osmun pointed and traced the path he had seen it take. “It circled us, and then it spoke.”

“What did it say?” Egus asked.

“Why are you asking?” Andrican said to the other cleric, glancing quickly at Osmun. “There was nothing. We would have heard something.”

“What did it say?” Egus repeated, ignoring Andrican’s objections.

“I don’t know,” Osmun said as he began to pace. “I couldn’t understand.”

“Then how could you be certain you heard anything?” Andrican asked.

“I am certain. It looked at me and spoke!”

“It had eyes?” Andrican folded his arms.

“It…no, I could tell. It didn’t, but…” Osmun could feel his words failing him as he protested.

The clerics looked at each other but said nothing. They did not need to speak for Osmun to hear their doubt in the silence.

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 3

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

 

A great cheer went up from dozens of soldiers who watched as the great golden monolith was finally maneuvered into place onto the carriage that had been built especially for it out of necessity. Three days ago it had been placed on a standard supply wagon, and it was only a few minutes before it splintered and broke under the monolith’s incredible weight. The men had laughed, and when the wind blew away part of the gray canvas that covered it, they went silent immediately as the early morning sun glinted off of the gold. Even Zayd had been awestruck, and noticed in the flash of a moment when the canvas rippled away, a silver disc in the center which had been bare when he had last seen it. It was breathtaking enough underground in the darkness, but even partially bare and gleaming in the sun was enough to draw every eye.

It was clear, then, what effect the monolith had on those who saw it; after the initial stupor at the undeniable beauty, it was greed that gripped every man. Who could help but imagine the life they would have if they could claim only a fraction of the substance? It was unavoidable. All men yearn for such impossibilities. Zayd could not even deny that he had felt it, though Areagus’ voice shouting orders, stirring him from his thoughts reminded him of his duty: to the Empire, mind and body.

Together, the Eighth and Ninth Regiments amounted to two hundred men; seventy-five infantry and twenty-five cavalry per regiment. At General Vaetus’ command, Zayd had enlisted two of his Tauthri lieutenants, Daruthin Cossorin and Tascell Wick, who each selected an additional five Tauthri to join the convoy on the journey back to Lycernum. Along with the supply hands, the group numbered about two hundred and fifty; large enough to dissuade any potential attackers, but small enough to likely go unnoticed by a larger marauding force. They would be traveling back through territory they had conquered in recent months, so Zayd thought it unlikely they would be assailed on their journey; however, he knew as well as anyone how war can foster instability and vicious opportunism. The only real marauding force that was a threat, at least that they knew of, was Roh Dun’s Shields, the now near-infamous Dramandi Regiment that seemed able to assail the Ryferian army in brutal, lightning-fast attacks before vanishing back into the wilderness.

The infantry of the two regiments bracketed the carriage, with the Eighth in the lead and the Ninth following. The cavalry was similarly dispersed; the mounted knights of the Eighth marched at the head of the group. Areagus favoured the Eighth Regiment more highly than the Ninth since he had formerly been a member of the Eighth before being promoted to his present rank. Willar Praene, leading the knights of the Ninth, had been in a foul mood for days after he had found out that he would be with the rearguard – a place of low esteem, in his mind. Many had heard the heated words that Praene levelled at Areagus, but when the Commander suggested the Ninth could stay in Yasri to burn the Dramandi dead, Praene grudgingly relented.

Zayd’s own contingent of Tauthri was to march between the Eighth’s infantry and cavalry. They had a carriage of their own for men to sleep in shifts during the day, for their active duty only came at night.

The sound of armoured footsteps took Zayd’s focus from the laden carriage. Coming through a large breach in the city walls strode another group of knights. Zayd raised his hand to salute until he saw the crest of the Silver Sun on the shoulder of the lead knight, who walked straight towards him. Though the knight carried his helm under his arm, it still took Zayd a moment to recognize Barrett Stern. He had not seen him for several merciful weeks, and now a thick black beard covered him from his jaw to his cheekbones. Barrett strode toward Zayd as if he intended to walk through him, but stopped less than an arm’s length away. The knight glared at Zayd’s partially raised hand.

“Is that a proper salute?” Barrett shouted, even though he was only inches away from Zayd.

“No, Exalt Stern,” Zayd replied. He saluted and expected Barrett to walk on, but he stood firm and simply stared at him. Zayd held the salute for what felt like a long while. The soldiers around the carriage had hushed as they took notice of the confrontation. The other Silver Sun knights behind Barrett, Alain Tullus and Savas Cole, stood silently with unreadable expressions.

Stern’s scowl changed briefly into a grin, but quickly gave way as if the scowl was his natural state. “We’re going to be sharing this journey, Tauthri.” He spat the last word. Zayd did not flinch, which annoyed the knight. “If I feel your black eyes on me during this march, I’m going to pull them from your head.” Stern shoved Zayd out of his way, and the other knights followed close behind him. Barrett’s Third Company of Silver Sun knights had taken severe casualties during the heaviest fighting of the campaign. Zayd had heard that only a handful of that unit had survived the final push leading up to the end of the siege. It seemed that those who had survived were being sent back to Lycernum early as a reprieve of sorts, though tranquility ill-suited Barrett. Zayd had seen him in the midst of battle. Reprieve was not for that kind of man.

“Did you scare him off, captain?”

Zayd turned to see Tascell Wick and his younger brother, Gavras, who was smiling at his irreverent question.

“Don’t joke, little brother,” Tascell said. “At least not when the barbarian is so close he might hear you. He may cut you down for your belligerence, and he’d probably get another commendation for it.” Tascell gave the slightest hint of a grin. Of all the Tauthri, he was the fiercest. He was tall for their kind, too, as tall as the average Trueborn. He kept his head bare as a rank and file soldier might, only because he refused to cover his clan’s sigil that was tattooed on the back of his head. His height and muscular frame was enough to distinguish him from the rest of the Tauthri.

“Do you think the Commander will allow me to have my isaithea?” Gavras asked, as his fingers tapped restlessly against his legs. It was rare that the Tauthri were allowed to indulge in their own culture, which meant the playing of their traditional war songs was typically forbidden. Zayd was uncertain how many of the Tauthri in Vaetus’ army were musicians, but he knew that Vaetus kept Gavras’ isaithea locked away somewhere. The instrument had five strings stretched over a narrow board that the player laid across his lap. A circular hollow of thin wood was attached under the centre of the board so the sound could resonate. Gavras, who was among the youngest of the Tauthri, was a particularly talented player and was almost always tapping his fingers on something, playing a tune in his mind.

“He might,” Zayd said. “None could dispute that it’s been earned. I’ll ask once he isn’t preoccupied with readying the regiments for the march.”

Gavras smiled and nodded eagerly, his fingers tapping faster. “Thank you, captain. Much longer without it and I’ll forget how to play.”

“Doubtful,” Tascell said.

“It shouldn’t be much longer until we leave,” Zayd said to Tascell. “Make sure the others are prepared.”

Tascell nodded. “At once.” He turned to Gavras. “Come, little brother. Let’s ready ourselves to quit this place.”

“I’ve been ready for weeks,” Gavras said.

 

 

 

They were on the march an hour after sunrise, heading northward on an old road they had managed to discern on the near-indecipherable Dramandi maps. Zayd was happy to leave Yasri behind him. In some ways, the past two weeks had been worse than the siege. It had started with the mass executions, which only the En Kazyr giants seemed to enjoy. As always, there came a point where the prisoners, horrified at the methodical slaughter, began to plead for any other sort of fate. That point came far later with the Dramandi, who remained so silent that Zayd thought that every last soul would meet their death without uttering a sound.

Yet they did relent, and even Zayd felt relief for them. General Vaetus, though, commanded the executioners to continue; the Dramandi were not just another conquered people, after all. They had started the war, and so their punishment must be appropriate. They had burned the dead, cleansing with fire the darkness from the bodies of their enemy. The smoke from the pyres had lasted for days.

They would have been spared if they relented earlier. Thousands now dead could have lived, simply by renouncing their false beliefs and pledging their mind and body to the Beacon. Many would have lived out the rest of their days as slaves, but Zayd knew it was better to be a slave for the Empire than to be a free man living in the dark.

He looked over his shoulder at the city and a surreal feeling took hold of him as he realized he might be one of the last living creatures to see the city standing. When the war ended, or perhaps sooner, the city would be razed until the ashes were carried off in the wind. The only memories would be those hidden away by the the historians, who even now were recording every conceivable fact about the Dramandi, and when they deemed their task complete, the information would be locked away in the Compendium. To the rest of the world, the Dramandi were a shadow that grew fainter by the day, and one day it would be gone.

He whispered a prayer to himself as the city slowly drifted out of sight, and the roadway began to twist through a heavy forest of tall pines. The trees seemed to absorb almost all of the sound around them save for the occasional call of one bird to another. There was only that, the wind, and the footsteps of the column. Near the front, Zayd looked over his shoulder and saw the outline of the giant. Vaetus had sent Talazz with them, and the executioner stood beside the laden carriage, holding his sword by the hilt with the flat of the blade resting on his shoulder. Walking next to Zayd, Daruthin Cossorin noticed the giant as well.

“Did you know the general would be sending him, too?” Daruthin asked.

“I don’t think anyone did until this morning.”

Daruthin took a step closer to Zayd and spoke quieter. “Why did he send him? Does he think we’re going to be attacked?”

“I’m sure the general has his reasons.” Zayd looked sidelong at his lieutenant. “And we are not in a position to doubt him, are we?”

“No, sir.” Daruthin glanced back at the giant before fixing his eyes on the road ahead. He ran his hand over the row of black hair than ran from his forehead to the base of his skull. Tauthri warriors did not have a concept of rank until the conquest. Any Tauthri of esteem distinguished themselves in some way, and as ancestral tattoos were no longer allowed, those of higher rank grew their hair longer while those of low rank kept their heads bare. Tascell ignored this Ryferian concept and kept his head shaved clean. “Do you think word of what we’re transporting has spread?” Daruthin asked.

“It’s possible.”

“Maybe the general sent Talazz to frighten off any roaming bandits. Or other Dramandi.”

“One man would not make that much of a difference, no matter his size,” Zayd said. “If there were thieves or bandits ready to test our two Regiments in order to relieve us of our charge, I doubt having one En Kazyr in our ranks would dissuade them.”

“It would dissuade me,” Daruthin said, grinning slightly before leaving Zayd’s side and heading to their carriage to rest.

They were still in the forest by the time night fell, and they managed to find a rocky plateau near to the road where they could see the surrounding countryside in the light of the moon. Zayd had slept little during the day, so he would take the second watch while Tascell Wick and his men took the first.

The Tauthri were skilled warriors, but in the darkness, they were unparalleled. He could see the six sentries as they took up their positions around the perimeter of the convoy, moving silently among the trees. As Zayd leaned against a nearby tree and looked up into the stars he could hear a few distant voices sharing war stories and, more than likely, sharing a wineskin as well. Sleep came to him quickly, and, like most nights, there was a fading moment of consciousness where he thought he was home.

 

 

The sound of shouting ripped him from his shallow rest. Zayd kept his sword, unsheathed, beside him whenever he slept, and he shot to his feet with his blade at the ready. Other soldiers were waking up and arming themselves as well. There was more shouting, but none of the sound of combat; no cries of pain, no sword-strikes on shields… They were not under attack.

A crowd was forming near the light of a small fire, and as Zayd hurried over he could see several soldiers restraining one of the Tauthri sentries. It was Renton Allus, one of Tascell’s men, and he was struggling violently against the soldiers who held him. As Zayd pushed his way through the crowd, he saw a bloodied sword lying in the dirt at Renton’s feet, and on the ground next to the fire was a Ryferian soldier, his hands covering a horrendous wound to the stomach. Blood ran down from the soldier’s mouth. His eyes stared blankly up into the night.

“Silence!” Zayd yelled. The shouting stopped as every eye in the crowd turned to him. Renton still struggled. “Tell me what happened.”

“He killed Perinn,” one of the soldiers from the Ninth Regiment said, pointing to Renton. “Perrin wasn’t even armed. We was sitting by the fire, nothin’ more.” Zayd looked to the Tauthri. Renton met his stare and said nothing. Zayd stepped forward and picked up the bloody sword by the hilt, looking from it to Renton.

“What have you to say?”

Renton looked around the crowd. The face of every Ryferian soldier was hot with rage.

“He called me dark eyes… and said I was at home in the night because the Tauthri are corrupted by the Beyond!” Renton renewed his struggle against the soldiers holding him. More shouts erupted from the crowd.

“Enough!” Zayd held up his hand. He saw, at the edge of his vision, that Barrett Stern had pushed his way through the crowd and stood watching him. He expected Stern to take over; as a knight of the Silver Sun, he greatly outranked Zayd. Yet he remained silent.

“He said all Tauthri were unworthy,” Renton cried, his anger fading into panic. “Unworthy of redemption!”

Zayd grimaced and, as he looked away from Renton, noticed that all eyes were now upon him, fixed and hard with anticipation. “You have only proven that you are unworthy, Corporal Allus.” He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “Stop struggling. It’s done. You know what needs to happen now, so accept your fate with dignity. Pray for forgiveness.”

 

 

Renton spent the night bound tightly to a tree next with Talazz sitting close by. The way the morning sun gleamed off of the blade, it was clear that the giant had spent the last hours of the night cleaning it in preparation for the morning’s duties. For the En Kazyr executioner, meting out the law of the Empire was a sacred duty and was done with great reverence.

“We’ll see the sentence carried out at dawn,” Areagus had said the night before. “The Beacon will watch over us. I’ll not feed the evil in the dark with another death.” The commander returned to his tent, cursing the evil of the foreign land as he went.

The sentries changed watches, though Zayd doubted Tascell or any of his men would find rest after what happened.

“What of the others?” Zayd asked Tascell. “Are they all as impetuous as Renton?”

The lieutenant furrowed his brow and frowned. “I would have said that none of them are. Renton is as even-tempered a soldier that I’ve seen. How this simple mockery could have stirred him…”

“Watch the others closely,” Zayd said. “I’m going to tell Daruthin the same.”

Zayd spent most of his watch within sight of where Renton was bound. There was a look of confusion on his face as he sat waiting for the morning to come, when his life would end. He was staring blankly, perhaps reliving the events that led him to this. It would have been more merciful to kill him now and not to have him languish in these long hours.

He carried that expression, the profound dearth of understanding, to the very end. As the ranking officer, Areagus needed to deliver the sentence formally despite the sentence being safely assumed by every soldier already, and they were all watching as Talazz, towering over a kneeling Renton, heaved the massive blade over his hand and brought it down with such force that the Tauthri’s head shot forward and rolled into a tree ten feet away. The blade lodged half its own length into ground from the incredible power of the swing. If there were any lingering thoughts of disobedience from his men, Zayd hoped they would be dispelled after this display.

Areagus stood over Renton’s body and held a scroll over his head. “As is the mandated punishment for traitors, I have completed the writ for the family of Renton Allus.” The commander handed the writ to one of his lieutenants. “I have tasked several men from the Ninth Regiment to carry it out, and I thank these men; it is a hard sentence to deliver, but our laws must be upheld.”

In the year following the Ryferian victory over Tauth, Zayd had witnessed the punishment meted out to the families of traitors and deserters, the wives and children paraded about for all to see before they bled out on the ground. In the first years of his service, Zayd had nightmares where he saw the faces of his family, pale and lifeless on the ground in his village. But those nightmares faded after a time. His wife and son were alive because he had yielded all those years ago and had been loyal every day hence. It would be Renton’s family now who would share the sentence for his crime.

They were marching again within the hour. Still in uniform, Renton’s body was strung up by the feet and hung from a tree, a reminder for passersby of how the Empire rewards disloyalty. Zayd climbed into the covered carriage with the rest of the scouts. They stared sullenly at their feet or at their hands or the ceiling. Zayd was tired but thought better of falling asleep in front of his men.

“Did Renton speak with any of you before?” Zayd asked the group.

“No, sir,” came several replies, along with shaking heads.

“Did anyone hear what was said? What Corporal Perinn said to him?”

“Just what we all heard him say,” said Gavras as he tapped his fingers on his kneecap. “The same things they always say to us.”

Zayd leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. Every Tauthri in the army could expect to experience this sort of behaviour from the Trueborn, those born within the natural borders of the Empire. As the Empire expanded, it brought those it defeated into it, and over time, made them in mind and spirit no different from any Trueborn. The En Kazyr were among the oldest of the conquered and thus did not experience what the more recent vassals like the Tauthri did, though Zayd assumed their stature was likely a factor as well. Renton would have been accustomed to this sort of hate. Indeed, he would have expected it each day.

It made little sense to Zayd, so he determined that there must be more to it than what they knew. But if Perinn had committed any crimes against Renton, he was already dead and beyond punishment. There was nothing more to be done.

“If Perinn did something besides taunt him, then he has already paid the price,” Zayd said.

“There was nothing else,” Gavras said. “I saw what happened. Only words. That’s all that passed between them. Words, and nothing more. Renton did not even look angered until the blade was already bloodied.”

 

 

 

They were out of the forest a few hours before dark, and though there were still conifers all around them, they were less dense, thanks in part to the increasingly rocky terrain. Areagus called for forward scouts, so Zayd led three of the other Tauthri, including Gavras, to the front of the column, and they clambered up the rocky slopes that flanked the road ahead of them. They stayed low to the ground as they climbed up, and once at the top they remained crouched. From atop the rocks, Zayd could see the land before them awash in the red glow of the setting sun: a sea of trees and rolling hills, all dissected by the road they travelled.

“One landslide on this stretch and we’d be forced to turn back,” Gavras said.

Zayd nodded. “That carriage can’t manage these rocks if we were forced to go overland.”

“If we had a few more giants, they could carry those gold slabs and we wouldn’t need the bloody carriage.”

“No problem cannot be solved with more giants.” Zayd allowed himself a laugh, but Gavras was right: they were marching an unknown path. The army had not come down this direction when they had marched on Yasri, so the only knowledge of the terrain they had were maps they after the siege, and the maps were next to useless as the Dramandi had drawn them to a strange scale and had few annotations, if they had any at all.

The rocky outcroppings shouldered the road closely for miles, leaving the column with no defensible place to make camp for the night. Zayd and the scouts made the descent back down to the column. Commander Areagus, accompanied by Barrett Stern and Alain Tullus, approached on horseback.

“The road is hemmed in by rocks like this for at least another four miles, perhaps five,” Zayd reported.

Areagus looked into the sky and frowned as the sunlight diminished further by the moment. He grunted as his glare traced the horizon, as though he could try to convince the sun to rise again.

“I could scout further ahead to find a more suitable area to set up camp,” Barrett offered.

Areagus looked to Stern briefly before shaking his head. “We should get clear of these rocks immediately.” The commander turned again to Stern. “Give the men a short rest, then we’ll start again at a double march.”

Stern wheeled his horse around and gave the orders to the column, his booming voice echoing off the walls of rock around them. Zayd heard grumblings from some of the soldiers, but he could tell his own men were pleased; night marches always reminded them of home, and a reminder would help ease their minds over the troubles of the previous night. He remained at the head of the column as the rest of the Tauthri returned to the carriage for a short rest, and as the day’s light began to relent, Zayd sat on the hard-packed earth next to the road and could not help but think of home.

There had always been a great anticipation in them, energy that was barely contained, as he and his kin would set out into the night to menace their enemy. The unrestrained jubilance he had felt since doing so as a child had not faded over time; careening through the night, their senses as keen as a blade, was a celebration of what they were. They embraced it.

It had been over three years since Zayd had been home, and then only briefly, and nearly ten since he had left it after its defeat, yet he still felt the exhilaration when he thought about their night raids against the encamped Ryferian army. They were like vengeful shadows, and the fear they struck in the Trueborn was palpable. If only the sun never rose they may have won the war. It must have been the will of Xidius that he survive the war and become a servant to the Empire and to the Beacon. It was a mercy, he knew, that he could relish times such as this when he could still embrace his nature, to know where he came from, and to acknowledge that he had been saved from the darkness he and his people had worshipped for so long.

Zayd sat there, unmoving, until Areagus ordered the march nearly an hour later, when the sun had released its grasp on the horizon. The sound of the hundreds of soldiers stirring pulled him out of the forests of his homeland and back to this foreign, enemy land. He exhaled as he pictured Symm’s face and the expression she could not hide when he had left home again, when this campaign had started.

He set his palms flat on the soil. Soon enough he would place his palms on the ground of his home, in his own village. Only a few months more. Once they delivered the golden monolith to Lycernum he would be released from his service. Ten years of loyalty, unquestioning and unwavering. He could see Cassian then, too, and the man he had become. Zayd wondered what his discipline would be. A scholar? An artisan? A poet? Perhaps he had trained to be a warrior like his father. He would listen as his son recounted the past decade of his life. And if it was the will of Xidius, Cassian would return home with him.

Habit took hold of Zayd as he traced lines in the dirt. They came easily as a practiced ritual does, the four flowing lines converging to a single point inside the convex centre of an imperfect crescent. Zayd often traced the Cothar sigil into the earth, as his father had done. It gave him peace to know that this sigil on foreign soil had a twin somewhere in Tauthri. ‘When there is conflict’, his father had said, ‘the earth knows who you are and will remember you. And your enemies will know you. And remember you.’

His lieutenants, Daruthin and Tascell, approached him, followed by the other scouts; they would need all of them, as many vigilant eyes as possible to protect the column as it made its rapid march down the narrow, rock-walled road. Zayd alone would stay on the road a distance ahead of the column, while Daruthin and Tascell took their men and fanned out on each of the flanks.

The road slanted slowly upward as it stretched out before him. Behind him, he heard Barrett Stern bellow out the order to start the double march, and it spurred Zayd into motion. He did not anticipate any sort of ambush. If there had been enemies nearby, they could have struck the column as it rested. Even so, Zayd equipped himself with a light wooden shield for the march, enough to protect him from an arrow or two, if there were indeed attackers lying in wait.

For the sound of the marching hundreds behind him and the din of jangling armour echoing across the stone, Zayd could not hear the sound of sliding rocks, nor could he feel the vibrations of their impact, barely half a mile behind the column, as they collapsed onto the road where the column had been stopped only a few minutes before.

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 4

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

In the days following his trial, Osmun slept fitfully when he slept at all. At first it was the doubt which troubled him; Egus and Andrican had not seen the entity as he had, and it made him wonder if he had seen it at all. But then there would be times when, from the corner of his eye, he saw the silhouette of it moving fluidly…… menacingly. The first time was the day of the trial in the late evening as he walked the outskirts of the monastery. The shadow was there one moment, standing beside a stone altar, but when Osmun blinked, he only saw one of the devout, the sect of Xidian worshippers as silent as they were pious.

That night he lay awake in his bed for hours, physically and mentally drained, yet he could do nothing to stop himself from hearing the thing speak to him. Over and over he heard the alien words reverberate in his mind until he doubted he was even alone in his room. Morning came after long, excruciating hours, and Osmun walked his usual route through the city. His feet dragged, his arms hung lifeless at his sides, and he stared at the ground just a few feet in front of him. As he drifted through the long alleys and lanes of the marketplace he barely noticed the stares of the vendors, farmers, merchants, and artisans, all so accustomed to seeing him stroll through with vigor, pride, and purpose. He did not look up as he walked for fear that he would see the lurking shadow again.

He entered the Cathedral with no real purpose. He went to one of the cloisters, lit all the candles that he could, and prayed. Osmun felt as though he was safe there, in the silent holiness of that place, distant enough from the reach of whatever plagued him, even though he was only a few hundred yards away from the iron room where the trial took place.

Footsteps approached from behind, and Osmun bumped into one of the tall, brass candle-holders as he lurched to his feet. Cleric Andrican was there to steady it before it fell over. He tilted his head at Osmun.

“Careful, Brother Osmun.”

Osmun flushed red, straightened himself, and gave a slight bow. “Cleric Andrican.”

“You look unwell.” Andrican gave him a troubled look. He stood perfectly straight, both hands clasped behind his back.

“My night was restless.”

“Why was it so?” Andrican asked flatly.

It was hardly a question at all, Osmun thought.

“You know very well why.” He surprised himself with the terse reply.

Andrican made no reaction.

“How can you remain so skeptical?” Osmun pressed, his voice just above a whisper.

“Because there is simply no reason to believe you. What you’ve described appears nowhere in the Recounting or any of the annals.”

“Phantoms exerting influence over the living is commonplace,” Osmun shot back.

“None where it was able to exert the kind of control you are describing over a skilled cleric, and you think it happened here to two clerics! What would you believe, if you were me? That this young, arrogant priest has discovered something wholly unheard of? Or would you believe the more likely explanation that he is simply mistaken?”

“I am not imagining this…”

“I did not say that.”

It took Osmun a moment to grasp the implication through the fog of his exhaustion. “You think that I am lying? Why would I lie about this?”

“I would certainly like to know that as well. Perhaps because you want us to believe that we need you. That the Xidian Church needs you. You have become taken with your own reputation, and you’re afraid we are not.” Andrican turned and walked away. “Our deliberation continues,” he said over his shoulder. Osmun stood agape. He was uncertain, but he thought he saw the hint of a smile when Andrican spoke over his shoulder as he walked out of the candlelit cloister.

 

 

 

He sat outside the Cathedral on the steps of the monument, trying for hours to fully understand the reality of the present. All of his instincts told him that what he thought he had witnessed was real, not a delusion as Andrican thought. A delusion would not plague him so. A delusion could not stalk him. He felt it, as he had felt spirits every time he had communed with the Beyond, every time he had banished them.

But what it meant to him if he were right was nearly too dreadful to contemplate. Malign spirits were beholden to a focal point of some kind, usually a relic or a place of religious significance. He had also read that in some places, the natural barrier between the two worlds was especially thin, and rifts could appear. Yet he was certain he had seen the shadow far from the Cathedral and the relics used to summon the spirits through the rift that Egus and Andrican had created.

A realization came to him like water over a broken dam: the trial had not ended. The clerics had created the rift, a feat Osmun did not know was possible. What other unknown abilities did they possess? Andrican had even said that their deliberation was incomplete, that they were, in essence, still judging him. He laughed to himself and felt a twinge of embarrassment that he had been taken by such an obvious trick. Banishing the spirits and closing the rift had been too easy. He should have expected some trick.

Osmun scratched his chin and looked from his feet up to the top of the Xidian monument. The morning sun was obscured by grey clouds which it struggled to penetrate. He was closer to the truth, but what were the clerics expecting him to do? Did they want him to pursue the truth of the shadow against the grain of their skepticism? He could not imagine that all they wanted was deference to their judgment, that he would agree with them unchallenged and admit that he had seen nothing.

The minutes became hours as he sat outside the Cathedral. Thunder sounded the promise of rain in the distance, and it was not until the first drops began to fall that he knew exactly what he must do.

 

 

 

Osmun went back to the monastery for the night, and he drifted in and out of sleep, the echo of the dark voice troubling him still. When he did sleep he dreamt of the trial, and the many voices. And the one. He awoke hardly feeling rested at all.

“Finish this,” he whispered to himself as he slowly rose from bed. “Finish the trial and the voice will trouble you no more.”

He dressed in his robes and made his way from the dormitory to the monastery’s library. The few bookcases seemed so small and sparse to him after he had seen the library within the Cathedral, but it was a good enough place to start, and not so much for the books themselves but for the monastery’s curator, Brother Nestor.

Well into his sixtieth year of service to the church, Nestor spent much of his time – as much as he could – reading any old book he could, scribbling notes to himself as he went. He had been a historian in his younger years, and the habits he had formed in that time were still with him. In reality, he had never stopped doing their work, always looking for inconsistencies within the volumes of the annals in need of correction. Osmun hoped that Nestor could impart something useful, even if unintentionally. In his old age, Nestor loved to recount stories from his youth at any opportunity, so much so that it seemed to Osmun that it was just so he could prove to himself that he still remembered. Even so, Osmun knew he would need to navigate these waters carefully.

Nestor was, predictably, at a table, hunched over a stack of parchment. A quill in his right hand scribbled words on a separate sheet, almost on its own. The curator’s attention was undisturbed until Osmun cleared his throat. He looked up from the stack of parchment, his eyes nearly bloodshot from hours of reading. He squinted at Osmun and brushed his white, wispy hair from his eyes.

“Brother Osmun.” Nestor gave him a quick smile before turning back to his book. “Is there something I can help you find?” His face was mere inches from the page.

“There is something, though I doubt it will be in one of the books.”

“Ah, something important, by the tone of your voice.”

“Perhaps, though to be honest, I’m not sure. Perhaps, perhaps not.”

Nestor put down the quill, shook the stiffness from his hand and rubbed his eyes before turning in his chair to face Osmun. The priest continued: “It’s something of an afterthought, I’m afraid, from a few months ago when I was in Ellsland .”

Nestor nodded. “Yes, yes, lots of work to do there, I hear. I never went there myself, but I remember when they became part of the Empire. That was… how long… twenty years ago? I remember hearing from priests and clerics about the rifts there. Numerous and frequent. And we’re still sending priests there? Very unusual that we would need to after all this time, wouldn’t you say?”

“It is a troubled land.” Osmun nodded in agreement.

Nestor chuckled. “Troubled. Yes, that’s one way, a very kind way of saying it. Some say cursed. But no difference to the church, I suppose. If there’s work to be done, we’ll do our duty, won’t we?” Nestor reached for a cup on his table and eyed it disappointedly. “Would you be good enough to fetch me green tea from the store room? I’m all out and when I go myself I usually end up getting the wrong leaves.”

“Of course,” Osmun said. Nestor was not shy or embarrassed to tell others of his colour blindness.

“Wonderful,” he said. “We’ll call it a trade, then. So, what questions bring you to me?”

“It was from a few months ago, so please forgive me if I can’t recall everything with perfect clarity.” Osmun scratched his head as if he had trouble remembering. “Have you heard of any instance… or, perhaps you may have heard one of the historians mention something… of a spirit that acted as though it was… aware?

Nestor pushed himself up from the chair. His limbs were as wispy as the hair on his head, and he leaned on Osmun as he stood. “Well, every spirit is aware, Brother Osmun, as you know. Only dimly aware of the living world, and therefore, likely dimly aware of us in it. But you know this, of course.”

“Of course,” Osmun agreed.

“So you must mean something different altogether.”

“It was not a vague awareness, Brother Nestor. It was very acute. Very specific. It had… deliberate focus.”

Nestor squinted at the young priest. “Is this something one of the other priests in Ellsland told you?” Nestor paused. “Or did you experience this yourself?” Osmun was hoping he would not need to answer this question, and his hesitation must have been obvious.Nestor nodded. “I see. What else happened, Brother Osmun? What else did you see? Tell me everything.”

Osmun told him as much as he could, nearly every detail, except he transposed the event to Ellsland. He did not want to mention the trial or the involvement of the two clerics should those facts taint Nestor’s answer.

“How certain are you of this?” Nestor asked after a long pause. “Is there any way you are ascribing traits or behaviours that perhaps were not being exhibited?”

“There was nothing ambiguous about what I saw. It spoke to me, as certainly and as plainly as I am speaking to you.”

Nestor turned and paced, unsteadily. He muttered to himself for a moment, waiving his hand in the air as if orating. “No,” he said, stopping suddenly. “I have not heard of such a thing. It kept you in place, you say… Quite troubling.”

“I told this to one of the other priests. He thought I was seeing things. Or lying.”

“It could certainly seem that way. [_Quite _]unusual that no one mentioned something similar. Quite troubling, I think. You’re not lying, are you?”

Osmun shook his head slowly. Nestor patted him on the arm.

“No, I know you aren’t. Do you know how I know?”

Osmun shrugged.

Nestor smiled. “Because I’m far too intimidating to be lied to.” The old historian chuckled to himself, and the laugh then became a cough. Osmun helped him back into his chair.

“So you believe me? You don’t think I’m seeing things?”

Nestor breathed deeply as he cleared his throat and gave Osmun a strange look.

“Seeing things? No, no. Not in the least. Had you thought that of yourself?”

“What I saw was nearly… impossible to comprehend.”

“Comprehension has nothing to do with your senses. Do we comprehend what a bird says when it sings? Of course we don’t, but we hear it all the same. It’s not possible that your senses were fooled.”

“How do you know?”

“Because Ryfe said so himself. It is written in the Recounting.”

Osmun’s mind raced through the passages of the holy book written by the Beacon himself, but there was no passage he could think of that spoke to this. Nestor noticed Osmun’s confusion.

“You’ve let your studies lapse, Brother Osmun. You don’t know the passage? You ought to, being one who communes…”

Osmun still searched… nothing.

“You need to have a more critical eye, it seems!” Nestor said, pleased as he always was to best someone with his intellect. “It’s actually two passages, in two different doctrines. The first would be…”

“First doctrine, second thesis. What he said about speaking with phantoms.”

Nestor smiled. “Good! Yes, that’s good. He was the first with the ability to commune, so he knew that most people could not see what you see when you commune, or speak with phantoms, as it were.”

“But the second thesis is only what he wrote about the ability to see the Beyond, it says nothing about…”

“You’re only scratching the surface, Brother Osmun,” Nestor interrupted. “The truths of the Beacon go deeper than their obvious meaning. He said that the spirits that haunt our world deceive us.”

“They deceive…” Osmun opened and closed his hand as he thought. “They deceive those who cannot see them, those who are not aware.”

“Which means…”

“Which means that those who see them are not deceived.”

Nestor smiled, pleased at having guided Osmun to the conclusion. “He had a way of teaching two things by saying only one.”

“It’s something of a reach,” Osmun said.

“Perhaps by itself, but the second passage is from the first thesis of the third doctrine. Xidius said, ‘Follow me and know the truth of the world, and be saved from its evils.’”

“He was referring to the first two doctrines and the formation of the church.”

“Yes he was, but he was speaking to someone in that passage – Anson Marinus, his first disciple, and the first person who later learned from Xidius himself how to commune. Marinus followed him, and by communing, came to know the truth of the world, as Xidius said.”

Osmun was speechless.

“When you get to be my age,” Nestor said, “you spend much of your time reading. And thinking. And reading and thinking some more. It helps pass the time. Takes your mind off of your aching body.” He chuckled again.

For a moment, Osmun felt relief, until the realization set in that he was not being deceived, [_could _]not be deceived, and the fear that he felt during the trial returned, reinvigorated and more certain than before.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 5

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

Lying on his back, Zayd saw the first hints of daylight through half-open eyes. It gave shape to the trees and an end to the night in which he ran, unconstrained and unconcerned. The trees looked familiar. It took him a moment to realize that this was the place he ran to when he was young: a black oak, centuries old, perched next to the top of a small waterfall. The branches of the tree stretched up and out, waiting for Zayd to perch upon them as if they were showing him the surrounding landscape, holding him in their palm. He ran for an hour or more to get there. The tree, the land, the offered view all belonged to him.

It was a shock, then, when he clambered up the tree one day, to be knocked down from the very first branch. Winded and confused, he heard laughing and thought it was the tree.

Until he saw her.

She was straddling the arm of the tree and covering her mouth, hardly able to control her laughter.

“I thought I saw you at the well as I left,” Zayd said as he got to his feet.

“You did,” Symm replied.

“Have you learned to fly, then?”

She nodded. “Just yesterday. A bird told me.” She laughed.

“How did you really beat me here? Tell me.” Zayd made his way to the branch she was on and started to climb again, but she placed her foot squarely on his chest.

“Being the fastest isn’t everything.”

“Of course it is,” Zayd said. They stared at each other, stern-faced and still, until Zayd cracked a grin. “So now you’re faster and you can stare me down.”

Symm smiled and nodded. “Remember it.” She lowered her foot so he could climb up. He sat beside her, and for a while she did not look at him, instead looking out over the waterfall and the river below, a sight that Zayd had enjoyed many times alone.

Now, though, it was especially beautiful.

He was about to ask her again how she had beaten him to the tree, but she rested her head on his shoulder just as he opened his mouth, so he said nothing.

He was silent for a long time.

 

 

 

There was a feeling of sadness, as there always was, as he woke fully and left the memory behind. Zayd was visited by memories of that kind too frequently, and as he neared the end of his service in the army, the sadness he felt began to grow in its intensity like a flame struggling for air. If only he could stay in that blissful state of half-sleep, he could pretend he was already home.

Perhaps that particular dream had been brought on by the night march. Leading the column on foot, there were moments when he could not hear anything but his own breath. It was in those moments he forgot the hundreds behind him.

They had gone six miles before they found a suitable place to make camp – a clearing that one of Tascell’s men had found. Talazz dragged several fallen trees to barricade the road on either side of the camp right before he fell asleep and began snoring loudly.

“What is this?” The voice startled Zayd as he stood up.

It was Stern.

The knight wore only the clothes he had slept in, and while the ornate armour he wore normally concealed his build, he was almost more daunting now, his chest and arms taught, threatening to explode into violence. He pointed straight at the ground where Zayd had drawn his sigil in the dirt.

“Did you hear me? What is it?” Stern shouted. Only then did Zayd hear the voices, distressed and angered, coming from somewhere further away in the camp. He looked, over tents and through trees, and he could see a crowd forming.

“What’s happening?” Zayd asked. He took a step, but Barrett shoved him backward with one hand, almost knocking him over.

“I think I know what this is,” Barrett said. “Some kind of hex. Worshipping your false gods is forbidden. Have you forgotten?”

Zayd tried to walk past again, but Barrett moved in front of him. Zayd glanced down at the ground where his blade rested beside his bedroll. Barrett saw that, too.

“Go ahead. Pick it up. Show everyone what I already know. You and all your kind, you’re liars and cowards. False allies.” Barrett’s fists were clenched tight. “Pick it up. Or don’t you have the damned spine for it?”

Alain Tullus approached and, as he neared, cast a long glance between Zayd and Barrett before he spoke. “Go see Areagus.”

“Gladly,” Barrett grumbled.

“No, Barrett. Not you.”

The expression on Stern’s face brought Zayd some satisfaction as he walked past him.

 

 

 

“There is a problem.” Areagus stood with his arms crossed. There was no one else in the commander’s tent other than Zayd. “A very… a very serious problem.” Zayd knew that the commander had slept for, at most, three hours after the march. Despite this, the pause in his speaking was the only sign that he was even slightly fatigued.

“There was another death last night,” Areagus continued. “Lucius Willock. A corporal from Lycernum, from what I’m told.”

“What happened? How did he die?”

“We’re still not sure,” Areagus said. “It doesn’t appear that there was a struggle, so he may have died in his sleep.” The commander turned and walked to a small table and took a piece of dried fruit from a half-empty plate. “Some of the men believe he was suffocated.”

“Why would they assume that, sir?”

“Willock was friends with Perrin. He was there when Perrin was killed by your kinsman.”

“Not my kinsman, commander.”

Areagus waved his hand. “Very well. Countryman, as you’ll have it. Willock wrestled the bloody blade from Renton’s hand. I’m sure you now share my concern. This looks like one of your men taking revenge.”

“No, sir,” Zayd said.

Areagus raised his eyebrows. “You disagree, captain?”

“It looks that way if you want it to look that way. Sir.”

“So what would you suggest happened?” Areagus sat down at the table and crossed his arms.

“He could have been ill, sir.”

“He was hardly at death’s door. There is no evidence to suggest that.”

“And there is no evidence to suggest he was murdered.”

Areagus exhaled. “You’re being obstinate, Zayd. I did not call you here to accuse you or your men. Whatever the truth is, a conclusion has already been reached by some of the men, and by midday it will be a good deal more that agree with them.” The commander stood and walked back over to Zayd. “You need to be cautious. These scouts of yours… do you really know them?”

“Yes, commander,” Zayd said. It was a lie in service of the truth. Most of them he knew only by name, but he was confident that none of them would do something so foolish.

Areagus nodded slowly before sticking his finger in Zayd’s chest. “Then keep them under control. You’re dismissed.”

Zayd saluted and turned to leave. Areagus spoke again before he had even taken a step. “If it is one of yours that’s done this and you fail to report him to me, I’m holding you responsible for Willock’s death.”

He felt dozens of eyes on him as he left the command tent, so he looked ahead, not bothering to meet the stares of the fearful and angry. He kept his hands from balling up tightly. It would accomplish nothing to show them his own anger, he knew, since it would only make him more isolated. These were his brothers in arms, after all. Brothers in faith. He would feel the same, were he a Trueborn. He thought of Cassian, and it calmed him to know that his son would not suffer as he had. Cassian could live like any Trueborn.

Zayd made his way back to his gear and began to ready himself for the march ahead. Areagus would likely address the soldiers before the march began in hopes of dissuading any thoughts of reprisals against the Tauthri, and he hoped they would listen to the commander’s reasoning, though part of him doubted they would. They were soldiers, fresh from the victory of a newer foe, now sharing the glory with an older one.

Two forms blocked the morning sun – Tascell and Daruthin, followed by the nine other Tauthri. All of them wore their leather armour, and all were armed with either a sword or bow.

“We weren’t sure what was happening,” Tascell said. “I saw you summoned to the Commander’s tent, and—”

“And you thought [_this _]was wise?” Zayd looked at each of them, letting his eyes rest heavily on them. “A sword in hand is intention in the mind.”

“They’re turning on us, vahr.” It had been months since Zayd had heard one of his men use the Tauthri word for superior. He doubted Tascell used it accidentally. Zayd replied in their native tongue.

“Do you not have a family, Daruthin? Or you, Tascell? You think it wise to make yourselves look guilty?” He switched to speaking the true-tongue. “Stow your weapons and follow your orders. We have weathered the worst of this campaign so far. I know you trust me, and I would not misuse that. They will not turn on us. Keep your mind to your own duties and nothing besides.”

Many of his kinsman looked at their feet as he spoke, taking his words as admonishment, realizing they ought to have known better. What would they have done? Fought? Fled? His lieutenants were the first to sheathe their weapons. Daruthin gave Zayd a quick nod. Tascell stared at his feet. Gavras was the only one who did not, and as the others dispersed, he stepped over to the captain.

“Does Areagus think it was one of us?” Gavras asked.

“He thinks it is possible,” Zayd said. It was the diplomatic answer. Of course Areagus thought it was. “But there’s no way for anyone to know for certain.”

“What do you think?”

Zayd was taken off guard by the bluntness of the question. “I don’t believe it was.”

“My brother was right… they are turning on us. And the commander will offer up one of our heads in order to keep his men in line if he has to. Guilty or not.”

Gavras saluted quickly and walked off before Zayd could respond. It was probably for the best; Zayd wanted to allay Gavras’ concerns, but in truth, he was right. Areagus may sooner punish an innocent Tauthri than a guilty Trueborn. Zayd would not ever have thought it possible, but since the start of this journey…… things were becoming worse. Invisibly, but inevitably.

 

 

 

They covered nearly ten miles before resting again, and only because the carriage taking the monolith became stuck. The rain started shortly after they began the march. Most of Zayd’s men slept, something for which he was thankful; he took it to mean they were reassured by what he had said that morning. Zayd remained awake for a few hours before allowing himself a short rest.

The road became gradually wider and less distinct as the landscape became less confining. The hills sloped gently upward on either side of the column, though there were still spots where the trees grew thick, and every thicket to a wary eye was potential cover for an enemy, watching the column pass, waiting to strike.

The rain was light at first, and like the road they travelled, it was a long and gradual change until the point where the carriage became stuck in the mud, and everyone realized it was pouring. They had been marching in mud for almost an hour.

Zayd was awake then, and took six of his men to create a close perimeter around the column as it halted. The road was on a noticeable incline, making the task of freeing the carriage more difficult. Talazz strode over to the carriage and cracked his knuckles as he prepared to push the carriage. It sounded like tree branches snapping, startling a soldier who had peeled back the canvas to peer at the artifact underneath.

“You’re not to go near it,” Talazz bellowed, and hit the soldier with the back of his open hand. The blow took the man clean off his feet. He landed heavily on his back, dazed, embarrassed, and lighter several teeth. He spat out blood before shakily getting back on his feet. Some of the other Trueborn soldiers laughed. Zayd heard one remark how such a blow should rightly have killed him.

They spent almost half an hour trying to move the carriage, yet even with Talazz pushing, the horses were unable to gain traction on the muddy path. It was out of sheer habit that Zayd crouched, and as he scanned the surrounding hills, traced his family’s sigil into the earth. He stood and took a few aimless steps before he was knocked down from behind. Wiping mud from his eyes, he looked up to see Barrett Stern standing over him.

“This again!” Barrett shouted. He looked over and motioned to Areagus. “I knew it. This is some Tauthri hex you’ve placed on us.” Behind them, everyone turned to watch, even those who were working at the carriage. As Zayd tried to stand, the knight struck him with a mailed fist, once, twice… it was dizzying. Zayd was unsure if he was standing or prone, but Barrett was over him still, bringing his fist down again. He thought he saw blood on Barrett’s armoured fist. He tried to stand again but there was an immovable weight on him.

The knight’s fist was raised again when, in a blur of motion, he was shoved off. Zayd was half-blind from the mud and rain in his eyes, but he heard struggling over the ringing in his ears. Barrett was trying to curse with half-choked words. Zayd turned onto his side and saw Gavras grappling Barrett from behind, holding an arm under the knight’s throat. Barrett struggled wildly, his feet slipping in the mud. Other soldiers rushed to Barrett’s aid, but stopped as Talazz intervened, separating the two. The giant glared at the other soldiers who encroached on them, and they stopped in their tracks.

“That is bloody well enough!” All eyes were on Areagus. Even the rain seemed to quiet. “What is it now?” he demanded.

Stern did not hesitate. “I caught him drawing profane markings in the ground. All of this that’s happened… it’s because of him. He’s invoking something against us.”

Areagus looked to Zayd. “Explain.”

“It’s my family sigil.” Daggers of pain shot through Zayd’s jaw as he spoke. “Not invoking. Just a sigil. Sir.”

“That’s a damned lie,” Barrett spat. “I fought in the Tauthri conquest, sir. They place these markings everywhere. They’re unholy.”

Gavras would have lunged again at the knight, but Talazz held him in place with a firm hand.

Areagus was silent for a moment. The world around them seemed to wait on him. “I want to make something understood,” he said slowly. “Any more belligerent behaviour will result in relief of duty without pay. Any profane or unholy markings will result in imprisonment upon our return to Lycernum, as will any further infighting. Am I understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Zayd and Barrett said in unison.

Areagus motioned to Gavras. “And put him in irons for striking a superior officer.”

 

 

 

It was hours later before they were marching again. The rain came down heavier and the road became nothing more than numerous pools of ankle-deep water. Gavras, manacled at the hands and feet, sat in the covered wagon where the Tauthri scouts slept when they were not needed. He was at least spared from the miserable march; the ground was getting worse and worse with every passing minute. Zayd estimated that they were travelling at half speed at best.

Someone called a halt from the fore. Areagus had already stopped the column several times to check the maps with his lieutenants. With everything turned to mud, it was nearly impossible to tell what path they should be on.

“You’re the driest one of the whole lot,” Zayd said as he climbed up into the back of the carriage. “Remind me to put Barrett in a stranglehold next time it looks like it’s going to rain.” Gavras did not smile at the jape.

“I thought he was going to kill you,” Gavras said.

Zayd nodded. His bottom lip was still swollen and red. His cheek had needed to be stitched by one of Areagus’ half-trained lieutenants. “He wanted to.”

Gavras shook his head. “I know there is a history between you… but he didn’t behave this way during the siege. Why now?”

Many possibilities sprung up in Zayd’s mind. They had not been in such close proximity during the siege, and there was a lesser chance for a reprimand in this environment. But in truth Zayd thought it was not the history between them, but the after-effects of the siege itself. Enduring such prolonged violence and inhumanity made people inhumane.

“Fools need no reason,” Zayd said.

Gavras leaned forward. “I have a family, vahr. Has Areagus said…”

Zayd shook his head. “He won’t. Not for something so minor. He only had you restrained as a show of authority to us, and to the Trueborn. He’ll anger them if he’s lenient with us, but he also knows that he must still be fair with us.”

“Why would he think that?” Gavras asked. “He doesn’t need to be fair with us when all of our families are one writ away from death. We’re hostages. All of us.”

Zayd clenched his teeth, sending a sharp, hot pain through them. Gavras was right of course, but Zayd needed to play politic as much as the commander did. Despondency needed to be kept at bay like any other disease. “Because who else will guard them as they sleep? We only need to complete this task. Then you’ll have a new deployment. With the war at an end, it will be something mercifully uneventful, and you may even get a leave before that. Do you hear me? See this through, then see your family.”

Gavras remained silent, but eventually nodded in agreement. “If the commander gives the writ—”

“He won’t,” Zayd interrupted. “He won’t.”

Another long silence. Another nod.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 6

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

The Dramandi had been tracking the enemy for days. It was chance that brought them onto their trail, though some said it was the will of Aulvennic, the Guiding Star. Perhaps. But it was chance that they had not yet been spotted by the sentries. Not the nasci, those that called themselves Trueborn. These sentries were shorter, lithe, and muscular. They traversed the terrain effortlessly, like water spiders on a still pond. And their eyes – black as the night itself. Sera Naiat remembered seeing them from the walls of Yasri before she had fled the city. “They are not true Ryferians,” Cohvass had said.

“They are the Empire’s whelps. Subservient,” Sera had told him. She knew of the distant land of Tauth which rested to the north of Dramand beyond the Thalliar Mountains, but had never seen one of its children until a year into the war with Ryferia. “If they do not kill us all, that will be our fate. They will force us to abandon Aulvennic, they will force us to adopt their man-god, and they will force us to fight in their army against others like us.”

Cohvass sneered. “How can a god be mortal? Aulvennic carved his own place in the sky itself. No mortal could claim to do that.” That was at the beginning of the siege. Their armies were defeated, their soldiers were few, but the city was strong. They prayed and hoped, and in the first few weeks of the siege, it had seemed as though the Guiding Star would bless them with a victory.

But in one night they had lost thirty soldiers to the whelps. A handful of them had scaled one of the walls and stalked the ramparts like ghosts, killing fifteen before setting the outermost gatehouse on fire. And as the Dramandi were alerted, the ghosts killed fifteen more before slipping back over the wall. Sera’s sword-kin had only managed to kill two of the intruders, and only because they stayed behind to fight while their kinsmen escaped. The weapons they used – blades and arrows alike – were coloured black, impossible to see in the cover of night. As black as their eyes. It quickly became obvious to them that they could see in absolute darkness. She regretted having called them whelps. Her people started referring to them as gattra – the Dramandi term for an evil portent.

She thought of that night many times since, and remembered it as the beginning of their defeat, a fact they would not grasp until the very end. She and her sword-kin had been the ones who fought the two that stayed behind. She had never felt so helpless with a sword in her hand; the intruders emerged and vanished without warning. They killed three of her sword-kin all within a heartbeat of the other, warriors she knew since she first learned to wield a blade. She was the fourth in line, suddenly thrust to the fore. The first kill was luck; Toma Ronai charged at one of them and swung his axe. His enemy sidestepped and buried his blade in Toma’s side. Toma twisted as he fell, taking the blade with him. Sera caught the gattra with an upward swing as he bent down to try to retrieve his weapon. Before he collapsed, she pushed him back into his comrade, knocking him off balance, giving her time to land a lunging strike that pierced his chest.

She was already weeping for Toma. She did not notice her remaining sword-kin staring at her in the glow of the burning gatehouse, her face and long black hair slick with the blood of friend and foe.

They had to abandon the outer wall of the city after the burned skeleton of the gatehouse finally collapsed in a smoking heap. The Ryferian army encroached, and every day Yasri’s brave defenders rained missiles upon their camp. Arrows, rocks, pots of boiling oil. Whatever they could find. But every night, the darkness spat black arrows at them, and the morning always revealed the new dead who had been killed in silence. People began to ask her, “What do our ancestors tell us when you speak with them?”

“They tell us to have hope,” she told them. She had not heard them speak, but she thought their silence in itself was telling her to find the strength in herself, and that each man and woman must do the same. Yet each night, each day, more dead. It went like this for weeks. It seemed as if it would go on forever, and whenever anyone asked her what the spirits of the ancestors advised, she said, “Have hope.”

Hope began to erode. Many were wondering if Aulvennic had abandoned them. He seemed powerless or unwilling to protect them, even during his holy hour. That was when they were the most afraid of the night. And no matter how many of the nasci they killed on the walls or as they fought their way through the second outer ring of the city, their enemy remained undeterred.

A realization came to her on their holy day, dram rei, as the entire city celebrated how the Guiding Star had made peace with Ulrodin, the goddess of night, and she became his wife and gave him a throne in the night sky. She slipped into the sleep-like state to speak with the spirits of their ancestors in the evernight and was once again greeted by silence. She called out to them and heard her voice echo through the evernight, but she heard nothing back. She sensed one presence, and it was not one of the ancestors.

Stay away. You were buried. Stay buried. It was amused. It spoke in some unknown dialect that grated against her senses. She did not understand it at all, but understood its mocking laugh.

It was then that she knew the spirits were gone. She ought to be able to sense their presence if they were there, even if they remained silent. But she could only sense one entity, the dark being that emerged when they had made the discovery under the temple…

That night, she gathered as many as she could and told them the truth. She told them they had been abandoned, that Aulvennic could no longer protect them here, but many of the soldiers refused to leave.

Jass Johain had fought the Ryferians in the field and now led the city’s defense after his last defeat. “I know their tactics,” he urged. “If we can hold out for longer, we will have victory.” Some agreed. Some refused to believe Sera, thinking it impossible that the ancestors had disappeared.

It was only when the enemy were at Yras’ Shield, the great iron door and last defensive point left in the city, that Cohvass relented and convinced his cousins, their families, and his sword-kin that they must follow Sera.

“She is one of the Revered,” he had implored. “She will lead us. We will fight again if we go, but the war ends here if we stay.”

They escaped through the underground. The tunnels had been there for centuries for exactly this reason, though up until the last few months, no one that ever lived in Yasri ever thought there would be a need for them.

It was almost a half day before they emerged several miles east of the city, so narrow and difficult was the tunnel. When they emerged into the dim daylight, Sera looked back on her city and thought for a moment that, from the distance, she could entertain the illusion of peace within the walls even though she knew what would likely happen to her captured kinsmen, if it had not happened already.

The few hundred of them stood there, each looking to the next for guidance, uncertain in this land they used to know as their own. Now it was enemy territory. Many looked to Cohvass, as he was the most renowned warrior among them. But the imposing man looked to Sera, and when they had decided where they would go, every last survivor followed her. They went into the Yasur forest, and that night, Sera wept during Aulvennic’s holy hour. She thought only of those left behind. Cohvass sat beside her that night. It was enough of a comfort to have him there, silent as he was. Words had lost their sense along with everything else they knew.

They had moved slowly and carefully through the Yasur over the following weeks. Directionless as they were, they made invisibility the heart of their existence. While her people slept, Sera spent hours in the evernight, looking for guidance. Looking for anything. She heard Cohvass say each day that they would learn the purpose of their survival. She only hoped it was soon.

Shouts of anger had reached them through the trees. Someone had to shake her back to awareness. They told her, excitedly: the scouts had come across a Ryferian column in the forest.

“There was arguing among them. One of the gattra killed a nasci soldier,” one of the scouts recounted.

“The nasci treat the shadows like criminals,” another remarked.

“They are criminals to them, just as we are,” Sera said. “Guilty of having different gods.”

“Something else… They’ve taken the Raan Dura.”

Sera nodded, unsurprised. Many of the others looked at each other, caught between disbelief and panic. She knew what they were thinking; they were a people without a home, and now their most sacred of artifacts was being taken from them. They would soon suffer the same fate as many other enemies of the Empire. Sera thought it, too: this could be the last moment in their history, if they did nothing.

“I need to see,” she said.

 

 

 

They counted over two hundred soldiers. Sera, Cohvass, and three other scouts lay prone and watched the column as it began its march, the sun just beginning to rise above the trees.

“There,” Cohvass whispered as he pointed to a carriage bearing a number of crates and barrels and wooden boxes overflowing with shiny trinkets and treasures undoubtedly stolen from Yasri. Among them was a familiar iron chest with bands of gold inlaid in ornate patterns. A disk of pure silver, a beautiful yet meager representation of the Guiding Star, had been affixed to the lid of the chest which held the Raan Dura.

“Where are they taking it?” asked Nyall Augoss, one of the scouts.

Cohvass grimaced. “Do you not know? They are taking it to their capital. Every last piece of us that they have will be sacrificed to their man-god. Burned. Melted. And once the last piece of us is gone, their clerics will cast a spell over their entire people, and they will forget we ever were.”

Nyall’s mouth was agape. He looked to Sera. “Is this true?”

Sera nodded. “My grandfather once told me of a great kingdom across the Ortulian Ocean that dared to wage war against Ryferia. The war lasted eleven generations, and when it was over, every last aggressor had been put to the sword, every city burned to ash, and then their priests came and banished every one of their ancestors from the evernight.”

“What was this kingdom called?”

“No one knows,” Sera whispered. “No one knows what was there, who they were… there is only a great ashen desert where castles once stood. Do you understand now? It’s not enough that they defeat their enemies. They make it so that they never were. Not even the spirits in the evernight are spared.”

No one said anything as they watched the rest of the column march off. Sera noticed another carriage, heavily laden and covered by sheets of canvas, and noticed the giant that walked beside it, his greatsword unsheathed and gleaming in the morning sun. Was the giant there by chance, or was there something underneath those coverings that he was guarding?

Cohvass had seen it as well. “What do you think was in the other carriage?” he asked as the Ryferian rearguard finally moved out of earshot.

“Something valuable,” Nyall muttered.

“Nothing of concern to us,” Sera said. “They have the Raan Dura.” She paused as she thought again of that nameless kingdom turned to ash and dust. “We need to get it back.”

Cohvass nodded. “They’re twice our number. There are perhaps one hundred of us able to fight. Even then, we’re ill equipped, we’re hungry –”

“Stop,” Sera said quietly. “Do you want to see Aulvennic’s gift to our people destroyed?”

The tall warrior shook his head.

“Would you fight to get it back?”

“Of course I would,” he grumbled.

She put her hand on his forearm. “Good… because there is a way we can get it back.”

The group separated that night. Many among them were aged and tired, or young and frightened; unable to fight. Lian Sepro, a well-known seer from the city, agreed to act as their leader while the rest of them – just over a hundred – tracked the column. Some objected, not wanting to leave any of their countrymen defenseless, but their need to see the Raan Dura freed would not be denied.

Sera spoke privately with Lian before they left. “It may be several days before we return. It may be longer than that. We’ll need to wait for just the right time.”

Lian smiled. “I believe that Aulvennic is guiding you, Sera. You saved us once. Perhaps by his grace, you’ll save us again.”

Lian looked sad as Sera walked away; he was not too old that he couldn’t fight, and she knew that he would have preferred to follow her. But the rest of their kinsmen needed a holy man to assure them that their god had not forgotten them. She felt hopeful for the first time in weeks, hopeful that they would have a victory of their own as they set off into the forest after the enemy.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 7

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

He was back at the tree. Their tree. The sound of the waterfall drifted in and out of his awareness, its noise as natural as the beating of his heart. It felt as though it became part of him, a sound as much his own as his breathing. Sometimes the wind would carry cool droplets of water to where Zayd and Symm sat against the tree. They smiled unknowingly each time it occurred. His mind would drift back to before, when he had come there alone. But that was someone else. He was no longer that Zayd. He had come here to this place for years by himself, but it had always been theirs. It made sense now. He understood.

They raced each other every time they went there, and every time she won. He pushed himself, faster and faster each time, only to find Symm already lying on the branch that reached closest to the precipice of the falls. She was never even out of breath. He tried different routes, but the conclusion was always the same.

The summer heat bore down on them even in the shade, and they sat unmoving, silently awaiting the next breath of wind to usher mist off the cascades to where they rested.

“Why haven’t you followed me?” Symm asked. Zayd was unsure if they had spoken since they had arrived.

“I think for the same reason you haven’t asked me to.”

She traced her finger along lines in the tree bark. “Maybe I don’t know why I haven’t.”

“Because it’s yours.”

She lifted her head off of his shoulders, the most she had moved in minutes… or hours.

“The land isn’t mine,” she said.

“The run is yours. Running whatever way you go, whatever path you’ve found. That belongs to you.”

“And that’s why you haven’t followed me? Or asked me to show you?”

Zayd nodded.

“Aren’t you tired of getting here last?” she asked. Zayd’s eyes were closed, but he heard the smile in her words.

“No,” he said. “That’s my favourite part.”

Her finger followed a line in the bark that led to Zayd’s leg, and she ran her finger slowly on his thigh where the line in the bark would be. She laughed as she felt him tense. “Why is that?” She stopped her hand after he did not answer for several moments.

“I leave the village,” he said slowly, “and I see you there when I go. And I see you here when I arrive. And I begin to think I may see you wherever I go.”

“In your home?”

“Yes.”

“And… in your bed?” she whispered deliberately.

The question took him off guard. He opened his eyes and saw her smiling, laughing silently. He felt his face go red. Symm laughed harder, and pushed Zayd suddenly, sending him off the branch. He landed unsteadily on his feet before he lost his balance and ended up on his back, and as he propped himself up on his elbows, he saw her running away, looking over her shoulder at him as she went. Zayd followed her, but she was not running fast. She wanted him to catch up. They did not go far.

 

 

The attack came on the morning of the seventh day since they left Yasri. Zayd and the other scouts had finished their sentry duties at first light and returned to their carriages for rest. Gavras, still chained at the hands and feet, seemed to be perpetually awake. The rain never quit fully since it had started two days prior; there were reprieves, but the clouds remained, promising more.

The road hugged the eastern bank of a lake, and the far side of the water’s edge was against a high, sheer cliff, from the top of which ran a narrow waterfall. Other mountains had started to dominate the horizon. On their right the ground sloped upward to a ridge, the hard-packed earth of the Yasur forest now replaced by waist-high shrubs and moss-covered stone, and instead of tall pines, the land was dominated by proud oak trees.

Some soldiers could hear Commander Areagus angrily trying to discern the maps they had taken from Yasri. He had even grudgingly asked the opinion of Willar Praene, commander of the Ninth Regiment, in the hope to determine where exactly they were according to the indistinct maps. Or, he had meant to; instead Areagus had mistakenly asked Evret Lansdon, Praene’s cousin who looked almost like a twin. But, only being a corporal, Evret had no insight to offer Areagus. “Well then get from my sight!” Areagus had yelled. “And go find your damned cousin this instant!” Evret, along with every soldier in Areagus’ presence, hastened to obey.

As the column halted at the lake while Areagus and Praene conferred, Barrett and some of the knights of the Eighth rode ahead to scout the terrain. Zayd watched the knights ride off, the canter of the horses shaking the ground as they went, and the clamour transported him back to Tauth. He had known fear at those tremors, a fear he thought he had conquered.

And the noise had hidden the sounds that Zayd and his men may have otherwise detected. It was as if the forest came to life. There were suddenly slain soldiers amongst them, and the second volley of arrows coming from the trees hit them before those wounded in the first volley had even cried out. Some soldiers were getting into what battle lines they could manage in the confined space of the road, while others linked shields together and stood over the wounded.

In the carriage, Zayd’s eyes shot open seemingly in unison with his men. Without uttering a word they all rapidly disembarked and armed themselves as quickly as they could. Other soldiers were rushing to the front. From the corner of his eye, Zayd saw Areagus and Praene coming out of the command tent. A soldier with two arrows in his shield ran up to Areagus to brief him.

Zayd was about to issue orders when a familiar sound rang out: a Dramandi war cry. It echoed across the lake and off of the cliff face and back, making it impossible to tell the location of their attackers. The cry went up a second and third time, followed by more arrows. Zayd looked ahead in time to see the Dramandi emerging from the forest, running at them, weapons held high.

“Circle around,” Zayd said, pointing to their right flank, towards the ridge. “Only engage once you’re sure you’re behind them.”

“Are you not leading us?” Daruthin asked.

Zayd looked into the empty carriage. Gavras had disappeared.

“I’ll join up with you soon.”

 

 

The Dramandi had come into sight but did not charge. Instead they remained a short distance from the road, screaming their war cries from amongst the trees, taunting the Ryferians. Zayd saw dozens of Trueborn soldiers break formation and run into the woods after the Dramandi while their commanders screamed at them uselessly to hold the line.

It took Zayd a moment to find Gavras amid the chaos. He had found a sword and charged into the forest beyond the safety of the shield wall the soldiers had hastily formed, and even with chains around his wrists and ankles, he moved as fluidly as ever. Zayd cursed to himself as he saw several Dramandi encircle him, their weapons poised. Zayd drew his own weapon and ran forward to the right flank of the shield wall. Stepping in front, he motioned to the three closest soldiers to follow him.

“Hold here!” a sergeant shouted from behind them.

Zayd stopped in his tracks and stared at the sergeant, then at the soldiers while touching the tip of his sword to the captain’s crest on his shoulders. “I have rank here, sergeant.” He spat out the last word.

“Piss on your rank,” the sergeant growled. “You don’t command me, Tauthri.”

Zayd grimaced and told himself he would not forget this man and his insubordination. Without uttering another word, Zayd reached for the shield of the nearest soldier, tore it from his grip, and ran towards Gavras and his attackers.

The other Ryferian soldiers that had charged recklessly into the woods were being cut down. Many were running the opposite direction, back toward the safety of the shield wall, as Zayd approached Gavras, who was only making quick jabs at his three opponents to keep them at bay. They had already landed several blows on him; he was bleeding from his arms and chest.

It was clear they were fixated on him. They must have come from Yasri, Zayd thought as he threw all of his weight behind his shield and knocked one of the attackers off his feet. Before anyone could react to his sudden appearance, Zayd spun quickly and drove his blade into the pelvis of the next closest Dramandi. Gavras lunged at the third, burying inches of his blade between his ribs, but the man stepped back just as quickly before retreating into the woods, clutching his side. Zayd dispatched the Dramandi at his feet with a merciful thrust to the heart. Gavras looked at him with a smirk. Completely forgetting the danger they were in, Zayd grabbed him by the collar.

“What in the black Beyond are you doing?”

Gavras was breathing heavily, a look of pained confusion on his face. “I thought… I thought you were one of us.”

“I am,” Zayd blurted, not knowing what Gavras was talking about.

“No, no. You’re not,” he stammered. “You’ve become so much like them that you’re ashamed of us. Of yourself. I don’t know what you are.”

A new clamour arose from far behind the shield wall. Zayd could see another group of Dramandi pouring down from the ridge into the midsection of the column, and, releasing Gavras from his grip, he sprinted towards the new threat.

The chaos intensified. Soldiers were running in every direction, hacking and slashing as they went, but many were being cut down. The attackers were overturning supply carts. Areagus’ command tent had collapsed. There was something strange about it. It took him a moment, but he soon realized it: their numbers were too few. This was not an assault meant to break them. The attack at the front had been a feint.

They were after something.

Zayd entered the fray shield first again, bowling a grey-haired Dramandi into another, more fierce looking fighter. They both cried out in surprise. He moved to finish them while they were both defenseless, but a powerful strike landed on his shield, putting him off balance.

The newcomer was tall, muscular, and covered in scars, and as Zayd reeled back, the brute must have just noticed who he was attacking. He wore a look of hate borne out of fear. He tightened his two-handed grip on a threatening iron hammer already dripping blood.

“Gattra!” the brute screamed.

With surprising speed, the scarred brute brought the hammer down in a vicious overhead swing, and Zayd only just managed to avoid the blow by inches. The hammer struck stone and broke it as if it were glass. Zayd lunged at his larger opponent, but the Dramandi swung the hammer up from the ground and caught him again in the shield, but this time, the shield broke to pieces and Zayd was knocked clear off his feet. There was a deafening roar, and the full weight of the brute was on top of him. Zayd felt a sudden heat.

Blood. He could feel it spreading on his stomach and legs. He always thought dying in battle would be more painful, but he felt nothing but the warmth. There was another roar. The Dramandi lifted himself up, and Zayd saw only then that the brute had been cleaved in half at the waist.

Talazz tossed the torso aside like a piece of rancid meat. The giant’s laugh sounded like thunder. “Good thing I came along when I did,” Talazz said before charging after another enemy.

The flow of battle seemed to shift when Talazz moved. The ground was shaking. Looking back to the front of the column, Zayd could see the shield wall had broken. The Dramandi were fleeing in earnest, and the swordsmen of the Ninth were giving pursuit.

It was the return of the cavalry led by Barrett Stern that shook the ground as they charged towards the remaining Dramandi attacking the column’s centre. Gavras was making his way towards Zayd, fighting as he went, when the Silver Sun knights wheeled and charged again. Their swords flashed out and down as they went, each blow an exercise in precision. Stern spurred ahead, faster and faster, felling foe after foe. It happened so quickly that Zayd did not have a chance to warn him. Gavras was only turning around when Stern’s warhorse knocked him down and trampled over him.

Zayd dropped his sword and ran to his fallen friend. Barrett galloped past him, and neither one paid the other any mind.

Gavras was soaked in blood from the numerous wounds he had sustained. Zayd quickly searched him for a sign of any wound more grievous that he could mend, but he stopped when he noticed that Gavras was staring into the sky, completely still. His short black hair was matted in blood. Zayd gently touched his head and sat there as the sound of the battle waned until it finally disappeared.

He only looked up when he heard a familiar voice, though for a moment he did not comprehend. The rush of the battle had sapped him of his senses. He looked up to see Tascell approaching, looking back and forth, calling for his brother until he saw Zayd on the ground, and he stopped. He and Zayd held stares for the longest breath Zayd could remember, not looking away as he desperately searched for words that would comfort Tascell, but he could think of nothing. Tascell dropped his sword and shield and walked towards Zayd, becoming more and more unsteady as he neared until he sank to his knees next to the body of his slain brother.

Always stoic and stern, Tascell was cut through in a way Zayd thought impossible. He held his hands over his mouth as he began to weep, then gently wiped the dirt from Gavras’ face and slowly shut his eyes.

“My brother,” Tascell whispered. “Little brother…” Zayd wanted to say something, but saying anything would only fill the silence with useless noise. Should he tell Tascell that Gavras fought bravely? Should he lie and tell him he died bravely? He wanted to say these things but he knew it would help nothing. Platitudes are not good company of grief. The image of Barrett, reckless and dangerous, flashed back into his mind. Zayd picked his blade up from the dirt and walked off. Tascell did not follow.

They had lost nearly fifty men and were only able to find fewer than twenty bodies of their attackers. Soldiers were walking to and fro, reorganizing the toppled supply wagons and moving the wounded where they could rest comfortably. Zayd pushed his way through them all. Ahead was a crowd and through the press of bodies he could see Barrett: he could hear him speaking with someone else. As he neared he saw people on the ground.

It was Willar Praene, leader of the Ninth, speaking to Barrett as well as to the rest of the assembled soldiers. Zayd noticed at once they were all officers over the rank of corporal. On the ground lay Commander Areagus.

“…once we are certain that the wounded have mended enough to march, we will do so,” Willar told the group. He spoke with calmness and authority. To Zayd, he sounded eager to command. “And this will be difficult,” he continued, “but in the interest of our safety, we will forego burying our dead.”

Several objections arose, but Willar raised his hands. They were covered in blood and dirt.

“It is unfortunate, I know,” he said, “but we can’t remain here in case they return. We need to move. This terrain does not lend itself to defensibility.”

“What of the prisoners?” Barrett asked.

“For now, we will keep them alive.”

More objections. “Burn them alive,” Zayd heard someone say.

Willar spoke over the voices. “They will likely not attack again if it will put their kin at risk.”

“And if they do?” another voice asked.

“Then they can watch as we slaughter more of their soldiers like dogs.”

They laughed. Foolishly so, Zayd thought. When you wound your enemy so badly that he cannot or will not attack – that is a victory. His father’s words echoing in his head. This was not a victory. Only a reprieve.

Willar dismissed them. The officers dispersed, but Zayd did not move. Neither did Barrett. The knight, facing away looked over his shoulder before slowly turning to face him. He wiped sweat from his brow. “I’m in no mood.”

“You saw him,” Zayd said as he slowly stepped towards the knight.

“Not until it was too late.” Barrett grimaced. “I needn’t explain myself to you, now step aside.”

“You’re as much a coward as you are a liar.” The words hit Barrett like a slap across the face. His eyes widened in anger. Zayd continued, “You did not have the courage to cut him down yourself like you wanted to. It wasn’t enough that he was in chains for wrestling you off of me, was it?”

Barrett took a step closer. They were within an arm’s length of each other. “If I want to cut you down then I’ll bloody well do it.”

“Do it, then. Do it, and see how long you keep your head.”

Barrett scoffed. “I could beat you to a bloody, spineless pulp and no one would blink. Praene wouldn’t even reprimand a Silver Sun knight for it, so don’t think I won’t. I’ll let you hit me first.” Barrett stuck out his chin. “Go ahead, Tauthri. Let’s finally settle this.”

When Zayd did not move, Barrett continued: “Would it help if I told you I did see him? I saw that useless dark-eyed insect and I thought to myself, the world will be better off with one less. I heard his bones break as he fell. At least he [_had _]a backbone.”

Zayd could see Gavras staring into the sky, felt the warm blood trickling from his head, and saw the chains on his hands and feet. Without thinking, Zayd spit in Barrett’s face. The knight flinched and took a step back. “Bastard!”

Barrett shoved him with the force of a battering ram. Zayd was knocked from his feet and landed flat on his back, and the air in his lungs rushed out. He began to cough and gasp, but he could still hear Barrett as he walked away. “Bloody dark-eyed vermin! God-cursed rodent!”

Zayd got back to his feet. What was he doing? A week ago, he would never have thought that he would have spat in the face of any superior officer, let alone a Silver Sun knight. And certainly not Barrett Stern. Several days of marching and the edifices of authority were already falling apart. And there were many miles yet to go.

When they resumed marching with Willar Praene at the head of the column, they veered west, off of the original route they had planned. Zayd thought nothing of it as he sat in the back of the carriage with the nine remaining Tauthri, watching as the bodies of their dead slowly disappeared from view as they went. They were leaving the bodies of two of their kind to rot in the open: Tuhri, the youngest of the sentries, had survived the battle but not his wounds. It was odd, Zayd thought, that they had not even moved them off of the road. They had just left them as they had fallen.

Sitting the carriage next to his men, watching the dead fall away into the distance, Zayd once again traced his sigil, this time on the inside of his arm with the point of his dagger.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 8

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

The sound of thunder woke Osmun from yet another restless sleep. He had covered the only window in his small room in the monastery so that, if he did happen to find restful sleep, the sun would not wake him. It was a vain hope.

The calming sound of the rain nearly took him back to sleep, but another, louder roll of thunder told him it was not to be. The time that had passed since he met with Nestor was a blur, a mixture of study, daydreams, near-sleep, and nightmares. Nestor had pointed him in the right direction, but it did nothing to get the voice from out of his head. He needed to confront Egus and Andrican and bring his trial to an end, but to do so, he needed to find the answers. They were already written, but after speaking with the old historian, it seemed they were hidden between the words.

“Why bother writing anything if you leave so much unsaid?” Osmun muttered to himself as he sat up in bed. He could appreciate the need for some ambiguity; some truths needed to be found by way of discovery, not just by dictation. But why would something as crucial as this be written in such an obscure and indirect way?

“If it’s written at all,” he said again. He wondered if anyone passing by his door would hear him talking to himself, but then he decided he didn’t care. Let them listen. They may learn something. As incoherent as he may ramble in his exhaustion, he knew that, out of anyone at this monastery or any other in Lycernum, he was destined for greatness. He had the most powerful natural gift for communing with and commanding the Beyond.

Osmun lifted himself to his feet, realizing that his skill was all the trial ought to consider. He could spend the rest of his life studying, but the church needed him and his skills, as much as Andrican derided him for thinking so. They would end the trial, he realized, if he refused to play their game, and they would make him a cleric if not doing so meant that he no longer aided the church.

He opened the window and looked outside, uncertain of the time of day. The clouds were heavy and dark. If the sun was out, it was wholly unable to penetrate the gray veil that covered the sky. He left his room and went to the dining hall for tea before he left for the Cathedral. Every monk, fellow priest, and disciple that passed by him as he sat alone drinking his tea looked at him with what Osmun could only assume was pity. He shook his head as he took another sip. It had lost its flavour. He pushed the half-empty cup away from him and left.

It wasn’t pity, he decided. It may look as though they pitied him, but surely it was borne out of some fear. They were intimidated by him. Envious.

He eschewed his usual meandering route through the city only partly because of the rain. Mostly it was because he needed to have this matter put to rest. If the spectre was still haunting his footsteps, he did not notice. It was the only mercy of being as utterly exhausted as he was.

The words, though… its words still reverberated in the back of his mind.

Osmun still was not sure what time of day it was by the time he reached the Cathedral, soaking wet. The sheets of rain were keeping the usual thrum of the city to a minimum. There were moments as he walked that he thought he was the only person in Lycernum.

The brass bell in the Cathedral tower began to chime as he pushed open one of the iron doors. Inside, a worship service was coming to an end. The hall was half-empty even before the faithful began to leave the Cathedral and walk outside into the rain.

On the stage was a young priest, perhaps younger than Osmun, who smiled peacefully at the congregation as they left. As he noticed Osmun approach him, there was a visible effort on his part to keep his gracious demeanour in place.

“The clerics,” Osmun said. “Where are they?”

“You must be Osmun Arus,” the priest said. He bent over slightly, but remained on the stage, several feet above Osmun. “Are you quite alright? You look ––”

“Are they here?” Osmun asked flatly.

The priest’s smile faded somewhat, and he replied, though Osmun only heard the ever-present voice in his head rush to the forefront. The priest stood back up.

“You seem unwell, Brother Osmun. Is there some way I can help you?”

Osmun walked away abruptly. He could hear the priest trying to get his attention as he went, but his voice quickly became just more background noise.

He went to the library and found it empty, so he tried the door that led to the iron-walled room where they had the trial, but it was locked. Osmun kicked the door in frustration, sending a loud clang off the stone walls of the library and out into the halls.

The two clerics were at the entrance to the library as Osmun went to leave. Andrican wore the same stern, unimpressed look he always did. Egus looked pleased at first, but his disposition changed when he got a good look at the young priest.

“By the Beacon, look at you,” Egus said. He squinted as if he thought his eyes were deceiving him.

“You look even more unwell than the last time you were here,” Andrican said, his voice devoid of compassion. “What have you been doing?”

Osmun tried to compose himself. “I’ve come to ask you to end the trial. I know what you’re doing. I’ve figured it out. I don’t know how you’re doing it, but it’s a trick. You’re trying to fill me with doubt for some reason, perhaps to teach me some humility. Let’s just be done with it, shall we?”

The two clerics exchanged a glance, as they often did. Osmun wondered if Egus was taking a cue from Andrican. He had always trusted Egus. Had it always been misplaced?

“The trial is over,” Egus said meekly.

“No.” Osmun shook his head and felt a smile spread across his face. “It’s been going on since we were in that room. It’s been going on for ten days! [_Ten _]days you’ve done your best to break me down.”

“That was seven days ago,” Andrican interjected.

“Seven? No, stop. Stop trying to… It’s been ten days.”

“Osmun, the trial was seven days ago,” Egus said quietly. “It’s not still going on. It was one day, and only that time we spent in that room.”

“It’s just like I told you, Cleric Egus,” Andrican said as he clasped his hands behind his back. “He’s still on about that nonsense I told you about.”

Osmun scowled. “It isn’t nonsense! I know what I have seen, and I’ve found the proof in the doctrines that shows I am not imagining this.” He quoted the passages and cited the doctrines from his discussion with Nestor. Egus looked contemplative while Andrican looked disinterested.

“That’s an absurd conclusion,” Andrican snorted.

“If it were true, that would mean we would see it as well,” Egus said.

“And we haven’t,” Andrican said. “What is your explanation for that?”

“That I am plainly more skilled than the two of you,” Osmun nearly shouted. “That is the only explanation for your lack of insight!”

“No, you are a liar. [_That _]is the most reasonable explanation.”

“The both of you have become too comfortable in your stations that you no longer see the world as it is, only as you once knew it. Even Nestor agrees—”

“Nestor Thuland?” Egus asked. The colour drained from his face.

“Who is he?” Andrican asked.

Egus covered his mouth with one hand and was slowly shaking his head from side to side.

“Egus, who is he?” Andrican repeated.

“He is a retired historian.”

Andrican looked from Egus to Osmun, his mouth agape. “You discussed this theory of yours with a historian?”

“He’s no longer a historian, he’s only an archivist now,” Osmun said.

“You know that you are forbidden to discuss your trial with anyone other than your adjudicators,” Egus said.

“I didn’t tell him it was part of the trial.”

“So you say,” Andrican said.

“He is not a historian anymore,” Osmun repeated.

“I’m not sure if I’m more surprised at your conduct or at his.” Andrican’s voice remained calm, but Osmun could tell the cleric was infuriated. “I had hoped that you would somehow free yourself of this delusion, but it’s clear that you are troubled. Very troubled. It was the only reason that Egus and I had not already told you that you’d passed the trial. But now I’m afraid that is a moot point entirely. The only appropriate action at this point is to suspend you from the priesthood entirely.”

“What? You can’t—”

“You’ve left us no other option.”

Osmun looked to Egus. “You can’t… please…” His words trailed off as he looked at the older cleric and saw that, though it pained him, he was in agreement with Andrican. He suddenly felt like lashing out, but he was powerless and paralyzed. Andrican’s words had sapped whatever energy he had left. He began to stammer, prompting a look of pity from Egus and one of disdain from Andrican.

He found himself outside of the Cathedral, sitting at the steps of the monument. The two clerics must have escorted him out, but Osmun was lost in thought. He had heard Andrican speak as though from a distance, his words distorted and faint: rest… meditate…contemplate your future…… forget what you think you saw… speak of it to no one.

It was odd that not long ago he was sitting in the exact same place, full of hope, and now he was directionless and empty, save for the ancient, unknown voice he could not escape.

It was hours before Osmun was back at the monastery. He was unsure if he made it there deliberately or by chance, like a listless boat running aground. He went immediately to his room, avoiding the stares of others who walked by, though he could not avoid knowing they were there and feeling their judgments as he passed. Let them judge. Cleric or not, he was still more skilled than them all. His power would be used for great things. He knew this, had always known this.

He wanted and needed to sleep, but he knew it would not come. It would only be the strange voice. It was odd to think that it was always with him now, like a shadow in his own mind, though what cast it, he could not fathom. He dared not.

 

 

 

The rain had subsided when he next awoke, though the clouds remained. He seemed to have no more sense of wakefulness, and as he rose again, he was uncertain if he had been in his room for days or hours. He could smell baked bread, which meant that it was likely midday. But the mid of which day, he could not tell.

As Osmun left his room he nearly ran into Julian Tomarus, a young disciple training to be a priest.

“Brother Osmun, forgive me,” Julian stammered.

“Not to worry,” Osmun meant to say, but he only grunted his acknowledgment, which made Julian more nervous than he already was. Osmun may have felt some sympathy for him if he had the energy. Julian was barely a man, and even though he was nearing the age where he could be admitted to the priesthood, he still had the round face and thin frame of an awkward boy.

“I was actually coming to see if you were awake,” Julian went on. “I was looking for the book on the ascension, the one written by Jonas Dains, and I thought you might have it.”

“Dains? Why do you want that one?”

“There are a few passages about the route he took that I wanted to go over.”

“No one puts any stock in Dains’ account of the ascension. In any case, I don’t have it.”

“I’m sorry.” Julian wiped his palms on his grey robes. “I really am, to be troubling you like this, ah, but Nestor said you were the last one who had it.”

“Yes, and I took it back,” Osmun said flatly. Julian looked from side to side as if there were others nearby who might help him. Osmun tried to recall if he had been so nervous when he had been a disciple, or if he had ever had a reason to be. Nothing came to mind. “Let’s go take a look in the library. I think I remember which shelf I put it on.”

Julian exhaled and flashed a quick smile. “Thank you, B-brother Osmun,” he sputtered out, and as Osmun began to walk, Julian hurried to keep pace.

“I know that many believe that Dains’ details are wrong,” Julian said as they walked.

“Many don’t believe, Julian. Many know.”

“Y-yes, well, what I am trying to find out is if he was describing the ascension from a different starting point.”

“I see. That’s quite…” Foolish is what it was. He searched for a more diplomatic term. “That’s quite an interesting take on it.” And it was one that had been considered dozens of times by numerous noteworthy scholars, but Osmun said nothing. He, too, had once been wide-eyed and naïve. Julian was too young to yet experience the bitterness that he felt now. Perhaps in another year. Two, if he was fortunate.

The two of them walked around the communal garden between the dormitory and the main building of the monastery that contained the chapel as well as the library. Julian went on about his idea of the ascension, but Osmun ignored most of it, giving him only a polite nod and an affirming grunt every few moments. He was familiar with Dain’s account, and while he could save the young disciple time and energy by telling him precisely how flawed the account was, Osmun decided again to say nothing.

The library was completely silent and much darker than usual. There were no candles or braziers lit, and there was little in the way to daylight to come through the windows.

“Go get a candle from the chapel,” Osmun told Julian, who nodded and rushed off. Osmun walked further into the library, going cautiously as his eyes still struggled to adjust. He stood for a few moments, and then, as his eyes finally settled, he saw Nestor sitting at his usual table.

Julian came through the doors holding a candle, and as he approached, they both saw that Nestor was face down on the table, inches away from an open book.

“Is he…” Julian stood back from the table, his eyes fixed on Osmun, waiting for an answer.

“I think so.” Osmun touched Nestor’s hands, and found the answer in their coldness. “Yes, he’s gone.”

“What do we do?” Julian whispered. Osmun looked over at him and saw an expression of fear on his face, as though he himself felt guilty for Nestor’s death. Osmun held out his hand.

“Give me the candle,” he said, but Julian did not move. He only held the candle out further for Osmun to take it from him.

“He was quite old,” Osmun said to reassure Julian as he took the candle from him. “Go get the vicar and tell him what has happened.” Julian nodded and, not wanting to remain a moment longer, ran out of the room.

Osmun set the candle down on the table, closed the book on the table and moved it to the nearby window ledge. “At least this saves me from explaining my failure to you,” he muttered. Nestor’s teapot sat in its usual spot on the table, and in the flickering candlelight, he noticed black flecks in the bottom of the glass teacup. Osmun held the candle closer and removed the lid from the teapot and saw black leaves inside mixed in with Nestor’s usual green tea leaves, something Nestor could not have noticed. There was something familiar about the appearance of the black leaves, but whatever it was eluded him. His mind was clouded by fatigue.

Osmun took the teapot outside, drained the remainder of the liquid, and scooped out the soggy leaves from the bottom of the pot. He could hear the voice of Vicar Eldon approaching in the distance. Keeping the small leaves clenched in his hand, he returned the teapot to its place on Nestor’s table, and Vicar Eldon entered moments after.

Eldon had been a cleric with the army in his youth and still comported himself with the same military slant of his old life. His hands were clasped in front of him as he entered the library, and he looked from the table to Osmun, examining the room with his chin jutted out. He ran a hand lightly over his grey-brown beard. Eldon’s aide and two other monks entered in behind him.

“Thank you, Osmun, for notifying me,” Eldon said quietly. As he walked towards Nestor, he paused next to Osmun. “You may leave. This is a church affair. I’d prefer not to have any spectators.” Osmun clenched the leaves tightly in his hand. He imagined Andrican telling the rest of the church leadership of Osmun’s suspension with barely constrained jubilation.

He walked away without saying a word, biting back the urge to say “Yes, vicar.” If he was no longer considered brother, then why bother with niceties at all? As he stepped into the hallway, Osmun looked back into the room and froze.

It was standing behind the vicar, as plain as any of the men in the room. It leaned forward as if to whisper in the vicar’s ear. At once, Eldon and the shadow both slowly turned their heads and looked at him. Osmun nearly tripped over his own feet as he ran.

 

 

For some reason he expected them to follow him. The shadow seemed such an adversary, always hiding, always peeking out at him. Always talking to him, the same phrase, over and over. Walking through the garden, Osmun looked over his shoulder as he picked the green tea leaves out of the palm of his hand, leaving only the black leaves behind. There was something about them. He knew they did not belong.

Nestor was a man of habit, always getting the same kind of green tea every morning at the same time. Why was today different? Though he could not say why, there was an itch in Osmun’s conscience that told him Nestor did not get what he normally did. He felt certain about something he could not even put into words. Perhaps that is what instinct is, he thought to himself: preternatural certainty.

He walked back into the dormitory, through the halls where the priests, disciples, and monks all had their quarters. Osmun noticed Julian somewhere along the way, standing with other disciples, and felt a silence command them as he walked past. If the entire monastery had not yet heard, it would not be much longer. Osmun continued on through to the kitchen.

It seemed empty at first; breakfast had ended and there were still hours before the midday meal, so the brothers that normally tended the kitchen were absent. Osmun heard shuffling coming from behind one of the ovens. He walked around to find one of the bakers on his hands and knees, his head and shoulders fully within the oven, cleaning out ash and old fragments of charred wood. The man was short and round, and Osmun could hear his laboured breathing as he walked closer.

“Pardon me, brother,” Osmun said.

The baker jumped, letting out a surprised gasp, followed by a groan of pain. The man withdrew himself from the oven and held a tender spot on his bald head. Black marks of ash covered his head and face.

“Bloody Betrayer,” the baker said. “Think you could not sneak up on me next time?”

“Forgive me, brother…”

“Harald. And I’m not Brother Harald. I just do the cooking.” He rubbed his head and looked at his fingers. “Am I bleeding? I feel like I’m bleeding.”

“You aren’t bleeding.” Osmun was curt. “I need you to show me where you keep your tea leaves.”

“What? Tea leaves? What for?”

“Just show me,” Osmun said, staring hard at the man. It had the desired effect.

“All right, then. This way.” Harald walked past a set of wooden tables that had innumerable cuts in them. There were still traces of food on them from the breakfast that Osmun had missed. They made their way to a store room that was made entirely of shelves along each long wall, and each shelf was laden with a bag or crate or jar. Harald walked inside and stopped near the far wall and pointed to a cluster of fist-sized glass jars.

Osmun looked through the jars, five of them altogether.

“There’s only two kinds,” Osmun said.

“Were you expecting more? If you want, I can see if we can get some other kinds, though the vicar can be pretty miserly with our budget…”

“No, that’s not… Are there usually only two kinds?”

“That there are. Mostly everyone has the white leaf tea. Not sure why. Not like it’s any better or any worse than some of the other common types. I think it’s because most of the people here think that it grows on the mountains.”

“It does grow on the mountains.”

“True,” Harald said, then lowered his voice as if revealing some terrible secret. “But most of this here comes from the provinces. Kind of funny, don’t you think? Everyone thinking they’re being more righteous and holy because the tea leaves supposedly come from the mountain Xidius is buried atop.”

Osmun closed his eyes and winced. “What about the [_green _]leaves? Who handles those?”

Harald shrugged. “No one, really. Nestor the archivist usually makes it himself in the morning. He’s the only one that drinks the stuff. Weren’t for him, we wouldn’t keep any around.”

Osmun held out his hand to show Harald the clump of damp black leaves.

“So you don’t keep any of these leaves anywhere?”

Harald squinted and held Osmun’s hand closer and poked at the leaves with a chubby finger before taking a half-step backwards. He looked up at Osmun in alarm.

“That’s black thornleaf!” Harald whispered. Osmun remembered as soon as he heard the name. The leaf that grew in the Falkir Valley. The plant that every traveller was warned about. “What are you doing with poison?”

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 9

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

The song of the kisolark was rarely heard, and its repetition is what cemented the day in Zayd’s mind. It was dusk, and their songs lilted through the trees and into the village. They were unlike other birds who sang to attract one another; the kisolarks sang when they had found one another and made their young. That was the only time they sang. They were silent, otherwise. An evening breeze carried the songs through the thatched walls of the hut.

Symm was looking at Zayd angrily as he adjusted his bowstring.

“It isn’t fair,” she said as he pulled the string tight.

“It’s what Savyl has decided,” Zayd replied. “There’s nothing to be done about it.”

“What if you refuse to go?”

“You know I can’t do that. These invaders take more ground each day. I cannot stay behind. What would my father think?”

“He would think nothing of it if it was just once. Just once, stay here. Take care of your son. It isn’t fair that I can’t go.”

Zayd smiled. “I’m a better shot than you.”

“Hardly.”

Cassian let out something between a squeal and a laugh from his cradle.

“Even our son agrees with me,” Zayd said. He wrapped his free arm around Symm’s waist and pulled her close for a kiss, but she snuck her hand over his mouth at the last minute.

“You’ll have to wait until you return,” she said. “Unless you let me go on tonight’s raid.” She was slowly reaching for his bow and taking her hand away from his mouth. Zayd looked from her eyes over to the bow in his hand, which he slowly moved out of her reach.

She pushed him off of her. “Fine. Go.”

“Don’t pout, Symm.”

“I am not…” She cut herself off and took a breath. “I am going to talk to Savyl. I should be going on these raids, too.”

Zayd hoisted his quiver over his shoulder as he walked over to the cradle and kissed Cassian on his forehead.

“So talk to him.” Zayd knelt and traced his family sigil in the clay floor of the hut underneath the cradle. He knew she wanted to ever since the attacks had started. He even saw her approach Savyl, but she said nothing. She wouldn’t leave Cassian.

 

 

 

The ropes rubbed Sera Naiat’s wrists raw, and every time the wagon lurched, the rope pulled her forward. She would keep her balance if she was lucky, but most of the time she was not. The skin of her rope-burned wrists cried for attention between each step she took. It had hardly been a day and she already imagined what it might be like if she let her legs go limp and allowed herself to be dragged across the uneven ground until she was dead.

Another nine of her sword-kin were tied in the same way to different wagons. When the nasci had taken her, she had prayed that they would tie her to the carriage that bore the Raan Dura. Perhaps being close to it would give her some strength. Yet they had not tied any of them to any carriage that held the treasures they had taken from Yasri. And there was one carriage that no one save the giant went near.

She could hear Cohvass somewhere behind her. The nasci were goading him until he would lunge at one of them pointlessly. Sometimes they would beat him when he tried, and she could hear them laughing when they did. He could not even speak their language, but she knew he would not stop trying to fight them until he broke free, or until they killed him. Sera thought he might last another day if he continued to lash out. Eventually they would tire of mocking him and be done with it. Why they hadn’t killed him already, she could not say. Why were they keeping any of them alive at all?

Sera looked over her shoulder, trying to find where the Raan Dura was being kept. They might untie her at some point, perhaps to take her to their commander for him to use, or to take her away and execute her. In any case, she wanted to be ready. If she had a chance to escape, she would make sure to take what belonged to her people. If Aulvennic’s gift to her people was to remain in the hands of the enemy, she hoped to die so she did not have to endure knowing of it.

The march came to an end at dusk. Sera let herself fall to the ground the moment they stopped moving. What seemed like an endless number of soldiers walked past her as she lay on the ground behind the supply cart, and they all had the same smirking face. She was surprised that she had enough energy to feel anger towards them. What about her suffering amused them?

She propped herself up so her back was against the rear wheel of the cart so that she would not look as weak. Cohvass would not surrender to them. Neither would she. Sera realized why they were smirking and laughing as she rested her head in her hands: she had fallen in the waste of the horses pulling the cart. She allowed her head to drop back against the wheel with a thud and surprised herself when she heard her own laugh. She had failed to take the Raan Dura from the Ryferians, and now she was covered in horse shit. She could not conceive of any other defeats that could be suffered at this moment.

The darkness became full and she sat unmoving against the wheel. She was on the edge of sleep when one of the Tauthri approached her. She stiffened.

“It’s alright.” He spoke in the Dramandi tongue. As he knelt next to her and reached out, Sera reflexively swatted his hands away and tried to get to her feet, though she quickly found she did not have the strength for it. The gattra put his hands out. “It’s alright,” he repeated. He held a wet cloth in his hand.

“The last time I was this close to one of your kind, I was standing over his dead body,” she said.

There was no reaction from him. He only looked at her with his solid black eyes that betrayed no emotion. “You’re covered in shit,” he finally said. He held out the wet cloth to her, and after a few long moments of silence between them, Sera grabbed it from his outstretched hand. She eyed him warily as she wiped away the filth and when she was finished, she tossed the dirty cloth at his feet.

“Many of us thought it was only a matter of time, after your land was defeated, before Ryferia went to war against us,” Sera said. “But at least we’ll have the courage to die instead of becoming our enemy.” She spat the words at him, but he still did not react. Several nearby soldiers who saw laughed to themselves. He tilted his head, very slightly, at the laughter, and for a blink of a moment she thought she saw the smallest hint of a grimace. The Tauthri stood.

“No one will remember your courage,” he said before he walked away.

 

 

He came back what seemed like a long time after, but the sun had not even fully set. It would be a long night, Sera thought to herself, unless she could find sleep. The Tauthri brought her half a loaf of bread and a water flask. She did not move or acknowledge him as he held out the bread to her, so he dropped the bread and the flask in her lap. Only when he left did she tear ravenously into the bread.

When she had drained every drop from the flask, she thought about the others. Were they getting any bread or water? Or were they only intending on keeping her alive and killing the others? She was uncertain if she could recapture the Raan Dura alone, and even if she managed to, could she find the rest of her sword-kin? She wondered if they were still following the nasci or if they had given up and gone back to be with the rest of their kin who had remained in the Yasur forest.

As meager as it was, Sera felt much better having eaten, and though she was still physically exhausted, she felt more alert. It was what she needed to start planning. She could not count on days to come, as this might be the only night they may keep her alive. Perhaps not even the night – perhaps neither she, nor any of her sword-kin, would not see the sun rise. Their centuries-old city had fallen; surely it meant their time, too, was at hand.

She shook her head, dispelling the despair that was creeping into her mind. If she allowed it to take root, she would do just as well to end her life there in the dirt. The Raan Dura was close by – she knew that much at least. Sera breathed deeply, taking the cool evening air into her lungs, and for a moment she felt at peace. With her eyes closed, she found herself suddenly home, surrounded by the comforting familiarities and the tranquility she knew before the start of the war.

Almost effortlessly, she slipped into meditation, and then was submerged in the evernight as if slipping underneath the surface of still waters. Perhaps the spirits of her ancestors would be here, keeping close to the relic. The world around her took on a distant and muted quality and the urgency of her corporeal senses dimmed. And she could feel it: the pulsing heartbeat that reached out to her from somewhere close by. It was the signal that every seer could feel to some degree or another, that which connected them to the gift from their god, the manifestation of Aulvennic in this world.

Yet there was something new that accompanied it which confused Sera, and the more she tried to focus her senses on it, the more chaotic it became. There was an echo, as if the aura of the Raan Dura was reverberating against something. It was then that she saw it: a spirit, obscured by the ethereal reflection of soldiers who walked about. It was far enough that she was unsure at first, but her excitement grew as she became certain. Finally there was a sign that their ancestors had not abandoned them! If they might lend her their blessing, then there was still hope.

There were more. How many, though, she could not say. They did not seem to notice her, so Sera extended her conscience outward towards them. She felt at once as though she had put her fingers into a fire. She withdrew, but they saw her. They were not her ancestors. She was falling back into her body, and they were following her. She could hear their voices, deep, unfathomable, and ancient. A tongue before the world learned to speak.

Sera prayed, Aulvennic protect me. Ulrodin protect me. What are they?

 

 

 

Everyone seemed on edge as the sun finally set. Zayd could see it on almost every face. After the morning’s attack, there was a new expectation that they would be set upon at any moment. Perhaps it was a beneficial fear for a soldier to possess to keep himself vigilant. Though, to Zayd, this preoccupation appeared to distract most of them from something less keenly dangerous. He knew the aim of the Dramandi attack was not to route the column, or even to kill them. They were after something that was in their possession, or, at the very least, presumed to be.

He did not share this thought with his men, nor did he share this thought with Willar Praene, and not only because he was constantly surrounded by his trusted knights of the Ninth, but mainly because he was confident the Dramandi did not have the strength for another attack, and despite the casualties they had managed to inflict, they had hardly the strength for the first one.

What truly concerned Zayd was where they were marching. He could tell by the stars that they had veered west much moreso than everyone likely thought. He had only glimpsed the map that General Vaetus had recovered, and he had not seen how the path they were on would get them to Fort Vigil on the coast.

The column had stopped next to a rock ridge about forty feet in height. Zayd had swiftly ascended it to take up a spot there for the first half of the watch. A gentle wind carried up the sounds of the men below, their typical exchange of glorious deeds; only half true, and even less glorious. Fragments of words and wine-touched laughs were accompanied by the smells of burning wood and food, which had to be Talazz; only the giant ever had a meal so late.

He could see some of the prisoners tied to separate carts and hoped that they would have quick deaths. They had chosen their fates. Let them have it. Let it be done. He wondered what it must feel like to be among the last of your people, to know that your entire history existed only within your mind…

“I heard you approach,” Zayd said. Tascell sat beside him. “Only in the last few feet, though. Well done. You ought to be resting though. Your watch will come soon enough.”

“I can’t be down there when Talazz is eating. I think one of the supply carts carries just his food.”

“It does.”

“I wonder which the prisoners find more frightful – his greatsword or his appetite.”

“They are equally destructive.” Several moments passed where neither of them spoke. “Why have you come up here?” Zayd asked.

“I need to ask you… I need to tell you… I have to go back.”

“Back where?”

“I have to go back for him. I should never have left him like that. It isn’t right. He should be brought home. He deserves that much. So I have to go.”

“You can’t,” Zayd said. “You know what will happen. Don’t put your wife and daughters at risk, Tascell. You’re letting your grief get the best of your reason.”

“I’m not, vahr. I don’t think they will notice. How closely are they really watching us? Would they know if one of us was missing? I think most of them would be grateful.”

“And what if they do find out? What if Praene discovers that I knew and allowed you to do this? Had you realized you were asking me to risk my family in allowing this? You must not have.”

Tascell looked away. “No, I… I’m sorry.”

“Finish this,” Zayd said as he placed a hand on Tascell’s shoulder. “See it to the end, and once it is finished we will go back together. We’ll bring him home.”

 

 

They were slow to resume the march the following day. Areagus was almost always the first person out of his tent, aside from the sentries. Praene was not awake until the sun was already whole in the sky. Zayd watched the new commander wander about the camp as it gradually collapsed. Praene shielded his eyes from the morning sun as he walked uncertainly, surveying the slow progress of his men.

Daruthin appeared next to Zayd, carving an apple in half with a stone edge he had probably carved out during his watch. “He was still awake during my watch,” Daruthin said, handing half of his apple to Zayd. “He and a few of the knights of the Ninth. Guffawing. Drunk. No mystery why Vaetus chose Areagus to lead.”

“You’re supposed to be watching the perimeter, not the commander’s tent.”

Daruthin shrugged. “Nothing to watch. Most of the trouble we’ve had so far has come from within the ranks.”

“And what of yesterday morning?” Zayd asked as he took a bite of the apple.

“The exception. It’s not like they were Roh Dun’s Shields. Though they could have been, I guess. How would I know? I never fought them.”

“They weren’t. The Shields are ten thousand strong. How were the prisoners last night?”

“Not a sound. I think the big one learned to behave.”

Zayd glanced over at the tall, muscular Dramandi. Perhaps, Zayd thought. Or he was just waiting. Even with his hands bound and having been beaten bloody the day before, he still looked undaunted.

Daruthin threw the core of his apple on the ground. “Barrett tried to see him last night,” he said softly. “Tried to see Praene in his tent, but Praene wouldn’t see him. I haven’t seen Barrett that full of rage since you spat in his face.”

What did Barrett want to speak to Praene about so desperately?

“Was it about the prisoners?” Zayd asked.

“Doubtful. Barrett doesn’t pay them any mind. I actually saw him order some of the other men to leave the big one alone. Surprised me.”

Daruthin must have been right. Barrett would not care about the prisoners, whether they lived or died; he cared about battle, the next battle, when it would come and the glory it would bring. Battle in the name of the Empire.

Just after midday the column came up on rapids. It became clear that Commander Praene had not ordered any of the knights to scout ahead. The column came to a halt as a handful set out on horseback to find a place where they could cross. Many of the men looked frustrated. Praene, however, did not seem to care.

Zayd was resting in the carriage when the call out to halt stirred him. He went down to the rapids to fill his water skin, and he splashed some water on his face to shake off the drowsiness he felt. It was cold and pure, not unlike the waterfall by the old willow tree…

He wondered if this had this had been on the map. Was Praene expecting to come across it and simply neglected to send outriders to scout ahead? Or was it not on the map at all? He wiped the water from his eyes, scooped some more into his hands, and drank. If it was not on the map, how could Praene even know where they were going?

From where he knelt at the rapids, Zayd could see Praene amidst a cluster of knights, talking to them amicably. He doubted that the new commander could read the stars at night like a map as most Tauthri could. He was certain that Areagus would have consulted him had they become lost, and since Areagus and Praene seemed to naturally antagonize one another, Areagus likely kept Praene ignorant to this fact.

He walked down towards the group of knights, and as he neared, the knights seemed to close up around the new commander as if to protect him from some threat, their easy bravado between each other changing instantly to thinly-veiled hostility. Garinus Corwin, the most decorated soldier of the Ninth next to Praene, stepped forward to intercept Zayd.

Garinus was in his mid-thirties but carried himself with the weight of the many battles he had fought. His short brown hair already had signs of grey, and the two-day stubble on his face was nearly white. Compared to Barrett and the other Silver Sun knights, Garinus was a lean fighter, slender but with broad shoulders. “The commander is busy,” Garinus said.

Zayd tilted his head to look past Garinus and saw Praene behind him, still talking to the other knights, but he glanced over his shoulder at him.

“Is that so?” Zayd said. “I’d like to speak with him all the same.”

Garinus looked taken aback. Clearly he had expected Zayd to move along without any objection. He smiled coolly. “I’m not concerned with what you’d like. You don’t get to. So run along, dark eye. Make yourself useful. Go clean the horse shit off of the prisoners again.”

He spoke loud enough for the others to hear, and the other knights laughed amongst themselves. Garinus smiled, obviously amused by his own jape.

“He doesn’t look busy,” Zayd said. “Step aside.”

The smile vanished from Garinus’ face.

“Garinus, it’s fine,” Praene called. “It’s fine, I’ll speak with him.”

The knight stepped aside and gestured dramatically for Zayd to walk past. Zayd felt the urge to smile gratefully, but he ignored the knight altogether. Praene was sitting on a large rock and was, of all things, cleaning his armour. With his chest plate off, he looked out of place among his more intimidating subordinates. He instead looked as though he was more suited for priestly duties, not the demanding tasks of regiment command. Zayd knew that Praene was an intelligent man, and equally brave. Yet this was perhaps why he had not been promoted past his present station. Greater leaders like Areagus must not have thought much of him.

Zayd saluted, and Praene returned it dismissively. “What is it?” he asked, disinterested.

“I thought I might offer my assistance to you, commander, in case we run into further difficulty navigating the countryside.”

“Does it seem like we’re having difficulty? Does it seem like [_I’m _]having difficulty?”

Zayd paused. “Yes.” The other knights tensed visibly. Some exchanged glances. Praene looked up from his task, expressionless for a moment, then he smiled.

“I see that lack of honesty is not a flaw or yours,” he said.

“And a sense of direction is not one of yours, sir. Where exactly are we headed?”

Garinus grabbed Zayd by the back of the neck and his other arm went around his throat. “You arrogant little bastard!”

“Stop!” Praene shouted, rising to his feet. Garinus relaxed his grip, but did not release him. The commander walked over so he was face-to-face with Zayd and spoke quietly so none outside the circle would hear. “I know where we are and where we’re headed. It’s fine if you don’t or anyone else doesn’t know. It only matters that I know. Just keep your mind on your own tasks, is that clear?” The false reassurances sounded all too familiar. It was what he had expected. Zayd nodded.

Praene smiled. “Good. I knew you were a sensible man, if somewhat… forthright. Corwin, let him go. I’m sure he has things to do.” The commander turned around and returned to his seat on the rock and resumed his menial task. Garinus was still watching Zayd intently as he walked away.

 

 

Crossing the water delayed them for several hours. After the encounter with Praene, Zayd kept to himself and examined the incident in his head repeatedly. He knew that something was not right, but the way Praene had acted confirmed it. Where he ought to have reprimanded, he instead pacified. It made no sense to him, and he could not escape the feeling of unease even when they made camp that night. He was so distracted that he did not hear Tascell approach to relieve him of his watch, and if the lieutenant noticed anything of Zayd’s absentmindedness, he said nothing.

As Zayd walked back from the camp perimeter, he heard a meek voice calling to him.

“Gattra! Gattra!” The Dramandi woman was sitting on the ground next to the supply cart, hands still tied, and someone had taken the added precaution of tying her feet together as well. For the first time, Zayd saw a look on her face that was something other than hostility.

“What is it that you are moving?” she nodded towards rear of the camp, towards the other carriages.

“Things from Yasri,” Zayd said. He felt a twinge of regret in being so blunt. It must have showed.

“Yes…” She looked down for a moment. “But, what else did you take?”

Zayd’s eyes narrowed.

“You dug it up, didn’t you?” she whispered.

Zayd said nothing. How did she know? Some of the soldiers may have spoken of it, but as far as he knew, she did not speak the true-tongue.

“What have you heard?” he asked.

“It’s not what I heard, it’s what I saw.”

Zayd looked around before sitting on the ground to face her. “What was it you saw?”

She was on the verge of replying, but she hesitated. “What was it you saw?” he repeated.

“I saw spirits. I could see them again now, if I… if I looked. Do you understand?”

Zayd nodded and tried to hide his distaste. She was a seer, one of the Dramandi who could speak with the dead. The Ryferians called it [_communing, _]something done only by Trueborn priests. Zayd had always thought the term was deceitful. They did not commune – they purged. It was the will of Xidius, though, and he had accepted this long ago when Tauth finally surrendered.

“You worship their man-god, don’t you?” the Dramandi woman asked. “I can see your hate for me. But what they have taken from the ground is plagued by spirits. They stand by it. Guarding it. Waiting. Corrupting everything around them.”

“Waiting for what?”

“Does it matter? Whatever it is should be reason enough for you to put it back in the ground!” Her eyes were wide. Zayd ran his finger through the dirt as he looked at her. If she was lying, it was being masterfully done.

“I know that seers like you seek spirits out, so why are you so fearful that you see some now?”

“Because they are not the forebears of my people. I don’t know where they’ve come from, but I can tell there is something they want, and it is sinister.”

Zayd smiled and shook his head.

“What? Why are you laughing?”

“If only you had had this realization before we went to war. You could have let our priests cleanse your land. You could have spared yourself from this.”

She shot forward as much as her restraints would allow. “Our land did not – does _]not need your cleansing or your [_man-god. We’ve walked through the evernight for hundreds of years and you think that you know better because your priests say so. For no other reason! I thought you would understand since you are not one of them.” She sneered and sat back. “You do not understand. You are one of them.”

Zayd stood. The woman looked away from him but gave him a sidelong glance. “There will be evil that happens, and when it does, you’ll wish you had listened,” she said.

It must have been a ploy; for whatever reason, the Dramandi did not want the monolith to be taken from their land. Or maybe they just did not want the gold in the possession of the Empire. There must be some significance to it even though the markings on it were not made by the Dramandi, so far as they knew.

There was some undeniable effect the monolith had. Zayd had felt it when he first saw it: the feeling of looking at a piece of some great mystery, or reading a riddle that you are afraid to answer. Zayd had always rationalized that feeling by the sheer immensity and awe that such a wonder naturally inspired. Yet he began to wonder if she was being truthful, and if so, what that could mean. If there was an aura of corruption around it, it might explain Willock’s death and Renton Allus killing Corporal Perrin for no real reason. There was always hostility between the Trueborn and the Tauthri, but it seldom led to murder. Renton had not been one to let his anger control him, and Zayd admitted to himself that Renton’s actions were wholly out of character for him. Nothing on the journey had been easy. Could she have somehow found out about Renton and Willock? Was she inventing ghosts to try to manipulate him?

Zayd turned to her. “The relics are going to Lycernum, and our priests will cleanse them of any influence.”

Before she replied, Zayd turned at the sound of heavy footsteps behind him. Barrett Stern approached. “Come with me,” he said, and began to walk away. After Zayd felt the hilt of his blade at his side, he followed. Barrett walked to the perimeter of the camp, away from the soldiers. Away from anyone who might see or hear them. Though Zayd could see perfectly, Barrett, carrying no lantern or torch for light, stepped carefully as he went and stopped once the light of the few campfires was obscured by the trees. Zayd kept his hand on his hilt.

“I saw that you talked to Praene.”
“What of it?”

“What did you talk to him about? It was about where we’re marching, wasn’t it?”

Zayd recalled what Daruthin had told him earlier. “Did you speak to him about it?”

“I tried. He wouldn’t hear of it, though. I wanted to see the map. That was what I was really after. Tell me – what did he say to you? Did he say anything?

“Nothing of substance. He told me that he knew what he was doing and that I should mind my own tasks.”

“He was placating you.”

“I know. If he had a real plan he could simply explain it to us, but he’s reluctant.”

“He isn’t reluctant, he’s lying.” Barrett ran a hand over his beard and gave Zayd an apprising look before saying anything further. “Did you notice that he separated the Eighth and Ninth Regiments the day after the attack? The Ninth is now at the head of the column.”

Zayd had noticed. “I assumed that was only his favouritism. He chafed when Areagus had the Eighth bringing up the rear.”

“What if there is another reason?”

“The Eighth took most of the casualties from the attack. Does it not make sense to move the Ninth to the front?”

“What if it’s something else yet?” Barrett asked. “What if he has a plan?”

It was clear that Barrett had something very precise that he was not saying. “Why bring your concerns to me? Why not Alain or Savas?”

Barrett stared at him. “I still may, but…”

“You don’t know if you can trust them,” Zayd said.

“I didn’t think anyone else shared my suspicion.”

“You think he is defecting,” Zayd said.

Barrett nodded. “He has no family, no children, a lackluster military record… now he has a regiment loyal to him, and he’s in possession of a kingdom’s fill of gold. What reason does he have to go back to the capital? Why not disappear into the vastness of the Empire with enough treasure to drink fine wine every day until he dies? I am only unsure of how many of the Ninth are with him. Garinus Corwin, Devon Rindus, and their ilk, to be sure… perhaps all of his knights.”

The reason Barret had come to him finally dawned on Zayd; he knew Zayd was loyal, [_had _]to be loyal, or else the Ryferian garrison in Tauth would execute his family, and in Lycernum, his son. If Praene succeeded in defecting, it could be assumed the entire column was complicit. For Zayd and for every other Tauthri with him, the monolith [_had _]to reach Lycernum, or it would be the same punishment for them all.

“And what of the Eighth? Areagus’ men… I don’t think they would be so weak-willed.”

“I would agree… but I cannot be certain of it. Of anything. For all I know, you and I are the only two.” Barrett’s expression hinted to Zayd that he exerted himself in including him in that statement.

“We should remove Praene from command,” Zayd said.

“Be more prudent, would you? If we try to do that, the ogre will see it as an act of treason, whether or not Praene means to defect. Then it will be our heads.”

Barrett was right. Talazz, like all En Kazyr giants, was unfailingly loyal and observant of every rule and regulation. And despite how accepting he was of Zayd and the other Tauthri, the giant had no friends. Every soldier was a potential rule-breaker, and someone he may have to punish. During the siege of Yasri, Talazz and Renton had shared several old war stories with fondness, but the giant did not hesitate to carry out his duty when the time came. Zayd had always stood beside the giant. He was not eager to stand against him.

“Of course, we could remove Talazz altogether,” Barrett said. “While he rests.”

“What are you saying?”

“Kill the giant, capture Praene. Take control of the regiments.”

“Absolutely not!” Zayd growled. “I thought you held honour as a sacred principle!”

“Don’t lecture me,” Barrett waved a hand, dismissing Zayd’s objection. “I’ve always fought on the battlefield with honour, which is more than you can ever say. But this is not a battlefield, is it?”

“No, it is not,” Zayd admitted. “Regardless, we will not make murderers of ourselves, dishonour ourselves in the service of honour…… absolutely not.”

“Fine, fine,” Barrett said. “What else are we to do then, if we cannot remove him with force?” As a man who was his purest realization of himself only at war, Barrett seemed to approach every problem having already decided that the solution was the sword. Not here, though, Zayd knew. At least, not their own swords.

“Ten Tower fort,” Zayd said. “We must still be south of it.”

“What of it? We must be days away from it, at least.”

Ten Tower was the only Ryferian outpost between Yasri and where the army brought in supplies to the coast from the mainland. It was clear that Praene was not marching towards it, Zayd knew, but if he could tell how close they were to it, there could be a chance to remove Praene from command while keeping his head.

“One of us needs to get there. If Praene is going to abandon his duty, then he must have at least enough of his men ready to do the same, enough to overpower the rest of the column. Otherwise, how could he do it? We’ll need the soldiers at Ten Tower to intervene against him. Before he acts.”

Barrett stared into the dark forest, contemplating, mapping out his actions. He grunted. “Aye. Before… why hasn’t he already? We can’t leave this for long.” He paused, again looking into the darkness. “I will go to Ten Tower. But we will need Praene’s map, and he keeps it stowed away somewhere in his tent.”

“I will get it,” Zayd said.

Barrett nodded almost imperceptibly. “Tomorrow night. Make sure you are ready.”

 

 

 

Zayd tried to rest throughout the day, but the anticipation was like a voice that he could not silence, keeping him to only a few hours of light sleep. He ran his thumb over the scar of the sigil on the inside of his left arm. For a moment he thought it was the scar that kept him awake. Was it more sensitive somehow, or was it his nerves? Zayd pulled down his sleeve and dismissed it as the latter. He was nervous, and he wondered how much it showed.

The column stopped at midday for food and a short rest. Zayd scanned the column, looking for signs of anyone acting out of the ordinary. He looked to Barrett and saw that the knight was acting completely normal. Maybe others were noticing him if he truly was the only one expecting something to happen at that very moment. Barrett did not even make eye contact with him.

The Dramandi woman did, though. He caught her looking at him with apprehension and… was it fear? He approached her and held out his water skin which she accepted and, while taking a long drink, never took her eyes from him.

“What is your name?” Zayd asked.

“Did you dream?” she asked. He was taken off guard by the question.

“Not that I remember.” Her look did not change, still full of uncertainty. “Should I have dreamt?”

She reached out to touch him and Zayd drew back reflexively. “You have something on your arm,” she said.

“How is it you know that?”

Her hand dropped to the ground. “It does not matter. But you do, don’t you?”

Zayd didn’t know how she knew, but there was no point in lying. “Yes.”

“I need to see. You have to show me,” she whispered.

“Your name first.”

She was looking right into his eyes, and he could sense her seeking something out, measuring him for the most basic essence of trust; would he show her once she told him her name? Was he asking for it for a malign purpose? Zayd did not avoid her stare. A thought flashed into his mind the moment she spoke.

“Sera Naiat.”

He gave a slight nod of thanks, and looked around again to see if anyone was watching them before quickly raising his sleeve to show her the scarred sigil on his left forearm. She grabbed his arm and pulled it closer to her. The quickness of it surprised Zayd; he did not even have time to react. As she held his arm with one hand, she traced the scar with the other so lightly he almost did not feel it.

“How did you know it was there?” he asked. He slowly pulled his arm away.

“What is that?” she asked.

“The sigil of my family.” He questioned himself as soon as the words were spoken. Why tell this to her? Was she not the enemy? It must have been the homesickness that made him offer up information so freely. “How did you know it was there?” he repeated.

“Do you believe me? Do you believe what I told you about what you’ve unearthed?”

Zayd wondered for a moment if she was trying to manipulate him, building false trust to engineer an escape. He had thought that their attack had been to retrieve something from the column, something that they had taken from the city. Was that still her goal? Were they after the monolith? Amidst all the questions, he realized that if she knew he did not believe her, she may turn her attention to someone else and pursue her escape that way.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I am not gifted with the sight that you have. Back home my chieftain had the sight. But no, I don’t. I can’t. No one in my family has been able to.”

“The spirits are afraid of you,” she said. “I see them reaching out to the nasci. Trying to corrupt them. And I saw them reaching out… to you.”

“For what purpose?”

“Who can know? They are not the spirits of our people. I think they have… driven them away, or… killed them, if a spirit can be killed. I don’t know what they are, but they have a purpose. They have a desire.”

A soldier approached from behind Zayd. A clean-faced corporal gave him a suspicious look as he walked around Zayd to hand half a loaf of bread and a strip of dried, salted meat to Sera.

“You speak their language?” the corporal asked. Zayd noticed he did not address him properly, but he ignored it. Best not to arouse further suspicion.

“Trying. Not having much luck.”
“What for?”

“Just trying to find out if she knows anything useful.”

“And does she?”

Zayd stood and gave the corporal a hard look. The young man simply stood there, his arms folded, giving him an accusatory look. Zayd looked back at Sera, who was tearing into the bread.

“I don’t know yet,” he said, and walked away.

 

 

The sun seemed to take many long hours to set, and for the rest of the day, Zayd had grown more and more uncertain. He needed to speak with Barrett again to make sure nothing they discussed the night before had changed. He had imagined the course of events unfolding in as many ways as they might. The questions he could not answer were the most important ones: how long would it take Barrett to make it to Ten Tower fort? Would he be able to convince the commander there to ride out after Praene? What would happen to Zayd in the meantime? And the question that grew more pressing with each passing hour: what if they were wrong? For an accomplished and highly respected Trueborn like Barrett, it might mean a reprimand. But for Zayd, the punishment for disobedience was death. His, and his family’s.

When he finally heard the order called out to halt, Zayd’s heart quickened. It would be another hour at least before it would be safe for him to make his attempt, but he wanted it to be done with now. As he walked to his post for the first watch of the night, he pressed his hands to his sides to keep them still. Scaling the walls of Yasri had not made him so nervous. With that, though, it was only his life that was forfeit if he failed.

Zayd chose a discreet area on the outskirts of the camp where he could see Praene’s tent, and where it would be difficult for anyone, including his own men, to spot him. He was surprised when Barrett appeared to be walking towards him, though it was clear he could not see anything. Zayd remained motionless and only spoke when Barrett was within earshot of his whisper. “Here.”

Barrett was unarmed and unarmoured. He wore simple cotton and wool greys with a hardened leather vest as his armour. He would not be able to slip away unnoticed in his full plate.

“I’m ready. My horse is saddled and tied at the right rear flank of the column. Just get the map into my hands and I’ll be off.”

“Alright, I will…” Zayd suddenly realized he had been secretly hoping Barrett would change his mind, that he had found out they were back on course and that everything was fine. “I will wait for a few minutes, long enough for you to get there, and… well, wait for me there.”

Barrett nodded. “Good,” he said, and walked away without another word.

Zayd looked outward into the forest, not watching Barrett leave, and thought again about the consequences he might incur. He looked up into the sky at the stars peeking through the thin clouds and wondered if he and Barrett might succeed, or if his failure was already foreseen, and he had only to go through with the formality of the act itself. He turned towards the camp and made his way towards Praene’s tent.

 

The rows of tents were always arranged the same. The discipline of the army was rooted into every act, and so, as Zayd padded silently through the rows of tens, he knew exactly where he was going. He looped around a group of soldiers who sat around a fire debating which brothel in Lycernum was the most likely to leave you with an illness. He kept them in his periphery while remaining hidden in the darkness just outside the reach of the fire’s light.

He was about fifty feet from the back of Praene’s tent when he heard more voices. They sounded as though they were coming from in front of it. Zayd had thought Praene might be awake, drinking and cajoling with Corwin, Rindus, and the other knights, his brothers in treachery. He could see light from a fire on the opposite side of the tent. Good. If they were all drunk and noisy, his task would be that much easier. The command tent had a twenty foot radius where no other structures were to be built. It was a safety measure and also a sign of deference, but Zayd had always thought it foolish since it clearly identified the leader to any observant enemies.

Crouched on one knee, Zayd remained on the edge of the empty space, scanning the darkness for movement of any kind. His palms were flat on the ground, and it was only because of that that they were not trembling. He put his hand to his waist and felt the absence of his sword. He did not want anything that might hinder his mobility or make any noise, but he felt a sting of regret and vulnerability all the same. He patted his other hip – his dagger was there. Resting his hands flat on the ground once more, he inhaled slowly, and in a few deft strides, covered the open ground and narrowed himself against the backside of the tent.

He exhaled.

He spent a few moments there listening to the chatter out front. He tried not to focus on it, instead trying to determine if there were any sounds coming from within. He ran his fingers over the canvas and found where it was tied around the wooden support. With a smooth, forceful cut, he severed the rope holding the canvas to the support, and peered inside.

Willar Praene’s cot was towards the middle of the tent – empty. Immediately in front of him were several wooden crates, and further in, Areagus’ small but elegant wooden desk. There was a brazier towards the front of the tent, but it gave off only meager light. Enough to throw a shadow, he noted. There were a few other crates and a footlocker at the base of his cot, but Zayd could not see the map in plain view anywhere.

He slipped into the tent, keeping as low as he could, and closed the flap behind him. He started by searching the unlocked crates closest to him but only found Praene’s clothing mixed in with trinkets from Lycernum, as well as what appeared to be a handwritten journal next to an old copy of the Recounting that looked like its pages were about to fall out.

He checked the wooden desk next; there were papers out – supply ledgers, mostly – but no map. There was movement outside. Zayd ducked down behind the desk and steadied himself as footsteps trod away from the fire outside. One of the knights going to relieve himself, perhaps. He sincerely hoped they were not done with their drunken guffawing, otherwise his time was rapidly running out. He shifted over to the footlocker after checking the other unlocked crates and finding nothing. He tugged on the lock as hard as he could, but there was no looseness to it.

There was the sound of half-drunk laughing from outside followed by more footsteps leading away. Zayd’s palms were slick with sweat. He took out his dagger and tried to pry loose the iron brace fastened to the wood on the front of the locker, but they stubbornly remained in place. Whenever they had marched, Areagus had tracked their progress daily on whatever map he had. It would unfailingly be splayed out on his table each night. Why would Praene not adopt the same habit? Why lock it away?

Unless he knew to keep it safe…

Someone was approaching.

Zayd turned towards the loose tent flap, his legs nearly in motion –

“What in the black Beyond is going on?”

Praene stood inside the tent, and Barrett stood beside him. Zayd made eye contact with the knight, hoping to see some reassuring nod, but only got his stony grimace.

Of course Praene had kept the map under lock and key – Barrett must have warned him. Praene was not fully armoured, but his sword was slung at his side, and his hand was clasped around its hilt.

Zayd tried to keep his composure, but he was certain he looked guilty.

As he was.

“Explain yourself,” Praene said. Zayd thought he would have screamed and shouted, or lunged at him, weapon drawn, but the commander only acted as though he had found Zayd in dereliction of some minor duty. The three of them exchanged looks. Barrett was equally inscrutable.

Zayd turned towards them. There was no way for him to escape this, whatever it was, so best to accept his fate with dignity. If Barrett was part of Praene’s scheme, then his lack of character would be judged in the next life.

“I know what you’re planning,” Zayd said. “I came for proof.”

Praene curled his upper lip in a sneer. “So what is it that I’m planning, Tauthri?”

“You’re going to quit the army and take the loot we’re carrying with you. You’re going to kill or abandon what is left of the Eighth regiment. Perhaps even some of the Ninth.”

Willar raised his eyebrows. “Do you believe what we’re hearing, Barrett?”
“It’s madness, commander,” Barrett said.

“Who else shares your delusions?” Praene asked.

“Only me,” Zayd said. His eyes darted from Willar to Barrett and back again, an involuntary motion, but Praene caught it, inebriated as he was. He drew his blade and swung.

Barrett anticipated the move perfectly, catching Praene’s arm and using it to spin him off balance and onto the ground. Barrett pressed a hand over Praene’s mouth. “Not a sound.”

Zayd exhaled. “You could have warned me!”

“There was no time,” Barrett said.

“I thought you had…”

“Thought I had what? You narrow-minded Tauthri, you thought I set you up for him to find you?”

“Perhaps I did.”

“Well, I didn’t.” Barrett looked down at Praene. “Where is the map? Tell me now, and keep it quiet or I will snap your arm like a twig.” He slowly removed his hand from Praene’s mouth.

“What will you do?” Praene said quietly. “Are you going to fight off my entire regiment so you can deliver that loot to the capital? You know what they’ll give you in return? More service. They’ll conscript you back into the army and send you back into battle to die.”

“The war is nearly over,” Zayd interjected.

“It is never over. The emperor is at war with every land that has not been conquered. How terrible have our losses been in this campaign? Do you think you’ll survive another year of campaigning, Barrett? Do you think you’ll be released and allowed to return to Tauth, Zayd? I know that that is what awaited me, even though I’ve been long overdue for advancement. Areagus said as much before we left Yasri.”

“You are not walking away from this,” Zayd said.

“Why not take your share? We could divide that gold a thousand times over and still die rich men. All of us. Are you worried about your family, Zayd? Why do you think I left our dead unburied after the Dramandi attacked? Anyone who comes looking for us will think we are dead.”

“Where are you heading?” Barrett asked. He had one knee on Praene’s chest and the other on his right elbow. He began to twist his arm. “Tell me now.” He kept twisting. “I’ll break every bone, if I have to.”

Praene managed to smile through the agony being inflicted on him. “And then what? You’ll be cut down… both of you.” He inhaled sharply as Barrett put more pressure on his arm. “You’ve trapped yourselves. You can fall in line, or you can die.”

 

 

Tascell was keeping a watchful eye on the commander’s tent after he had seen Zayd enter, and once Barrett and Willar had entered, he had held his breath. He could not see or hear anything from his position at the edge of the encampment. After several moments he began to wonder if Zayd had slipped out the other side of the tent where he could not see.

Then he saw Devon Rindus hurry through the camp, away from the command tent, to Talazz. Tascell cursed under his breath. The giant stood, picked up his greatsword, and followed Devon back towards the command tent. He cursed again. “This is not good.”

He whistled once, mimicking the song of the kisolark, just loud enough to be heard by Daruthin and, with any luck, by Zayd. “This is not good,” he repeated to himself as he ran into the camp, ducking between rows of tents, making his way to the train of supply carts. As he approached the Dramandi woman, he drew his sword.

 

 

Zayd’s stomach turned to lead when he heard it. He was not sure at first that he heard anything, so focused was he on the scene unfolding before him.

“Barrett, you have to leave,” Zayd said

“We aren’t finished.”

Zayd walked up and put his hand on Barrett’s shoulder. “You don’t understand – you have to get on your horse and leave.” Zayd picked up Willar’s sword from ground. “We’re out of time.”

Barrett looked up at him, realization sinking in as to what was happening. “That’s it?” His voice was sullen and dejected. Unused to failure.

There was noise outside of the tent: hushed voices and the jangling of armour. Determination snapped back into him. “I’ll find it. I will.” He bent Willar’s arm a few more inches and it snapped audibly. Barrett placed his hand over Willar’s mouth to stifle his cry of pain. Barrett leapt up off of Willar and ran toward the front of the tent. Zayd went for the loose flap at the back.

[_“Barrett!” _]Zayd called. But he had already charged out the front of the tent, sword in hand. As Barrett went outside Zayd could see Talazz standing only a few feet away. There were several other figures behind him. He cursed to himself and considered holding a knife to Praene’s throat and having him tell his men to stand aside. The knights might listen to him, but Talazz would never compromise. He saw the laws of the Imperial army broken, and he would punish the wrongdoers.

Zayd whistled the call of the kisolark, hoping his men were still within earshot as he stepped past Praene, who was still on the ground clutching his arm, and walked out of the front of the tent.

Talazz was there, flanked by Praene’s knights. All of them had their weapons drawn. Barrett looked at Zayd with surprise and anger as he stood beside him. “Why didn’t you run?” he whispered.

“Be ready,” Zayd said.

“Drop your sword,” Talazz said. Barrett did not hesitate to obey. “You have both committed treason,” the giant said, emotionless. “Once the commander makes the pronouncement, I will carry it out.” Zayd thought he could see disappointment somewhere in the giant’s features; he had always thought Talazz had a heartfelt respect for him and for his people, the diminutive Tauthri that instilled dread in their enemies. On the faces of the knights surrounding them, though, there was only bloodlust.

“Commander, are you alright?” Garinus Corwin called out. Zayd could hear Willar getting to his feet behind them.

“I’m fine,” Willar grumbled through clenched teeth. “That bastard Stern broke my arm.”

Garinus scowled and stepped towards Barrett with a clenched fist. Talazz cried out in surprise, and all eyes turned to him to see a black arrow protruding from his shoulder. Another lanced out of the darkness and hit him in the sternum.

Barrett did not waste the momentary distraction. Zayd saw him knock Garinus clear off his feet with the battering-ram strength he had experienced firsthand. Zayd drew his dagger and lunged forward.

The two arrows would not slow the giant down enough for Barrett to escape. As he drew his dagger, Zayd breathed a prayer to Xidius for forgiveness. Talazz was not – [_could _]not be a part of Praene’s plot to defect, but he was caught up in it regardless. As were they all.

Zayd buried the dagger to its hilt into Talazz’s heel. The giant let out a deafening roar. The entire camp would be awake now, Zayd thought. Perhaps it would be enough that they could escape in the confusion. He pulled the dagger free in time to see a sword come arcing towards him. He quickly rolled under and was back on his feet in an instant, running past the knights and into the darkness from where the arrows had been fired. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Talazz had dropped to one knee, his face contorted with anger and pain. He could no longer see Barrett, though he could see other bodies on the ground next to Garinus, who still had not risen. Zayd whispered another prayer to Xidius that Barrett might escape, that he might find his way to Ten Tower. How odd that he should pray for this man’s safety. It was merely another time, though it felt like another life, when he had yearned to see him dead. Zayd felt some inexplicable entity watching them all as he ran through the camp and into the forest, following Tascell and the other Tauthri through the trees, leaving the chaos and confusion behind him.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 10

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

He sat across from his favourite bakery, tucked in an alley and wrapped in a wool cloak. Osmun hoped anyone passing by – though there were few this early in the morning – would simply see a destitute man and not a man in disguise.

The sun was just beginning to rise. It would not be long now, he told himself as he pulled the cloak around himself tightly. The night had a chill to it he did not expect. It was as if the city was giving him a harsh welcome into a new, unprotected existence; no more shelter at the monastery, no more esteem as a member of the priesthood.

Osmun had barely had time to take any of his personal effects before he had run. The vicar would undoubtedly conclude that Osmun was guilty of Nestor’s murder. And why not? Not only was that cursed shadow working against him, but his own actions inadvertently made things worse: Harald would tell people he saw Osmun in possession of black thornleaf.

He cursed himself under his breath. Countless questions floated through his mind, but there was one that was always at the forefront: to what end? To what end was this shadow manipulating Andrican, Egus, and Vicar Eldon? Osmun was considering the question so intently that he did not realize how much time had passed, and that the person he had been waiting for had arrived and had already opened the bakery.

Osmun lurched to his feet, his legs stiff and cold from sitting for hours. He nearly laughed when he realized how he must have looked. Hadn’t he walked through these streets with purpose? It seemed like ages ago…

“Tumanger,” Osmun said as he approached. Tumanger Toron, a tall, lean man of nearly sixty years, started at seeing the hooded, limping figure approach him seemingly from nowhere. Osmun pulled back the hood of the cloak for a moment. “It’s me, Tumanger,” he said, pulling the hood back up as soon as he was sure the man knew who he was.

“Good priest Osmun,” Tumanger said, smiling with relief. “You come by every morning, but then you stop… me and Tanu, we thought that you went off with the army again. Come, come inside.” Osmun nodded and hurried to follow him inside.

Tumanger spoke the true-tongue well considering he had spoken not a word of it when he arrived in Lycernum five years ago from Ivesia. There were not many Ivesians that chose to or were allowed to live within the Empire – let alone the capital – but Tumanger and his wife, Tanu, had both become followers of the Beacon, which had complicated their lives in their homeland.

The bakery was in actuality only one room with an oven and an area where Tumanger both kept and prepared the ingredients for his goods. There were already logs crackling, heating up the oven. Osmun quickly shuffled over to stand next to it. He could not help but smile as the heat quickly melted away the cold and aches from his body. “That is…… perfect.”

“There is something different with you, good priest Osmun. Something not good, I think.” Tumanger smiled at him, but Osmun could sense pity in it.

“Is it that apparent?”

“You come and buy a [_ractha _]every morning almost. You walk through the city a man without worries. The man who is here now… much different.” The tall Ivesian began picking ingredients off of the makeshift wooden shelves nailed to the walls, his skinny arms darting quickly up and down, deftly picking spices out of jars and throwing them into a mixing bowl before him. “And… you were sleeping outside, yes? Even a blind man would be able to see something wrong with you.”

“Well I suppose there is no denying it, then. Thank you for inviting me in.”

“I spent nights on the streets back home. As a young man. I was not even fit for the army.” He held out his arms. “Not enough meat. What is the word? Strength. Not strong enough to wear the armour. I came to know that it was chance. To have nothing, to live on the street. Every man could have that chance. Even our great emperor, Beacon protect him, even he can see the streets when he looks out of his window. We are all that close. So no need to thank.”

Tumanger looked over his shoulder. “You need to stay here? Something happen at your prayer-house?” Next to the enveloping warmth of the fire, Osmun recalled the misery of the night he had just spent outside. How many more nights could he do that before either sickness or the Ardent found him? He wanted to say yes so much so that he could feel the word forming in his mouth. He began coughing.

“No, no, I can’t. I shouldn’t.” If the Ardent did come for him –– and he knew they would – he would not let his supposed guilt bleed onto anyone else around him. “I would ask something of you, though. I need to know where to find Nasiri.”

Tumanger stopped his work abruptly. “What makes you think I know where she is?”

“Because you’re her father.”

Tumanger crossed his arms and leaned against the table. “She walked away from us. I don’t know where she went.”

“You must have some idea.”

“What if I don’t want to know? We thought she would one day serve the Beacon. Like you.”

“I know. I know what happened. It’s why she’ll be able to help me.”

“You still don’t say what is wrong.”

Osmun wanted to tell him everything for some reason. Perhaps having someone else know what he knew would lessen the burden on himself. “It’s only for me to worry about.”

Tumanger shook his head. “I haven’t seen Nasiri, haven’t spoken to her in a year. Maybe more, I don’t know anymore. I don’t know where she is. Maybe she is dead.”

“I don’t think you believe that.”

He shook his head. “She broke our hearts when she left. Tanu and I tried to forget about her. If you find her and she helps you, then that connects us again.” Tumanger turned back to his work. “I don’t want that. Tanu doesn’t want that. We only want to forget. But if she comes back to see us again, I know she won’t stay. And Tanu, it would break her heart all over again. I had many friends that lost a child. It’s the hardest thing, except for when you keep losing them over and over again.”

“If she comes back, it will not be because of me,” Osmun said. “But don’t you at least want to know that she’s alright?”

“I don’t want to know. I don’t want to think about her.”

“You don’t care?”

“No, I don’t.” Tumanger was moving faster and faster as the conversation went on. Tired as he was, Osmun knew he had to be careful how much further to push.

“If you did not care, you would tell me what you know. Where you saw her last. Where you last heard she was. And if you do care, you’ll want to know that she is alright.”

Tumanger stopped again and let out a long sigh. “Alright,” he said slowly. “You are more bull-headed than she is. Bull-headed, is this the right word?”

Osmun nodded. “I think so.”

 

 

 

The wind was churning the waters at the pier. The masts of the dozens of boats, large and small, rose and fell and swayed. Gulls hung in the air, appearing almost motionless as they fought against the wind. Tumanger had been sincere when he said he did not know where Nasiri might be, though when last they spoke, she had talked about going back to Ivesia. If that was over a year ago as Tumanger remembered, was there any chance that she would still be here? He had to think there was, otherwise his fate would be only to wait in ignominy to be arrested for poisoning a respected member of the clergy. That was not the legacy he would leave. His legacy would be talked about for ages…

The shouts of workers brought Osmun out of his thoughts. He could see them struggle to offload supplies from three-masted boat as it swayed and bumped against the pier. If she had gone, perhaps one of the workers on the pier would remember seeing her. And if not… well, he would ask someone else. He would ask and ask until he found someone who remembered. He would find her, or he would find someone who could show him what he needed to know. He was born to be in the church, and what was happening to him now was his greatest test.

Osmun stood there for a while, his cloak being pulled by the wind, before finally pushing himself into motion and walked towards the pier. As he approached, the workers were standing about, having temporarily stopped unloading the ship until someone could better secure it to the dock. The few ropes that were tied to it were twisting and tightening audibly. Osmun looked from one worker to the next, looking for an Ivesian. Maybe Nasiri liked the company of her own kind better than Ellslanders, Tauthri, or even the Trueborn. But there was no Ivesian among them.

He needed to rethink his plan. If Nasiri was still in Lycernum, he would not find her by simply asking. She had abandoned the faith and returned to the ways of her kin. She would not want to be found by just anyone, and anyone who knew her would have to know that.

He rubbed his cheek and was surprised by the coarseness of his stubble. How must he look? Unclean, unshaven, and having spent the night in an alley like a drunk. Anyone he talked to would think he was a pauper. At least that worked to his own advantage; when the Ardent came for him, they would certainly not mistake him for a priest. Osmun looked over the dock workers once more and found the one who might best answer his question before turning back from the pier. He found a secluded spot in between two warehouses next to the harbour, and there he went over in his mind what he would do next.

And he waited.

 

 

The wind was only the first breath of the storm. By late afternoon, no one was working in the harbour, and any ships that were not already moored turned out of the harbour and anchored further away. Despite this, two ships collided and a third capsized. Osmun could only gauge the length of time he had waited by his growing hunger. When had he last eaten? If he spent much more time this way, he would not just resemble a beggar; he would only need to extend his hands.

The dock workers began to disperse as it became clear the storm would not soon relent, and the beginning of rainfall seemed to welcome their departure. Osmun fixed his attention on one, watched him, and moved around the warehouse to get ahead of him. The man was tall and imposing, with tattoos covering his forearms. Osmun wasn’t sure why he thought this man might know, but compared to the rest, he looked the least pious; the tattoos, as far as he could tell, were not religious in their imagery.

Osmun cut through one alley to come out onto a narrow street a block ahead of the man. The worker was walking swiftly, his shoulders slightly hunched as the rain continued to fall.

“Excuse me,” Osmun said as he approached the man, his hands clasped together in a beggar’s fashion. “Can I trouble you with a question, sir?”

The worker nodded but said nothing.

“I noticed you work on the pier, and I wondered if you’ve ever come across someone shipping a, uh… you see, I have trouble sleeping, and there is said to be a root from Ivesia that might help someone like myself. I can’t remember the name of the thing, but I remember it was said to be from Ivesia.” Osmun added a cough to the end of his plea in case some pity helped his cause.

The worker shook his head. “Don’t know nothing of it,” he said. He began walking again, but Osmun stepped in front of him.

“Of course, of course, but do you know someone that might?”

“No.”

“Perhaps you have worked with an Ivesian before?”

“No.”

“Or know someone who has?”

“Move aside.”

“Do you know a girl named Nasiri?”

The punch to the gut winded Osmun instantly. He dropped to his knees and the worker walked off, uttering a considerable string of curses at him. If he had eaten earlier that day, he may have vomited. An odd mercy, then, that he hadn’t.

A voice spoke from beside him. “Are you alright?” Osmun felt a hand underneath his arm pulling him back to his feet. “Those dock workers are normally a patient lot, but you seem to’ve picked the prickliest of the bunch.”

“Thank you,” Osmun said as he brushed the dirt and mud from his knees. “I’ll be fine now, I think.” The man beside him was young, perhaps even younger than Osmun. He had curly brown hair and dimples that made him seem even younger than he was. His face did not look clean-shaven, but rather that he never had the cause to shave before.

“You don’t seem like a beggar to me,” the man said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, you look like a beggar, certainly. But a beggar is usually more concerned with food and drink and not how well he sleeps.”

“You heard that?”

“I did. Also, if you know of the root you’re asking after, you know that it isn’t inexpensive.”

Osmun stood up straight, shaking off his beggar’s stance. “And how is it you know this?”

“I’m a merchant. Well, a merchant of a sort. What’s important is that I can find what you’re looking for.”

Osmun felt the touch of Xidius involved in this somehow. Maybe it was simple luck, random and blind, but he was not about to consider himself lucky. If he could find the Ivesian root, he might find some Ivesians, and someone who might know Nasiri.

“How quickly?”

“I can take you to it now. Unless you’d prefer to trouble some more of the pier workers, though I’d not recommend it.”

 

 

The kind stranger led Osmun through twisting back alleys to a small storehouse that, by the smell of it, was mostly crates of salted fish. “Pardon the aroma,” he said. “It helps repel burglars and the city watch. Down the stairs on your right.” He had introduced himself as Myron Petral, and he carried himself with the entitlement of a noble and the confidence of a streetwise criminal. Myron carefully shut the door behind them as they entered, and he noticed Osmun eying him with curiosity. “Pay me no mind. It’s a heavy door and slams shut if you aren’t careful. I didn’t want to start you with the noise, or to announce to the entire block of my comings and goings.”

Only when he reached the basement did Osmun think that he had not been led there, but rather he had been guided there; Myron had walked behind him the entire way. Odd, but Osmun would not blame him for being cautious.

“This seems a bit elaborate for a root,” Osmun said.

“I agree,” Myron said. “You and I know that it’s just a root, but the law says it is banned because it is used in Ivesian shamanism.”

Halfway down the stairs, Osmun looked over his shoulder. “Is it?” Of course it was.

Myron shrugged. “If I ever meet an Ivesian shaman, I’ll ask.”

The cellar was dark. There was only one torch lit, and its flame had nearly gone out. All around the small room were wooden crates stacked haphazardly on top of one another, some only still upright from leaning against others. There were a few chairs that looked dramatically out of place; the polished wood gleamed even in the dimness of the room, and as Osmun approached them he could smell the richness of the leather. The room was as much a mixture of peculiarities as Myron himself.

“Go ahead and take a seat,” Myron said as he walked to a door on the far side of the room. “You look like you could use a rest.” Osmun sat, and the sensation reminded him of standing in the warmth of the fire of Tumanger’s shop. He would remember to procure chairs of this kind when he became a cleric.

Myron came back a few moments later with two cups of tea. “You look like you could use this,” Myron said as he handed a cup to Osmun and sat in a chair facing him. “Are you hungry?”

“You are awfully charitable to a man you don’t think is a beggar.” The tea smelled sweet and inviting. He took a few sips and found it surprisingly nourishing.

Myron sipped at his own drink. “Well, we’ve already established that you aren’t. But that’s no reason for me to be a rude host.”

Osmun was uncertain how to direct the conversation. He had no use for the root – he needed to find someone who did have use for it, an Ivesian, preferably. An Ivesian who might know Nasiri.

“Should we discuss the… the…” Osmun trailed off. The combination of the tea and the chair had relaxed him to a state he had not felt since before the trial. “I must be more tired than I thought.”

Myron laughed and sipped his tea as he watched Osmun. He looked amused.

“I think… I think…”

“That was faster than I thought,” Myron said. He stood and took the cup from Osmun’s feeble grasp.

What was this? Osmun looked around the room, but even his vision was clouding. He expected to see the shadow lurking somewhere. This had to be its trickery.

Myron grabbed Osmun’s face in one hand and shook his head from side to side. “Are you nice and comfortable?” Osmun could not respond. He could barely even move his eyes and he felt himself being crushed under the immense weight of his own powerlessness. “Good,” Myron said.

Every form in his vision was dissolving into a muddled blur, but Osmun could sense another figure had joined them in the room. He could not see a face, only a skulking darkness steadily approaching him.

 

 

Feelings returned slowly. His arms and legs tingled with numbness. He tried to stir them from what felt like a long hibernation, but they hardly obeyed. Though his head was swimming, sight and sound returned gradually as well, and before long he could tell he was in a basement somewhere, seated in a chair.

He was tied to it.

He moved his head from side to side and felt a wave of nausea. Where was he? His memory was a wall of fog, and trying to recall what had led him to this place, wherever it was, was like trying to remember the details of a vague dream. He looked around the room but his vision was blurry and he could hardly discern any details of his surroundings at all. The door creaked open as if to answer, and two figures entered the room.

“I think he is awake.” It was a woman’s voice.

“We might do well to wait a while longer,” a man said. Osmun recognized the voice, but… could not place how. “He may still be somewhat useless.”

“We cannot wait longer. Ask him now.”

A pause. “Fine.”

There was tension there, Osmun noticed. He blinked and squinted as he tried to focus on them, to no effect. The man walked over and stood in front of the chair, arms folded.

“Who are you after?”

“Who are you?” Osmun asked as he struggled against his restraints. “Are you Ardent? Why am I tied up?

“Ah, I should’ve expected this. I’m Myron, do you remember me from earlier? You were asking after an Ivesian root and you were having a tough time of it. You came back here and had tea, and there was black bear’s root in it, which makes you sleep like the dead. Unfortunately it also makes you forget the last few hours or more, depending on how much you have. Now, I consider myself something of a risk-taker, so I’m going to make a wild guess that you are not actually after the black bear’s root, were you? You are after someone, yes?”

“No, no one. I was looking for the root.” He felt the sharp edge of a blade against his hand.

“I don’t want to cut your fingers off, but I want to be lied to even less. Now tell me who you’re after.”

“An Ivesian,” Osmun said, thinking he could get through this using partial truths.

Another pause. Myron glanced over his shoulder before he asked the next question.

“Are there any other Ardent who know where you are?”

Osmun laughed, Myron put pressure on the blade.

“Will you be laughing when I start to cut?”

“I might, I can’t feel my hands.”

“Let’s find out.”

“I’m not Ardent!” Osmun shouted. He sounded like a drunk, but it preempted Myron from slicing into his hand. “You really thought I was one of them?”

“Who else would be asking for an outlawed substance in such clumsy manner?”

“You thought I was one of them, and you brought me right here to your hiding spot. What a stupid thing to do.”

“You’ve been looking for us for months.” There was less confidence in his voice.

“Maybe they have. I haven’t. But at least this works in your favour. When you do come across any of them, keep your idiot mouth quiet.”

“I told you,” said the other voice.

“We needed to find out how many of them were looking for us,” Myron replied.

“He’s not one of them. He’s not Ardent.”

“He’s lying! Of course he is. Why else would he be asking for you?”

Osmun held his breath. He thought he misheard. But she stepped forward into focus and bent over to be face to face with him. He was uncertain at first; it had been years since he had seen her, but he saw her father’s features on her. She was skinny and tall with rounded cheekbones and large, brown eyes. Her long brown hair was tied in a complex braid and hung over her right shoulder. There was a faint scar that ran from her left temple down to her jaw. It was her, unmistakably. He wondered, with such striking features, how she could have remained hidden for so long.

“If you are not Ardent, then who are you?” Nasiri asked.

Even though this was who he had come to find, Osmun still could not immediately bring himself to explain all the things that had happened. They still seemed surreal to him, even then.

“I am… was a priest,” Osmun said. Hearing the words out loud gave them a new authority. No longer a priest… only temporarily, he reassured himself. “I need your skill. A skill that I hope you have. If you don’t, then……” Then there was nowhere to turn next. No one left to help him. “Then I suppose you can do what you will with me, though I have no interest in turning you over to the Ardent. In truth, I think they’re after me by now, too.”

“What skill?” Nasiri asked.

“I have divine sight. I can commune with spirits and I can send them from this world. But there is one… one spirit that will not go. It came through a rift that we created, and now it stalks me and others in the city. As though this is its home. It is beyond my control. I need to know how to create a rift that I might send it back.”

“What makes you think that if you make a rift, your stalker will go through?”

“I will make it.” There was no doubt in Osmun’s voice. “Do you have this skill, and will you teach me?”

Nasiri moved her jaw from side to side as she stared at Osmun. “I will not help you for nothing,” she said. “There is something I want. After you get it, I will help you banish this… stalker.”

“Have you heard of such a thing before?” Myron cut in.

“No,” Nasiri shook her head. “But it followed him here.”

 

 

It was hours later when Nasiri undid the ropes holding Osmun to the chair. Myron had been gone for a time but had come back.

“I still don’t trust you,” Nasiri said. “I know you know my father and mother, but that does not matter to me.”

They talked over food, and Osmun ate ravenously. It was simple enough – bread, fish, and dried fruit, but to him it was a feast. They sat facing each other on a few old cushions that were laid out on the cold stone floor of the basement.

“Do you believe me?” he asked them as they ate.

“On certain things,” Nasiri said.

“You’re definitely not Ardent,” Myron said, his mouth full. “You were right; they are after you. Did you really poison a fellow priest?”

“No! How could you even know about that?”

“It’s what I do. It pays to know things. Or rather, I pay to know things.”

“Well, I did not poison anyone, and you don’t have to pay me for that knowledge.”

“Why did you think I could help you?” Nasiri asked.

Osmun shrugged. “It was a guess. I remember when Tumanger had told me that one day you ran away. You never truly accepted the Beacon as the truth. I understand that, I suppose. I know that those cultures we conquer don’t truly believe…… even though they say they do.”

Nasiri leaned forward. “You never conquered Ivesia.”

“No. Of course not. But for you to come here, you had to make certain vows: to declare that the Beacon is the truth faith. Your mother and father believe. He told me that you never abandoned the rituals of your home.” Osmun shoved the last of his bread into his mouth and picked up another piece from the plate on the floor between them. “I had thought you would have gone back to Ivesia.”

“Why would you think that?”

Osmun stopped chewing. “Why would you stay here? If you detest the faith that the Empire is founded on…”

Nasiri had stopped eating, and she looked at Osmun and bit her lower lip. He could tell she wanted to tell him why she had stayed. There must have been a reason; perhaps it was to preach her own gospel or simply to work to undermine the authority of the Xidian Church. Whatever is was, she wanted to tell him, he could see. But she wouldn’t. Maybe with trust, and still, maybe not. Seeing anger welling within her, he decided to change the subject.

“You saw the shadow for yourself… what did you make of it?”

Nasiri looked around the room before she answered, slowly and intently. For a moment Osmun thought she may not answer his question at all. “Very unusual,” she said at last. “Where did it come from?”

“Two clerics made the rift in the Great Cathedral. A room, in the basement. Walls made of iron.”

“Seems to be an awfully foolish thing to do,” Myron said as he lay back onto one elbow. “It’s a wonder these things are drifting around the city like evil little rain clouds.”

“Maybe they are,” Osmun said. “How would you know?”

Myron did not answer; he just smiled and sipped at his small cup of wine.

“I did not mean where you made the rift, priest,” Nasiri said. “They made a rift to where?” Osmun was confused by the question. Did she not understand the nature of the boundaries between this world and the Beyond? Did she not know how to repair the borders to close off that world from this one? Perhaps she would not be able to help him at all…

“A rift to where? It can only be to one place. The realm of the dead, the world of mist, the Beyond… it can only [_be _]to one place.”

Nasiri’s mouth was agape. “Is that what they teach you? How can your learned men believe the world to be so simple as that? There are other places than what we can see, places other than this, other than what you see when you close your eyes.”

“Is that right?” Osmun nearly laughed. “Have you ever created a rift?”

Nasiri sat upright at the question. “Yes, I have. Many times.”

“To somewhere other than the Beyond?”

She remained silent.

“Then how can you make such a claim?” he asked when she did not answer.

“My people wrote of it. The famous Ivesian scholar Ashar Abarin wrote that these other realms could exist all near to each other, like crossing the same river at different points. Ashar wrote that some points of crossing are easier to see, almost plain to see, sometimes. In other spots it is difficult to cross, or nearly impossible.”

“The Beacon himself wrote of a river, but not of crossings,” Osmun said. “The river should run, can run only one way. This is the way it is in nature. Our spirits flow from this world to the Beyond as a river runs from high ground to low. Those spirits that remain here or fight against the current are aberrations, and it is a holy duty for those like me to send them back.”

Nasiri waved a hand in the air and looked away. “As I said… simple-minded foolishness.”

“Myron, you are a Trueborn… you must know that the Xidian teaching is true.”

“How can anyone say that with any certainty?” Myron shrugged. “Shall we discount the possibility of it because of the writings of one preacher?”

Osmun nodded slowly. It made sense to him now; they were of the same mind. Perhaps this is why she stayed after all: to convert people to the heretical Ivesian teachings. Maybe he even believed willingly, or maybe he yearned after her and said such inane things to be closer to her.

“Have either of you put Abarin’s theories into practice?” Osmun emphasized the word to support his point. “Have you crossed the river to somewhere other than the Beyond?” Nasiri and Myron both stared at him but said nothing. Myron sipped again at his wine. His overconfidence had been replaced by humility for the first time –– something that should happen more often, Osmun noted. “I thought not. Even Abarin himself expressed doubt that such a discovery could be achieved.”

“Say what you will about what has been written,” Nasiri said, “but there is something following you which you cannot explain. Nothing in your texts to help you combat it. Even your much-lauded skill, Osmun, has helped you not at all. So scoff if you like, but this shadow could be from a place we have not yet encountered. A place that Abarin thought could exist.”

“That can’t be,” Osmun said, shaking his head. “Andrican and Egus…… the clerics who created the rift… for what you’re saying to be true, they would then have to know how to create a rift to one of these other places. They’ve been taught as I have: that there is only this world and the Beyond. Nothing else.”

“Think what you like, priest. It may have come here through the Beyond… but where did it come from before that?”

There was a long silence as they all sat there with unanswerable questions hanging about them. For Osmun, there were even more than what was said. Why could she see the shadow and the clerics could not? Did it choose to whom it could reveal itself? There was the ubiquitous question of its purpose, its goal, but Osmun had abandoned the notion that he would ever discern that.

It was only after all of the food had been eaten that Nasiri finally brought up what the price would be for her assistance.

“Do you know where the Compendium is?” she asked.

“More or less. I’ve seen the entrance. I’m guessing that you have not.”

“No, I never got that close. Don’t look so surprised. I was being tutored for a time, a very brief time, before I allowed myself to be who I was meant to be. I had heard talk of the Compendium. Hushed whispers, mostly. The priests don’t like to talk about where the secrets are kept when outsiders are present. Anyone who is not a Trueborn, even someone like me who has gone through the Affirmations, they do not trust.”

“You did end up rejecting their faith and renouncing your Affirmation,” Myron said, smirking. “I don’t know if you can really complain about them not trusting you.”

“I don’t know much more about it than you do,” Osmun said. “The historians keep records of the Empire’s conquests.”

“They keep relics of the conquered,” Nasiri said, not a question, though Osmun sensed her uncertainty.

“Some relics, yes, from what I’ve heard. Usually, once the historians have studied the relics and done their writings, the relics are destroyed.”

Nasiri nodded and smiled. “I was hoping that was true, because I want you to go into the Compendium and find something.”

Osmun could not stop himself from laughing. “Get into the Compendium? I’m afraid that’s quite impossible. Even if I wasn’t suspected of murdering a member of the church, and even if I still had my title as a priest, I could not get into the Compendium. The historians and the elders are the only ones who have the authority to enter that room at will.”

“That sounds challenging,” Nasiri said, ignoring Osmun’s protest.

“Did you hear me? It’s not challenging. It’s impossible.”

“You should hope not, because this is the cost of my knowledge. You came to me. If you cannot do this for me, I am no worse off than I am. But you… how many safe places can you go? Here, I think, is the safest place you have. Without us, the Ardent will find you.”

“You’re not concerned that I might tell them about this place if they caught me?” Osmun asked.

“No, I’m not concerned. We would find another place as we have many times already. But the Ardent will find you. And, of course, you’ll have that shadow at your heels again.”

“Why will you not help me?” Osmun asked. “It follows me now, but what if there are more? It wants something, and this fact doesn’t concern you at all?”

“Not one bit,” Nasiri said. “There may be more someday, or maybe not. There is no reason to expect it, and for now, there is only one and it seems interested in only you.” She stared at him, challenging him to refuse because she knew somehow that he could not. If Myron was right about the Ardent, then Osmun had few choices, and perhaps truly just one.

“What is it you want from there?” Osmun asked.

“The Untranslated Tome.”

 

Osmun slept on the concrete floor that night. He had more tea, and at his insistence, Myron had added more of the black bear’s root. He agreed to Nasiri’s demand, but needed undisturbed rest. With a few pinches of the root in his tea he could have slept still and for long hours on top of hot coals and it would not have bothered him in the slightest.

He still felt the presence near him, but the deep, otherworldly voice did not invade his sleep that night. The next morning, Nasiri slapped Osmun’s hand away from the jars where they stored the ground root.

“Too much is dangerous,” she said. “Once you’ve done what I ask and have no further need for you. But not before.”

It had been three days since he had fled the monastery. Coarse black stubble covered his cheeks and jaw. Myron left a small blade for him to shave, but he decided not to. If he looked even slightly different, it would be an advantage for him. Osmun lifted the blade.

“You aren’t afraid that I might attack you with this?” he asked Myron.

“Not really,” Myron laughed. “That would be awfully foolish of you, wouldn’t it? We’re the only friends you’ve got at the moment, I’m afraid. How long will you last by yourself with the Ardent looking for you? Not long, I’d wager.”

“Some friends,” Osmun said, pocketing the blade.

“I know.” Myron laughed again. “You’re in an awful bad way.”

They left him alone much of the time. One or both of them would leave and go out into the streets to do… Osmun didn’t know what. It must have been true about the Ardent; why else would they leave him alone so readily unless they knew that he had no other allies, no friends, and nowhere else to turn? In those solitary hours he fretted over the unknowable consequences of delivering the Untranslated Tome to Nasiri. Why did she need it? Would she even honour her word? He concluded, though, that once he expelled the stalking shadow back to the Beyond, once he proved all of this to Andrican and Egus, he would help lead the Ardent to them. They were apostates, plotting at something unknown, but criminal at the very least, if not entirely sinister. He would blame the theft from the Compendium on them, too. They would protest and divulge his involvement, but who would believe them?

“Have you decided how you will do it?” Nasiri asked him that afternoon.

Osmun had spent the last few hours scrawling notes onto pages before crumpling up the paper and tossing it onto the still-warm embers of the wood stove. “I think so.” He could feel her standing behind him, looking over his shoulder at the words on the page.

“How complicated can it be?”

“It can be very complicated, I promise you. I don’t even know how the Compendium door is meant to open.”

“One more day,” she said. “And then it must be done.”

“How will I know where to find it? What if it’s one among a hundred tomes?”

“Do you know how often historians go back to that book? Every few months someone thinks they have found a key to unlock its secrets or thinks they can find a hint that everyone else has missed. It is read and read again so often that it is a wonder the ink hasn’t rubbed off on their hands. It will be in a prominent place.”

Osmun turned away from the hearth to face her. “What do you need it for?”

“It was ours,” she said. “Ryferian soldiers took it during the second invasion of Ivesia. It belongs back with us.” Nasiri turned and left the room, affronted by the question. “One more day,” she said.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 11

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

Voices seemed to hush as Julian Tomarus walked by. Word had quickly spread that Osmun Arus, the man whose skill was envied and coveted by all, had poisoned the old historian and then fled. Word had spread just as quickly that Julian had been with Osmun when it happened. Vicar Eldon had questioned Julian for hours. He had sat in the vicar’s chamber, answering question after question, nervous and frightened, but the vicar had remained calm and dispassionate even as Julian began to weep when the same questions were posed in different manners.

At the end of it, Vicar Eldon found him innocent, or at least that’s what Julian assumed. Why else would he have let him go? But the suspicion of the authority cast a shadow on him that all others heeded. His studies of the Whitewing mountains had come to a halt. He had returned to the library the day after Nestor’s death, and when the few disciples there saw him, they could not help but stare. A few of them whispered to each other. “Has he come to poison us, too?” he heard one say to another, and they both laughed. He would not – could not – go back to the library after that.

Nor would he have any help. When he asked Brother Viktor to get a book for him, the older disciple refused. “What’s wrong, Julian?” Viktor taunted. “Are you afraid of the ghost of the old man?” He was afraid, though. Everyone could see it. Afraid that something as insubstantial as an unfortunate association would bury his aspirations before they had even taken shape.

He read and re-read the only book he still had in his possession: a history of the Ryferian conflicts with Ivesia, a book he had only taken from the library for its tangential references to the Whitewings. The war itself was uninteresting to him. The conflict and the struggles were for different sorts of men; Julian was only interested in the faith, how it spoke to him, how it transcended boundaries, corporeal and spiritual.

By candlelight in his room, Julian was reading the same chapter he had read dozens of times before. And, as had been happening more frequently in the recent days, his eyes washed over the words of the page but took in nothing, like a starving man unable to swallow a meal. This would all pass, he told himself. It had to.

“Julian.” The voice from the darkness startled him. He nearly jumped to his feet. The candle fell over and extinguished. Julian remained silent, perched on the edge of his bed in total darkness wondering if he had actually heard his name or if he had only imagined it. He listened to the silence, focusing on it, hearing it retreat from the rapid beat of his heart.

“Julian, it’s me… It’s Osmun.”

The disciple stood and wiped his trembling, sweaty hands against his robes.

“It’s Osmun,” the voice said again when Julian remained silent.

“What do you want?” Julian whispered. He was immobile, his body commanded by fear.

“Your help. But we cannot speak here. Follow me, if you can.”

It was not difficult for them to leave the monastery unnoticed at night. Most were sleeping, save some of the more devout monks. Some would lose themselves in a state so worshipful that they were virtually ignorant of their surroundings, staying motionless sometimes from one sunrise to the next. Osmun and Julian passed one kneeling before a shrine to Anson Marinus, and another sitting outside, eyes closed and serene. They crept around him, making sure to stay out of his line of sight should they disturb him, but Julian noticed that, despite the chill in the night air, the monk showed no signs of noticing. They could have their clandestine discussion next to him and he would not even stir.

Osmun wasted no time once they were outside the stone wall that encircled the monastery.

“I need your help because you’re the only one I can ask. I need you to trust me and do as I ask. It is important. I cannot even explain how important it is, but… it is serious.”

In the flickering light of the torches lit atop of the monastery walls, Julian saw the expelled priest, saw how his features had sharpened. He looked leaner, as though he had shed his confidence and replaced it with something else. Something malign.

“What they say you’re guilty of, Osmun… did you do it?”

“Of course not.” Osmun did his best to sound reassuring.

“Everyone thinks you’re guilty already! Some say the Ardent are after you, is that true?”

“If they were, I would not be here. I would not think to put you in that kind of danger.”

“I can’t help you…I won’t help you if they are after you. Do you know how people look at me now? They think you killed Nestor and they think that I helped you!” Julian’s voice trembled as he spoke and he began to choke back tears. It had all been too much, and he did not even have someone he could talk to about it until now, and the person it was could not even help him. He could, however, make things very much worse.

Osmun gripped Julian by the shoulders. “You want to do something meaningful with your life. I know you do. And you want it to be something that strengthens the faith. That is what I want as well, Julian. But I need help. There is something happening here that no one will talk about. There is some kind of evil at work, but none of the other priests can see it. By the Beacon, none of the clerics can even see it. It could even be manipulating them! I have to stop it, and I cannot do it alone. Now you either believe me or you do not, but I think you know me well enough at least to know that I am not a liar, and I am certainly no murderer.”

“What if I say no? What will you do?” Julian asked. Osmun released him, and Julian saw disappointment in his eyes.

“If you say no… then I will do this on my own. Or, I suppose, I will attempt to. I’ll fail, likely.”

“I don’t want things to get worse for me.”

“I know. And if our plights were reversed, I would not want to be involved either, but nothing would change. It may not get worse, but it won’t get better.” Osmun pointed to the monastery hidden behind the stone walls. “Our brothers of faith in there, they are exacting in their judgments. They won’t forget. You must prove yourself, and I am giving you that chance.”

A few tears escaped from Julian’s eyes. He wanted only distance from Osmun, but the words of the former priest were the truth of his plight. No one had any reason to forgive him. As soon as the two of them had gone to the library together, their fates had become connected. Perhaps it was the will of Xidius. A test. And though he was young, Julian knew he was not incapable. After all, which great figures in the faith earned their esteem by mere scholarship? There had to be a test somewhere.

 

 

Julian walked into the Great Cathedral with a considerable degree of hesitance. He fought to keep his gait normal, though he was sure he looked at least half as nervous as he felt. He nearly jumped as the doors of the Cathedral clanged shut behind him. He had only been to the Cathedral a handful of times since he had become a disciple at the monastery; much of the rest of his time was spent on his studies.

There were only a few dozen people seated in the pews in the massive room, all of them sitting quietly, reading from the Recounting, praying, or just listening to the ubiquitous hymns of the choir that enveloped the room so thoroughly that there seemed no point of origin.

He walked down the centre aisle between the pews, though he would have much preferred to skulk along the walls next to the cloisters. But he was expected. One of the historians, Abelus Cypra, had agreed to meet him and discuss the rigors of becoming a historian and what was required of one to serve the church in that role. Julian had had to lie to Vicar Eldon in order for this arrangement to be made. “I don’t think I can continue my studies as I would like,” he had said. “After what happened, and the way I am treated with suspicion now, I think a change is necessary.” So there was some truth to it, which helped him stammer through his request, though after the meeting, he succumbed to his immense nervousness and retched behind the dormitory.

Abelus was standing off to the side of the dais and came forward to meet Julian as he neared the front of the hall. He wore black robes with white trim and a mantle of yellow silk over his shoulders. He smiled broadly and shook Julian’s hand vigorously. Under bushy white eyebrows – the only hair on Abelus’ head – the historian’s warm and welcoming eyes put Julian at ease.

“Welcome, welcome, young Julian!”

“Thank you for seeing me, Author Cypra.”

“Oh, please, please, only Brother Cypra. Come, come, let’s get started.” Abelus put his arm over Julian’s shoulder and led him through a door and a steep set of stairs going down. “I was thrilled when Vicar Eldon told me you were considering changing the focus of your studies.”

“Yes, that’s true. I had been researching the ascension, but… well, things have changed.”

Abelus stopped and turned when they reached the bottom of the stairway. “Did it have anything to do with what happened with Brother Osmun?”

“Somewhat,” Julian nodded. “I feel like I should start something new. The monastery is a place of bad memories now.”

“I understand, I do. For what it’s worth, I did not think it could be true that such a promising disciple could have been involved in such a terrible crime. But, on to better things, yes?” Abelus began walking again. The stone halls were narrow. Dozens of lanterns hanging on the walls soaked the otherwise cold stones in a comforting glow. “Being a historian is not easy. Many try and few succeed. It is a lonely life. The only people you will come to know well are those written in books. Dead scholars and figures of old will be your family.”

“What about other historians?”

“Ah, yes, well, you would think we would be a close bunch, wouldn’t you? But the truth is that we are recorders of things and deeds that, by the edict of Emperor Kaldenius, are not to be spoken of. We keep many secrets. Our lives are devoted to them, but we cannot speak of them. Now, I think, you probably understand why we are lonely. We have no families, no war stories to share with each other. We have the stories of other cultures that are never to be told. And truthfully, Julian, more historians die for inadvertently breaking the edict than die from old age. I am not telling you this to dissuade or frighten you, but so that you are certain in your decision, if this is what you ultimately choose.”

Every word the historian said was likely true, Julian thought. He had hardly stopped talking since they shook hands as though he was tasting the air after holding his breath for decades.

The hallway turned a sharp left and the ceiling and walls both widened as the hall came to an end at a wide steel door set within a thick steel frame. The metal was so smooth and pure that Julian nearly mistook it for a mirror. “Enough of my ramblings, though,” Abelus said. “Vicar Eldon said you had mentioned wanting to see the Compendium.” The historian gestured towards the door with pride. “This is the Compendium. What is behind that door represents the Empire’s defeated foes. A thousand thousand lifetimes of history.”

“I thought it would have been guarded,” Julian said.

“No need!” Abelus chuckled. “An army could spend a week at this door with a battering ram and may only succeed in marring it.”

“Really? How was something this strong ever created?”

“A story for another time, perhaps. A long and intricate process, no doubt. I am no metallurgist, so I fear I could hardly say.”

As Julian stared at his reflection in the door he noticed the silence. In his periphery, he could see Abelus looking at him. There was some kind of uncertainty there, Julian thought. Something had happened that had changed his demeanour quite suddenly. He walked forward and placed his palm against the smooth metal. “It’s a marvel,” he said.

Abelus nodded in agreement. “It’s quite something, yes.” The historian stood close behind Julian, and in the reflection Julian saw his hands fidgeting.

Julian knocked on the door as hard as he could before turning to Abelus and smiling. “All of your secrets are safe.”

Abelus nodded again and extended his arm around Julian’s shoulder again to lead him away from the Compendium. “Yes, well, we should continue.” Julian agreed, and walked alongside the historian, sensing tremors in the once-calm hands that now rested on his shoulders.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 12

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

“He’s lying.”

Osmun looked from Nasiri to Myron and back to Julian. In the warm basement of the storehouse, they all sat on pillows as they listened to the young disciple tell of what had happened in the Cathedral. Osmun was hesitant to bring Julian to see the other two, but Nasiri insisted out of a lack of trust for outside parties. She hadn’t threatened Julian; she had left that task to Osmun instead. “He doesn’t know us, and he trusts you. So if you tell him the cost of betraying this secrecy, he will believe you.”

It was smart, but it also gave Osmun the chance to instruct Julian on what to do about these criminals should anything happen to him. For her own part, Nasiri played the silent host, providing food and tea for them as they listened to Julian so that he would see her as generous and benevolent, with the only threat of harm coming vicariously through Osmun.

“Lying about what?” Osmun asked.

Julian looked at the floor and slowly spun his cup of tea as he spoke. “As soon as I met him, he began talking. That was all he did. Like he was desperate for the chance to speak about his life. And after hearing about the confines of their lives, about the secrecy, I could understand. They can hardly speak to anyone about anything.”

“And yet you still somehow caught this man in a lie?” Nasiri’s question was pointed and disbelieving. Julian nodded without looking up to meet her hard stare.

“He talked about his duty and its demands. When we got to the Compendium—”

“Is the entrance as flawless as they say?” Myron asked. Nasiri shot him an angry look which he tried to ignore.

“It seems that way, yes. There was a single keyhole, and Abelus later told me… he was very reluctant to say anything more about it, but he told me that three different keys are needed, and in a specific order.”

“I’ve never heard of such a complex way to lock a door,” Myron said.

Osmun looked at Nasiri. “I told you this was not possible.”

“It is possible, you just heard the boy; you need three keys. He just gave you the answer!”

“And how easy will it be to commit three separate thefts before any of the historians realize their key is missing? We don’t even know which ones carry the damned things!”

“He was lying! The Compendium isn’t even there!” Julian shouted. All eyes turned to him.

“When I asked him about the door, about how it was made, he first told me that it was a story for another time, and then he claimed to not even know the answer. He must have realized that he contradicted himself, because after that he became nervous. I knocked on the door and he nearly pulled me away from it. And when I knocked, there was no echo or sound from behind. I don’t think there is anything behind the door but stone.”

There was a long silence. Osmun noticed that Myron and Nasiri both looked at Julian in open-mouthed stupefaction. Osmun smiled. Clearly Julian had learned how to notice the slightest details during his studies, even if those details were not written in front of him.

“So it’s a trick,” Osmun said. “Everyone knows the Compendium is somewhere in the Cathedral, though perhaps not precisely. And as long as everyone is under that assumption, they won’t bother to look for it elsewhere.”

“Some trick,” Myron said. “A hallway built in the Cathedral that leads to a door, and it’s all for show? Some trick, indeed.”

“There could have been something there before,” Osmun suggested.

“The Cathedral did sustain damage during the First Ivesian War,” Julian offered. “Maybe it collapsed.”

“Then we need some way to be sure,” Nasiri said. “That book belongs to my people. I want it.”

“What book?” Julian asked. He looked at Osmun, who shook his head: don’t ask.

“You should get back to the monastery,” Osmun said to Julian. “You’ve done well. All that we’ve asked of you. You should return before your absence arouses suspicion.”

“Everything I do now arouses suspicion,” Julian said as he stood.

“Myron will make sure it is safe for you to leave,” Nasiri said. Myron put down his tea.

“I will? Well, it’s decided, I will indeed. Yes, yes, trusty Myron will make sure the way is clear. And hopefully, by some miracle, his tea is still warm when he returns.” Avoiding Nasiri’s look of disdain, he darted resentfully up the stairs, out of the basement. Nasiri muttered something in Ivesian.

“Don’t speak of this to anyone,” Nasiri said to Julian.

“I don’t think he wants to be branded a co-conspirator,” Osmun said. “You needn’t worry about him.”

The three of them stood, and, pressing his fingers together, Julian looked from the ground to Osmun and back.

“Goodbye, Julian,” Nasiri said.

“Actually…” Julian said, almost a whisper. He cleared his throat. “If there’s more to do, I want to help.”

“Why would you want to help us?” Nasiri said in a disbelieving tone.

“Not you… uh, not you, my lady, with respect. I want to help Osmun. The church needs him. So I want to help.”

“It’s not necessary.” Osmun smiled. He patted the disciple on the shoulder, but Julian shoved his hand away.

“It is necessary for me! There will be nothing there for me, no future, until you prove yourself innocent of… whatever is going on. Don’t tell me what’s good for me or what is unsafe, because it is either this or…” Julian trailed off as if suddenly realizing how excited he had become. He looked at the ground again, breathing deeply. “Just…… let me help.”

He walked out of the basement saying nothing else. For the best, certainly, as Osmun had nothing to add. He looked at Nasiri, gave her an embarrassed grin, and nodded. “I did not expect that.”

Myron returned a short time later and the three of them tried to determine the true location of the Compendium. They argued for what seemed like hours, and, seeming to get nowhere, Osmun grabbed up his tattered and dirt-stained cloak.

“You should stay inside,” Myron warned.

“I’m not a prisoner yet,” Osmun said as he climbed the stairs. “I ought not to feel like one.”

The night was quiet and the streets were largely deserted due to a chill wind blowing in off the sea. He walked, absent-minded, struggling against the absurdity he faced all because of Andrican.

And Egus, too. The old cleric was not without his own culpability. If he was a stronger man he could have at least supported Osmun’s claim or given him time to prove it. In the distance, Osmun could see the harbour. A galleon had come in and its crew was disembarking. Everything about the ship looked worn and beaten; even the sails were fraying. It must have been at sea for some time. Even over the wind Osmun could overhear the crew as they approached locals, asking for directions. “I’ll take you there,” he heard.

Of course.

He laughed to himself as he turned and ran back to the warehouse.

Of course it was that simple.

 

 

 

As soon as they entered the building, Osmun yearned for the fish smell of the warehouse. The floors of the tenement house were strewn with soiled bodies wearing soiled clothes, and even on the second floor standing next to an open window, the smell was overpowering. Even Myron, normally unflappable, betrayed his distaste for the rundown building.

“Did it have to be here?” Osmun asked, sticking his head out of the window.

“This was your plan, priest.”

“I did not choose this location.” He leaned closer to Myron. “And don’t call me that,” he whispered. “At least not so loudly.”

Myron waved him off. “The whole point of this is that you want to be found, am I not correct? Have I so fundamentally misunderstood your plan?”

Osmun shook his head and leaned back out of the window. Beacon save him, the smell was terrible.

“If it’s any consolation, with your unkempt beard and your two-coin cloak, you fit right in here,” Myron said, patting him on the shoulder.

“Why would that be consoling?” He waved his hand and, self-conscious, scratched his beard. “Nevermind.”

“So remember, the Ardent work in pairs. Both of them may come in here for you, but I’m betting that one of them stays downstairs near the entrance. Which is why—”

“I know, I have to skirt along the ledge before jumping down.” Osmun looked outside again. The tenement building – it must have been something else, once –– was only a few narrow streets over from the lower-end market district. This was not where he had once taken his morning walks; this was where the poor and poorer came to buy, sell, or steal whatever they could. Not a place for fine wares: a place for stolen goods, for rum and grog that was made from ingredients no one cared to guess at. And how could Myron say that he fit right in?

“Try not to break your ankles when you jump.”

“It’s not that high of a jump,” Osmun said, trying to reassure himself, though from his present vantage, Myron’s warning did not look baseless.

“So tell me where you go next.”

“Down two buildings, up through the alley to the next street, over three, up again… we’ve gone over this ten times already.”

“Now eleven. And it’s to make sure you do things right. If you’re caught—”

“It won’t be because we didn’t go over this another hundred times. Shouldn’t you be down there? If they show up now the whole plan is off.”

“Good point.” Myron did up his own tattered grey cloak and pulled the hood up over his head. He smiled and nodded at Osmun before walking down the hall, every floorboard groaning as he made his way towards the stairs. At least the Ardent would have their presence made known, Osmun thought. The building seemed prepared to fall in on itself every time someone stirred. From the window he saw Myron walk out into the street below him. He adopted a limp as he walked through the crowd and disappeared between two buildings across the narrow street as dilapidated as the one in which he stood.

Now he had to wait. Myron and Nasiri had supposedly begun spreading rumours that Osmun was hiding in this place in the hopes that those rumours would reach an informant, who would then pass it on to the Ardent. That was the easy part, but after the first few hours of sitting on the window, Osmun wondered if it would even work. If it didn’t, he was not sure how he would ever find the Compendium. And he will have spent hours in this filth for no reason.

Anger welled in him as he thought of being forced into this task in exchange for knowledge. When was the last time he had needed someone’s guidance? And to need that guidance from a heretical Ivesian shaman… if only his future was not at stake.

Every time footsteps came up the stairs, he readied himself, placing one foot on the edge of the window, ready to climb out. Every time, though, it was a pauper hobbling up the stairs, sometimes brandishing a half-empty bottle of something that passed as drink. He took his foot off the ledge. The sun was setting, and the evening light angled down through the street, making everyone facing westward –– including him – squint and cover their eyes.

The stairs creaked, not under the drunken, unsteady gait of a beggar, but under someone that bounded up the staircase in four steps. The man dressed in simple brown leather clothes was running at him full speed. They must have known he was there and waited. Where was the second? He had no time to look; the Ardent was almost upon him. Osmun climbed out onto the ledge that ran across the front of the building and took a few steps to the left. A hand shot out of the window towards him and for a second he looked in the eye of the man after him. No malice. Only duty. He began to climb out after Osmun.

He landed among a throng of people and fell to his knees. The crowd around him, moving inexorably like the current of a river, barely took notice of him save for a few curse words. They did, however, notice the Ardent leaping from the window above.

Osmun ran. He could hear shouting behind him. He went down two building and cut through the alley just as they had determined, and came out into another crowded street and turned right. The setting sun was in his eyes. Why had they not anticipated this? He pushed his way through, squeezing and twisting past the milling denizens of the pauper market. Ahead he saw two figures framed by the blinding sun. They were coming towards him, viciously pushing people out of their way. There was no mistaking that; a second pair of Ardent. They had tried to anticipate everything, but they did not anticipate that. “I must really be important,” Osmun muttered to himself as he spun around and ran the opposite way.

It had been such a good plan.

 

 

Myron was waiting in an alley, ducked behind a stack of empty, half-broken crates. He had heard the shouting, so he anticipated that Osmun would run down the alley at any moment with one, perhaps two Ardent after him. But, as he peered around the crates, he saw that the shouting was from the appearance of two more of them moving through the crowded street like a pair of warships through waves.

“Interesting,” he said as he padded down to the end of the alley. Around the corner he could make out another figure moving through the crowd – moving away. “So much for the plan. Can’t say I blame you.” Myron turned around and ran up the alley to the next street up, and ran eastward parallel to Osmun. He counted the buildings as he passed them: one, two, three…… past the fourth he cut left again. This alley was long, narrow, and twisted. Refuse was strewn about and Myron had to fight to keep his balance. There was a hodgepodge of a door on his right and, barely slowing, kicked it open and continued towards the other street. He could still hear shouting. Another door on his right. He only pressed against this one and when he found it unlocked, continued to the street, almost immediately seeing Osmun’s frantic eyes bobbing and weaving through the crowd. Myron motioned to him. Immediately Osmun veered towards him.

“There are—” Osmun gasped.

“I know.” Myron pointed. “Go that way, and close the door behind you.” He shoved the priest along, hoping that he would be able to figure out what he meant. Turning back to the street Myron saw two Ardent approaching. Where were the other two?

“He went this way!” Myron shouted at them, pointing up the alley. “That man, he ran this way!”

He caught brief glimpses of their faces. They carried the hard-set expressions of veterans and mercenaries. Men who followed orders unfailingly. “That way, that way!”

The first bolted past him. The second went down hard from a blow to the back of his head. Myron paused to make sure the first did not look back. “Sorry about that,” he said as he dragged the inert body through the door behind him.

The room was dark and filled with, at a brief glance, what looked to Myron like salvaged debris that had washed up in the harbour. He shook his head and began tying the hands and feet of the unconscious man on the floor in front of him. He sat on the floor and caught his breath, hoping that Osmun had escaped the others. If he did not… well, it had been an amusing undertaking, if nothing else.

 

 

He saw the open door a few seconds later, ducked through it and slammed it behind him. Osmun stood there, leaning against the door, eyes closed and breathless, until he heard the pounding feet of his pursuers go past. By the Beacon, they were fast. He waited a moment longer, unsure of how many were actually after him and unsure of how many had gone by. But there were no noises from the alley that told him they were still close by.

“Thank you,” he said aloud.

He opened his eyes and it was there before him, so close that he could see almost nothing but its depths.

Ajkah thuun!”

The words were like a thunderclap in his head. Osmun screamed and clamped his hands over his ears. He nearly fell over in agony but somehow managed to open the door and stumble out into the alley. Someone was standing over him.

“There he is!” someone shouted. Osmun barely heard it. The sounds of the world were muted to him. From the ground he could see the Ardent running back towards him. Someone stepped over him – Nasiri.

She reached out a hand and waved it slowly as if arcing a sword through the air, and in his daze, Osmun could see the fabric of the world as it succumbed to her will and opened.

A rift.

There was more noise; the thousands of voices of the Beyond that now were at the edge of their world. Spirits came through, not in the chaotic avalanche he expected, but three of them marched out like soldiers. And Nasiri was their commander.

The Ardent were not gifted. They were not seers like Nasiri. They could not commune, as Osmun could. They could not see what was happening right in front of them. Nasiri twisted her hands and the spirits obeyed, stepping in front of the charging Ardent, and then stepping into them.

One of the men collapsed without sound or expression. The other two dropped to the ground, clutching their temples and tearing at their eyes, screaming.

Xidius, save them.

Nasiri turned around and grabbed Osmun by the arm. She said something he didn’t hear. She sounded so far away and was drowned out by the agony of tormented the men.

“We must go!” she yelled.

“What have you done?”

 

 

They could not move their prisoner far, but they could not remain so close. More would come to collect the men that Nasiri had incapacitated. All eyes had been on those men as Osmun, Nasiri, and Myron moved the tied, unconscious Ardent into the basement of another building down the street. Slow to come back to his senses, they sat him down and leaned him against a stack of heavy wooden barrels.

“I saw what you did to those men,” Osmun said as he slumped down onto the earthen floor, his back against the cool stone wall. He was breathing heavily, drained of his energy. Had the shadow done something to him? Was even hearing the voice or being that close enough to affect him?

“This is not the time for objections,” Nasiri muttered. She stood near the wooden cellar door they had entered through, peering through the narrow gaps in the boards.

“Don’t do that again, do you understand me?”

“What should I have done instead, priest? You were safely hidden until you came stumbling out into the alley like a drunk. Should I have let them take you?”

Osmun had no reply. Perhaps there was no other option. At least the men were alive. He hoped someone in the church would be able to help them quickly, and that their minds would survive the ordeal.

“How did you do that?” Osmun asked after a long silence.

“This is the knowledge that your church destroys, priest. The knowledge they want no one to have.”

“It is dangerous.”

“Is that so? You speak from a place of ignorance and knowledge all at once.”

“I know what I saw!”

“We fight our battles with the weapons we know how to use best. And this was your idea. Your plan brought them into danger.”

Their captive began to stir as Osmun was about to respond, and as the Ardent’s eyes began to open, Osmun stepped behind him and out of sight. Upon becoming aware of his plight, the man began to twist and contort in an attempt to loosen the ropes that held him. He was unafraid, Osmun saw. Instead, the man looked as though he was ready to kill them all if he managed to escape.

Myron drew a dagger and struck the man in the knee with its pommel. “Now, now, let’s be calm, shall we?”

The Ardent groaned in pain through clenched teeth but said nothing. This man was more imposing than a soldier, Osmun realized. He took note of the musculature, of the immense strength that fought against the restraints. More than that, he could see in the fervor that possessed the man that he was a devout believer in the faith. It worried him; he would never be able to reason with them if he was faced with other Ardent. He could try to convince them of his innocence, but they would only obey the vicars and the Assembly of Elders. Nothing he said or did otherwise would make a difference.

Yet there was an advantage as well, at least in their present situation. Faced with what they were about to tell him, he would have to behave in an entirely predictable way, and just the way that they needed.

“Sorry that I had to bash you in the head,” Myron said as he slapped the flat of the dagger blade against his open palm. “But if you don’t calm down, you’re going to get something much worse.”

Osmun stood and stepped over beside Myron, and the Ardent locked his eyes upon him as he came into view.

“He’s telling the truth,” Osmun said to the bound man. Myron stepped back a few paces, allowing Osmun to take the lead. He still brandished the dagger. “I know you have orders for my arrest. At least for my arrest. Perhaps for my death.”

The Ardent remained silent. Osmun continued. “Well, in either case… I needed to speak with one of the clerics, but there is no way I could make it into the Cathedral without being noticed. So we had to do… this. Once we are done talking you will be set free unharmed. Only if you remain passive, though. If you try to escape or harm us in any way…” Osmun motioned over his shoulder. Myron smiled and flicked his eyebrows.

From a dark corner of the basement, Nasiri produced an ornate box about the length of her forearm carved from soapstone. It was held shut with a leather strap, and all over the box were obscure symbols chiselled into the stone with skill and care. Osmun truly had no idea what it was, only that Nasiri had it on hand, and that it looked like it would come from somewhere beyond the far reaches of the Empire’s borders. She handed it to Osmun with reverence, and he accepted it as though the slightest jostling would bring some terrible consequence upon them. It had the desired effect; the Ardent’s anger and resolve was replaced with uncertainty.

“Do you know where this came from? It was brought here from Yasri. It was meant to be taken to the historians, but… well, I see no need to be tight-lipped with you: we took it. We thought it might have some arcane power. Some ancient truth. And you would be surprised how many in the army will accept even the most meager of payments in exchange for something like this. For all they know, it is simply a container of trinkets owned by some dead Dramandi noble.

“It wasn’t that. And it was so much more…” Osmun looked at the soapstone box and forced a tremor into his hands. “…So much more than we thought. Of all the things we could have taken from that city, I wish this could have been lost. Or destroyed. We had no idea of the consequences.” He set the soapstone box on the floor at his feet. The Ardent recoiled from it.

“All I want is for this to be locked up. Away from fools like me. Away from anyone without the skills to deal with what is inside.” Osmun knelt. “I know what I am accused of, but… know that I am no traitor. I am no apostate. I still serve the Beacon. I am still loyal to the church, like you. If I were not, I would not have put myself in such danger by trying to get this to you. I knew that only someone fearless and pious would do what is necessary. And there are none, it is said, more fearless and pious than the Ardent.”

The man, the holy soldier of the church, stared at the stone box. Osmun could see the wheels turning in his favour.

“Lastly, whatever you do, do not open this. Only a cleric should do that. No one else. Do you understand?” Though the Ardent said nothing, Osmun had no doubt that he would do his duty.

Myron approached him, a small sprig of a strange leaf in his hand. “Now, be a reasonable fellow and eat this. You’ll wake up in a few hours and you’ll feel terrific.” The man spat at Myron and thrashed his head about to prevent Myron from shoving the leaf into his mouth.

“Can someone hold his head still?” Myron asked. The Ardent made an attempt to head-butt him and just missed. Osmun tried to steady the man but he would not stop fighting, so Myron hit him again with his dagger, this time in the head, and the Ardent went limp. “I didn’t want to have to do that. He’s a stubborn one.”

“That’s what makes them so good at what they do,” Osmun said, a tinge of sincere admiration in his voice. How different were they, in that respect? They did whatever they had to… and that is what Osmun was doing with these two, he reminded himself. Myron and Nasiri were just means to an end.

Myron untied the rope. “You were quite convincing, Osmun. Even I almost believed you.”

“How can you be sure he will take it to the Compendium?” Nasiri asked.

“I’m sure,” Osmun said. “And we only need to follow.”

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 13

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

In the dream, Zayd notched the arrow into the bowstring and drew. In the darkness he could see the others do the same. There were dozens more he could not see, and together they had encircled the Ryferian camp. The arrows would come down on the enemy from every direction. Sometimes they would send the volleys in waves, one direction first, then the other. The confusion it created took the discipline right out of them, and the fear kept them awake at night.

Yet despite that, the invaders plunged deeper into their land like an engine driven by some inexhaustible fuel. It was their faith. The very nature of good and evil meant that they had to continue, and no cost was too great. Zayd understood it perfectly. The same sentiment drove the Tauthri in their defense, and though they did not yield, they were being cut through. Even now as he looked at the clueless enemy that looked out into the dark and could not see what was already in motion, he could not help but think that however many countless invaders that fell, their own losses were quickly becoming immeasurable. Symm’s brothers. Zayd’s cousins. The night before, every last life in the holy city of Oshuthi was lost. Each Tauthri life was a wonder, and they were being extinguished by these soldiers, and then erased by their priests.

In the camp he could see hundreds of tents and dozens of faceless sentries, brought here from their land only to die. Then, amongst them, there were a few he recognized. The armoured warriors were harder to kill. Much harder. Those who wore the suns most of all. So the Tauthri tried to single them out when they could. They would place bets amongst each other to see whose arrow they would find in their bodies. Zayd took care to paint his sigil in white on the black wood of all his arrows. A soldier who wore the sun walked through the camp, fully armoured with his hand on the hilt of his sword. Did he know that they were there? Or was he only guessing? It made no difference in any case. Whether he knew or not would not give him any edge in what would come.

Zayd breathed and felt the eyes of his ancestors on him, felt the depth of their conviction in the fight as he released his hold. Their home would forever remain theirs.

The arrows all came at once and their flight was signalled only by the noise that sounded like the exhalation of the forest. The trees and the land rejecting the invaders. Zayd had already notched and loosed another arrow by the time he heard the first shouts. Three arrows, four. They came down on the soldiers like angry gods. Zayd watched as his next arrow hit one of the armoured warriors in the neck, and he watched as the man faltered and fell to the ground. Another man ran to him and tried uselessly to save him. A young man. Crying.

Zayd was uncertain what happened next. There was a flash of light and then more screams, this time from his own people. Something shattered against a tree near him and sprayed flame in all directions. Pockets of fire were blooming all around the forest, exposing the Tauthri in violent light. Through the trees he could see Savyl, their leader, fighting to put out the flames on his legs as the invaders took advantage of the sight and shot arrows at him until he was dead.

The chaos was on both sides. Zayd moved through the trees, waiting to see the next fire erupt before stopping to take aim again. He kept moving, waiting, before loosing another arrow. He ran out of arrows while fire bursts continued to light the forest. There were few of them still shooting and the rest were stalled, hesitating amongst the trees trying to determine who was in charge. Savyl was dead. What were they to do?

They began to flee.

Another near miss smashed against a rock near him and he felt the heat sting his right arm and his hand. He had joined the others in the retreat before he realized it was shards from a clay pot that were in his flesh. He could not move his right hand at all. His arm was slick with blood, and he could see its sheen in the moonlight.

He still carried those scars from when the war ended and the defeat began.

 

 

 

There was no ending to the killing once it began as the men of the Ninth, those in league with Praene, turned against those that were not.

Zayd, his men, and the Dramandi prisoners they had freed ran until the cries of the dying and the clatter of weapons could not be heard, weaving through the trees and over the rocky ground even when they realized that no one pursued them. They only stopped when a few of the prisoners, including Sera Naiat, could go no further. Zayd sat down and leaned against a tree. No one said anything, all of them somehow under the same understanding that they should be silent and wary. They listened to the rustling of trees, expecting to hear footsteps coming after them.

But there was nothing.

“It looks like you were right, vahr,” Daruthin said in Tauthri. “Were you certain?”

“Not really. We gambled.”

“A gamble you won.”

“What a victory,” Tascell interjected. “Who helped you? You said, we.”

Zayd had not told them about Barrett, that the knight had brought this conjecture to him to begin with. “Did anyone see Stern escape?” Zayd asked, dodging the question.

“Stern? He would not have run,” Daruthin said. “Maybe he was part of it. Part of Praene’s betrayal. Why worry about him? He would have killed you if he had the chance. In the chaos we escaped… he would have tried.” There was silent agreement among the other Tauthri. Zayd looked over to the Dramandi. He could see Sera lying on the ground, still out of breath. The more imposing Dramandi warrior was sitting next to her, and they whispered to each other and cast him quick glances. As Zayd looked from them to his own men he wondered how eager they would be to go back towards the danger they had just escaped.

“Stern was not a part of it,” Zayd said. “He came to me for help. It was his suspicion that was right.”

“You can’t be serious, vahr,” Tascell said. “You trusted that death-loving Trueborn?”

“No, Tascell. He trusted me. And if he escaped, he is on his way to Ten Tower fort to alert the garrison there to Praene’s defection from the army.”

“And what if he did not escape?” Tascell asked. “What becomes of us then?”

“Then we go there ourselves. There is no other choice. You know what will happen if we do not. You know what fate our families face.”

“I have no family,” muttered Turald, one of the other scouts. “They all died in the invasion.”

Daruthin and Tascell looked at each other. Zayd could tell they were piecing things together. Dozens and dozens of soldiers would not be complicit in such treason. Their own families would be in danger, too. Trueborn are not pressed into service like the Tauthri, or as the En Kazyr once were, but if their act were to be uncovered, it would be death for their wives and children all the same.

“Praene thought of nearly everything,” Daruthin said. “He made it seem that we were all killed. It is the truth, isn’t it? Why else would he deny their dead the funeral rites?”

Zayd nodded. There was no use denying. He could see the realization of the consequences coming to them all. They could go home. Back to Tauthri, out of the army without any repercussions.

“If Barrett succeeds,” Zayd said, “then the writs will be issued for each of you, if you decide to abandon your duty. Your sworn duty.”

Daruthin stepped forward. “Don’t you want to go home?” He did not ask as a way to convince Zayd. It was a question to which Daruthin sincerely did not know the answer.

“He’s going to get to go home soon,” Tascell said. “Your ten years are almost up, aren’t they?”

“What difference will that make if the soldiers come down from Ten Tower and find that we have all gone? I want to hear no more of this, Tascell.”

“We are all prisoners, and we have a chance to escape from that prison. Or are you so in love with your chains that you no longer even know they are there?”

“Tascell…” Daruthin shook his head. “He is still our vahr. He deserves respect.”

They were all standing now, but Zayd remained seated. He did not want to show them that he felt himself on the knife-edge of violence, as they certainly did. And to be without his sword, as he was…

“If you are so bound to your station,” Tascell continued, “why not tell them that we died? You can have your chains. We can have our freedom, and we would have a better chance to make it home if we did that than if we stayed. These Trueborn want to see us suffer and die. Who’s to say any of us would see the end of this march anyways?”

“Well, then. March if you choose. I have tried to explain to you the consequences. And, I don’t need to add, if one of you is found out, it will mean all of your families.” Zayd tried not to show his nervousness in his bluff. Their decisions seemed already made, but he had to keep them here, even if it was out of fear and not out of duty.

“They will only know if you tell them what happened,” Tascell said. “Will you?”

Zayd did not answer. The answer was already known, given by his silence. He was loyal to the Empire and committed to the task that Commander Areagus had set before them. But he could not betray other Tauthri like this, even if they were betraying him. He remembered the aftermath of the defeat. He remembered saying the words that foreswore all he had once known and valued. And he remembered the feeling, as if the composition of his very soul had shifted. He did not want to experience that again. Perhaps the men with him had not undergone such a change and had always been ready for this opening. Unwavering love and loyalty to their home and their family was not something he would hold against them.

They would be judged, though. Not by Zayd. By the Beacon. Their souls would not have peace. They would wander, senseless and in pain, until a Ryferian priest abolished them from this world to the next where they would be forever in that same state.

There were angry voices among the Dramandi. The intimidating warrior, the undaunted one who invited so much punishment as a prisoner, was still speaking with Sera but looked intermittently at the Tauthri, and it was clear that he was not entirely grateful to them for his freedom.

“What are they saying?” Daruthin asked.

Zayd only caught pieces of what was said, but even if he had heard nothing, he could tell by the barely contained anger of the Dramandi that they wanted to kill them. But being unarmed and outnumbered, they wanted the Tauthri out of Dramand. Zayd had heard the words scourge and defilers. Their deeds during the war had not been forgotten, and he remembered that they had fought against these very Dramandi in the siege of Yasri.

“They remember us from Yasri,” Zayd said. He would not give his men further justification to abandon him.

“We just saved them,” Daruthin said. “Don’t they realize that?”

“I don’t think it balances the scales.” Zayd and Sera looked at each other. “Tell him not to force a confrontation here,” Zayd said to her.

The undaunted look surprised for a moment to hear a Tauthri speak their tongue. “You speak to me, defiler,” he growled.

“Alright. Whatever grievance you are carrying, I suggest you put it to rest. At least for now. If you want my men to think you are a danger, continue acting as such. But they will kill you.”

This seemed only to anger him more. He scowled and hissed at Sera. “The way they speak to us is unforgivable!”

“What have you and your men said?” Sera asked, not looking at the angry sword-kin beside her. “There is something of concern between you. And it causes concern for us since we can only guess at what it is.”

Zayd considered his words carefully. “I’m surprised you have not asked what happened back there.”

“I can guess. What I am more uncertain about is why you freed us.”

“You sound ungrateful.”

“Can we be grateful without knowing the real reason?”

“What is your guess?” Zayd asked. “What do you think happened?”

“The nasci turned on each other. Or they turned on you. Maybe both. And it is because of what they took from the earth.”

“What did they take?” the undaunted asked.

“They took the gold marker, Cohvass” Sera said. With that, he finally sat down. He looked at Zayd.

“I am not a seer, but even I knew there was something… some sinister aura about it,” Cohvass said.

Sera nodded. “I told you,” she said to Zayd, “that there was evil about them, working towards its own ends. What happened to the nasci is because of it. The phantoms warp and infect the people around them. Make them do wicked things they could not normally do.”

“Men do not need provocations from the dead in order to be greedy,” Zayd said.

“Is that what you saw back there? Simple greed and nothing more?”

“You don’t know the man at the head of it. There is every reason to think he is capable of this. He is petty and vindictive yet inspires loyalty in those around him. The presence of evil is not necessary to explain this.”

She nodded slowly. Zayd was uncertain if she accepted his answer or not. She just looked at him as though she ought not to believe the answer he just gave.

“Why did you set us free?” she asked again.

“So that you would help us.”

Cohvass shot to his feet. “Help you? You should thank your man-god that we do not kill you now and leave your bodies to rot!” Daruthin and a few of the other Tauthri trained their bows on the enraged Dramandi, and Daruthin looked to Zayd. Zayd held up a hand.

“Unless you want to rot along with us…” Zayd said.

“Cohvass,” Sera said. “Enough.” Zayd gave her an appreciative nod.

“I freed you because…” Zayd struggled with an explanation. He did not doubt that the temperamental Cohvass would explode at the real reasons: that he had only ordered it done to create confusion and aid in their escape, and, if Barrett happened to be killed, that he could manipulate them into attacking Praene again with the promise of giving them whatever it was that they had attacked the column for to begin with. He had no real use for them otherwise. Barrett would return in a few days in force and they would either capture Praene and his men, or kill them.

Yet the situation had become more complicated than expected, and he at least should have expected that. His men were on the verge of defection as well, and it was unclear if the possibility of Barrett’s return had even convinced them to stay.

So what could he really say? That their plight was pitiable? He looked around and realized that it was no more pitiable than his own. At least Sera and her kin were in their home country, whatever its condition. Zayd would rather be in Tauth with his family even if all of their ancient forests had been burned to ash.

Vahr,” Daruthin said. He spun and aimed his bow into the forest. All of the Tauthri were on their feet. How had Zayd not heard their approach? He heard angry voices speaking Dramandi.

“Lower your bows!” Zayd barked. There were dozens of them approaching. Then dozens more. Sera and the rest of the Dramandi were on their feet as well. “We’re here,” she called. “Don’t kill them yet.”

Zayd looked back. Sera was trying to remain expressionless. He wondered if it was for his benefit. Cohvass had a wide grin at the irony. The Dramandi approached them, armed with swords, spears and bows, and began to disarm all of the Tauthri. Zayd drew his only weapon, his dagger, and tossed it to the ground.

“Why don’t we kill them now?” Cohvass asked Sera. “For all of the pain they inflicted on us. On our people.”

Sera shook her head. “Not yet. They still have a purpose.”

 

 

 

Symm took the bandages off of his arm. The morning air felt cold against his wounds. Zayd inhaled sharply. The shards had left trails on his forearm where they grazed the skin before biting into the flesh, leaving several long marks that introduced them. It looked like someone had painted long raindrops there. His hand, though, was in the worst condition, swollen and so dark a colour of blue that it was almost black.

“It doesn’t look any better,” he said. Symm frowned.

“It doesn’t look any worse. It hasn’t even been two days yet. Should I get Nithlan to look at it again?”

“The others need him more.”

Their healer had not slept since the survivors returned from the attack. Those with minor wounds like Zayd’s were given cursory treatments, quick care to prevent the wounds from becoming diseased. He spent of the rest of his time with Tyroda and Ellom. They had been engulfed in fire and were clinging to life only because of the salves and the incantations that Nithlan administered. Kalyn had carried Tyroda on his back through the forest and told Zayd that he could hear Tyroda’s flesh cooking as they went. “What I wouldn’t give to forget that hideous sound,” he had said.

The village was quiet even though dozens of men and women were about as normal. There was an uncertainty, a fear that gripped them all. Like many of them, Zayd had known no darker time than this. War was a familiar aspect to them, and even death. They issued from disputes and old rivalries with other clans. What they faced now was the same dire threat to every clan: a threat to their people’s existence.

The silence, too, almost gave the impression that they were listening for the march of the enemy; the rhythmic, disciplined steps of hundreds of men and the beating of the drums that preceded. It would only be a matter of time before those sounds were upon them.

Zayd took his bow to the practice range at the edge of the village. There were stacks of wood of varying sizes as well as logs and branches twined together in the shapes of men. Even at the furthest range of the bowshot, Zayd could land an arrow on the chest with repetitive accuracy. He drew an arrow tight and winced as the wounds awoke. Eyes shut, he released.

There was no arrow in his target. He looked at his hand to see blood running down his arm. The arrow was on the ground next to him. He drew another arrow and, as he pulled it tight to the string, fumbled again, this time even before the bow was fully taught.

He pulled another arrow. It fell from his blood-slicked hand even before it knocked the bow. Zayd screamed. He hurled the bow towards the target. People had stopped to watch him.

He thought of the time when he was a boy, standing the same place, bow in hand. That was the last time he remembered not being able to shoot.

 

 

There were fewer than a hundred Dramandi, and Zayd thought they were likely the same warriors that attacked that column before, but he could not be certain. They looked just as haphazardly armed and equipped. Sera’s intent was all but obvious.

They were taken through the woods on a barely visible path and, as had been done to them, the Dramandi separated Zayd from his men. They, too, were probably kept separate from each other, but every time Zayd tried to turn to look around, someone gave him an enthusiastic shove as a reminder to keep his eyes trained forward.

None of the Dramandi spoke to each other, either. At least, not that he could hear. They were eerily silent. It was no surprise that they had been able to ambush the Ryferian column so swiftly.

Zayd looked ahead, trying to see past the numerous warriors ahead of him, looking for Sera, but he could not see her. He was almost certain she would use him and his men to make another attempt to retrieve something from the column. Whether it would involve another attack as a diversion or not…

He jostled his arms to ease the stiffness in his shoulders. They had bound his hands behind his back and they were slowly going numb. His right hand, which bore the scars of an older war, made especially strong protests.

“Can you loosen these ropes?” he asked the Dramandi walking behind him. A hard push forward was his only answer.

The deepest part of the night had past, and Zayd realized he had been staring at the ground in front of him and nothing else. It felt like a long time. His mind had wandered, giving him a temporary reprieve from the oppressive knowledge of captivity. For a few moments he had even mistaken his present company for the Trueborn, a mistake that was full of truth. He always had been a prisoner ever since he admitted defeat and chose life over death. And now he had only migrated from one form of imprisonment to another.

He risked another look about, not looking for the others, but looking at the Dramandi around him. Some faces still wore the stern and rigid masks of defiance. Many more, though, wore one of expressionless shock, the inability to realize what was thought to never be able to happen had already come to pass: the utter loss and destruction of their endeavours and those of their ancestors. Surely his choice had led to a better life than this. Even if he was a fighting slave as some said, which he did not think he was, was it not better than losing everything? Another voice asked him, in his head, what is the difference between the two? It was Symm’s voice. What is the real difference? Has not everything been lost, no matter the choice? What good was it to stay alive to witness it?

They came to a halt without warning, and a hush fell on the already-silent soldiers as though they all held their breath. There was something ahead of them. Zayd could hear it. Heavy steps and breaking branches. Breath coming from powerful lungs. He heard someone whispering ahead…

Does he have a weapon?

Can we get past?

We’ll have to kill him… quietly.

There were more footsteps and they were coming closer. It spurred a few Dramandi into action as they stepped off the path with bows drawn. One of them motioned for more to come. Zayd counted fifteen moving forward, not making a sound. And then, through the trees, he saw a familiar form: the hulk of the executioner. Talazz had escaped! He was not, could not have been part of Willar Praene’s plot. Zayd had never doubted it, even when Talazz stood beside them, ready to kill him and Barrett. He was loyal to the Empire, and would be to the death.

“Run, Talazz! They are coming after you! The Dramandi!” Zayd yelled as loud as he could. Dozens of heads swivelled and looked at him in shock. He kept yelling. “Talazz, go! The Dramandi are coming to kill you!” A blow to the head dizzied him and he fell to the ground. He still heard the sound of someone crashing through the trees, making a quick escape. Zayd smiled and laughed. It took only a few seconds for the sound of Talazz’s flight to become distant and faint. Despite their stature, the En Kazyr could be remarkably quick.

Zayd was pulled to his feet, then off his feet. He stared into Cohvass’s face. “I’m going to rip out your tongue,” he growled. There was a flash of light and Zayd was thrown to the ground. Blood poured out through his nose and into his mouth. Cohvass climbed onto him and wrapped his hands around his throat. The Dramandi’s grip was like a steel vice, and Zayd could see the muscles in Cohvass’s forearms become more and more taught. A hangman’s noose could not even compare to this.

As Zayd’s vision began to flicker into darkness, he did the only thing he could: he spat a mouthful of blood at Cohvass and saw, with no small degree of satisfaction, the red gob splatter onto his forehead. He would have laughed if he could. He heard someone’s voice, a woman’s, screaming, though it sounded distant. All he could hear was the sound of his slowing heartbeat.

Then there was air rushing into his lungs. His throat still felt as though there was something constricting it. He turned onto his side and began coughing and gasping uncontrollably. Cohvass was fighting against three other Dramandi that had pulled him off of Zayd, and Sera now stood between them, offering soothing words to calm her berserk sword-kin. “Not now. You can’t kill him yet.”

He was only just clinging to consciousness as they moved again. Zayd felt himself being dragged, held under each arm. They went with urgency, gaining distance from where they had revealed themselves. Where he had revealed them. And they stopped after a while, amidst thick undergrowth where they were difficult to spot. Zayd was lying on his side where they had dropped him, not able to remember the last time he felt as tired as he did. Refusing to give up his life had taken its toll.

“I want you to remember that this is because of you,” Sera whispered in his ear. He looked up to see his men, lined up, standing side by side. A Dramandi stood behind each one, and Cohvass stood to the side, a menacing blade and eager grin bare for all to see. Kneeling over him, Sera grabbed his hair and pulled, forcing him to look up. “Now you have to choose which one dies. If you don’t, then I’ll let Cohvass choose.”

Cohvass’s grip tightened around the hilt of the sword and he looked at Zayd as if daring him not to choose.

“This is not what I want,” Sera continued. “But this is what you’ve forced to happen. You. Remember. Now choose.”

Zayd tried to lift himself up off the ground but his strength failed immediately.

“Choose,” Sera hissed in his ear. “Choose the blood of one of them to be shed because of your foolishness.”

Zayd looked up at her. “I’m not yours to command.”

Her grip tightened and her teeth clenched. “That is all you are. Your man-god will not save you from me. Now choose.”

“What are they saying, vahr?” Tascell asked. The question was met with a hard kick to the back of his legs, dropping him to his knees.

Zayd looked at his men. Daruthin stared forward, steadfast and unafraid. Tascell and many of the others showed their fear, their eyes darting from him to Cohvass, to the blade he held.

“You want something,” Zayd said, his voice barely forcing its way out of his throat. “You’ll need all of us to get it.”

Sera shook her head. “Haven’t you spent your entire life taking orders, Tauthri? You only need to do so again.”

“I will not… condemn one of my own men to die.” Zayd looked at Sera and saw his words reflect uselessly off of her. She would not compromise. She would not be weak in front of her sword-kin. The woman that stood before him was not the same one who was taken prisoner.

“You already did,” she said. “Cohvass, the task is yours.”

She had barely finished speaking the sentence as he shoved Daruthin down to the ground. On his knees, Daruthin managed to look at Zayd, his fearlessness replaced by surprise. The fearlessness, he realized suddenly, had been trust. While the others had talked openly of treason and defection, Daruthin had not for a moment averted his mind from his duty.

“Stop!” Zayd nearly choked as he said the word. Cohvass held the blade frozen in the air when Sera put up her hand.

“Go on,” she said.

“Whatever you need us for, I will need him. He is my most trusted…” Zayd did not know if there was a Dramandi word for lieutenant. “… My most trusted sword-kin.”

The rest of the Tauthri were wide-eyed, perhaps with a glint of hope, not understanding what was being said, but imagining that their leader had intervened against imminent death. Sera waited for Zayd to speak again.

“Second from the end,” Zayd whispered.

Sera smiled. “Why him?”

Zayd dug his fingertips into the dirt as he tried again to push himself upright. “There is no one to grieve over him.” Perhaps only me, he added silently. A grief like many that would be borne out of guilt. For actions not taken. And for Turald, an action forced to be taken.

At Sera’s behest, Cohvass lifted Daruthin back to his feet and pushed him back towards the others before moving down the line and taking Turald by the collar and pitching him forward to the earth as everyone watched. Cohvass looked to Sera briefly to see if there would be another intervention, smiled when there wasn’t, and lifted his sword overhead. Turald only began to look at Zayd. The sword cleaved into his right shoulder and plunged nearly to the sternum. Blood shot outward. Zayd felt the warmness of it on his hand and he could not help but recoil. Much of it splashed on Cohvass and he smiled wider before pulling the sword free and swinging again, sideways this time, into Turald’s cheek. The sword went clean through, severing everything below the nose.

His eyes were open, looking straight up at the forest canopy, as his lifeless body fell over. His eyes still held the look of confused helplessness, his fearfulness arrested and yet immutable. A look that Zayd now saw on the face of his men. If they did not fully comprehend what had happened, that Zayd had spared one man for the life of another, it would not be long before they realized. And if they did not, it was enough for him to know. It was nearly too much.

“Now I know who your favourite is,” Cohvass said as he wiped droplets of Turald’s blood from his face. “The next time you try to undermine us…” He pointed to Turald. “And it will not be over so quickly as it was for him.”

The Dramandi began to move again, shoving the Tauthri into motion with them. Everyone walked widely around Turald’s mutilated body. Someone pulled Zayd to his feet. Sera stood before him, looking at him with neither malice nor pity. “I’m not cruel. If I was, I would let him do that to all of you.” Someone pushed Zayd from behind and he took a few unsteady steps before he found his balance again. He refused to look away from her even as he walked.

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 14

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

It was the longest afternoon he had ever known and would ever know in his life. He thought it might feel like what a man sentenced to death must endure on the day he knows he will die. Maybe this was worse since it was not only his life. Behind him, Symm held Cassian in her arms, rocking him gently. He had been crying as if he too knew that something dire awaited them. And truthfully, Zayd felt like crying, too. He felt like crying even more than he felt like taking Cassian in one arm, taking his wife by the hand, and running. It was a difficult instinct to fight.

He sat outside on a bale beside the door to their hut, his legs jittering, his heels bouncing on the ground. Inside it had kept Cassian from falling asleep, but out here, he didn’t seem to mind it. Zayd turned and looked through the doorway every few minutes – at least every few minutes – just to make sure they were still there.

His short sword was stuck in the ground behind his legs. The dirt was hacked and scarred. Evidence of his uneasy anticipation. He pulled the sword loose and started running it through the soil yet again. He stood, walked around the hut, and sat back down. The ground was becoming worn around the hut from the countless number of times he had walked its circumference that afternoon. He imagined that if he kept at it then the ground would be worn away into a serviceable moat, and he and Symm and Cassian could stay here and watch the world around them in safety.

But that happy image always gave way to another, the Night of Fire as it was now being called. There was no safety. The feeling of fighting with the gods on their side and righteousness in their hearts was only a memory now, and even in his mind he found the soldiers of the Empire battering at its gates. The clan’s hunters always taught to take shelter when the weather turned. You cannot outrun the storm. And so it was at this realization he waited. He waited for the storm, a long afternoon, peaceful with his family; the last day he knew as being free in his own land.

 

 

 

It was an oddly restful night. Zayd and the other Tauthri, from what he could tell, slept undisturbed, as did their captors. The display they witnessed placated both groups in a way none of them had expected. Many of the Dramandi had yearned to return the horrors they experienced during the siege upon their tormentors, while the Tauthri, having stepped out from under one oppressor, were uncertain of the severity of their situation. The Dramandi were a defeated people. Nearly dead. Were they still to be feared or to be pitied? Now, though, the question had been answered and the Tauthri were certain they had only escaped one captor to be welcomed in by another.

They spent the daylight hours on the move, navigating the woods in utter silence. Two defeated peoples, their causes unaligned, marching against the same foe. Once the task had been accomplished or moved beyond their grasp, their temporary union would be ended. Not every path in the forest led somewhere. Zayd hoped he would recognize the point where they started down that path. If they had done so already, though, there was no point in obedience or delaying what was to come.

They ate only one meal that day. The Dramandi had killed two deer, though Zayd heard mutterings of a third they had missed. He smiled at this. His men would not have missed. It would have been three arrows for three animals. His right hand twitched at the thought. Before the wound he could have taken down three elk himself, and none of them would have had time to react before it was too late. But that was before.

Sera summoned him as the sun arced towards the horizon, sending their shadows sprawling even as they sat, making them tall as trees. She was sitting on the ground with her grinning right hand, Cohvass, sitting predictably beside her. The diminishing sunlight shone noticeably off of the grey streaks in her hair, and her posture was straight and stiff, as though she thought the wilderness itself was her throne. It was perhaps her only choice at one; there would soon be no settlement, village, or city that the Empire had not claimed. The survivors could make thrones of anything in their minds. A grin tugged at the corner of Zayd’s mouth at the thought, but he subdued it.

“Did you have enough to eat?” she asked. This was not a question he expected.

“It was more than I thought we would get.”
“I don’t want you starved. If you are to do what I am going to ask of you, it will be to both of our detriment if you don’t have the strength to do it.”

“Well then, you’ll have to tell me what it is we’re doing so that I know whether or not I’ve the strength for it. Though I think I already know what you will ask.”

She looked amused. “Is that so?”

“You want something from one of the carriages. Some artifact of yours. Something invaluable to you, though perhaps not to the Empire.”

She pursed her lips.

“It was obvious,” Zayd continued, “since your first attack against us was so desperate.”

“How was it desperate?” Cohvass interjected. The sinews of his neck tensed as he spoke, and his fists tightened. Did he ever relent? Zayd thought not. He was always looking for conflict, or finding it in everything regardless. This was a warrior destined to die in battle.

“You did not have the strength to defeat us outright. It was a feint. Bold.” Zayd stared at Cohvass as he spoke. “And foolish.”

Sera immediately put a hand on Cohvass’s shoulder. “Calm.” She turned to Zayd. “I find it intriguing you can judge one situation as foolish, and merely by doing so, you poke at the wild animal that you are chained to. Even after it has killed one of your sword-kin. Now… would you judge that to be foolish?” She clasped her hands gently together and did not wait for Zayd’s answer. “It is something taken from our sacred temple. The Raan Dura. The Eye of Aulvennic.”

“There was much taken from Yasri. How will I find it?”

“There is a chest made from iron and gold. The Raan Dura is inside.”

“I remember seeing it,” Zayd nodded. “Is it locked?”

Sera looked confused by the question. “You should not need to look upon it.”

“I won’t be able to carry the chest.”

Cohvass leaned forward again. “You will not profane it by holding it.”

Sera put her hand on him again, and with the subtlest of motions with her eyes made the brute stand and storm off. “We have suffered enough defeat. I don’t think he will allow himself to suffer any more.”

“My people used to have holy relics of our own,” Zayd said. “The Broken Bow from the King Hunter. He taught the first of us how to hunt, how to live in harmony. Tauth was a beautiful place. Our forests were immeasurable places. Not unlike this. Our trees, though, were wider. Not as tall as these ones.” Zayd looked up at the impossibly high canopy. “I know how important it is to you.”

“Maybe you have an idea… Zayd.” She nearly winced at saying his name. He was not sure if she had difficulty pronouncing it, or if she had that much bitterness towards him. “The Raan Dura was given to my people by the Guiding Star himself. A gift directly from our god… Yasri, our greatest city, was founded upon its discovery. Aulvennic willed that his people would live in this land for all of time. Now my people have lost Yasri, and we have even lost our holy birthright to this land. Without it, there is nothing. We have nothing. Tell me, what happened to your Broken Bow?”

“You know what happened to it,” Zayd said. “They took it.”

“Your people decided to serve. My people will not serve. If we do not have this, then…” Sera was weighing what she was about to say. “There will be nothing left for us to live for.” The admission pained her to utter it.

“And you think of asking your enemy to help you survive?”

Sera flashed a bitter smile. “I am not a fool. We’ll never have this land back. We’ll never again call it our own. Just as you won’t yours. But I will not, after everything, live out my last days without hope. There could be no punishment worse than witnessing my people die slowly, not like some tree hacked down by axes, but like one that watches itself dying of thirst. I know… I know I could not have asked this of a Ryferian.”

“I am Ryferian.”

“You know what I mean. A nasci. A Trueborn. You have more in common with me than you do with them.”

“Is that so?”

Sera nodded. “We will be done with each other soon enough, though. With them, you will always be a slave.”

“My service is nearly done,” Zayd said. “If I live long enough.”

“How could I expect your aid in this if there was nothing for you in return but death? Retrieve the Raan Dura, and I will set you free. You and your sword-kin.”

Zayd did not trust her at all, but had no choice. She may keep her word. She may not. He did believe, though, that if he did not play the part she asked, he and his men would die.

“How many of my men will accompany me?” Zayd asked.

“Should any? One of you is hard to detect. More of you… not as hard.”

“Still hard,” Zayd said, knowing she would remember the nights in Yasri where the Tauthri would burst out of the calm. “Easier to fail with only one set of eyes. Even eyes that see in the darkness.”

Sera nodded. “Some gifts cannot be taken away.” She tapped her fingers as she thought. “One other. You may have one other. And Cohvass, too.”

“What? Why?”

“How else can I trust that you will do as you must?”

“They’ll see us or hear us. They’ll hear him. We can do this, but he cannot. What do you think they will do if they discover us sneaking about? Do you think we will have another chance? That you can just try again and their guard will not be raised?”

Sera looked at him evenly as he spoke, allowed him to finish, and said only, “Cohvass, too.”

“This is unwise…. As long as he obeys orders.”

“He’ll obey mine.”

“Will you not sway on this? I do not wish to fail, but I fear that we will if he is with us.”

“There is no compromise between enemies. Only victory and defeat.”

Zayd knew he would remember this when the time came.

“He can carry the iron chest easily,” Sera added. “And if you need to fight your way out, you’ll be glad to have him with you.”

 

Approaching the Ryferian camp in the dark reminded Zayd of home, only the foreign trees and unknown setting made him feel like he was in a dream that warped and twisted his surroundings. One knee on the ground, he steadied himself against a large tree trunk with both hands. Tascell was to his left, doing the same. Cohvass was behind him like some hulking shadow.

That there were no Tauthri sentries around the camp scratched at and uncovered another long-buried memory and the feeling of longing that went with it. No Tauthri sentries and no giant meant there were only Trueborn. Powerless to spy what lurked in the dark. That was where Zayd would be. Perhaps it would be easier than he thought – one bright spot of luck to stand out among the misfortune that had been plaguing them.

They heard faint voices, but most of the soldiers seemed to be asleep. Or passed out drunk, Zayd thought. He expected Praene and the Knights of the Ninth to be the ones awake as they had been, before he and Barrett had been discovered. He wondered what happened to the soldiers of the Eighth Regiment. He could not guess based on the number of tents, but he remembered the noise that was at his back when they fled. He guessed the Eighth had been all but slaughtered. By Xidius’ grace, he hoped their deaths were cleaner than Turald’s.

He nodded to Tascell and they began to advance, knees bent and silent. He would have liked for at least one of them to have a bow. Not that he would have used it. Only if it kept him from being discovered. He would have liked for Daruthin to be with him. Smaller and quieter than Tascell, Zayd also trusted him more. But that was apparent to Sera when he intervened to save Daruthin’s life. Keeping him captive with the others was just more assurance that Zayd would not try to sabotage the task. He wouldn’t, whether Daruthin was with him or not. He wasn’t stealing from the Empire. He was stealing from thieves.

The light of their fires cast long shadows as soldiers walked past, signalling a careless mind of a careless sentry. It would be a wonder if they made it to their destination, wherever that was, with such a lack of discipline.

The encampment was on high ground – that much they at least got right – and the approach to it was steep on all sides. They stepped cautiously, sure to avoid any misstep. The ground was firm but there were branches, stones, and bushes that were in their way, ready to tell the Ryferian sentries that they were not alone – if they were listening.

As they got closer, they saw the sharp silhouettes of palisades. Hastily constructed, Zayd could tell, but a troublesome obstacle nonetheless. They shifted their approach to the right towards the rear of the camp. The drifting voices became more distant. Zayd stopped, and Tascell and Cohvass stopped too. Would Praene keep his precious charge at the opposite end of the camp? It was greed that caused him to defect, and it would be greed that would make him keep the fortune close to him.

“Where are we going?” Cohvass asked. “Make your mind up.”

“I think they’ll be keeping the loot closer to the front. Praene would want to keep it within sight,” Zayd said.

“The Raan Dura isn’t loot,” Cohvass murmured.

“What is he saying?” Tascell asked.

“I’m sure you can guess.” Zayd said.

“Where will we make our approach?” he asked.

“I think the carriages will be at the fore.”

“There will be sentries there, no doubt.”

“There will be sentries at every end of the camp. They may not have a shred of honour, but we can trust they still have a shred of foresight. We should enter by the palisades. They assume that spot to be protected. No need to keep watch over it.” Zayd explained the same to Cohvass and they began moving again.

The sharpened sticks jutted out over the spot where the flat ground began to decline into the slope. The three of them were on all fours. Zayd looked through the spears and, when he was sure it was safe, took hold of the one on the right end, wrestled it until it was loose and then pulled it free. Without a word, Cohvass took it from him and drove the sharp end into the ground at Zayd’s foot, keeping the spear from rolling down the hill and announcing their arrival. It also gave Zayd a step to use to get up to level ground more easily. Tascell followed second, and Cohvass last.

Praene, or whoever was actually in command, had not ensured that there was open ground between the defensive line and the rows of tents. There was next to no open ground for Zayd to cross, hardly any opportunity for someone to catch the intruders while exposed. They were among the rows in a few strides. Another boon for him, Zayd thought. Had he more time to reflect, perhaps he would have wondered if Xidius was offering him some invisible guiding hand, or skewing things in his favour.

Tascell motioned to Zayd that a sentry was to their right… fifteen strides… standing still. Cohvass gave them an angered, confused look, but Zayd simply motioned to the left, to the front of the column. That is where the carriages would be.

They moved up without making a sound, staying in between the two rows of tents closest to the edge of the camp. Finally they arrived at the end, where there was open ground between where they hid and the next closest tent, which looked to be Praene’s. Zayd stood just enough to look over the top of the tent and saw the line of carriages. He counted six carriages, and second to the front of the line was the one carrying the monolith. On the carriage behind that Zayd could see the iron and gold chest.

A full laugh erupted from nearby. There was a fire lit in front of Praene’s tent, creating an oddly familiar feeling in Zayd, as though he was reliving the plan that he and Barrett devised. Things would be different this time, though. He would not allow any man to take him by surprise.

Zayd was pulled back to the ground and saw Tascell, alarmed, looking at Cohvass. But the Dramandi was pointing at a figure walking around the command tent towards them. It was Devon Rindus. What light seeped through the command tent reflected off his bald head, and Zayd would have recognized the portly stature of the man even if he could not see in the dark. The knight strode to the edge of the plateau and stopped a few short strides from where Zayd, Tascell, and Cohvass were kneeling, completely motionless. Rindus had only to look to his left and he would have seen them. Then they heard the sound, and Rindus exhaled.

“Rindus! Where have you gone?” someone called out.

“Be quiet, you damned oaf,” the knight grumbled. “I’m taking a piss.” Drunken laughter was the response. Rindus was humming as he relieved himself, and without saying a word, Cohvass stood and walked over to the knight as if he was waiting for him to finish. There was no attempt to conceal himself as he approached. Rindus turned, looked at Cohvass and furrowed his brow as he tried to understand what he was seeing. And in a moment he understood. Zayd saw his eyes widen, and as the knight inhaled, Cohvass clamped both hands around the knight’s throat and wrestled him to the ground.

Tascell looked at Zayd. “What is he thinking?” he whispered.

Rindus had already stopped struggling. Cohvass looked at them, his hands still around his victim’s throat, and he smiled at them. A childish smile, like an infant recognizing a loved one. Zayd and Tascell hurried over to him.

“Do you know what you’ve done?” Zayd asked, his voice barely audible. What was this fool thinking? Praene would find the body, see that Rindus had been strangled, and would know that there was an enemy close by. He would come looking for them. But Cohvass only smiled wider still before he finally spoke.

In Zayd’s tongue.

“We thought our kind had been wiped out. It is… pleasing to know part of us lives.”

“How can you speak our tongue?” Tascell asked.

Zayd motioned for silence. They were still within earshot of the enemy, and even if they were drunk, they could still hear.

“Every river goes to the ocean from which all this owe their origin,” Cohvass stood slowly and looked around as if he did not know where he was. “Crude. We will be whole again. Have you returned to serve?”

Zayd went to cover Cohvass’s mouth with his hand, but the Dramandi slowly grasped Zayd’s wrist and pulled it away, easily overpowering him. He looked at Zayd with amusement. What had happened to the anger?

“Rindus!” a voice called. Familiar. “Rindus, we all know you can’t hold that much wine!” It was Praene.

“We know you did not find it. It matters not. We have the other key. It is across the ocean in a great city. We are there with it. [_Velskotahn _]is there.”

“Who are you talking to, you fat fool?”

Cohvass pulled Zayd closer, and Tascell tried to wedge himself between them to free Zayd from the grasp, but it was no use. “Take the portal to Velskotahn. Across the ocean. Unite the keys and release us.”

Shadows stirred from the side of the tent, and Zayd could hear someone approach.

“Let me go!” Zayd whispered. Cohvass did, and walked towards the approaching shadow, still possessed of some unnatural calm.

“By all of the night gods,” Tascell said, “what are we going to do?”

“What we came here to do.”

Cohvass turned the corner of the command tent. There was confused cursing, then shouting. Zayd sprinted towards the carriage that held the iron chest and, planting one foot on top of the rear wheel, leapt on top of it. He ran his fingers along the sides until the found the grooves which released the lock, as Sera had told him. When Zayd looked up there was a knight laying on the ground, dead or unconscious, and Cohvass was stepping towards a circle of them, their weapons drawn. The end of a sword was protruding through his lower back, and Zayd watched the Dramandi pull the blade free of his own flesh and advance against the Ryferian knights, unfazed, one steady step after another. The Ryferian knights looked upon him with terror, unsure if they should attack or flee.

One sword struck another and the sound piercing the night stirred Zayd into action. He found the releases, pressed them both in, and lifted the lid and looked into the chest.

Empty.

He stuck his hand inside and felt the bottom of the chest to make sure his eyes were not being deceived.

Vahr,” Tascell said, standing beside the carriage, “where is it?”

“It’s not here. Damn them, it’s not here!” He flung the chest down and looked frantically for another one. Tascell climbed atop the carriage and did the same. They could hear a tide of voices awakening as Praene’s knights began to call for help. Zayd glanced up to see Cohvass covered in his own blood but still swinging his sword at the knights.

“We’re out of time,” Tascell said as he flipped open the lid on another container. “Did she tell you what the damned thing looked like?”

“Only that I’d know it when I saw it.”

“And?”
“And I don’t see it.”

“The Tauthri!” another voiced shouted. “The Tauthri have returned! They’re stealing from the loot!”

Tascell jumped down. “Vahr, we must go!”

It was all wrong. That cursed Dramandi relic was supposed to be here. They could have found it easily, could have taken it without any confrontation. Whatever it was that had come over Cohvass had robbed Zayd of that possibility. What of his men? What would become of them?

Zayd jumped down and gave a final look to Cohvass, though he regretted it; the Dramandi had nearly been cut to pieces. Most of one arm had been hacked away, the flesh of the other was it tatters, and his chest and stomach had been pierced and slashed into ruin. Only when his head was taken off at the neck did his body finally quit.

With the pounding of footsteps approaching, the two Tauthri ran to the edge of the plateau and through the gap in the palisades and down the hill. It was too steep, though, and Zayd was running too fast. It took only one misstep and he was tumbling, the world spinning round him. He heard Tascell call to him from somewhere farther up the hill, heard the Trueborn’s cries, angry and panicked, echoing off the trees. His left elbow struck something hard and his arm immediately went numb.

Tascell was standing over him, lifting him up. “Come on, they’re coming.” Zayd winced as he began to run again. He tried to move his left arm but couldn’t. The whole world seemed askew, tilting this way and that, the sound of approaching horses getting too close while Tascell ran ahead and looked back at him impatiently. How far had they gone? It felt far, but the sounds of pursuit told him it was not nearly far enough.

He fell to his knees, tried to put out his hands to steady himself, but failed and grunted loudly.

“They’re this way!”

His dizziness was so strong that Zayd had to fight the urge to vomit. Tascell threw something through the trees to confuse the Ryferian and was once again lifting Zayd to his feet. He touched his head and felt it warm and wet.

“It’s nothing,” Tascell said. “We have to keep moving.” Zayd nodded and began to walk as quickly as he could, not sure if he was getting weaker or stronger. He wanted only to stop and rest but he knew, even in the dark, the Ryferians might find them. Sera might think they had been killed. The rest of his men might die. He was getting weaker, but he forced himself to move faster.

They went down into a shallow ravine – did they cross this coming here? – and began climbing up the steep bank on the other side.

“They’re crossing water!” Zayd recognized the Garinus’s voice.

“We need to go faster,” Tascell whispered as he tried to hurry Zayd.

“This way!” The voices were closer. Much closer. Tascell pulled Zayd over a fallen tree at the top of the bank, and he fell onto his back. He closed his eyes; it was the only way to control the reeling he felt. Even with his eyes closed he could sense Tascell hovering about him.

And then, without a word, he heard him padding away through the forest. Gone.

It was alright, though. Zayd caught his breath and the sway of the world subsided. He was on the edge of consciousness and, for one merciful moment, heard nothing except the forest. He, too, was completely removed from it. To hear it the way it was before men and the way it would be after was a rare gift.

And like the rarest of things, it was also the shortest lived. There were footsteps, not heavy, but impossible not to hear. Then, he heard the breathing. He realized, suddenly, that he was cold. Had he slipped from consciousness? Was the light he saw approaching daylight? No… a flame. Coming closer to him from the ravine. It climbed the bank…… a mailed hand was on the tree trunk and the flame was nearly in view when there was a familiar exhale from further away.

Zayd did not need to see it to know. A black arrow took the knight in the throat and sent him and the torch down the bank and into the shallow stream. No one called out. Praene’s men must have spread out to look for them. When it was clear that no one else was approaching, Zayd turned his head towards the figures approaching: Tascell and Sera approached him cautiously. Daruthin stood behind them, his eyes sweeping the forest, bow in hand, an arrow at the ready. Together, Tascell and Sera lifted Zayd to his feet and helped him through the forest. Zayd could feel her eyes on him and could feel her questions burgeoning like water behind a weak dam. They would need to be answered. Even if he was not battered and disoriented, Zayd doubted he would be able to make sense of what he saw, what Cohvass said.

Or what it meant.

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 15

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

Zayd stood alone on the footpath that led to their village. It was the only visible route, though the Ryferians, who had gone through the effort of surrounding the village, could have approached from elsewhere if they were inclined. He doubted they would since this was likely to be a confrontation more ritualistic than combative.

He did not know why they had bothered to surround them. Maybe it was just a show of strength. Perhaps they were wary of the Tauthri, that they had not fled did not actually mean surrender. It could be a trap, meant to lure in the Ryferians and catch as many of them as they could in a final spasmodic outburst that took them into oblivion.

But it was just surrender. Any who had second thoughts and stayed had nowhere to escape to, even if panic got the better of them. That’s why, Zayd thought, some were having fits. Others quietly wept.

The Ryferians took a long time to send an envoy. It could be that they were waiting for the arrival of an interpreter, but Zayd thought that was not the case; every action was probably charged with significance, if not aimed at the Tauthri, then it was significant to the Ryferians themselves. Gestures to the soldiers who had suffered and bled so much, whose physical injuries were only a shadow of damage that the Tauthri had done to their collective consciousness, to their notions of primacy. But that would return to them once their victory over the Tauthri was formalized.

Zayd looked over his shoulder at the sound of a sword hilt against a scabbard and the sound of arrows knocking together in a mostly full quiver. Wenniam stopped beside Zayd and looked down the path as though he expected the Ryferians to come charging up, swords drawn.

“Why are you armed?” Zayd asked.

“Why are you not?”

“The fight is over, Wenniam. This is the only way we will survive this war.”

Wenniam put his hand on Zayd’s shoulder and forced him to turn and look at him. “Is it worth it, Zayd? Is it worth surviving if we have nothing after? Because that is exactly what we will have. All that we hold sacred will only live on in memories, memories that we will not be allowed to share with our own children! What kind of life is that? To be ruled in body and mind? How many generations will it be before everything that you and I know, that our fathers have taught us that they learned from their fathers, going back generations – how many generations will those memories survive?”

“I don’t know,” Zayd said. “Three. Five. Perhaps no more than ten.” He shrugged. “What does it matter to me?”

Wenniam threw his arms outward, and his eyes were wide and unblinking. “How does this not bother you?”

“It does, but I am trying to accept it. And I am assuming that because you are fully armed that you are having some difficulty.”

Difficulty?” Wenniam said. “I am not accepting it. Will not. Cannot. And none of my brothers will, either. Our minds were made up when we had to watch our father burn.” He choked on the last words.

“Savyl was a great man. He was also a good man. But just because your father was our chieftain does not mean that I am now yours to command. Don’t presume to order me to pick up a blade and die because you can’t accept our fate. I know you do not have children, but I will tell you this and I hope you are able to grasp it…” Zayd stepped closer to Wenniam, finally looking him in the eye. Wenniam stepped back but Zayd kept stepping closer. “My wife and my son are more important to me than every one of our legends or ancestors or gods. Do you really think that the King Hunter would applaud us for willfully chasing a path into extinction? Or Tethrutan, the Night Watcher? My son may grow up not knowing them, but grow up he will. And if I need to kill you, right here, to see that through, then that is what I will do.”

Wenniam stepped back again and almost stumbled off balance. “You… are not armed,” he said, as if Zayd was unaware.

“Do you think that I need to be?”

Wenniam had no response. “You need to accept what is going to happen today, and you need to accept it now. Put your sword and your bow and your arrows on the ground right here and then go and tell your brothers to do the same. If you don’t then you’ll die. All of you. And I will be the one to kill you. How many generations do you think will remember you?”

Zayd stared at him evenly, without anger or hatred on his face or in his voice, but there was conviction. His tone was an unmistakable promise, one that he would keep every day for the rest of his life; he would do what was needed for Symm and Cassian. No matter the cost.

He was alone again and was for a while before the Ryferians came up the path. When he heard them coming, Zayd picked up the sword, quiver, and bow that lay at his feet and tossed them into the trees beside him. He remembered where he threw them, just in case. The bow was quite good and it would be a shame for it to be lost. He flexed his hand again and remembered with some bitterness that the bow would be no good to him, anyways. A shame indeed.

 

 

 

The world was a bright white and blue blur. Zayd could hear birds singing. At first that was all he could hear until his senses settled more, coming back into focus, and he heard the soft murmur of several unknown voices.

“He’s awake,” he heard someone say. “Go tell her.” His arm throbbed in pain and he could feel how swollen it was – impressively so – when he touched it, and when he tried to look at it, his head reminded him that it, too, had suffered.

“Try not to move,” he heard Sera say. She was close to him now. Zayd was laying on a bed of dry pine needles, though, as the sharpness of his vision returned, he could not tell where exactly in the forest they were. It was not where they had camped and it was not near where Praene’s regiment had been the night before. “We had to keep moving last night,” Sera said, taking notice of his apparent confusion. “We wanted to get as much distance from them as we could.”

“Good,” Zayd whispered. “That’s good.” His hand went to his head.

“No. Don’t touch. The wound is clean now, leave it alone.” Sera sat cross-legged a few feet away from him. Zayd could hear some of the other Dramandi nearby but could not see them. And he could not see any of his own countrymen.

“Where is Tascell? Where is Daruthin?”

“They are safe. For now. Tell me what happened. I tried asking the other one, the one who went with you. Why are you the only one who speaks our tongue?”

“I suppose I have a knack for it. Why aren’t there any of you that speak Tauthral?” Using only his right arm, Zayd lifted himself to a seated position and leaned against a nearby tree. The world spun and for a few moments he thought he might retch.

“What happened?” Sera repeated. “What happened to Cohvass?”

The surreal image of the imposing warrior attacking the Ryferian knights as he was steadily cut to pieces came immediately back to him, along with the expression of murderous glee that was on his face as he was dismembered and disembowelled. He had not known at the time what it was that he was witnessing, but Zayd now knew; Cohvass was enjoying it all. He enjoyed the death. Even his own.

“Cohvass… we were in the camp… had made it inside the perimeter without being spotted. We found the iron chest, the one you told us had your god’s gift inside. And then he began speaking. It made no sense, but he was speaking Tauthral, and I had no idea what it was that he was saying.”

“Cohvass does not speak Tauthral,” Sera said. “What you’re telling me could not have happened.”

“You asked. I am telling you what I remember. We could ask Tascell, but since I am the only one who can translate… unless any of your other men secretly know how to speak our tongue.”

“What did he say?

“He said something about rivers flowing into the ocean, about being whole again. He asked if I was there to serve. And then there was a name. Velskotahn. Something about a key across the ocean. And then…”

“And then what?” Sera leaned forward again.

“And then he attacked the knights. But there was no reason for it. He had not been seen. We could have made it back, and perhaps they would have noticed something in the morning, but we could have made it a safe distance through the night. Yet he just… walked into a group of them and attacked. And he was calm, swinging at them like it was a game. Even when…” Zayd trailed off, not wanting to subject Sera to every aspect he recalled. “The knights killed him. He stayed on his feet for… it was impossibly long.”

“They killed him?” Sera asked. Zayd heard a tremble in her tone. He nodded. “Or you killed him?”

“We did not kill him.”

“You think I am a fool, don’t you?” Sera shot to her feet. “Of course you wanted to punish him for what he did to your sword-kin! What better chance than this? And to have it given to you so easily.”

“You must think [I _]am a fool!” Zayd spat. He lurched to his feet and kept his balance only because he was still leaning against the tree. “You must think I am so petty and overtaken with hate that I would sacrifice my life and the lives of my countrymen just to kill that brute? We are still your captives. If I was going to betray you, why would I not tell the Ryferian commander where you were? Why would we come back to you at all? Why would Tascell come for your help when he could have abandoned me? If you think the answer is plain, then you’re right. I would _not.” Zayd slumped back down. Whatever energy he had had just been spent. “I wish Cohvass had not lost his senses. Perhaps he could have told you himself that the iron chest was empty.”

Sera covered her mouth and turned away from him. Zayd did wish for a different outcome, if only so he would have seen what happened to Cohvass. It was odd that he should be affected by one death when he had seen countless over the course of the war. But there was some surreal aspect to it that he could not place, and it lingered with him. He was uncertain if it was the mystical message he had delivered or the way in which he revelled in the bloodshed. Perhaps it was both.

“I am sorry,” Zayd said. “I did want to succeed. Truly.”

Sera turned back around and he could see that she had failed to hold back tears, but she was still trying to stop from weeping utterly. “What am I to do?” she asked. The question was posed not to Zayd but to herself. To whatever gods still listened. A question hung over both of them like an executioner’s blade, poised to drop: what would they do now? She sat down facing him, but not looking at him.

“Do you believe me?” Zayd asked.

She nodded slowly. “Did he say anything else?”

Zayd searched his memory. “He told me to take the portal across the sea. To unite the keys. I can’t even begin to guess at what he meant. Does it make sense to you?”

“No,” she said softly. “Though perhaps I know why he said it. I told you of the evil that surrounded the treasure that was taken from the ground. I could see them when I was your prisoner. One of them tried to take hold of me, but I resisted. It must have been one of them that took Cohvass to deliver some message. But what that message means, and why it was delivered to you… I don’t know. Perhaps there was no real message. Perhaps it was nonsense. No one can guess at such things and find meaning from pure chaos.”

The two of them sat in silence for a time. Zayd could see some of the other Dramandi circling around them, investigating their disquieting exchange. Perhaps making sure Zayd was not trying to escape or attack her, since he was entirely unbound. He nearly laughed at the thought since he doubted he had the strength to do either.

“He was a fire that burned for us. When we faced our worst defeats, many people’s fires went out. But his burned stronger in the dark. Because he knew that it needed to. I needed it…… I still do.” Tears rolled down Sera’s cheeks freely, though she seemed more composed. “I need the Raan Dura. More than ever now, I need it.”

Zayd was taken aback; her declaration sounded like an order to him. “How do you plan on getting it?”

“With you. That has not changed. I told you that you would go free once you obtained the Raan Dura. That still holds true.”

“It isn’t there! Not knowing where it is presents something of a challenge to us, wouldn’t you say? And they now know with certainty that they are being followed. We will not be able to go after it again. They will be guarded. Alert.”

“You said that it wasn’t in the iron chest. That does not mean that it isn’t there. Did you check all of the crates and other chests that are stuffed full of my people’s possessions?”

“No.”

“Then it could still be there, and it likely is. It is only a matter of finding it.”

“Sera…”

“Save your objections. I don’t think you want to convince me that you have no more usefulness to me.”

“Are you thinking that we can search every carriage, every inch of their camp without being found? And what about these spirits, this evil? What if it tries to take hold of me?”

“I don’t think it can. I told you before.” She pointed to her own forearm on the place where Zayd had carved his family’s sigil. “I should have told Cohvass to do the same.”

“A Tauthri sigil carved in his flesh? I doubt he would have welcomed the idea.”

“No. He wouldn’t have. But the fact remains that they cannot influence you or take hold of you like they did to him.”

“So you say.”

“Yes. So I say. Which is all that matters now.”

Zayd exhaled slowly. “I want to be able to help you, if only that my countrymen and I might be free of you. But you must know that what you’re asking is impossible. Not without knowing where it is beforehand.”

“Someone must know.”

Zayd shrugged. “Yes, someone must.”

“Why not take one of their sentries? [_That _]is something that you could do. And we could question him.”

“I’m sure he would give us an answer, though we would not know the truth of it until going back to look for it. There would be no reason for him to know, though, unless he was one of the soldiers that loaded the carriages to begin with, and it is more likely that the soldiers who did are now on the march against the remnants of the Dramandi army and Roh Dun’s Shields.”

“Someone must know,” she repeated. “Someone who took the Raan Dura out of the chest. Someone compelled by greed.” Of course. Why hadn’t Zayd assumed the obvious answer?

“Praene,” he said. “My commander turned traitor.”

“You said he betrayed your king.”

“Our emperor. He betrayed the emperor.”

“Does this also not mean he betrayed your man-god?”

“It does.”

“Then his greed must not know limits. [_He _]would be the one to know. The one to keep every trinket that looks of some value close by.”

Zayd nodded. “If anyone knew…”

Sera leaned back. “Then you will go get him.”

 

 

Zayd went alone the first night simply to observe. “They will be more cautious now,” he told her. “I need to see how they have adjusted. Praene is many things, but not a fool.” Sera agreed to let him do so, but for only one night. Zayd had insisted on more time. Why make another attempt when the risk was still so high? Why not let them think we had gone?

“Every day we follow them is another chance for them to discover us,” she had said. “I want this ended.” Zayd had implored further, but everything he said was rejected outright. One night to watch, and the next night to act.

And the Ryferians had changed. The number of sentries had doubled and Praene’s command tent was moved to the exact centre of the camp. There was a wider perimeter around it, as well, so that anyone approaching would be more easily spotted in the light thrown by the greater number of torches that had been placed. Praene himself was rarely outside of the command tent once they made camp, and when he was, he was flanked on all sides by his knights. Zayd noticed, with some small satisfaction, Garinus wore a new scar on his face that ran from his left temple down to his jaw, a keepsake from his encounter with Cohvass.

The smirk on Zayd’s face diminished as he thought again of what he had seen. As with things that defy explanation, he thought of it constantly. He wanted not to think on it, in truth, but there had to be a reason for it. Yet every time he thought he had an answer that seemed to fit, a new question would come from it. He felt like he was trying to catch the wind in a net.

Sera had said that the evil, whatever it was, had not taken him because it could not; that the sigil in his flesh somehow kept it away. He wanted to believe that was true, but doing so could be dangerous. Out here in the darkness within sight of the gold monolith there could be the spectres of ancient beings even now standing beside him, reaching towards him, about to exert their will over him… If they did, would he even know? Would his soul be expelled from his body or consumed and destroyed? “I am glad I am no mystic,” he whispered to himself. The world he could see and hear was massive and complicated enough without knowing of what existed outside of the sight of normal men.

He shook the thought away only to have another question appear in its absence; why had it taken Cohvass and not Tascell? Maybe Zayd truly was impervious to malign spirits, but Tascell did not have Zayd’s sigil on him that supposedly provided protection, only those of his own family.

His mind came back to the present as Praene, fully armoured and visibly sober, came striding from his tent, surrounded by his knights, and proceeded to check the perimeter of the camp. A few minutes later he was back in the tent, once more out of sight. Zayd shifted his legs where he sat. Snatching Praene away would be impossible, even if he had every one of his men involved in the effort. They could not match the knights in a frontal battle. Even if the Tauthri could surprise them –– which they could, in all likelihood – the meager weapons and armour they had would be no match against Praene’s bodyguards. Getting him from inside the tent was probably equally hopeless since they would be sleeping in shifts so one or more of them would always be awake and guarding against intruders.

He wondered if Sera would insist on making the attempt anyways. Whoever went, he knew, would fail at the very least, and more likely than they, would be killed in the process. All for a trinket that the Dramandi believed to be of divine origin. Zayd realized that they had not even yet told him what the thing looked like, only where it was supposed to be. He nearly laughed at the thought that he may have looked straight at the damned thing and would not even have known its significance.

He waited for longer until he concluded that Praene would likely not be coming back out of his tent. He could not even hear any idle talk or wine-soaked laughter coming from anywhere in the camp. Zayd was as impressed as he was dismayed. He only returned to Sera when the answer to the puzzle before him finally revealed itself.

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 16

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

“Here he is.” Zayd pushed the man to the ground at Sera’s feet. His hands were tied behind his back and a piece of red-stained cloth in his mouth prevented him from making any noise other than groaning in pain and protest. “Commander Praene, formerly a loyal servant of the Ryferian army.”

Everyone, Dramandi and Tauthri alike, encircled them and looked down upon the captive commander. Blood that had issued from cuts to his head and from his nostrils had begun to dry. He looked up at the dozens of surrounding faces, seeing only hatred or pity, while his showed only fear and confusion. A current of anticipation ran through the assembled group, but no one felt it as much as Zayd as he waited for Sera to react. Several moments had passed and she looked at the man in front of her without a single change in her demeanour. Zayd watched her intently until he saw the hint of a grin touch her lips, and at that he breathed a sigh of relief that he fought to conceal. He glanced over at Daruthin who stood at the edge of the group. His lieutenant looked at him, furrowed his brow and shook his head once, imperceptibly. Zayd stared back at him. He hoped that Daruthin could read his expression: an explanation would come later.

“We will begin at sunrise,” Sera said. She looked around at the assembled group. “To rest. We will have answers soon.” The group dispersed, save for those Sera selected to watch over their prize, as well as those who still watched over the Tauthri.

Tascell and Daruthin walked over to Zayd, both smiling wide. “Glad for your safe return, vahr,” Daruthin said as he and Zayd clasped forearms. Tascell patted him on the shoulder. “Glad for your good fortune. Can you tell me what is going on?”

“He must have a plan,” Daruthin said, still displaying a false smile. “He just accomplished the impossible, remember? Try to look like it. Perhaps he will tell us how he managed this… impossible feat.”

Zayd laughed and looked at his feet before he proceeded to tell his men, all the while gesturing with his hands and giving inflection to his voice to give their watchers the impression he was recounting his deeds. “They were keeping him under guard too well. It was clear they did not think that we had left. In fact, it looked more like they expected us to attack again at any moment.”

“You told us they wanted Praene,” Tascell whispered. “Not some corporal.”

“Not just a corporal, Tascell. It is corporal Lansdon. Praene’s cousin.”

Daruthin laughed. “I thought he died when the Dramandi first attacked the column.”

“He only played dead,” Tascell muttered. “How did you get him?”

“Praene put him on sentry duty, and I caught him counting stars,” Zayd said.

“It looks like he put up a fight,” Daruthin said.

“It does look that way, doesn’t it?” Zayd smirked and his men laughed quietly. He tried to think back – when was the last time they had laughed together? It must have been before the siege of Yasri. There had been no laughter then. “It also makes it more difficult to tell that he isn’t the man she thinks he is.”

“So what happens next?” Tascell asked.

“Well, since none of them speak true-tongue, I’m sure they will ask me to translate while they question him.”

“What happens when he tries to tell them that he’s not Praene?”

“What good would that do? Lansdon doesn’t know who they’re after. I just need to give Sera the information she’s after.”

“But it’s the relic she’s after,” Tascell said, crossing his arms. “What answer are you going to give her?”

“I’ll tell them… rather, Praene will tell them that the iron chest was empty since they left Yasri, that some Dramandi seer escaped the city with it. That should be enough to set them on a path away from us, and enough for them to set us on a path home.”

“Home?” Tascell asked. “Or Lycernum?”

It was a question Zayd hoped would not be asked. He had hoped it had become apparent to them how crucially important their solidarity had become. “It will be whichever you choose,” he said. “I only ask you to think back to when you pledged your loyalty to the emperor, and do not let your disdain of servitude obscure the vision of who you are really fighting for.” His men looked to each other, judging each other’s reactions. Some looked at their feet or to the sky, weighing the words for themselves.

Vahr,” Daruthin said, “what if she does not believe you?” Another question he had thought of but dreaded facing the answer.

“If it comes to that… listen for the kisolark. And run when you hear it.”

 

 

Time was different in the evernight, never quite passing steadily in any one way. Sometimes Sera would be immersed in it for what felt like most of a day, and when she returned to herself, the sun had barely moved in the sky. Other times, the sun would already be setting. Some other seers had mentioned similar occurrences, but they never described what she felt, and she often wondered what the difference was between them.

She never was certain whether it was an effect the evernight had on her that was unique, or if it was to do with her ability and nothing else. Did she push herself further into that other world? Did it take her longer to find her way back? Cohvass had said that he sometimes could not wake her from the trance for some time. “I have dreams where I am trying to wake you up from the trance, but nothing I do will return you to me,” he once told her. “Those are nightmares. You are right in front of me, yet unreachable all at once. It is difficult to be so close and so far from someone.”

She had cried the night when she lost him, though she had been careful. She waited until she was sure she would not be heard. Only then did she allow herself to weep, and she wept until the sun was rising. It wasn’t because she loved him. It was because she knew that he had loved her, and yet despite the years they knew each other, the years they spent as closest friends, he had never put himself on his knees before her. He knew that she, as one of the Revered, had chosen not to take a husband; her life was devoted to her people, devoted to her gift of seeing, being able to be the voice through which generations spoke. Many seers abstained from marriage for the sake of their gifts.

To them, there was no higher calling. Personal love was placed behind the love for Aulvennic, for the sight that he had bestowed to them. Cohvass could have professed his love to her, asked her to be his wife and place him before her gift. But he didn’t. Not even when everything was lost and the light of their very civilization had almost gone out. She might have said yes, but she would have regretted it later. Maybe he knew that, and that was why he never asked. He never lost hope that they would survive, never doubted her, and never asked her to choose. How many had lived because of the strength of him and the strength he gave her? With her eyes stinging with tears, she knew with solid certainty that his devotion to her was stronger than the devotion she held for the gods. If only wars could be won with such fortitude…

She rarely let her thoughts stray so much while within the trance, but she had walked far within the evernight, leaving her sword-kin and the Tauthri distant in her mind. There were voices. She had prayed every night since she left Yasri, and had prayed a hundred nights before then, but the evil that stirred beneath the temple had either driven away their ancestors…… or it had destroyed them. She had sought them out whenever she could, but this was the first time in months that there were voices. At first she feared they were the phantoms and she was hesitant to get too close to them. She was not sure of their power, but she had felt their unearthly fingertips once, as if trying to pry into her mind. She was not eager to feel that again.

But the voices she heard now and the presence she felt were kind, not her enemies, and she felt them look towards her with warmth. Sera was sure that her entranced body must be grinning madly. Finally, after months of feeling only emptiness, she finally found them again! All the unanswered questions she had thought of over the past months sprung up in her mind all at once, all of them begging to be asked.

“We’ve lost the Raan Dura,” she said, her voice reverberating through the ghostly grey. “I need to find it… Please, tell me where it is!” Voices spoke from every direction around her, indistinct. They did not know. “Is Cohvass……. is he here?”

Silence.

Perhaps his spirit was closer to Yasri, she thought. He had sworn to defend the city, and though they had failed, perhaps he would find some comfort watching over it.

“What happened to Cohvass? Did the Tauthri murder him?” Sera heard a something in the voices as they answered…Fear. Panic.

Enemies, enemies… Nameless. Faceless. Defeat. Defeated.

“Which enemy?”

Defeated, defeated. Buried… Yasri. So the Tauthri had told the truth about Cohvass, but the answers were raising more questions. The phantoms had been defeated and buried beneath Yasri… but they had not found any skeletons beneath the temple. Only the monolith. And their written history made no mention of it, or of anything buried there. Besides, if the Dramandi had defeated an enemy, why bury their foe in holy ground?

“Defeated by who?”

Silence. Not that it mattered to her. History was only that, and the monolith was being taken. It was now for the Ryferians to enjoy, along with the terrors that came with it. Let their priests and scholars have the privilege of seeing what happened to Cohvass happen to them. Sera wished she could witness that… it would almost be worth being their prisoner again.

Her thoughts returned to the task she knew would need to be soon undertaken: the interrogation of the [_nasci _]commander.

“The Tauthri leader. Zayd. Can I trust him?”

The voices spoke in unison. No. No. No.

[_ _]

 

It was past midday when Sera came out of her trance. Zayd could almost tell the moment she did; the Dramandi had been talking amongst each other, almost leisurely, as if the forest were their home and not their refuge. But they became silent as soon as she stirred. Lansdon, who had spent his time amongst them tied to a tree, must have known that something was going to happen, if not exactly what. His expression changed from surrendered self-pity to dread.

Zayd had spent the day attempting to think of every possible question that might be asked and how to answer them in such a way as to appear truthful, yet if the answers were too much in his favour, he did not doubt that she would know what he was doing.

He felt hands clamp down on his arms and haul him forward. He fought to get to his feet, but the Dramandi pushed him down and kept him on his knees. Suddenly, Sera was standing in front of him. Behind him, the other Tauthri ran towards him, but a number of Dramandi with their weapons drawn encircled them. They froze.

“I gave you my trust,” Sera said. “All I wanted was your help in exchange for your life. But you took that trust and you spat on it…… threw it in the dirt.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Zayd said. How did she find out? Did she speak Tauthral? Did one of her men? Or was this a gambit meant to make him confess? Perhaps she understood that Zayd could manipulate the answers given by Lansdon and wanted to terrify him into utter obedience.

The slap stung his cheek. “And now you lie to my face?” Sera shouted. “I know of your deceit. This man does now know where the Raan Dura is!”

“We won’t know until we ask him,” Zayd said. Sera put her hands around his throat and bent over to look him in the eye.

“Lie to me again and I will finish what Cohvass started… [_after _]I make you watch the same happen to your sword-kin.”

Zayd wet his lips and prepared to give his men the signal. He knew the Dramandi surrounded them, but perhaps a few of them could escape. If he waited any longer, perhaps none of them would…

Sera placed her hand over his mouth and looked up at her men, then at the Tauthri. Could she have known? Something was wrong. If she knew that they planned the signal, surely she must know everything he had said the night before. She raised her other hand as she looked to the forest around them. The rest of the Dramandi tensed, waiting for an order. Zayd tried to look, tried to see what she was seeing.

A shout came from the trees. Zayd shook his head, getting Sera’s hand away from his mouth. “Everyone down!” he shouted in Tauthral, just as the arrows came. One of the Dramandi holding him toppled over with several arrows in his back. Sera pitched forward, an arrow in her back as well.

Suddenly Zayd was free, and he went for the dead Dramandi’s blade, the closest weapon he could find. He spun around in time to see Ryferian soldiers pouring out of the forest, and the Dramandi rushed to meet them. His own men had heeded his warning; none appeared to have been hit by the volley of arrows. They were all crouching, huddled together and confused. “Time to go!” Zayd shouted to them. “Let’s not become Praene’s captives now. Find a weapon if you –”

“Vahr!” one of his men pointed past him. Zayd spun and slashed upward blindly in time to block a downward swing.

He locked eyes with Sera. They were wide, angered, and welling with tears. An arrowhead protruded from her shoulder. “You brought them down upon us,” she screamed. She swung at Zayd again, clumsily. Desperately. “You were pretending all this time… King Hunter! Broken Bow! All of it to fool me into thinking you were something other than the same monster that helped destroy our holy city!” He parried her swings easily and countered when he saw her weakening, knocking the blade from her hand. She did not seem to mind. She stood before him, breathless, bleeding, and unblinking.

“Go ahead,” Sera said as she held out her arms. “I know this is what you want. It’s what I want.” Zayd could see a Ryferian soldier approaching Sera from behind, his weapon drawn. There was something different, though… The insignia on the soldier’s armour was of the Fourth Regiment.

This was not one of Praene’s men.

Zayd pulled Sera forward, off balance, putting himself between her and the soldier. “Stop!” The soldier halted, looked around, and shouted to another. “He’s over here, sir.”

Around them the fighting had almost stopped. Some of the Dramandi had surrendered. More were dead. A knight in full plate, with Silver Sun insignias on each shoulder, came striding into view.

“You made it,” Barrett said as he took off his helmet. Zayd dropped the Dramandi blade and gave an exhausted salute. Barrett saluted back.

“Praene?” Zayd asked.

“He hardly put up a fight.” Barrett smiled.

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 17

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

They followed from a distance, always remaining discreetly part of the crowds of the city. The Ardent, though, seemed not to check to see if he was being followed. Their story must have fooled him; why would they follow him if they wanted to be rid of the thing that was in the box?

“What did you put inside?” Osmun had asked Nasiri. “Please tell me we didn’t give the man an empty box.”

“It’s an Ivesian good luck charm,” she told him.

“Shouldn’t we have kept that?” Myron asked. “You know…… for luck?”

“I have more,” Nasiri said.

“Oh, good. That’s good. We’re going to need some luck.”

“They’re worthless,” Nasiri said. “Ivesians don’t use good luck charms. The very idea of luck is a Ryferian one, and probably one that they adopted from some other culture.”

“So why do you even have them?” Osmun asked.

“To sell them to superstitious Ryferians,” Nasiri said as she shrugged. “Credulity makes for good customers.”

The three of them, dispersed along the crowded street, separately watched as the Ardent left the market and crossed the large, open square in front of the Xidian Cathedral. He veered westward of the great monument, away from the Cathedral and down another street. Osmun, Nasiri, and Myron followed.

“Not together!” Myron hissed as Osmun sidled up to him. He pushed the priest away. “That way, that way. As if you’re going that direction. Is this your first time doing this?”

“Yes!” Osmun said as he changed direction. They came together a few moments later at the mouth of the street that the Ardent had gone down.

“I knew you should’ve stayed behind,” Myron said to Osmun.

“Why? We’re doing fine,” Osmun said defensively.

“Until we cross paths with another Ardent who recognizes you, and then all of this planning and running about will be wasted.”

“He has a point,” Nasiri said.

“Yes, and he’s made it. Now, can we continue?”

“Certainly,” Myron said, rolling his eyes. “Why don’t we just catch up with the fellow, link arms with him, and ask him? ‘Afternoon, chap! Say, where are you off to in such a hurry? And did you know that the thing in the box is totally useless? But don’t let that stop you from trying to sell it to some idiot Trueborn!’”

Nasiri jabbed him hard with an elbow. “Enough.” Myron grumbled but otherwise remained silent as they continued to trail the Ardent. It soon became apparent to Osmun where he was heading. He watched as the Ardent headed towards the huge building that loomed on the horizon. The buildings on either side of the street fell away and a wide, stone stairway ascended to an iron archway. An eight-foot stone wall extended out to the left and right, tracing the edge of the level ground where it met the steep hillside.

“The Historian’s College,” Osmun said. Though from where they stood they could not see any of the college itself save the tall, wide bell tower in the centre of the building.

“At least the Compendium isn’t behind that impenetrable door in the Cathedral,” Myron said.

“We don’t know what it’s behind.” Osmun turned back around. “We shouldn’t linger,” he said as he began to walk back down the street towards the monument.

“Haven’t you been inside?” Nasiri asked.

“Only a few times, and it was years ago. I was a child, almost. I had just begun to discover my abilities and the vicars were uncertain how best I could serve the church. Once I showed I could control my gift, they knew I would be a great asset.” A cool breeze began to blow in from the harbour, and distant thunder offered a promise of rain. Osmun walked faster. “Why do you still need me? You know where the Compendium is now. You would be much more likely to succeed with Myron’s help instead of mine. I would just be a hindrance to you.”

“He’s not wrong, Nasiri,” Myron said. “They’re still after him, and that is an ill omen for anyone keeping company with him. Which is us, I should point out. We can do this without him.”

“It’s the wise thing to do,” Osmun said. “And…… now that I’ve helped you, you should make good on our agreement and teach me what you know. About creating a rift. I still need to send that spirit back to the Beyond. I need to…”

“Pull your name off the garbage heap?” Myron interjected.

Osmun gave him a disapproving frown. “Essentially,” he muttered.

“Why bother with one solitary shade, anyway?” Myron asked. “I’ve been wondering.”

“Because it won’t stop bothering with me,” Osmun said. He thought after so many days of seeing the form from the corner of his eye that he would become used to it, but it startled him every time, and he had only managed to get real rest by drinking the tea each night. He used just enough so that he would sleep without making him forget the last hours of the day before, but he worried, too, that he was needing to use more of it each time. Even just by thinking of it, he felt an unusual hunger hidden inside thirst. “And because its very presence is blasphemous. And because it has plans on something that I will not allow it to see to the end. For all of these reasons, I need to create a rift. I need to defeat it.”

“And what about your guilt? Um, perceived guilt, rather?”

“This thing is influencing people in the church. I don’t know how exactly, but it is. Once it is gone they will be free from its influence and see clearly what has been happening.”

Myron looked at him as though Osmun had just told him he planned to ascend the Whitewing Mountains with his eyes closed. “Well… that’s the theory, at least,” Osmun muttered.

Nasiri was silent as she contemplated their new dilemma. “If we can both make it close enough,” she said to herself, “I could open a rift……”

“No!” Osmun stopped suddenly. Nasiri looked up at him, surprised. “You will not do that again.” Osmun stepped close to Nasiri, pointing his finger in her face. “Those men may carry the scars of that ordeal for the rest of their lives.”

“I thought we had been over this,” Nasiri said quietly, curling a lip. “They were about to arrest you, priest.”

“I don’t care. If it comes to that choice again, then let them arrest me. I won’t have you profane my city like that.”

“Then I suppose if you want to prevent me from doing that, you will get the tome after all,” Nasiri said.

“If that’s what it takes.”

“Perhaps we should have the conspicuous argument somewhere more private,” Myron said. Osmun and Nasiri each waived a hand in the air and kept walking, not looking at each other.

They arrived at the basement of the warehouse not having spoken another word between them. Osmun could only think of how to find the Compendium, how to get inside and, once there, to get back out carrying a large tome without being noticed. That was, if the tome was even there at all. He played out every different sequence of events in his head, but they all ended at its door. Where in the college was it? How secure was it? Would it be guarded? He had no answers to these questions; the truth of it could be that the location of the Compendium was hidden or unassailable and that he would be spotted before he got anywhere near it.

In the basement, Osmun went straight for the jar that contained the sleeping herb but found it was not in its usual spot. He heard an echoing, but not something heard with the ears. He [_sensed _]it, felt it in his heart.

Ajkah thuun…

“Myron!” Osmun shouted as he walked back to the foot of the staircase that Myron was just descending. “Where is it?”

“Where is what?”

“You know what. Where have you hidden it?”

Ajkah thuun…

“Marinus’ mother… you emptied the jar, do you not remember? There’s more in one of the smaller crates. Just step out of my way, I’ll get it. Just… stand there and try to keep your composure.” Myron shook his head and muttered something to himself as he walked to the other room. As Osmun exhaled he noticed his hands were shaking. Nasiri looked at him over her shoulder as she started a fire in the wood stove. A bell rang in the distance, and he knew he would need help once again.

 

 

 

The three of them sat in a tavern eating fresh biscuits and sipping hot cider as they waited. Outside, the streets had become busy as the morning began to wear on. A cool morning breeze carried the scents of the baking bread and smoking meat through the streets, reminding Osmun of his former routine. It had been the smells that he missed most of all, being among the first to appreciate them in the morning with the entire day, full of promise, laid ahead of him.

“Should we be concerned?” Myron asked. “It’s been more than a few hours.”

“Give him time,” Osmun said. He noticed Nasiri eying the tavern door warily and occasionally peeking out of the small window before resting her head back on the wall beside her. “He’ll come,” Osmun said. Nasiri barely acknowledged him. “Is everything alright?” Osmun asked. “Do you see someone?” He leaned in. [_“Ardent? _]Have they found us?”

“No, no. I’m just… I’m just keeping an eye out.”

“Ah. I see.” Osmun understood. They were just down the street from her father’s bakery. “Would it really be that bad if you saw him? Or if he saw you?”

“What do you mean?” Nasiri asked. Her tone barely shaped the words into a question, but more into a statement: you have no business asking.

“You must still care for him,” Osmun said. “Despite what happened.”

Nasiri leaned almost completely across the table and grabbed Osmun by the collar. “You have no idea what happened. You may know my father, but you do not know me.” She shoved Osmun back, got up from the table, and walked out of the tavern as if it was on fire. Osmun and Myron watched her go in silence.

“She let you off easy,” Myron said after he took several long pulls on his cider.

“She looked like she wanted to strangle me,” Osmun said.

“Likely she did. I asked her about her father once. It didn’t go well.”

“What happened?”

“She stabbed me.”

Osmun downed the rest of his cider in one mouthful. “I guess I did get off easy.” He decided to avoid the topic of Tumanger altogether, even though it was clear that Nasiri still felt for her family. He thought that she might be worried about appearing weak to her father if he saw her and thought she was battling with regret over her decision to separate herself from them. And perhaps it was more than just a worry over appearing weak.

As for her father, Osmun believed Tumanger when he said it was easier for him and Tanu not to see her so they did not have to experience losing her again, but he also believed that, given the chance, he would want to see her all the same.

“Why bring it up in the first place?” Myron asked.

“I suppose I am just used to helping. I was in the border provinces earlier in the year. The people there were struggling with malicious presences coming from the Beyond. They were making people hysterical, sometimes violent. Word soon spread that I was able to help expel the spirits, and people would come to me, take me by the hand and almost drag me off to their homes so that I could cleanse the places of evil.” Osmun lifted up his cup, turning it in his hand, wishing it was full once again. “It was a good feeling, being needed. Far better than being thought a murderer.”

“There are worse habits than trying to help someone,” Myron said.

“Yes, well, Nasiri seems to disagree.”

The door to the tavern opened and Julian entered and looked around as though he was ready to flee at once. Seeing Osmun at the table, he quickly closed the door and sat down with them.

“Your hands are shaking,” Myron observed. Julian set them flat on the table and kept them still, only with noticeable effort. He exhaled and looked around the room. Osmun patted him on the shoulder.

“It’s alright, Julian. You’re safe. Tell us how everything went. When you’re ready, that is.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to fade into obscurity?” Myron asked. “There’s safety in it.”

Julian looked up from the table. “Obscurity? What? What are you saying?”

“This sort of… enterprise. You don’t exactly seem cut out for it, I’m sorry to say.”

“He’s doing just fine,” Osmun said. “When you’re ready.” Julian exhaled again.

“I was allowed to go into a number of the libraries and studies. I even heard some lectures. I didn’t fully comprehend them…”

“Probably why they let you listen,” Myron said.

“But it was just like Abelus Cypra had said,” Julian continued, “that it’s a consuming discipline, and a lonely one. I don’t know how someone would come to choose to be a historian. There’s nothing in it but loneliness. Only secrets keep you company, and it’s the secrets that will likely end up killing you.”

Osmun thought of Nestor. “Devotion,” he said. “They choose it out of devotion to the emperor, to the Empire, and to the Beacon. If I were not gifted, it may be the path that I would have chosen. It is a difficult choice, but it is a noble choice for that.”

Julian looked back at his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I wasn’t thinking about…”

“Every life lived for the Beacon is a worthy one,” Osmun said. “No matter what.” Julian nodded.

Myron rolled his eyes. “Is it too early for ale? I need a drink to stomach all of this praise.”

“They were happy to let me see what much of the college was like, and much of it is old. It looks old.”

“In disrepair?” Osmun asked.

“No, I wouldn’t say that. More like an untended garden. Except for the tower; it looked new, and for such an impressive structure, most people seemed to avoid it. Like it was made of glass… or that it might fall on top of you if you stood around it for too long.”

“The bell tower?”

Julian nodded. “I saw no one enter it, though I saw someone come out. He just looked around and then went back inside. He didn’t look like the rest of them.”

“What do you mean?”

“He means he didn’t look bookish,” Myron offered. “He looked like a soldier, is that what you meant?”

“Yes. Like a soldier.”

“Ardent, I bet,” Osmun said.

“Good odds,” Myron said as he leaned back in his chair. “If the Compendium really is inside.”

Osmun drummed his fingers against the table as he thought. “It makes sense. And things that seem out of place usually are.” Why else have a tower at all? They were defensive structures, lending themselves to ornamentation, but inside of the tower at the College, Osmun knew they would find it built to keep out intruders, not built just to house a bronze bell.

“The tower it is, then,” Myron said. “How will you get in? It’s not as though you can just walk up to the door and knock.”

“I don’t know what other option I have,” Osmun said. “I can’t really break down the door, can I?”

“Why not?”

“Mostly because I’m not an En Kazyr.” Osmun kicked at Myron’s chair, and he grabbed a hold of the table a moment before teetering over.

“Alright, point made. It was an unworthy question. The second one, at any rate, but not the first: how will you get in?”

Osmun tapped his fingers on the table. “That is something of a problem, isn’t it?” he said to himself. He couldn’t break down the door, and even if he were somehow gifted with a giant’s strength or a battering ram, it was not a subtle tactic and would alert every Ardent within the tower and most everyone outside it. He had to be [_let _]inside…

He had to belong. His fingers stopped tapping.

“Do you have an apron?” Osmun asked suddenly.

“I think I can find one for you,” Myron said as he stood up and strode into the tavern’s kitchen.

“Where is he going?” Julian asked.

“I think we’d better wait outside,” Osmun said.

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 18

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

“Don’t ask, Myron,” Osmun said. “I know that look. You’re going to ask me something I don’t have an answer to. [_What if you break your leg? What if you get can’t open the door? What if you have your head cut off at an inopportune moment? _]The plan isn’t perfect, but it’s the best any of us have come up with.”

Nasiri looked at Myron, who shrugged. “I wasn’t going to phrase it like that,” he said.

“Keep quiet,” Nasiri whispered.

“Alright, then, I guess no one will ask the important questions.”

They were huddled against the stone wall that encircled the Historian’s College at a point far enough from the main gate that no one on the streets below would spot them. The college was built on a plateau of a rocky hill, a precursor to the Whitewing Mountains that dominated the sky far behind them. They had waited until dusk before taking to the streets and then, as casually as they could, climbed some of the steep rocks behind the buildings that were closest to them. It took a leap from a rooftop over a stone retaining wall onto a grassy area that would lead them up to the part of the wall where they now waited.

Myron was the first onto the rooftop, which he achieved with remarkable ease. But someone noticed him. “What’s on the roof, there?” the voice had called out. Osmun’s heart had stopped, thinking at once that it was a city guard or worse – the Ardent – that had spotted them.

“Collectors, sir,” Myron called back.

“What, tax collectors? What are you doing on the roof?”

“Rodent collectors. One of the residents said there might be carrion around here, we’re just trying to find it. Carrion spreads disease, you know.”

“Oh, yes. I did know that. Would you have a look over here when you’re done?”

“Gladly, friend,” Myron said. “Just as soon as we’re done robbing the church of some sacred artifacts,” he muttered to himself as he lowered a rope to the ground for Nasiri and Osmun.

“You really are a terrific liar,” Osmun said to Myron when he reached the rooftop.

“Everyone is good at something.”

Once beside the wall which encircled the College grounds, they waited, out of sight, until darkness came. Myron leaned against the wall, cradled his hands for Osmun’s foot, and hoisted the priest up. Myron held his hands up, supporting him as he secured his grip on top of the wall. The wall was just wide enough for Osmun to lie on it once he got both feet up, and he remained as motionless as he could as he surveyed the layout of the grounds.

He was immediately over a grove of some kind. There were trees growing close by and a few benches among them. There was a reflecting pool as well; he could see the reflection of the moon on the surface of the water.

“Wish me luck,” Osmun whispered before dropping down from the top of the wall. As he landed his feet disappeared nearly up to his knees, and he barely kept himself standing. A wave of disorientation passed over him. Was this some kind of trap?

“What was that?” Nasiri hissed from the other side of the wall.

“There’s a pond here… I didn’t see how large it was.” Osmun strained to see in the dark, and after waiting a moment and not seeing anyone running at him from flung-open doors, he made his way to the edge of the water, lifting his legs high and placing them down as slowly as he could. He looked back to the spot on the wall where he had been. When the time came, climbing the wall from the water would be difficult. And noisy.

“When I come back, leave the rope further down,” Osmun whispered. He waited for a reply, but none came. He was about to speak again when he heard a door open, and he immediately threw himself to the ground. The six wings of the school loomed before him, every side of it had a covered walkway and dozens of doorways on each of its four levels. While the walkways were lined with lit torches, anyone straying from them would need light of their own, so while the voices echoed off of walls, disguising their place of origin, Osmun instead looked for a moving light, without success. He wondered where the voices had actually come from. Had they been nearby, or was he hearing someone from the other side of the college altogether? If the latter, it was a wonder that no one had heard him splash into the reflecting pool.

He lifted himself up and made his way through the few trees, beyond which was, as much as he could tell, a flat field of grass that surrounded the College, presumably on all sides. He walked, as normally as his nervousness would allow, across the field and to the pillared, paved walkway of the closest wing. Looking down, he saw his soaking wet feet leaving tracks on the pavement. He looked around again; anyone walking past would not be able to miss the muddy footprints. He prayed silently to Xidius, asking for his favour. And any luck that could be spared. Best to stay to the grass as much as possible, he warned himself.

Osmun continued down towards where the wing ended, staying on the grass next to the walkway. There was another paved path that ran between this wing and the next, a path that led towards the tower in the centre. He looked up at it; had it always been so tall? The upper levels were almost invisible in the dark. He imagined some sentry up there looking down at him at that very moment, and the thought made him take a few steps forward until he hugged the closest wall, putting him at least out of the immediate light of the torches.

“Stupid,” he whispered. “Act like you belong.” Osmun spotted a large chimney on the inside wall of the south-eastern wing and made his way towards it, and as he neared, was reassured by the faint smell of smoke. On the outward-facing walkway were at least a dozen doors, but Osmun needed to find the one that led down to the kitchen. He thought back to the monastery; the doors there had been larger to allow for carts and barrows to be brought in and unloaded. At the opposite end, closest to the main gate, he found such a door, and found it to be unlocked.

Donning the apron once through the door, he padded down to the kitchen and allowed himself to relax slightly when he saw that it was empty. There were three ovens against the far wall, all of them feeding into the one large chimney Osmun saw on the outside. The smell of smoke drifted from the cinders in the oven and mixed with the scents of herbs that were stored in the dozens of jars along the immense countertop. He walked, still cautious, to the adjoining room, and then to another until he found a stack of barrels on their sides, piled almost to the ceiling. There were spigots jutting from few of them. “Now let’s just hope they’re thirsty,” Osmun said. “And that they haven’t forsworn all forms of drink.”

He continued his rummaging until he found half a dozen flagons and dug the small pouch of ground-up black bear root from his pocket, putting a small amount of the substance in each flagon before he filled each one to the brim. The wine was a dark red, and its sweet scent completely masked the faint odour of the root powder. Osmun placed the pouch back in his pocket and leaned against the table, wondering how this had all happened. It had barely been a few weeks since he had slept comfortably in the monastery, his future and his success guaranteed to him. But now… Now he was slinking around like a thief, working against the thing to which he had devoted his life.

The shadow, he reminded himself; it had all started with the shadow, and every clandestine action he was taking was in the service of protecting the church from the evil it had unwittingly unleashed. He gathered up the flagons and made his way to the tower, feeling once again that it, or someone or something, was watching him as he approached.

There was only one door that he could find, and it appeared to be made at least in part of steel; the torches in the distance behind him shimmered and reflected off of it, and the light framed his own reflection in darkness.

Osmun kicked the door three times. A small rectangular slot at eye level opened. A pair of angry, suspicious eyes looked at him but softened momentarily at the sight of the flagons. “What’s this?”

“A bit of relief for the guards,” Osmun said.

“Really…” the guard replied, his voice heavy with skepticism. “We’ve never had wine before. Least, not on duty.” The guard’s eyes were cutting into him, cutting through his pretence. Osmun’s heart began to beat faster and his palms became slick with sweat. He was about to be discovered. Suddenly he heard Myron’s voice in his head.

“Well, the college consuls are getting rid of it, staring tomorrow. They say that drink has no place here. You’re all going to be sober as monks.”

“What? That’s damned nonsense.”

Osmun shrugged. “Of course it is. Maybe they’ll decide to bring it back in a few months, but in case they don’t…” Osmun leaned towards the door and lowered his voice. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t get a last bit of enjoyment from it.”

The steel door opened slowly, the guard having to put considerable effort into moving it. The guard was at least a full head taller than Osmun, and his wide frame blocked out most of the doorway. He looked down at the priest, scrutinizing him and his cargo. He plucked one of the flagon’s from Osmun’s arms and took a long drink before stepping aside and motioning for Osmun to go ahead.

“If anyone asks you about this,” Osmun said, “I was never here.”Through the door was a short hallway lined with a few torches leading to a circular stairway that went up to the second level of the tower. He jumped and nearly dropped the rest of the wine as the steel door closed behind him with a loud clang.

The stairway led to another hallway, narrower than the one below, that led north and then east before opening up into a small antechamber, where four more guards stood watch outside of another steel door.

“Who is it?” one guard asked another. “Is the next shift starting early? That would be something, wouldn’t it?”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” another muttered. The four of them looked at Osmun with open hostility, as if he had wandered into their homes uninvited. It must have been what made them effective guards: that they were on alert even at the smallest thing out of the ordinary. Osmun hoped they weren’t more wary than they were thirsty.

“Evening, sirs,” Osmun said, setting the flagons down on a nearby table. He told them what he had told the guard at the door, and he spotted a set of keys on the largest, most intimidating guard as he did so. He also couldn’t help but notice they were all carrying short swords and a variety of smaller weapons: knives, spiked knuckles, bucklers, crossbows… this was not rote duty for them. They were prepared to kill.

“They were just going to get rid of all the wine?” one of them asked as he picked up a flagon and drank. “That’s going to be ill received news in the morning.”

“Too true,” Osmun agreed. Two of the other guards took up flagons eagerly and drained them quickly.

“Guess we’ll have to go down to the taverns now,” said the youngest-looking guard. “Jannus, take your cup! What are you waiting for?”

The tallest guard among them leaned against the stone wall beside the steel door, arms crossed. He was mostly bald save for thin black stubble around his ears and the back of his head. He had a wide, ugly face that looked to be twisted into a permanent scowl and, perhaps to explain his attitude, a scar across his throat. “The stuff makes me ill,” he grumbled, his voice like an ox’s grunt. The young guard chuckled.

“What, can’t handle your drink, is that it?” His smile disappeared when he saw how Jannus looked at him.

“I can’t stand the taste of it. Or the smell of it. Or the look of it. Reminds me of my father, that lousy bastard.”

“Why don’t you join us then?” It took Osmun a moment to realize the question was for him.

“What? Me? I, uh, I can’t either.”

“Why not?”

Osmun could not count the myriad scenarios he had imagined in his mind, but this was not one of them. “I have more deliveries to make. You know, before they cart the stuff off tomorrow. Otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate.”

“More for us, then.” The young guard picked up another flagon. Osmun pressed his palms to his sides so they could not see that they were shaking. It would only be a few moments before the guards started to feel drowsy, and then only a few more before they were unconscious. And unless Jannus was as stupid as he was ugly, he would realize what was happening in an instant.

“Say, is there something else you could bring for Jannus, here?” one of the guards asked. “Shame that he should be the only one not celebrating.”

“We aren’t celebrating,” another guard said. “We’re just drinking.”

“I’ll go check the store room to see if I can find something,” Osmun said as he slowly turned to walk away.

“Shouldn’t you ask him what he wants? Jannus, what do you want?”

Jannus replied, but Osmun could only hear his heart pounding. His plan had failed. All he could do now was escape. Nasiri would have to accept the bad news. She had asked the impossible of him, after all. She must have expected there would only be the slightest chance he would succeed.

Osmun nodded, not asking Jannus to repeat himself, gave a smile, and walked away. Still pressing his palms against his sides, his hand touched the pouch of the root powder. “Beacon be praised,” he whispered. He continued down the hallway and, once out of sight of the guards, took the pouch from his pocket and dropped it into the iron casing of the nearest torch. A thick brown smoke began to plume as the flames began to consume the powder. Osmun covered his mouth and went to the staircase, descending halfway, where he waited.

From above he heard a few faint clatters followed by much louder ones, and one man’s shouting. Then there were footsteps pounding down the hallway towards the stairs. Osmun could hear Jannus cursing as he reached the top of the stairs.

Osmun started to run down the stairs and heard the guard behind him. Looking over his shoulder he saw Jannus pounding down the steps, and then faltering for a moment before pitching forward. The guard’s sword slid down the stairs and stopped at Osmun’s feet. The priest stood still, not daring to move. An absolute silence dominated the stone hallways, save for the breathing of the unconscious guard before him. When he heard nothing else for a few moments, Osmun went back up the stairs and, seeing Jannus sprawled and unmoving, took the keys from Jannus’ belt.

At the top of the stairs a dim haze still hung in the air. Osmun made his way down the hallway back to the Compendium door, crouching and covering his mouth with the cloth of the apron as he went. It would be embarrassing for him to succeed in his plan this far and then succumb to his own ploy. He couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the other guards sprawled out on the floor, sleeping, with wine spilled all over the floors. He chuckled at the thought of the conversation they would have with their superiors in the morning, and how they might try to rationalize their apparent dereliction of duty.

It was the largest key, of course, that fit into the steel door, but did not seem as though it could unlock it. Osmun could turn the key a full rotation to the left and right and it did nothing. There were three other keys on the ring, but they were all hopelessly small. He took a step back and stared at the door, seeing Cleric – Egus – with keys in hand.

The trial.

He remembered how Egus had used a sequence of specific turns to open one of the iron doors in the Cathedral. Osmun put the largest key back into the keyhole and closed his eyes, trying to let his memory guide his hand…

He felt the key catch and heard the bolt slide out of place.

The door must have been six inches of solid steel, but it opened with surprising ease, and almost without a sound. The room beyond the door looked tiny at first, until Osmun realized that it was simply full. The room was divided by rows of shelves; the walls were lined with bookcases, and in the very center of the room were four large tables pushed against each other. Against the far wall was a pedestal, atop which sat a leather-bound tome that looked older than anything else in sight: the Untranslated Tome. Nasiri had told him it would likely be within easy reach. He was thankful that she appeared to be correct. Far to his left, wooden stairs went up to another level. Did the Compendium fill the entire height of the tower? Something on the table caught Osmun’s eye and distracted him from his goal; it was the chest that Egus and Andrican had brought to his trial. The chest that supposedly contained sacred Dramandi relics.

He found himself opening it and gazing inside. Pieces of smooth wood divided the chest into sections and, without thinking, Osmun was reaching inside. He picked up a circular disc the size of a small plate, but it was unlike anything he had ever seen. There were several layers tiered atop one another, each successive one smaller than the one before, coming to a jewelled apex. The disc was some kind of metal, the colour of silver, yet Osmun somehow knew it was wholly unique. There were designs carved into each tier, resembling some arcane child of written language and sculpted art. The jewel was black. Osmun thought it might be jet, though he noticed it reflected no light; the torches behind him were invisible in the black orb while at the same time dancing on the silvery surfaces of the disc.

The torchlight flickered. Someone walked passed it. Osmun spun around – it was standing in the doorway.

“Ajkah thuun daz Velskotahn!”

Osmun turned the other way and immediately fell to his knees, coughing and dizzy. The smoke… he had been standing. The smoke from the pouch must not have fully dispersed.

“Tharoz dy vanu…” The shadow approached.

Summoning the whole of his will, Osmun lifted himself to his feet and staggered towards the pedestal, taking hold of the tome with both hands. The book was so heavy that it nearly took him off balance. Looking back to the doorway, all he could see was the night-black spirit, growing and enveloping everything around him. Closing his eyes, Osmun charged forward; he collided with a table edge but stayed on his feet and kept going towards the door, towards the light. Away from the darkness…… He was in the hallway, only needing to get down the stairs and out the door… and to the wall. Then he would be safe. The torches began to dim and the hall itself began to twist and turn as if the entire tower was falling over. Osmun tucked the book under one arm and steadied himself against the wall with the other.

The voice of the spirit was screaming at him. Not pursuing him… it was screaming from inside him. Tharoz nal kaar!

Down the stairs, past the sleeping guards, Osmun slammed into the steel door, pushing against it with all of his strength until it was open just wide enough for him to get out. His vision began to blur, and he could barely see the forms of guards running towards him as he dropped to his knees, succumbing to sleep.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 19

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

It was the first night that he could remember where his sleep was uninterrupted by sentry duty. Only his dreams kept Zayd from having fully restful sleep, but he had grown accustomed to it, or at least as accustomed as was possible, he estimated.

It was the safety of being in Ten Tower fort, Zayd thought. That was the real difference. He had been a sparrow among hawks for days and days, and while a cautious voice in his head warned him not to become too at ease, he could tell that the soldiers of Ten Tower were not the same type of soldier as the men of the Ninth Regiment. Or, if they were, they were well disciplined and displayed none of the aggression that Zayd had experienced following the siege of Yasri. Those soldiers had an unquenchable bloodlust, something too vicious to be innate; more likely it was something that infected them during the siege. It had plunged them into barbarism and reshaped them into barbarous men. War was the forge that took wondrous things and turned them misshapen.

Except for some. For some, it was precisely the reverse.

Barrett stood in the doorway of the barracks, a bowl in each hand, and approached once he saw Zayd sitting up awake in the bunk. The morning sun poured in through the small windows of the wooden barracks of Ten Tower, telling Zayd at once that it was far past dawn. Barrett sat on a cot facing Zayd and handed him a bowl of tepid oats and milk.

“It was warm,” Barrett said. “Maybe an hour ago.”

Zayd rubbed his eyes. “I can’t recall the last time I was not up with the dawn.” He ate a spoonful of the oats and, despite it being tepid, found it to be surprisingly nourishing. “I’m sure I will be reprimanded.”

“Not quite. Commander Walrend ordered that we not be woken for the morning’s tasks.” Barrett stirred his spoon in his bowl. “Which is why I, too, am without warm breakfast.”

“Not woken,” Zayd repeated before taking another bite. “Something I could get used to.”

“Try not to. It was only for today.”

They ate the remainder of their meal in silence. The sounds of soldiers practicing combat and performing drills in full gear sparked long dormant memories in Zayd, back to when he was first conscripted in the Imperial army.

“What is it?” Barrett asked. Zayd looked at him, confused, until he realized he had stopped mid-motion, his spoon hanging halfway between his mouth and the bowl in his lap.

“Nothing. A long buried memory stirring in my mind. I felt for a moment as though I was back at the beginning. Another ten years of service ahead of me.”

Barrett paused. “By the Beacon, you [_are _]close to the end, aren’t you? Has it been ten years?”

“Nearly.”

“Ten years since…” Barrett trailed off and dragged his spoon through his empty bowl. The unspoken offense often swam near the surface, yet always remained submerged, always hidden by a mask of anger.

“Barrett… I –”

“No. No apologies. I would have done the same. I would have killed every last enemy I could. You didn’t know we would offer you quarter. And we knew the dangers. He always tried to make sure I was more cautious than brave. Few three-term soldiers see retirement. Even ones as skilled as my father. So… do not apologize. I wouldn’t apologize to any invader. You aren’t sorry, and you ought not to be. I would’ve killed you if I had the chance, and I would’ve forgotten you along with all the others that have stood before me.”

Zayd nodded, half in understanding, half lost in disbelief. Was this the same man who had snarled at the sight of him whenever they crossed paths for the better part of a decade? Was it the same man who, on the day of his surrender, had tried to stab Zayd with the same arrow that had killed his father? Barrett must have seen him fire the arrow that night. He remembered, as clear as any memory he possessed, that it took three other knights to restrain him as he screamed and cursed, saliva spraying from his mouth. He had never been more grateful that he had not faced off against Barrett directly than he had been that day. He could still see the fearful faces of the other Tauthri in his village as they watched, uncertain of their fate and terrified of the prospect of the hysteric warrior being unleashed upon them.

“Would you have done what I did?” Zayd asked. “Would you have yielded? Or would you have chosen to die, as the Dramandi did?”

“I don’t know what I would have done. I know that I would never want to yield to an enemy… [_any _]enemy. I would keep fighting until I bled every last drop. But you surrendered, and you’ve had ten years of service because of it. And you could have more if you chose. So the choice for me would be not whether to die fighting, but [_when _]you would die fighting, and for which god.”

“So you would have surrendered and given allegiance?”

“To the Ryferians, yes. But I would not to the Dramandi or the Ivesians, or any other power. I would hope that I would have had the wisdom to see that the Empire was always and truly on the side of righteousness, of light and of everything good. You must have recognized the Empire as that. In some way, you must have known. If not, it must have been the hardest choice you’ve ever made.”

“Neither. I didn’t know then, and I don’t think I could have known. I never truly understood the Beacon until I was already in his ranks. But the decision was not difficult, either. Looking at my wife and my son, I knew that I had to do everything I could to save them. I couldn’t watch the two creatures I love the most die because of a choice that I made. And she loves me, so I think she would have chosen the same. Love wants to endure. It wants to endure all storms that it might flourish once they subside, and it will endure any sacrifice, any loss, and what remains will once again make itself whole. I believe I must have known this, standing as I was, surrendering, that day on the road.”

“Perhaps it was the Beacon speaking to you, whispering in your ear,” Barrett said.

Zayd smiled. “Yes, perhaps it was, so that I might be alive to fight against his enemies. The Dramandi.”

“And to help capture traitors in his army,” Barrett laughed. “Who can know, though? Perhaps the true purpose has yet to come.”

 

 

 

“You might think that very little goes on here,” Commander Walrend said, leaning on the railing of one of the southeastern lookout towers. “But you’d be mistaken. There’s always something going on. We might be far from the front, quite far, but we’re still in hostile territory.”

Zayd nodded and looked out at the landscape that rolled outward in a seemingly infinite expanse until it was lost to the horizon. Walrend had not looked at Zayd once since he stepped up into the tower at the commander’s request. Instead, Walrend was constantly preoccupied with the goings on of the fort, only stopping occasionally to look outward as if to give himself a respite from barking orders. When he squinted, his deep-set eyes looked nearly black.

The commander was an imposing man, possessing the stature of a warrior, the scars of a prisoner, and the discipline of a monk. Scars like the veins on a leaf traced across the sides of his head, running through his short brown hair. Part of one of his ears was missing, and a thin layer of stubble covered his cheeks and jaw.

Walrend spun around. “That lap was too slow!” he shouted down at a group of twenty men, each one carrying the better part of a tree trunk on his shoulders, that had just finished running the perimeter of the fort. “Go again! And don’t think I’m not watching your every bloody step!” The men stepped back into formation without a word or sign of protest and started running again. “What was I saying? Right. Enemy territory. It’s easy to forget that when you’re not lining up on the battlefield. But I see the Dramandi watching us. Yes, they’re probably watching us now. And you know what? I’m glad. Let them watch. Let them see how well-disciplined my men are. Let them see how they’re tough as iron. The enemy that comes to my gate is an enemy that will face a force as hardened as any veteran regiment.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Even the men of the Ninth Regiment, traitors though they were, still battle-hardened and yet even they could not stand against us.” Walrend pointed at the soldiers running. “See them there? Much faster this time. They’ll be as exhausted as a cheap dockside whore at high tide, but by the bloody Beacon, they will be toughened. That is how you stay ready for combat. Expect it every day. Every damned day.” Walrend turned and walked down the steep wooden staircase, back to the ground. Zayd followed.

“I’ve sent to General Vaetus to let him know what has transpired here. Praene’s treachery, the Dramandi attacks… everything.”

“What of our mission, Commander?”

“We’ll have to wait and see. It’s up to General Vaetus what happens next. He may ask you to accompany a contingent of my men while we escort the…… cargo… back to the capital. He may decide to send some of his own men to do it. Or he may ask for you and your fellow night-eyes to return to the front lines. Yes, yes, we’ll just have to wait.” Walrend stopped in his tracks and, for the first time, looked at Zayd. “You don’t mind what I said, do you? Night-eyes?” He turned and kept walking. Every soldier within sight of the striding commander quickened his pace or strained to work twice as hard.

“I know there are some fools in our ranks that look down on your kind. There may even be some here. But you’d never know it. Do you know why? Because my men know I wouldn’t stand for it. That’s belligerence, and I won’t have the slightest bit of it. The Tauthri put up a good scrap, but you saw reason and you came over to the side of the blessed! The En Kazyr did the same thing decades ago and no one dares say a deriding word to them. At least, not to their faces, lest they want to deal with an angry pillar of muscle and steel. No, captain, I see the asset you are – you and your men – and if General Vaetus grants it, I’d allow you to remain here as our sentries for as long as this fort is needed. The lot of you could finish out your terms of service right here. It’s not as glorified as being face to face with the enemy, but…” Walrend stopped and turned once more. Zayd thought he saw something of a grin. “But maybe you’ve had your fill of that. In fact, I’d wager as much. Talk to your men about it. Whatever happens, while we’re waiting on the General’s orders, you and your men will take the second watch. Starting tomorrow night.”

Zayd glanced up at the watch towers and smiled; he had thought that once the Eighth and Ninth Regiments left Yasri, the great punishments they had endured during the siege would be over. Yet they continued to die, and not just at the hands of the enemy. He thought of Gavras, still unsure whether Barrett running him down was an accident or not. Ten Tower seemed to be a locus of order set in a wilderness of chaos, and Zayd thought that, if Vaetus did not summon them to the front, wherever that was at this point, he might be happy to serve his remaining months here, with predictability and routine… boring, safe routine.

“May I ask, sir, what will happen to Praene?”

“We’re going to question him, along with every one of his men. He must have been taking that loot somewhere. To someone. He had to have some way of dealing with that gargantuan slab of gold. I doubt he would be content to chisel off a piece here and there for the rest of his life. I doubt his fellow defectors would be content with that just the same. So we’ll question him… I dislike torture, but if it comes to that, then it comes to that. And once he talks, we’ll have the giant take his head.”

“There’s an En Kazyr here?”

“Yes, the one that was marching with you. Our patrols found him just before we found Barrett. He said that one of the Tauthri saved his life. Was that you he meant?”

“No, not me, sir. His name was Turald.”

 

 

Tascell, Daruthin, and the six other Tauthri were at the fort’s archery range, demonstrating to a watching group of Ryferian soldiers that they needed no practice. Commander Walrend ceased to be the taskmaster after his men had the final meal of the day, when they could cajole, make games where they could find them and, much of the time, place bets on whoever played. Walrend understood that enforcing his normal level of discipline at all hours of the day would quickly breed resentful soldiers, and resentful soldiers sometimes sought to replace their commanding officer in ways that Walrend imagined would be quite distasteful.

On their second night at Ten Tower, the Tauthri were the subject of the soldiers’ betting games. Wagers were being placed to see, between Daruthin and Tascell, who had the more accurate shot, but after several rounds won, Daruthin stepped back and let Lesryn, one of the other scouts, compete against Tascell. It made for a more evenly matched competition and for a more compelling pair for the soldiers’ bets.

They were smiling as Zayd approached. Completely caught up by the energy of the soldiers cheering them on, they had not noticed him watching, and Zayd was glad for it. An arrow hit a wooden practice soldier in the head, and a cheer went up from half of the soldiers. Coins changed hands. Watching, Zayd had little doubt his men would choose to stay, given the chance. Walrend had been right when he said that if any of these men harboured hate, they would never know it.

“Captain,” a deep voice boomed behind Zayd. He turned to see Talazz, surprised at not having heard the En Kazyr walk up to him. “I am glad to see you here.”

Zayd nodded and, for an instant, remembered the black arrows that wounded the giant. The worry was plain on his face. The giant’s chuckle sounded like thunder.

“I hold no grudge against you for wounding me and whichever or your men stung me with arrows.It was necessary for your escape, and for the eventual capture of the traitor. And I should thank whoever it was that warned me in the forest.” Talazz frowned and looked away. “It disgusted me to run, though I would have died had I not. And I ran from the Dramandi as well as from the traitors.” The giant looked at his feet. “I am… ashamed. It will take years and many great deeds to restore my honour. It will start when I am allowed to take the lives of the traitors who shamed me. That will be a good start.”

“They should count themselves lucky to have a clean death,” Zayd said. “What will you do after?”

“I have asked to return to the front. These marks on my honour demand that I return to the battle. If I am lucky, I will kill many Dramandi before I die. Perhaps the commander will have me kill the Dramandi prisoners here as well before I go.”

“Perhaps,” Zayd said. He remembered Sera’s desperation as she attacked him. Surely she would welcome an end to the suffering of her people, and if not that, then at least to her own. He had seen as much in her eyes and heard it in her voice. The yearning for death. He remembered such desperation amongst his own kin. Wenniam had wanted to die with a sword in his hand, as if there was more dignity in that. But there was no dignity in allowing the slaughter of your people to continue when there was hope.

And there was still hope for Sera. He knew there was. If she would be swayed, how many of her people would live? Would the Empire not be stronger for having the Dramandi as vassals instead of merely creating another burial ground for an entire people? She was not a noble, as far as he knew, and not a part of their army, but it was clear that she was loved and respected by her people, and not only because of her status as a Revered. She might even convince the commander of Roh Dun’s Shields to lay down their arms, or rather, to swear those arms to the service of the emperor.

Having had their fill of betting on Tascell and Lesryn, the soldiers dispersed, some still gloating, many still commiserating, and Zayd approached his men, who beamed. Their pride, and likely their egos, were inflated at the show of admiration from the Trueborn.

“Well done,” Zayd said. “Which of you was the victor?” Tascell pointed to Lesryn, who took an exaggerated bow, eliciting a laugh from the others.

“Though he really owes his victory to Daruthin, for conceding the competition,” Tascell said.

“I conceded the victory,” Daruthin corrected. “There was no competition.”

“You may have a chance to reclaim it,” Zayd said. “Commander Walrend would like us to remain here.”

“For how long?” Daruthin asked.

“Several weeks, at least. If General Vaetus does not request that we return for the battle against the Dramandi remnants, then it would be indefinite. At least until the war is over.”

Zayd expected more of a pause as his men thought it over, but Daruthin responded right away: “If we are not called back, I would stay here. I’ve had enough of this war.”

“Walrend is very strict. Your tasks will be demanding of you. Every day.”

“It could not be more demanding than what we’ve been through,” Tascell said. “At least Walrend seems even-handed in his toughness. I would stay, too.” Assent soon followed from each of them. Zayd nodded.

“He’ll be happy to know your choice,” Zayd said. “Make sure you are rested tonight; tomorrow we will be treated the same as the others.”

Zayd began to walk back to the barracks. He could feel sleep encroaching on him despite having slept long the night before, as if all of the restful nights he should have had were at last trying to have their time all at once. Tascell fell into step beside him.

Vahr, I wanted to say… I need to give you my apologies. The way I acted when we fled that night…… it was shameful. I doubted you.”

Zayd stopped walking and, for a moment, said nothing. He had forgotten about how Tascell had acted then, and what he had said. Such things were made minor when set next to everything that had happened around them. Yet it still clearly held some importance to his lieutenant. “You did doubt me, Tascell, that’s true… but I don’t know if I should fault you for that. I might have done the same. I doubt many could anticipate being in the pit we found ourselves in, and fewer still would have come through it as wholly as we did. And, I should add, you did save my life.”

“Well…” Tascell looked at the ground, “that soldier may not have found you lying there.”

“He would have. Without a doubt.”

“I almost betrayed you, Vahr.

“You could have, but you didn’t. You could have left me there to die; you could have left all of the others behind and tried to save yourself. It would have been the easiest to right then, but instead you did the hard thing. Integrity is only seen when the hard choice is taken over the simple one. I said nothing after, but I did wonder if the others would have made the same hard choice.”

“They would have,” Tascell said. “I’m sure they would have. Can I ask… was Turald a hard choice?”

“What? What are you asking me?” Zayd shifted uneasily where he stood. His lieutenant looked him in the eye, though he could tell it was not a question he pursued easily.

“I don’t know exactly what was said. It seemed like they were about to kill Daruthin, then you spoke to them, and they left Daruthin alone and killed Turald instead. It looked like they made you choose which one of us would die.”

“Do the others think this as well?”

“I don’t know… not that I know of. They’ve said nothing of it.”

Unsure of what to say, Zayd balled his fists a few times and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He searched his mind for the words a leader would say, something to placate, but the only words he could grasp formed the simple and ugly truth. “They did make me choose. I tried to dissuade them, but there was no changing their mind. I could even have told them to kill me, and I think that brute would have done it. It rightly should have been me – I’m the one who warned Talazz.”

“Why did you choose Turald?”

Zayd hesitated. “I don’t think you want to know this as badly as I don’t want to say.” Tascell did not look away. “It couldn’t have been Daruthin or you; you are too valuable to me as lieutenants and too close to me as kin. And Turald said he had no family. For those two reasons, it had to be him.”

Tascell finally looked away, gazing at something past Zayd, far off in the distance or in memory. “How often do you think like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Reducing your soldiers to a currency… the value of their utility.”

“I really can’t say, Tascell. Not often, but still too much. It’s the worst thing that commanders are forced to do: to look at lives as unequal…… being more or less worthy. It turns you into something else… something monstrous.”

“I’m glad it was you, then. I may have made a hard choice, vahr, but I can’t think of one harder than the one you made.”

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 20

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

The morning brought something familiar. It was not the regimented drills and rigid structure that Zayd had expected. What was familiar was the chaos that the Tauthri had thought they finally escaped; two soldiers had been beaten bloody in the final hours of the night, and it had been Talazz who had done the beating.

Commander Walrend questioned Talazz in the barracks since his officer’s quarters were too small to accommodate the En Kazyr. Walrend hand-picked a few soldiers to remain in the barracks with him, presumably to dissuade the giant from any further belligerence, though a number of soldiers mumbled the obvious truth that it would take a good handful more to send a convincing message.

And even though Walrend had had the barracks emptied before he began questioning Talazz, it was not long before rumors began spreading through the fort by hushed voice to captive ear, rumors which reached Zayd well before the questioning had finished.

“They said that these two men, Bailern and Vard, were lashing horses to the carriage that was brought in… because there is a great slab of gold, taller than a man and three times as wide, just sitting there!” the soldier spread out his arms as wide and enthusiastically as he could. “By the Beacon, you were marching along with the damned thing. Did you even know what was there?”

“I knew. We all did.”

“Marinus’ mother… what I would give to see it. Just to see.” Zayd tried not to curl his lip; it could have been innocent curiosity, but the soldier’s eagerness could just as easily have been the seed that turned curiosity into mutiny. “But the commander chose Bailern and Vard to stand guard nearby. Not to guard the carriage, mind you. He didn’t tell them what was there.”

“Maybe one of them looked.”

“Not a chance,” the soldier said, shaking his head emphatically. “Them two… loyal as they come. They follow the order to the letter. Add to that, they’re not bright… not enough imagination between the two of them to tell a dirty joke. They wouldn’t have gone looking.”

“And yet… they did?”

The soldier nodded, still staring in the direction of the carriage. “That they did… as if they were going to take it somewhere. Where would you even go with something like that? It’s the strangest thing. So… they’re tying up horses, slow as molasses, like they’re drunk or something…… and along comes the giant, who gives them a proper thrashing. The odd thing was, the two of them kept trying. You’d think if you were scheming and all of a sudden you’re about to be found out, you’d try to… I don’t know, get away with it somehow. Not so. They went at the giant, blades drawn, but that big bastard just kept putting them down. And they just kept getting back up.”

“What… Bailern and Vard?”

Another emphatic nod. “A blow to the head from that beast would put any man down, I should think. But somehow, these two… someone said Vard was still trying to stand after the giant broke one of his legs.”

Zayd felt his stomach turn. His skin went cold.

Cohvass.

It was exactly what Zayd had seen happen with Cohvass.

“Apparently, they don’t have a single tooth left between the two of them,” the soldier went on. “Hey, where are you off to in such a rush?”

 

 

“It’s still happening, Sera.”

The prisoners were kept in a small wooden building originally intended for surplus supplies, but had been altered when the fort had taken on the Dramandi and Praene and his mutineers. It was completely dark inside, which was nothing for Zayd, but his voice startled Sera, who, like the rest of the prisoners, was tied to a wooden post that had been driven a foot deep into the dirt floor.

“Who speaks?” she whispered.

“Zayd. Sera, the phantoms you saw by the gold… and what happened to Cohvass… it’s happening here, too.”

“I told you before that you need to rid yourselves of it. Put it back underground. Deep underground.” A few other Dramandi voices whispered to Sera, but she silenced them with a hush.

“I don’t think that will happen. No one would willingly give up such a treasure.”

“Tell whoever commands you. Tell him that this treasure is plagued.”

“It wouldn’t matter; our general has given the order to have them sent to our capital. The commander here does not have the rank to do anything but obey.”

Sera leaned forward as much as she could. “Then what has happened will continue to happen. You [_know _]that there is something they are after… something they want. But they are beholden to the object, so as long as there is someone close by, they will try to manipulate them, to take control.”

Zayd ran a hand along the smooth side of his head. Beads of sweat had begun to form even though it was a mild day. It was this revelation that caused him to sweat, caused his heart to beat faster… caused his skin to crawl. There had been that feeling the first time he had seen the gold monolith, the dread of looking upon a secret that was too vast and too terrible to fully understand, yet even the glimpse was enough for him to realize that he did not want to know. The vague impression of the thing was still too much to bear.

“Your priests won’t be able to cleanse the gold, either,” Sera continued. “This is what they do, yes? They cleanse the traces of shadows, of spirits. They break the connection so there is no more bridge to this world. What I’ve told you to do is the only thing you can do. What happens when one of them takes hold of your giant?”

“It would take thirty men to take him down,” Zayd said. He shuddered at the thought of Talazz enduring the scale of injury that Cohvass had. Would thirty men even be enough?

“Your capital city… is this where your emperor is?”

“Yes.”

Sera said nothing further. She knew he could see her purse her lips as one does when they are holding back dreadful words. Could one of these phantoms take hold of the emperor? Zayd thought not, but failed to assert a reason why. What if one did? Suddenly, the entire Empire would be at the whim of this evil that, even now, rested with its vessel in plain view. Surely then, whatever aim it had, with the resources of the Ryferian Empire at hand, it could carry it out.

Unite the keys…

Take the portal to Velskotahn… Across the ocean.

The cryptic phrases began to align. Was the monolith the portal that was spoken of? And the keys… how were they to open it? That must not be possible – it was still a single, solid piece of gold.

“You’re denying it,” Sera said. “Don’t think that because something is unbelievable that it must be impossible.”

“How did you know that’s what I was thinking?”

“Because I know that I would be thinking it, too.”

Then there was only one thing to do, Zayd thought. Walrend had to convince Vaetus to give new orders: to have the monolith buried. And so Zayd must convince Walrend of what he knew, to make him believe the unbelievable.

“Thank you, Sera. I know now what to do.”

“What is to become of us?” Sera asked, just as Zayd stood to leave. He knelt again.

“I don’t know.”

“If they’re going to kill us… we would like it to be here. On our land. Our home.”

Zayd knelt again. “You can still save them… those that can still be saved. Make the sacrifice that I made, Sera. The sacrifice my people made. It runs deep, but we still have each other, and we still have our memories. Whatever you think of it, it’s better than the nothingness you’re running towards.”

“That won’t happen,” Sera said. Her tone for the first time carried the weight of regret instead of the defiance that had always been there until now.

“Because of the Raan Dura.”

Sera nodded. “Do you know… is it here?”

“I don’t know what it looks like, so I wouldn’t even know if I was holding it.”

“It’s a thing of beauty, but not the kind of beauty that men and women of this world could create. It is made of the purest silver… like no silver you have ever seen before. Simply by looking upon it, you would know in your soul that it is an object too perfect to have been created by mortals. It is a circular, with small circles set atop one another until, at its zenith, a jewel, black and flawless, like the night sky in which Aulvennic, the Guiding Star, made his home.”

“Sera, why didn’t you tell me this?” Zayd asked. The seer’s smile faded.

“Why does it matter? It is gone.”

Zayd looked at his feet, not sure of what to say. He had seen it before.

And it was with them in the fort.

 

 

Walrend had ordered a small dais constructed for the next day’s executions. The questioning of Willar Praene and those of the Ninth Regiment who were deemed to be complicit in his mutiny – which was everyone – had been swift and brutal. Muffled screams were heard throughout the fort all afternoon and into the evening, and even though there was no sympathy for traitors amongst the soldiers of the Fourth Regiment, hearing the proof of torture was enough to put them all into somber spirits. Soldiers hammered planks of wood into place without speaking to one another, wondering, as they drove the nails home, if similar tools were being employed against the warriors of the Ninth.

Once the dais was finished, everyone seemed to ignore it. Soldiers walked wide around it. No one looked at it. The screams were enough of a reminder; they did not need another. The interrogation stopped at nightfall, when the fort slumbered. It nearly elicited a smile from Zayd, how predictable it was, when he thought about it: of course Walrend, not one to disobey his own rules, would stop maiming the Ninth at nightfall.

Still, though, standing at the base of the dais, with the only sound coming from the wind caressing the forest outside Ten Tower’s walls, Zayd thought he could hear screaming. He shook his head, trying to jar the echoes loose.

He looked around the towers of the fort, seeing his men silently patrolling the walls, going from one walkway to another, or stopping in a watchtower to relieve whichever Tauthri was there, who then took a turn on the walkways.

In the night’s quiet, bereft even of the sounds of forest creatures, Zayd knelt at the foot of the dais and prayed to Xidius for guidance. He thought back on his encounter with Walrend that day, after he had spoken with Sera.

“New orders?” Walrend had asked, stupefied, striding eagerly towards the makeshift prison where the Ninth were being held, unaware of what approached. The commander was flanked by his lieutenants, who seemed just as eager to begin interrogating the mutineers. “New orders to do what?” Zayd tried his best to keep pace with Walrend, and jostled alongside him, much to the annoyance of the lieutenants.

“To put the monolith underground,” Zayd said.

“Put it underground,” Walrend said, as if repeating Zayd would make his request more reasonable.

“Yes, sir. To bury it.”

“I see no reason to do that. Is there a reason, captain?”

“It needs to be cleansed, commander. By a cleric. There is something within it that has an especially strong link to the Beyond. It’s the reason your men, Vard and Bailern, acted out in such a way that the En Kazyr had to –”

“The answer is no. If it needs to have a cleric purge its link to the wickedness of this place, then that is what will happen, but it will happen in Lycernum. Not here. The general is a patient man, but I will not test that patience by further delaying his wishes. Least of all, I will not give the impression that I am the same sort of man as Praene, who looks upon shiny treasures and suddenly starts dreaming of ways to make them my own. No, indeed. There is a supply caravan arriving tomorrow, and they will take the monolith the rest of the way, and I will be rid of it and happier for it.”

Zayd had felt the same sinking feeling, the distinct sensation of failure, while he watched the commander walk away as he had felt when Cohvass – or whatever inhabited him – had betrayed their presence in Praene’s camp. Walrend’s mind was made up; what else could he do? He certainly could not stop the monolith from being taken.

Finishing his prayer and rising to his feet, he could not help but look over to the north-western wall of the fort where the laden carriage sat next to the stables, awash in the light of nearby torches. From a distance, three guards watched the carriage from the edge torchlight, standing half in darkness.

Canvas still covered what Zayd knew to be underneath, and as he became aware that his glance had become a stare, he felt a cold wind at his neck and saw it rustle the covering, taunting, threatening to pull it back and expose what was underneath. He pulled his attention away, focusing again on the dais in front of him, on the wooden block, a grisly altar, that would tomorrow be soaked through with blood.

Zayd walked towards the guards who saluted him as they approached.

“You’re relieved,” Zayd said, returning the salute.

“Doesn’t seem that we’ve been at it that long, sir,” one of the guards said.

“It’s true, we didn’t start long ago, I don’t think,” another agreed.

“You can stay out here for longer, if you like,” Zayd said, “but the giant will be out for his watch soon. Any moment, really.”

The guards shot each other quick looks.

“Bloody Beyond, I’m not going to get in his way. You two can stay out here, but I’m not keen on having any of my bones broken tonight!” The guard walked away at a brisk pace, followed closely by another.

The third went to follow but stopped and slowly turned back, as if he thought he had heard something incredible.

“Are you here to serve?” the guard asked, his voice hoarse and quiet. Zayd stepped towards him.

“Get out of there!” he hissed, trying to sound as threatening as possible. But the guard, a young man with round features and big eyes, simply smiled. It was a grotesque sight, an expression made by something that had never made it before. “Why not me?” Zayd asked. “Why not use me as your vessel?”

The guard, still smiling, tilted his head to the side. “There is no need. You are to serve. Unite the keys. It is Velskotahn’s will.”

Zayd nodded. “Very well. I will serve… I will unite the keys.” His heart pounded. Zayd flexed a hand, ready to draw his blade. But the guard turned and began to walk again, taking a few unsteady steps before stopping and looking around once more. Zayd could tell the young man’s senses had returned… and that something had left. Shaking off his confusion, the guard jogged off into the darkness.

Zayd exhaled and slowly looked back towards the carriage, imagining the invisible evil which he knew surrounded it. He imagined ghostly fingers at his neck and hollow eyes watching him…

If they had not stumbled upon the monolith, maybe Praene would never have been tempted as he was. Much would be different. Gavras might still be alive. Barrett might still be his enemy. But wish as he might, he could not undo what had been done, and thinking that Praene could be something other than what he was would not save him. Whether it was the presence of the monolith that stirred something already within him or if it brought him to treason all on its own made little difference; it did affect men somehow. Zayd was certain. Thinking of the danger of the monolith and its phantoms reaching Lycernum, Zayd approached it, a blade in hand and intention in his mind.

 

 

 

The sounds of supply wagons and orders being shouted carried through the forest for everyone in Ten Tower to hear, and Zayd drummed his fingers anxiously against his leg. Several soldiers lifted the large crossbeam – a roughly hewn tree trunk – out of its rests so that the north gates of the fort could swing open.

The supply convoy took just over an hour to unload and to be stowed away. At seeing the size of it, Zayd thought it would have taken at least twice as long, but Walrend’s men executed the task with precision and the discipline of a military maneuver. That Walrend himself was there inspecting nearly every wagon helped keep them focused.

The men who had brought the convoy – one of the Empire’s mariner units – had a brief respite after their march to Ten Tower. They had their midday meal with the rest of the Fourth and exchanged news from their respective fronts.

“This might be one of the last times we resupply,” one of the mariners said.

“The war isn’t over. Not until Vaetus defeats the Shields,” a soldier replied.

“That could be soon. Could be that it’s already done. We were resupplying another regiment close to the front, five days ago maybe. They said that the general found where the Shields were camped and was marching there. So it could be that those slippery fools have finally met a righteous end.”

“I’ll believe it when I see their heads piled high.”

They went on, but their chatter drifted into the background as Zayd thought about what he had heard. The mariner was right; if Vaetus managed to corner and defeat the Shields then surely it meant the war could formally be considered over. Neither Vaetus, though, nor the emperor would declare it at an end with enemy still in the field.

Zayd thought about Sera and what she might think, how she might feel, if she were to hear what was being said. It would undoubtedly be the final blow to her and her kind. She had said as much already, that there was no hope left for her people, that it was only a matter of time before they were gone. It might be true, but Zayd did not believe she had truly accepted that. If he handed the Raan Dura to her, he knew she would try to save them. There was still hope, as there had been hope for the Tauthri……

When they had finished the meal, the mariners organized outside north gate, arranging their convoy in marching order. Talazz, impossible not to be noticed, waited ominously next to the dais, resting his unsheathed greatsword against his shoulder. The spotless steel gleamed in the midday sun so brightly that it seemed as though the blade itself was made of light.

Walrend’s soldiers were assembling as well, some watching the mariners as they readied to depart, but many more eying the dais in grim anticipation. Zayd glanced over to the wall next to the stables, looking at the carriage and its canvas-covered charge. Commander Walrend was there giving orders to Drusidus, the mariner captain, while a pair of horses was being bridled. In just a few minutes they would be taking the carriage out towards the coast and from there straight to Lycernum. Zayd walked slowly around the soldiers by the dais and tried to block out their murmurs as Walrend continued to speak to Drusidus, catching only fragments of what was being said.

“…only those you trust… not look under the canvas, or tell them what is underneath… Vaetus will hold you responsible for its safe delivery to Lycernum…” Drusidus, a short yet broad and muscular man, nodded intently at everything Walrend said. When the commander finished speaking, the gruff captain gave him an enthusiastic salute. Zayd’s fingers continued to tap restlessly against his leg as the commander motioned for the carriage to be brought into line in the caravan. Zayd hoped that the captain at least had the discipline not to peel back the canvas to see what was underneath.

The mariner convoy exited the fort with few paying them any attention; all eyes had become focused on the dais as the prisoners, about thirty in all, were marched in a single line towards it. A few jeers and shouts were hurled at the traitors, but Zayd only watched the convoy as it left. Even when he heard the unmistakable sound of Talazz’s sword biting through flesh and into the thick wood block underneath, he did not take his eyes away from the fort’s north gate as it closed.

 

 

 

The buzzing of flies did not abate at night. The blood-soaked dais stood mostly intact, though splinters of wood sprayed outward from its centre. Talazz had proven too effective and had quickly whittled away the wooden block on which the traitors had to rest their heads before they were struck off. The block had to be replaced twice before the last prisoner had died. The dead were then taken outside the fort’s high walls and burned on a pyre in a clearing. Zayd thought Walrend would save the heads for some gruesome display. “This ground will be stained red for days,” he had heard the commander mutter. “That is enough of a display.”

Clouds concealed every star. The air hung heavy, promising a storm, but there was no wind, as if the night was holding its breath for Zayd. He held his breath, too. From his post in one of the southern watchtowers he surveyed the fort. Besides the Tauthri, only a handful of guards were awake, keeping watch by the gates at the north and southeast points of the fort. A few wandered the perimeter, half-heartedly checking for anything amiss. When one of them passed below Zayd’s tower, he descended the stairs to the ground without making a noise.

He wasn’t sure if the other Tauthri were watching him. If they were, they too must have been wondering what kind of madness possessed him. Yet there was no madness in it. What Zayd had witnessed until now was merely the distant roll of thunder that introduced the tempest. If the darkness here reached Lycernum then it would have what it wanted. Zayd accepted that, whatever this ancient evil desired, it would not be something he would understand, but he could still reason that, understood or not, it must be resisted. Because if it reached Lycernum, it would only be a matter of time before its influence reached Tauth. And that was something he would not allow.

At the bottom of the tower’s wooden staircase was an oil lantern. Zayd picked it up and waved his hand in front of it several times. He breathed deeply and walked halfway back up and waited, his hands gripping the rail tightly. A guard passed by underneath him twice. It could have been the same guard; he wasn’t looking. He was wholly focused on the lantern that, after an interminable wait, winked back at him from a distance.

Zayd waited for a guard to make another pass and again descended when one went by. Lifting the lantern from the nail on which it hung, Zayd whispered a prayer. “This is not treason,” he said. “I am forever loyal to the Empire. This is not treason. This is… disobedience.” Going against a general’s orders would be only a slight offence when set next to allowing the edicts of Xidius to be debased and dishonoured. He walked about thirty paces, where the patrolling guard had just gone, and when he was close enough to the unoccupied southernmost watchtower, Zayd in an instant felt his strength ready to leave him. Why not do nothing instead of risk everything? The question could not be kept away from the front of his mind for very long. Standing in the light of the lantern he held, an answer finally came to him: to do nothing was to risk everything.

He swung the lantern by its handle and threw it, watching the flame flicker behind the glass as it flew away from him, getting more and more dim until it blossomed in a hot orange bloom against the side of the watchtower. There was a breath of pure silence… and, as Zayd turned to run towards the stables, the chaos began to unfold.

“Fire! Fire!” desperate cries sounded. From the corner of his eye Zayd could see another red-orange bloom take shape closer to the eastern wall. Shouts and cries became mixed and muddled together. It nearly sounded like battle. “Dramandi! Dramandi near the south gate!” Zayd heard a Tauthri voice exclaim.

As he ran past the blood-stained platform and neared the north end of the fort, Zayd could see the carriage, with horses bridled and ready, waiting for him. The woollen sheets that had concealed the carriages were heaped in a pile nearby. Ahead of the carriage, the north gate was opening. Tascell and Lesryn were there, bows in hand. Zayd climbed atop the carriage, grabbed the reins and spurred the horses into motion. There was a group running towards them –– the Dramandi prisoners.

And then Sera was there, climbing onto the carriage and sitting beside him.

“Once we’ve made it out,” Zayd said before Sera could even open her mouth. “Not now. Just… let me know if we’re being followed.”

As the carriage rolled through the north gate, Zayd looked over his shoulder and could see the Trueborn streaming out of the barracks towards the south end of the fort, some fighting the fire, many more arming themselves to fight the Dramandi on the other side of the wall.

And then they were out, and he lost sight of everyone. Sera looked back to see the other Dramandi prisoners make it through the gate and out into the forest beyond. They stayed that way – Zayd looking forward and Sera looking back – for a long time, long past when the sounds of the fort had disappeared and all they could hear was the carriage’s wooden wheels and the pounding of hooves.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 21

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

In the dream he had made it past the wall. Nasiri and Myron were both relieved and overjoyed at his success, and afterward everything fell into place: Andrican and Egus both realized he had been right all along, that they had not seen what was right in front of them. Andrican, so abhorred by his poor judgment, nearly prostrated himself before Osmun, as if he were a god demanding praise. He was granted the title of cleric almost immediately.

Osmun didn’t recall defeating the shadow, but he must have because the emperor requested that Osmun attend him in the Corviscan Palace, where he offered him congratulations on his advancement as well as his sincere gratitude for safeguarding the Empire and the faith. He couldn’t see the dark spectre lurking as it did, or hiding just in the corner of his vision. Yes, surely he must have bested it and sent it back to the accursed Beyond.

The waking world was much less kind. It was simple pain, corporeal and mundane, that tethered him and then dragged him from the ideal world that seemed so pliable to his whim back into harsh consciousness. It took him a moment to realize his limbs were reluctant to obey him, and when he opened his eyes the world was a blur of colours and shapes that had melded together. He let out a groan.

“Try not to move.” The voice came from a nearby blur.

“Nasiri?” Osmun asked, barely forming the word.

“You’re safe now. I wasn’t sure when you’d wake up. Or [_if _]you’d wake up.”

“I was enjoying the peace and quiet,” Myron’s voice came from nearby.

“I was enjoying a dream,” Osmun said, the words coming slowly, “where you were nowhere to be found.”

“Nothing wrong with his memory,” Myron muttered.

“What happened?” Osmun asked.

“Why don’t you tell us?” Nasiri said. Her voice was soft and concerned. “We were watching you from atop the wall. We saw you run out of the tower and then collapse.”

“I don’t remember… I remember climbing the wall…but after that, I can’t think of anything.”

“Probably for the best,” Myron said. “At least partly. We had to hoist you up the wall and over the side. It was rather…… undignified. It also explains the pain I’m guessing you’re feeling right now.”

“What explains it?”

“Suffice to say, it was not a gentle landing on the outside of the wall.”

“What does that mean?”

“Let’s leave it at that, shall we?”

Osmun tried to sit up, but a dozen different aches pushed him back down at once. “By the Beacon, I feel like I’ve broken something.”

“Sit back,” Nasiri said. “You probably have a few broken ribs from when Myron dropped you.”

“Nasiri!” Myron exclaimed. “Did you [_need _]to tell him?”

“Just stay still,” Nasiri said, ignoring Myron’s complaint. “You’ll need time to heal.”

“Wait…What of the Untranslated Tome?” Osmun suddenly remembered his entire reason for going there and tried to sit up again, and again was kept in place by his injuries. “Do I have it?” Nasiri nodded, and the relief of knowing did something to ease the pain in his bones.

“So, you don’t remember anything?” Myron pressed. “You don’t remember being in the Compendium? You don’t remember getting past the guards inside the tower?”

“No. Nothing.” Osmun tried thinking back, trying to find a fragment from the night before, but it was as though someone had smeared the ink of those pages; all that was there was an indecipherable blur.

“The absence of memory is caused by too much of the sleep root,” Myron said.

“That’s why I decided to use it,” Osmun said. “So that the guards wouldn’t remember me… but I can’t even think of how I used it.”

“You must have taken some yourself,” Nasiri said as she stood, walking to take a pot of boiling water away from the wood stove.

Osmun rubbed his eyes. “That’s nonsense. Why would I do that?”

Myron hopped off his stool. “I was wondering the same thing. If you happen to remember, do tell us. I’d be interested to know why I had to risk my life to get you outside of the walls, and I’d be comforted to know it wasn’t just because you needed a nap.”

“You could have just taken the book,” Osmun said, the thought only then occurring to him. “Why didn’t you just take the book and leave me there?” Looking at the wooden beams on the ceiling, he did not see Myron cast Nasiri an uneasy look.

“We had an agreement,” Nasiri said. “It was right to honour it.” She poured them each a cup of tea, and knelt again beside Osmun to help him drink it.

“I suppose that is worth a few bruises,” he said.

“And broken bones,” Myron said flatly. “Don’t forget about those.”

“Enough, Myron,” Nasiri said.

“His hands aren’t broken, Nasiri. Let him drink his own tea.” Nasiri shook her head at Myron but said nothing. Myron gave her a humourless look before he climbed the stairs out of the basement.

“He did want to leave me behind, didn’t he?” Osmun asked Nasiri when they were alone.

“He got you out.”

“At your insistence, I’m sure. It’s all right. I think I may have wanted to do the same, were I him.”

“Try to sleep. We’ll get started when you feel ready.”

“Get started… right.” The fog in Osmun’s head was still dissipating. “Have you… have you seen it? Since we left the tower?”

Nasiri set her empty cup on the floor. “Yes.”

Osmun winced at the word. “What does it want?

“I don’t know, but it seems to have a particular interest in you.”

“You don’t sound very concerned.”

“Would you be concerned if you knew it would no longer trouble you? If someone else had to suffer its presence?”

“I would. Its presence demands my attention, no matter who is the subject of its torments. In a way, I am glad that it is me; I can withstand it. It has the most terrifying, unholy aspect to it, but I can endure it where others could not. I can endure hearing its voice… I can suffer through it all.” Osmun did not realize his hands had begun to shake and tears had begun to stream from his eyes. “I’m sorry…… I didn’t realize…”

“I hope you’re right,” Nasiri whispered. Osmun noticed her head was tilted towards the floor and her eyes were fixed on it. She would not look at him.

“It’s nearby,” he said.

“Yes. It’s here.”

 

It took tremendous effort, much more than he would have thought, to become less focused. Part of the trouble was staying on his feet. Osmun and Nasiri stood in the basement, Osmun leaning on a cane to help his swollen, sprained right ankle, but as he entered the meditative, trance-like state that allowed him to stand in the silhouette, he would begin to lose his balance, which brought him back, suddenly and painfully, to reality.

“This isn’t helping my bones heal,” Osmun said as Nasiri helped him back to his feet. “Are you sure we can’t do this sitting down?”

“We could,” Nasiri said, “but we won’t. Creating an opening to the Beyond is one feat, but you have to hold it steady, keep control. If you don’t, you risk turning a pinprick into a gaping wound. How do you intend to exercise control over a rift, and over this… thing…… if you can’t even keep yourself standing?”

“A few more falls and I’m afraid I’ll shatter,” Osmun said as he winced and held his side. Earlier he had looked under his shirt to see that the left side of his torso looked like someone had painted it the most sickly shades of brown and blue, and yet, despite that, he still thought it did not look as bad as it felt.

“Get rid of the cane,” Nasiri said.

“You can’t be serious. Where’s Myron? Can’t I lean on him?”

“He’s outside, somewhere. Just making sure that we’re not causing a disturbance.” Nasiri looked at the staircase before whispering, “And he hates this.”

“Hates it?”

“He doesn’t like being around this… the other world. The Beyond.”

“He’s an odd partner for someone like you to have,” Osmun said. “I hope I’m not out of place saying so, but I’m sure I’m not the first to think it.”

Nasiri’s back stiffened. “Without him, I would be found out as a defiler of your faith. When in the city, I have to pass by unnoticed. But he can go anywhere, talk to anyone, so that I don’t have to.”

“And what do you do for him?”

“Now you are out of place.”

“After what I did for you I think a few questions are not too much to ask,” Osmun said, leaning on his good leg.

“Typical Trueborn arrogance. We made an agreement, and because you’ve fulfilled your part of it does not mean you are entitled to anything else until I fulfill my part. Don’t push me, or I’ll push you. And your balance is terrible.”

Osmun shifted his balance uneasily, and the pain flared throughout his body, as if to agree with the seer.

“Then I shall hold my tongue. You have my apologies,” he said.

“I don’t want your apologies. I want your attention. I want you to learn this so that our arrangement is complete and I can be done with you.” She turned away from Osmun. “Get rid of the cane and hold my hand.”

Osmun let the wooden cane fall and quickly took hold of Nasiri’s hand and balanced himself once again. He thought he might pull her off balance with his own clumsiness but, despite his teetering, she remained standing straight, anchored.

“Are you ready?” she asked without looking at him. Osmun stared straight ahead as well and slowly set his right foot flat on the floor before carefully placing the smallest amount of weight on it that he could bear. The pain was intense and immediate. Within a few breaths it was as if the entire right side of his body was on fire. He breathed slowly, thinking instead of the purpose of this and not what he was having to endure because of it.

“I am.”

He was again immersed in the silhouette. He could see without sight, hear without hearing. Every sense was felt through the conduit of his god-given ability to commune. Nasiri moved in front of him, looking him in the eye. You have always been motionless when you use your sight, she said. In the trance-like state, her voice was clear and pure, as if it was the first sound ever created. You must learn to be on your feet, to run, to fly in this place. It’s the only way to truly see and feel your way through, to find the keyholes that you may open the door.

Osmun felt himself swaying and nearly fell out of his trance entirely.

Stay here… stay in this place. _]Nasiri was becoming more distant, almost floating away. [_Don’t move inside your body…… move inside the world.

He reached out to her but was no closer. I can’t do it, he said.

[_You can. You’re swimming now, just at the surface. You must let yourself drown. _]

Feeling the world begin to shift and sway around him, Osmun was pulled from his trance barely in time to catch his balance. “Bloody betrayer,” he muttered. “I can’t do it.” Nasiri slowly opened her eyes and looked at him, and for the first time in years he felt… humbled.

“If you can’t,” Nasiri said, “then we’re done, aren’t we?”

He gritted his teeth, steadied himself, and reentered the silhouette.

Osmun imagined himself in the middle of the Sperian Sea, waves heaving around him, the great breaths of an immeasurable being, and they moved over him, forcing him down, bereft of either benevolence or malice, as though he was nothing. At once the constant, throbbing pain of his injuries was receding into the background like an echo. He was swimming through the liminal grey, his anchor cut loose. Good…… good… he heard Nasiri’s voice.

Once freed, Osmun felt as though he was making use of his abilities for the first time, only now they were untethered. They felt boundless, like a whitewing hawk over the harbour, never fearing that it may reach the end of its realm since its sky is endless.

And there was something else he sensed: almost as instantly as he felt detached, he could trace the hint of a floor, or a ceiling or a wall, and though it did not bind him, he could discern their faint distinctions like the peak of a mountain through the clouds, or the ocean floor through the blue-black of a thousand fathoms to the surface.

He reached and, finding an edge and a weakness, took hold of it.

Not yet, Nasiri said. You need more time to prepare.

[_I am prepared, _]Osmun said. [_I don’t need any more time… I’ve waited enough. _]He could feel Nasiri near him, but she could not interfere. She could only watch as he created a rift. For a moment he stared into the utter and total black. It was not the type of darkness that was the absence of light, but the kind that destroyed it. And there were hideous things that were bubbling beneath its surface before him.

There are consequences, she said, and he heard the oncoming tumult of anguished cries, wild and strong, rolling towards him like an avalanche.

He ignored her, pushing at the edges he had created, sending them higher and wider until the rift was a maw that nearly enveloped the entirety of the building in which they stood.

What are you doing?! _]Nasiri’s voice was becoming panicked. [_What are you trying to do?

In his mind, Osmun was holding his hand over an upturned cup of water. He was keeping them at the edge of the Beyond, hundreds upon hundreds of spectres, some confused, some murderous, looking into the mortal world with jealousy and hunger.

[_I need to know, _]he said.

The two of them stood before the rift, Osmun keeping the flood from spilling out, and Nasiri poised nervously in case he failed.

I don’t believe it, she said. How are you holding them all back?

[_I could do more, _]he said. _I can make the rift bigger. I know it. I can tell. I can make it as big as a church and still hold the darkness. _

[_You don’t need to. Close it. Now. _]

Osmun pressed the edges of the doorway together and it was gone, almost as simply as if he was shaking cobwebs from his fingertips. He thought that his entranced body must be smiling now. Of course he could do what the clerics had done. He could not recall doubting himself in this. He was always going to succeed – there was no question of if, only how.

With the rift closed, the voices of the Beyond were silenced abruptly, and the resulting quiet was absolute.

He looked to Nasiri, but all he saw was darkness looking back at him. Darkness in her place, standing where she stood. It moved her towards him. It spoke, and in the grey its voice was louder and more terrible than before.

Auj ika kuuthir!

It leapt towards him, a black shroud over Nasiri’s form. Her hands, its hands, closed around his neck. They were cold and hard like stone. He felt the entire world tilt and sway, and he knew that Nasiri’s hands were strangling his entranced body.

With it only inches from his face, Osmun thought he could see its features for the first time as he thrashed his head back and forth and tried to pry its hands from him. He thought he could see a mouth full of jagged teeth and eyes wide with excitement. Then he realized this was his chance…

The pain was not physical; it was an assault on his mind, and he could feel his defenses weakening. He pushed past it, ignoring the danger, and found the faint silhouette where he could grab hold. The shadow seemed to notice, seemed to relent for a moment as Osmun opened the rift. It looked from the rift to Osmun and was then only holding him in place.

You have no place here! Osmun heard himself scream. He pushed against the shadow, trying to force it towards the rift but it was like pushing against a mountain. He noticed, then, that everything seemed still; there was no oncoming rush of voices from the Beyond. The shadow only held him with one hand, still more than Osmun could hope to overpower, and its other hand was to the rift, outstretched.

It was beckoning.

Colour sprang back into the world. Nasiri was on top of him, her hands tightening with unnatural strength. Osmun kicked his legs despite the incredible pain from his cracked and broken bones. His breath was becoming shallow not just for her grip; she had a knee against one of his broken ribs. Her face was twisted into an expression he had never seen her make before, something she likely never had made before. Something monstrous.

The pain, like embers searing the insides of his flesh, was becoming dull. His legs, still thrashing, felt as though they were becoming heavier by the moment and the world was flickering into darkness like a candle about to fade into smoke. He was oddly comfortable then, as comfortable as he would have been if he was asleep in his own bed, and he felt compelled to end his own struggle then. Why not let go? What could really be worth this much suffering? He had endured much, and surely there was much more to come. At last he could sleep, entirely undisturbed by this evil. Why not let it be someone else’s problem?

Who else?

The voice sounded like Nasiri… but she was nowhere, either consumed or stuck under the heel of this shadow.

With the last of his strength, Osmun rolled to the side, throwing Nasiri to the floor beside him. Her head bounced off the stone floor. He took a deep breath and slipped back into the trance. The shadow was still there. The rift was still open – Nasiri was nowhere.

Nasiri! His voiced pealed through the gloom like an alarm bell. Nasiri! Nearby, the shadow was stirring. Looking back towards the consuming dark of the Beyond, though he could see nothing, something preternatural was warning him that something was there. He shuddered at the thought of what the shadow could be inviting through. Osmun reached out as quickly as he could and closed the rift before returning to his mortal senses.

As he tried to lift himself from the ground, Osmun could see that the look – the otherworldly expression – on Nasiri’s face had not lessened. It was even more fixed and rigid than before.

“Nasiri…” Osmun said uselessly. “Why aren’t you coming back?” He reached for his cane. “Why aren’t you fighting?” She was staring at him as if he were the only possible thing to focus on, and as she began to stand, Osmun swung the cane, striking her in the side of the head, dizzying her, and she fell onto her back.

Osmun was then on top of her, pinning her and pressing the cane down on her throat. She was trying to scream but her voice came out only in rasps and hoarse whispers. But it wasn’t her voice. Not [_her _]words. They were the words Osmun heard in his sleep and in his nightmares.

“Ajkah thuun!”

“Go back to the shithole you crawled out of!”

It was still trying to talk, trying to spew its vile language. Veins were pulsing visibly on her forehead. All the sound of the world seemed to fade, replaced only by one droning sound… he was screaming as he pressed the cane down harder and harder, only stopping when he was thrown off of her. Myron looked down at him, his eyes wide with shock. He knelt beside her.

“She’s not… she’s not her. The shadow was in her……controlling her,” Osmun said between breaths. He expected Myron to give some angry barb or insulting quip, but he only heard the thief weeping. Osmun looked over to see him gently stroking her hair as she looked up vacantly at the ceiling.

“I should kill you for this,” Myron whispered.

Osmun sat up. “By Xidius… I didn’t… I……”

Myron shot him a look, his eyes welled with tears, and Osmun fell silent. “She was the most beautiful thing in this city… and now look…”

Nasiri was still, her eyes open and blank. No breath moved within her. Osmun shook his head. By the Beacon, she had been alive, she had been screaming…

From the alley outside, both men heard faint voices, hushed and urgent, followed by footsteps running. Then the footsteps were in the building, on the floor above them. Myron sprang to his feet.

“You’ve drawn them to us,” he said.

“What?”

“The Ardent!” Myron swiftly crossed the room, picked up a satchel from the floor and ascended the stairs in a few bounds, leaving Osmun alone.

“Xidius help me,” he muttered as he got to his feet. The pain was so great he felt as though it would crush him, but he ignored it. He bent over awkwardly and picked up the cane from beside Nasiri. With her eyes open and unmoving, Osmun thought she might spring back to life and attack him again.

But she was perfectly still.

“And forgive me… please, Xidius, forgive me.”

He climbed the stairs as quickly as he could, but with his injuries he was moving slower than an elderly pauper. He could hear voices close by. Looking around the warehouse as he reached the top of the stairs, Osmun could see two Ardent near the back end of the warehouse, examining crates and supplies. They had missed the basement stairs entirely. With their backs to him, Osmun slipped out the front door and into the streets…

The heavy door slammed shut behind him.

He cursed himself for being a fool. How could he have forgotten? He walked faster and turned the first corner he could. The streets were mostly empty. Where was everyone?

Bells rang in the distance, answering him with their peal; people everywhere were worshipping. He had lost track of time, which day it was… perhaps even more than that.

He tried to walk faster still as he heard the warehouse door slam shut again. The Ardent were out. He could not hope to outrun them. His only hope was that they went another direction.

A hard hand on his shoulder spun him around. Osmun stared, frightened, into the faces of the Ardent.

“No getting away this time, heretic,” one of them said as he smiled, revealing crooked yellow teeth. “Time to answer for what you’ve done. Elias, hand me some rope, would you?”

“P-Please,” Osmun stammered.

“Don’t say another damned word or I’ll fill up your mouth with horse shit, and you’ll walk in silence. Elias, where is the damned rope?”

The other Ardent took a step back, looked up at the sky, and assumed an expression familiar to Osmun. He drew his blade.

“Please let me go!” Osmun screamed.

“You don’t fucking learn, you damned –”

Elias ran his short sword into his companion’s back. Staring at Osmun, he pulled the sword free and the wounded Ardent swayed for a moment before he slumped to the ground.

“Xidius, Xidius save me…”

“Xidius,” it said back. “Agran mauz ha theara.” The Ardent raised the bloody sword again. It mimicked a smile as it drew the sword across its neck, and even as the Ardent’s blood poured from the wound and he sank to his knees, it never took its eyes from Osmun.

Osmun backed away, staring at the bodies and the growing pool of blood around them. Only when he backed into the side of a stone building did he turn away. He never wanted anything more than to run as fast as he could.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 22

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

They were not far into the forest before the sound of turning wooden wheels started to seem loud enough to summon every soldier from Ten Tower after them. The noise of the chaos from Zayd’s diversion was soon swallowed up by the trees, leaving just the sound of the carriage’s wheels to keep them company.

The horses were stubborn in the dark, too; Zayd hoped they would be moving faster, and he could see their path, clear and plain before him, but the animals were uncertain and hesitant. He had to spur them constantly to keep them from stopping altogether.

“One of your men told me to go to you as he cut the ropes that bound me,” Sera said.

Zayd nodded, keeping his eyes ahead on the path. “Yes. On my orders, your people were freed.”

“He said you had something that belonged to my people. Is this truth or a lie?”

“The truth. I found your artifact.”

Sera sat up, as if suddenly awoken, and looked Zayd in the face, trying to detect a lie. “I hope you haven’t freed me only to play at some game.”

“None at all. I mean to tell you everything. There’s no point now that we should lie to each other. We’ve needed each other since we fled the column…… when my men freed you the first time.”

“And now they’ve done so again,” Sera said flatly, and she looked away. She could not have been looking at anything; she was hanging her head in shame. “It is odd that I feel regret for harming those who have done so much harm to me.”

“I understand now how much we need each other. If I had realized it sooner… well, things might be different, I think. Only the Beac… only the gods know for certain.”

“So, tell me how we need each other now. Tell me why I am with you, one who must now be considered as much a traitor as the one who was beheaded yesterday. But, tell me first that you have the Raan Dura.”

“I have it, and I have no intention of keeping it. I want nothing from it. It is beautiful, and perhaps worth a fortune to some, but for it I only ask two things from you.”

“Name them.”

Zayd motioned to the monolith. “The fort commander thought that this was already gone, taken to Lycernum by boat. I hid it, and they took a different carriage. I knew that Walrend would tell them not to inspect what they were taking. He would not risk having it taken again by greedy opportunistic sailors. Only when it reaches the capital will they know that they do not have what they thought they did, and by then, my kin and I should be far enough removed to be of suspicion.”

“Suspicion? What about what happened with us? You freed prisoners. Enemies of your god. I am not familiar with your laws, but is this not considered a crime?”

“We made it appear that the fort was being attacked by other Dramandi. My kin will tell the commander that Dramandi slipped into the fort and freed you.”

“And what of you?” Sera asked.

“Right now, I am tracking you.” Zayd smiled. “But, sadly, I will return to the fort after I lose your trail.”

Sera was silent for a moment before she shook her head. “I’m not sure if you have too much confidence or too little sense, though I’m grateful, whatever the answer is.” She looked to the back of the carriage. “What are you doing with…” Zayd could see that she was staring not directly at the monolith, but looking at something near it.

“Are they near?” Zayd asked.

“They’re always close to it.”

“Then we won’t have much time. They’ve influenced soldiers at the fort… I don’t know why they haven’t done the same to you or I, but if they do… this will have been for nothing.”

“They corrupt the easily corruptible,” Sera said.

“So they cannot do the same to us?”

“They might, just not as easily. But they seem disinterested in you.”

“They keep talking to me, asking me, telling me that I’m their servant… I don’t understand, but I would not say they are disinterested.”

“Perhaps not. You will need to tell me what we don’t have much time to do, then.”

“Yes. First, we’re going to bury it. I need your help making a proper grave.”

“This is not a small task,” Sera said. “Just two people digging for this?”

“Is it impossible?” Zayd asked.

“What? No, I suppose not, but –”

“Then we will find a way.” He looked at her, telling her that her objections were understood, but a hindrance.

“What after?” she asked.

“You’re going to take your artifact and find a way back to your people. You will try to do as I have asked, to have them stop fighting.” Zayd could see she was about to speak, but he held up a hand. “I have been exactly where you are now. You have to believe what I say. This is better than nothing. It’s better than death. I do miss Tauth the way it was before we became a part of the Empire.” He paused before looking at Sera. “Many of my kin wanted to do what you want: to fight on and die, never to know surrender. But they were young men, full of rage and ideals that screamed louder than the undignified truth. They were full of romantic notions that their heroism would be remembered. They did not realize that, if anyone were to remember our own heroes, it would be us. Not them.

“And we do remember. When I return home, we will honour our dead. Perhaps not in the way we used to, but in a new way. I’m sure you have many heroes, many brave dead. Many more than we. It would be a tragedy for their pain and heartbreak and bloodshed to be as though it never was. No one will remember your heroes. Once the soldiers that fought here get old and die, it will be as though all the centuries your people spent striving will not have happened. People will look upon this land, and they may think, there used to be something here, but that is where it will end. Do not let it be so, Sera. Even a fragment can bear the heart of the whole.”

They rode for an indeterminable time with only the sound of the carriage wheels and the creaking of its wood intruding upon the perfect silence of the night.

“Stop,” Sera finally said. Zayd almost did not hear her. “Stop here.” Zayd pulled back on the reins. He could see nothing nearby that was of concern. Only a break in the canopy of the trees. The light of the moon and stars was bathing the forest floor and the trees surrounding it in a peaceful white-blue aura. Sera jumped down from the carriage and made her way to the clearing, looking up to the sky. She stood there amid the soft glow and turned slowly, always looking up, before she returned to Zayd.

“North,” she said. “Veer north.”

“What is it?”

“There is a gorge. Deep, fast-moving water. We won’t need to bury this cursed thing. We can drown it.”

 

 

It was close to dawn by the time Walrend could take a full account of the damage done to the fort. One of the storehouses had been utterly destroyed after the fire had spread to it from the weapon master’s workshop. One watchtower had been moderately damaged, enough to warrant repairs before being put to use again, and another had been burned beyond any notion of salvation. Sections of the walls were blackened but, according to his men, still structurally sound.

“Small blessings,” Walrend muttered to himself as he walked with a giant’s strides back to his quarters. The Tauthri sentry named Daruthin was there waiting for him, standing at attention. The slim warrior saluted. Walrend waved a hand, dismissing it.

“Tell me again, every detail,” Walrend said as he retrieved the manifest of the recent supply shipment. He needed to take account of what had been lost. He needed to determine if their food supplies would hold them until their next shipment, or if he needed to have it rationed. He needed to know.

Daruthin cleared his throat. “We didn’t see their approach, and were not aware they were there until the fires had already started. Only then did they emerge from the cover of the forest.”

“And they got inside our walls and opened the gate without any of you noticing? How is that so? So far we have not found any breaches in the walls or tunnels dug underneath. Therefore they must have climbed the walls. Climbed up the walls, and not one of you noticed.”

Daruthin hung his head.

“And they located and freed our prisoners with what appears to me to be remarkable efficiency,” Walrend said. “How did they know where the prisoners were being held, I wonder?”

“There was a seer among the prisoners,” Daruthin said. “Zayd had often suspected her of trying to summon the aid of their dark gods.” He looked down at his feet and fought the nervous urge to shift his weight. Walrend’s questions made the Tauthri wonder if the commander suspected them or if he was merely accusing the decorated Tauthri sentries of incompetence.

Walrend rubbed his hand on the stubble on his cheek. “I don’t understand how they could have done it,” he said, still staring at the manifest on the table in front of him. “Why did no one go with Zayd?” The commander looked up at Daruthin. His eyes narrowed. “One of you must have thought that him going after the Dramandi alone was too dangerous.”

“Yes, sir. We would have, but he ordered us to remain in the fort so we could help quell the fires.”

“That was foolish. How does he expect to track them without being detected? This is unfamiliar terrain to him. To all Ryferians.” Walrend shook his head. “Pointless.”

“Sir?”

“Pointless for him to follow.” The commander scowled. “How many of them did you see in the fort?”

“I can’t say, sir. When we saw them, the captives were freed and they were all running for the north gate. It was hard to distinguish soldier from prisoner.”

The commander placed his hands flat on the table and slowly leaned forward. “Then guess,” he said quietly. “Was it a hundred? A thousand?”

“No, sir, it –”

“Then give me a damned number!” he shouted. Daruthin nearly took a step back.

“Perhaps no more than twenty… aside from the prisoners.”

“Very good. You’re dismissed. Gather the other Tauthri and report to Hame… or Boamanth.” Walrend slammed the ledger book closed in frustration. “Whichever officer is in charge of the repairs.”

“Boamanth, sir.”

“Then go see him! Dismissed!

The Tauthri sentry left, and Walrend sat down and rested his head in his hands. How had this happened? His men were supposed to be disciplined. They were supposed to be elite. “The Tauthri are not your men,” he whispered to himself. Regardless, it was an embarrassment, and something had to be done. He needed a victory in the wake of this defeat.

A large figure loomed in his doorway.

“Commander.” Barrett Stern had donned heavy hide instead of his full plate armour, but was just as imposing a sight.

“Exalt Stern.” Walrend saluted, and Barrett returned it without enthusiasm. “You seem already possessed by some task.”

The knight stepped into the room. The wooden floorboards creaked under his weight. “Yes, commander. To find the Dramandi and regain our prisoners… or put them to the sword.”

“Zayd Cothar is gone. His men tell me he was on their heels as they ran.”

“I’ve heard as much myself. But we need more than the eyes of one Tauthri.”

“One sword, even yours, seems inadequate.”

Barrett nodded. “I will need men to follow me. Perhaps ten.”

Walrend stood. “Take twenty. Barthel Baudrus’ detachment is the most experienced. Take them. And take the bloody En Kazyr as well.” The commander thought he saw the knight grin.

“Thank you, commander,” Barrett said, and he turned and left.

 

 

First Sergeant Baudrus had his detachment of twenty men armed, armoured and ready and the north gate within minutes of Stern giving the order. Talazz, meanwhile, was carrying three large timber planks, each one twice his own height, over his shoulders.

“Damage done to the wall is worse than they thought,” Talazz said to Stern.

“Finish, then. But find us immediately after,” Barrett said. The giant nodded, and he shifted the wood laden on his shoulders as if he was shrugging off a fly. The knight signalled to Barthel Baudrus, and the group of them marched out of the fort through the north gate in a loose formation. Baudrus was young to be a first sergeant, barely over twenty years old, but as a veteran of several vicious battles earlier in the war, he had already proven himself. More importantly, he instantly won the respect of those who fought with him, not only with his brutal fearlessness, but with his natural aptitude for war. Many said that no one in the Fourth Regiment could deliver a killing blow as quickly or efficiently.

Through the gate, Baudrus led his detachment with a hungry and fierce anticipation, the kind Barrett expected to see in a mercenary company. The knight found it odd; to him, battle was his life, his way of serving Xidius and the Empire, while the first sergeant seemed possessed of bloodlust. It was not a good urge to be possessed by, but at least the man had found the proper vocation in which to satiate it.

The detachment began to jog at a slow pace, following the still-visible footprints in the dirt and mud on the forest floor. Barrett, the only one among them who was mounted, stayed at the rear of the group and was following them while letting his mind wander. He nearly missed spotting another set of tracks – wheel tracks – that veered west, away from the tracks that Baudrus and his men were following.

“Sergeant Baudrus, keep following the main set of tracks. I’ll catch up with you,” Barrett said. The Sergeant paused long enough to salute him before turning back to the hunt while the knight veered away from them.

 

 

Grey clouds were encroaching against the sun before midday. Anticipation, almost unbearable, weighed on the Tauthri in Ten Tower more than anyone else there. Daruthin wondered for how long and how far Barrett would follow the tracks. He hoped they would find only trees, but he began to catch himself looking around anxiously when he started to think what would happen if they actually did catch up with the Dramandi they had cut loose. Daruthin did not doubt they were brave, but if there was anyone among them who would give up the truth of what had happened, Barrett would sniff them out, and while the Silver Sun knight would have had no reason to suspect anything, it was apparent that the commander might. He could have conveyed his thoughts to Barrett, something Daruthin hoped was only possible in his dread-fraught mind.

With none of the soldiers wanting to incur the commander’s displeasure, the repairs to the fort were going quickly. The Tauthri, smaller and weaker than their Trueborn counterparts, still helped where they could by organizing the timber to be used in the repairs by section and by cutting over-long pieces to sizes fit for the task.

“When do you think he’s coming back?” Tascell asked Daruthin in their native tongue.

Daruthin looked around to see that no one was close enough to hear them talking. None might understand, but unwanted attention was to be avoided. Especially today of all days. “I hope soon. This commander is enraged by the defeat he believes he’s suffered. His eyes will be open until the scales are balanced.”

“But he does believe it? The attack?”

“He seems to. At least, he believes in the attack itself. Whether or not he believes it unfolded the way I told him… I’m not sure.”

“Open the gate!” a voice called out from across the fort. Tascell and Daruthin both looked over to see the north gate open to let familiar faces inside the walls – the mariners who had restocked the fort just days earlier. It seemed every soldier around stopped to see who had arrived, and every soldier displayed some confused and tired open-mouthed gape at why the mariners were there, or a disappointed scowl that it was not Barrett and Baudrus returning victorious from their search.

“What do you think they’re doing here?” Tascell asked.

“I’m not sure,” Daruthin said, “but I doubt they’re already resupplying.” As he spoke, the two Tauthri watched as the mariners wheeled in the half-destroyed remnants of a carriage, one that they immediately recognized not as the one that bore the coveted relic, but the one Zayd had put in its place. Commander Walrend was already on his way over to Drusidus, his face nearly as red as blood, barely containing his rage.

“This is nothing good,” Daruthin said. There would be no doubt now that there was some deception being played upon them, but whether they could trace it to its source was still unknowable. Lesryn came walking towards them a moment later, after Walrend and Drusidus had already begun speaking.

“I heard them,” Lesryn said. “A misstep by one of the horses pulling the carriage, and the whole thing overturned. The commander is furious. He’s accusing the captain of stealing it for himself.”

“He’d be a fool to come back,” Tascell muttered.

Lesryn nodded. “That is what he said.”

“He’ll have the fort searched, every inch of it,” Daruthin said.

“He might lay the blame on someone else,” Tascell said, half hopeful. Daruthin rubbed his chin as he thought and tried to see the truth of the situation they were in.

“Daruthin?” Lesryn said after a long silence. “Are we still… safe?”

He shook his head. “The whole house was built on this one stone, and now it’s gone. Walrend may not know now, but he will know. By His eyes, Zayd even asked the commander to bury the cursed gold. Once the commander remembers that, he’ll have no doubt who is behind this.”

The three of them stood in silence, wary with the sense that they could be among enemies in the passing of a breath, and the same realization came to them all.

“We can’t stay,” Tascell said. He was clenching his hands, open and closed, over and over, and shifting his weight from left to right. He was preparing himself, getting ready to run or to fight.

“No, we can’t,” Daruthin said.

“Well…” Lesryn looked between the two lieutenants. “When do we act?”

“The northeast wall is still being repaired. We should be able to slip through without drawing much attention.”

“The north gate is still open,” Tascell offered.

“Too many eyes. Far too many. Let’s tell the others and go, right now.” The three of them were about to disperse when Daruthin stopped himself. “Eyes watch him…” Lesryn and Tascell stopped. Daruthin looked at them. “Zayd doesn’t know…… he doesn’t know he’s been found out.”

“Cursed calls,” Tascell growled.

“If he comes back here…”

“Then someone has to warn him,” Lesryn said. “I mean… he’s our vahr.”

“Lead the others home,” Tascell said to Daruthin. “I’ll find him, and… we’ll see you back there. Back home.”

 

 

 

“How much further?” Zayd asked.

“I’m not certain. We must be close,” Sera said.

Zayd was certain it had been hours since he left the fort, and hours longer than he had wanted to be absent. Thinking on it, he wasn’t sure how long he thought he would be gone, or how long it would have felt to be acceptable, and that the longer this journey went on, the more difficult the explanation would be when he returned.

It was only doubt, he told himself. It was only fear. Of course he should be afraid when he had everything at stake. His life, his wife and son, but his men, too… and their families. There were also the untold eyes that could be, likely were, watching him now, eyes from across worlds and centuries. There was the fear of that, too.

“Where did you find the Raan Dura?” Sera asked, taking Zayd from his dark thoughts.

“It was attached to that,” Zayd said, motioning to their burden.

Sera’s eyes narrowed. “What? No, no, that’s wrong. It never was.”

“It is where I found it, though.”

“It was always kept in the chest; it had been consecrated by Aulvennic’s Chosen. The chest was the only place it should have been. And I saw that thing underground, when it was still half-buried. Its whole face was exposed, and the Raan Dura was in the chest when I saw it.”

Zayd produced the relic from a satchel at his feet and handed it to Sera, who took it and stared at it as if trying to decipher some riddle.

“This is it,” she said. “But…… I don’t understand. When did you first see it on the marker?”

“After the siege had ended. I had seen the monolith, like many others, when it was still underground. I know it wasn’t there then. But when we first loaded it onto this carriage, it was being carried by two En Kazyr… two of our giants. And I saw it then. It was in the centre of the carvings, in the circular space between the hands… if those are actually hands.”

Sera tapped the edge of the Raan Dura with her thumb. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said quietly to herself. “Why would someone place it there?”

Zayd was not sure she expected an answer until she looked up at him. He shook his head. “I don’t know, but it fit there as if it was made just for that.”

“That’s nonsense. This was created by our god, it has nothing to do with this evil.” She waved her hand at the monolith with disdain.

“What if you’re wrong, Sera? The phantoms spoke of a portal – what if it’s the monolith they speak of? And the Eye is one of the keys –”

“Enough! I don’t know how you saw what you did but your assumptions speak to your ignorance.” She looked back down at the silver disc in her hands and traced her fingers along its markings. “I suppose… I suppose it doesn’t matter now. I have it.”

“I suppose it doesn’t,” Zayd said, though he disagreed. The carvings on the monolith were so elaborate that he could not imagine the Eye fitting there by chance, yet if he convinced Sera that it did not come from her god there would be no reason for her people to surrender. They would be hopeless once more. “I hope it brings some good,” he said, though he wondered if it was already too late, and knew that Sera must have thought the same as their eyes met. Their brief, unspoken understanding was cut by their shared realization of a sound: the distant rush of water.

They came upon the edge of the gorge not long after first hearing the sound. The ground sloped upwards as they neared and the trees thinned. The horses, tired, began to slow and they struggled on the incline, forcing Zayd to hit them on their hindquarters with the flat side of his blade to spur them on. The sudden lurch jarred the carriage, causing the golden slab to slide several inches backwards.

Zayd cursed under his breath, and then cursed loudly as the slab slid further still. Sera gave Zayd a worried look, once again sharing the same unspoken worry as him; if it fell to the ground, the slab would be nearly impossible to move, and, looking down at the ground, Zayd knew that, if it did fall, they could never bury it here. The soil was too shallow and was mostly rock underneath.

He handed the reins to Sera, jumped down, and moved behind the carriage to push against the edge of the slab, hoping at least to prevent it from sliding further.

“What are you doing?” she said, looking over her shoulder at him.

“Just keep going!”

“It will crush you if it comes loose.”

“It won’t,” he said, though he knew she was right. “I’ll be fine, just keep going.” Zayd put his head down as he pushed. The carriage lurched forward, creaking with each motion, and though his muscles were burning as he pushed harder and harder, he could still feel the slab slipping back. Inch by inch off the back of the carriage, it edged towards him until he finally had to jump back from the carriage as the huge weight teetered on the end, a hair’s breadth from falling off.

The carriage stopped.

Sera stood and looked back at Zayd. “We’re at the edge.”

Zayd smiled. “Thank you,” he said. He walked up to the edge of the gorge and looked down into the water. Sera stood beside him and did the same.

“It’s called Kathu Rial’s Grave,” she said. “The name comes from legend. Kathu Rial was one of Aulvennic’s Chosen, one of the very first. He was a very powerful seer and a very wise man in everything but love. It is said he became smitten with the daughter of a Dramandi highborn. He asked the highborn for his daughter’s hand, but the father did not respect seers. He respected warriors and he wanted his daughter to marry a fearsome, noble warrior who lived in their village. Kathu Rial and the warrior became enemies, but there was nothing Kathu could do, even though he swore the highborn’s daughter loved him and not the warrior.

“One day the warrior was found dead, apparently by his own hand. The highborn girl was heartbroken, and it is said that, upon seeing this, Kathu Rial came here and threw himself into the waters and drowned. After that, the waters moved faster, and the land surrounding the gorge became dark and full of angry spirits for years after.”

“Why did he jump?” Zayd asked as he took a step closer to the edge to get a better look at the water. “His rival was out of his way.”

“No one is sure, but some say he was overcome with guilt.”

“Guilt at what?”

“That he had killed the warrior himself out of jealousy, or that he had somehow devised a way that the warrior killed himself.”

“How would he do that?”

“Kathu Rial was said to have many powers. But when he saw the heartbreak he caused his love, he succumbed to despair. Powerful warriors and holy men have the same weakness as paupers. It was love – the absence of love – that killed Kathu Rial. It makes men strong, and it makes men weak.” Zayd stepped back from the edge and began to untie the horses.

“Will you not keep one?” Sera asked.

“We never had them in Tauthri. I can’t ride. None of us ride well, even those who have been trained. Will you?”

Sera shook her head.

“You’ll find your sword-kin faster.”

“I’ll be tracked more easily. Don’t worry, I’ll find them still.” She smiled. “I have hope.” Zayd finished unbridling the horses and watched them wander off. He almost expected them to break into a gallop, but realized he was imagining, foolishly, that they would sense freedom and captivity as keenly as he would. He wondered if, days from now, once they found a place to graze, they would think of what had been and what had now replaced it, or whether they would return to their masters out of habit, knowing nothing else.

Together, Zayd and Sera stepped behind the carriage and, saying nothing, began to push. At first it felt as though it would not budge, but it did, inch by inch until the wheels were rolling.

And then… nothing. There was nothing to push against. As the carriage fell forward, the monolith slid off. Part of its covering came loose and, for a blink, shone brilliantly despite the weak daylight, as if it was waving goodbye, or trying to take one last look at the world from under its covering before it plunged into the water below.

He expected the sound of the thing that had caused such immeasurable chaos and tragedy to be more pronounced, but the gorge swallowed it up, along with the carriage, and in moments the ripples from its entrance had dissipated, and the water sped along just the same as it had before. Zayd stared at the water, gripped by some expectation, that this was not over, couldn’t be over, and that the gorge would reject what was given.

“I wonder what they wanted,” Zayd said, still staring into the gorge. “What the spirits wanted.”

“So much history is lost,” Sera said. “Great knowledge espoused by people wise beyond our understanding… yet there must be the same truth in the other hand; terrible secrets known by the wicked. That history can stay lost.”

Zayd turned to face Sera. There were words in his mind fighting for the right to be spoken, but none seemed necessary. “I hope the world remembers you,” he finally said. Sera touched a pouch at her side where she had placed her relic.

“I hope so, too. If I can…” She looked down, “… I’ll sing your name in a song. Do the same for me. Or Cohvass. Any one of us. Any name you like.”

Zayd nodded, and, knowing no other words should be said, Sera turned northeast along the edge of the gorge. She was obscured by the forest before she had gone a hundred steps. Zayd remained where he was for a while longer. He stared at the water and felt perfectly at peace, like he did when he was back home in his tree by the waterfall.

He was so entranced by the feeling, the sweetness of the freedom that brought on the awareness of the chains. It made him question whether he had counselled Sera correctly, though only briefly. Had he not donned the chains, there would be no chance at moments like these. Was that not enough to make the chains bearable?

Zayd stood and closed his eyes, allowing himself a few final moments of the illusion before he turned to face the path by which he had come.

Barrett was standing in the path, his blade drawn and at the ready.

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 23

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

It was everywhere he looked and it was in every sound he heard.

The shadow… its voice…

Osmun could not escape it, and it was clear to him now that it wanted something from him, but it wanted him alive. Did it want only to torment him ceaselessly? What else does an immortal spirit have but time? Torturing Osmun into insanity would be nothing more than an amusing diversion to it, and then once it was done… well, then it would move on to the next person and start over.

He had thought there was something truly sinister about this particular spectre, but what if the only thing unique in its being was that it was outside of his control? Beyond that, it was content to trouble the living, as countless other phantoms had.

The reasoning gave Osmun some hope, though that hope was tainted, like rotten food to a starving man. The thing would not kill him. It had intervened, killing two Ardent, so that he might still live.

So he used the sleeping root that night as carelessly as he dared to lessen the ghastly sights and sounds.

It was all he could do.

And when the effects of the herb wore off he was uncertain if he had even slept or if he had remained just on the edge of sleep. Sitting in an alley leaning against a wall, his body was wracked with pain and hunger, so he immediately reached for the fast-dwindling satchel of the sleeping root. It was then that he noticed where he was; he must not have slept, or at least not all of the night. He was near Tumanger’s shop where he had come before. He must have stumbled his way to this place during the night, and while he did not remember that, he could not shake loose the images of the Ardent from his mind, the face that stared at him, smiling, as blood poured from his throat. The root was losing its effectiveness, Osmun realized.

He struggled to his feet and hobbled down the empty early morning street, thinking to himself how he used to walk proudly but now limped, like some villain of folklore, and found Tumanger sitting outside his shop, setting up his stands for the crowds to come.

“Not open yet, my sir,” Tumanger said before looking up and seeing who it was that approached. The tall Ivesian took a step back in surprise, and the look on his face almost brought tears to Osmun’s eyes. “What happens to you?” he asked. “Come, come inside!” Tumanger put his arm beneath Osmun’s to help him through the door and led him to a cushioned chair. “You look like death is by your side!” he said.

“That could be,” Osmun rasped.

Tumanger brought Osmun a flask. Osmun hesitated. “Just water, all it is,” Tumanger said. “What happens? Tell me. The look of you worries.”

“Much happened. Little of it good.” Osmun drained the wooden flask quickly and handed it back. “Can I have more?”

“You come here like this days ago, but now things are worse. You are hurt. Why do you come here? Why not see a healer? Medicine would do you much better than ractha.”

“I can’t see a healer. They’ll find me.” Osmun drank again from the flask as Tumanger handed it to him again, refilled.

“Who will find you? Who is looking for the good priest Osmun?”

“The vicars’ soldiers.”
“Soldiers? In the army?”

“Not the Imperial army. The church’s army. Soldiers that fight the enemies of the faith.”

“And they think you are their enemy?”

Osmun nodded, tilted his head back and closed his eyes. “They think I’m a murderer and a thief.”

Tumanger folded his lanky arms. “So why do you come here?” The question was not asked unkindly, but was pointed. Osmun opened his mouth to answer before remembering that he hadn’t come intentionally, at least not that he could recall, yet he knew the truth of it at once.

“I need somewhere to sleep… just for a few nights. If the men after me don’t find me then sickness will.” It sounded pitiful as he said it, but the truth, that he could think of no one else to help him and nowhere else to take refuge, sounded worse.

The Ivesian looked straight ahead, and then looked out the front of his shops into the city streets. Osmun remembered what he had said before about having nothing; it must have been what he was thinking at that moment.

“You’re in no danger,” Osmun said. “I wouldn’t come here if there was that chance.”
“Unless they find you, and then what happens to me?”

“It’s no good to speak of what will not come about.”

“What happens?” Tumanger repeated.

“Then… then there would be danger for you.”

“And Tanu?”

Osmun nodded. “And Tanu. Yes.”

Tumanger looked around the room. “Two nights, and you stay hiding. Stay quiet, yes?” He turned to go back outside the shop, but stopped and turned slowly. He had to force the question out, like pulling an arrowhead free from the body. “Did you find her, good priest Osmun?”

“Tumanger, she…” he remembered the feeling of pressing the cane down on her throat. He remembered the horrific screams that came from her mouth but were not hers. “I never found her. She already went back home.”

 

 

He ran out of the sleeping root sometime during the first night there and he began to hear voices as he lay awake on the cot tucked in the back of the bakery, totally in darkness. It wasn’t the shadow’s voice he heard, it was his own and it was Nasiri’s. It was everyone he had spoken with, every word exchanged, since the trial up to this point.

He began to recite prayer after prayer so that he did not have to hear them and relive every mistake made, but as he spoke the voices became louder. Osmun began reciting the Recounting, verse by verse, and still the voices became louder and louder until he had to stop. He thrashed his head back and forth, pressing his hands against his ears as hard as he could, but it only seemed to trap the voices where they were.

Driven from the cot, Osmun began to look through the shop for anything that might lessen his suffering, anything that might hush the voices. Even if they were only distanced by the most insignificant degree, it would be something. He found a flint near the stone oven and lit a candle and began searching every cabinet, every cupboard, every jar.

There were half a dozen small jars of herbs, some of which he knew Tumanger used for the ractha… but did he use all of them? He dumped a small amount out from each jar and held the candle up to examine them; none of them had the appearance of black bear root.

“Best be certain,” he muttered as he swept every small pile into his hand and shovelled it into his mouth, following by a gulp of water from the wooden flask. He began to cough immediately and his stomach heaved, but he downed more water and fought the urge to vomit. At least one of the jars contained some kind of foreign pepper. Osmun wiped tears from his eyes and stood, leaning against the counter, waiting for some effect to take hold of him, but the only change he felt was his stomach beginning to turn.

He cursed his desperation but did not abandon it, and he kept searching until the candlelight caught something which glinted in the dark. Osmun pulled a knife from amidst a pile of wood utensils. He stood with it in his hand and stared at it, not knowing why he could not put it down. It answered a question he had not yet asked. He had never thought such things, but he had also never been as alone as he was then, standing in a stranger’s shop in the dark, ready to steal from a man kind enough to offer him shelter.

Its edge was sharp – one swift motion and the voices would be silenced. Osmun held the knife closer and saw a reflection on the flat steel. He looked away, disgusted. He looked exactly as Tumanger had described him, like a half-dead beggar or a piss-drunk thief. He let the knife fall from his hands as tears welled and blurred his vision. He silently cursed himself, cursed Andrican, cursed the evil that tormented him. He was as alone as he could possibly be.

He lay back down in the cot and wept, silently at first, then louder until he was able to drown out the voices with his sorrow. Sleep came to him after a while, but he did not even notice, for he continued to weep, even in his dreams.

 

 

There were two presences, two voices that murmured, impossible to ignore and impossible to hear over the din of the others. Osmun realized, then, that the invisible wall between him and the two voices was his consciousness, his mind refusing to stir. Where was he, then? Was he in the moonlit borderland, the space between words and breaths where things wait for nothingness?

The two voices became more distinct, and Osmun felt that he was being pulled by the hands and feet…

“Wake up,” the voice said. “Can you hear me, Osmun?”

His vision finally coming into focus, Osmun placed faces to the two familiar voices.

Oridas Ruhla and Cleric Egus both looked at him, surprised to see him awake. Or alive. Oridas was seated on a stool a few feet from the cot, and he leaned forward with his forearms on his knees. Egus stood behind him, looking at Osmun as if he was unsure it was safe to get any closer.

“Orry?” Osmun said. “What’s going on?”

“I’m here as a favour to him,” Oridas motioned to Egus, who smiled meekly, “and I’m here as a favour to an old friend… to a man I once knew.”

“Orry… I’m still that man.” Osmun tried to stand, but his exhaustion convinced him to stay seated as he was.

“Are you?” Orry asked as he stood up. “Accused of heresy and murder. That’s not the man I knew. Not the friend I grew up with.”

“I…” Osmun buried his head in his hands. “I’ve been trying to prove my innocence, Orry. You have to believe me. There is an evil presence here. It won’t stop speaking to me. It might be here still, Orry. You might not be safe.”

“You sound like a madman” Oridas said. There was the slightest hint of sadness in his voice.

Osmun laughed. “Let’s get to the favour so I have something to be thankful for.”

Orry shook his head and walked towards the front of the shop. Egus stepped forward in his place and sat down carefully on the stool. The old man wore a look of such deep pity that Osmun had to look away.

“Get to it… please……” Osmun whispered.

“I’m sorry, Osmun. For everything that’s happened, I’m sorry.”

“How are you sorry?”

“That this happened to you. You were so promising, and then… maybe the trial was too much.”

“Too much?”

“Yes, yes. Too much… for your mind. I’ve heard of it happening before, but I’ve never seen it.”

“There is nothing wrong with my mind!” Osmun snapped.

Egus looked confused. “What were you saying a moment ago, lad? You were hearing voices?”

“Yes! It’s because they won’t stop. It has nothing to do with weakness on my part. A lesser man would have given up already. Or would have been captured by one of them.” He motioned towards Oridus, who glanced over his shoulder dismissively before looking back out the front window.

“I know that’s what you think, lad. I asked him to find you so that I might help in some small way.”

“How would you help me? You have no idea what is going on.”

“I want you to know that none of the Ardent that have been ordered to bring you in have anything to do with me. It’s all coming from Vicar Eldon. But I do [_hear _]things, and I’ve known that you’ve been giving them the slip at every turn.”

Osmun nodded.

“But it must be difficult, and… I can’t imagine how difficult. I wanted the best for you all along, I truly did.” Egus clasped his hands together as he spoke, as if praying. “You must realize, as I do, that it’s only a matter of time before they win this game. Look at you, Osmun… look at what this has done to you. They are going to find you and when they do, you’re going to wish you had already died. It won’t be quick. They’re going to treat you as an enemy of the faith… they’ll torture you until the brink of death. Over and over, they’re going to take you to the brink before they finally allow you to die.” Egus’ voice began to shake. “I couldn’t live with myself if I saw that happen to you, and I don’t want you to allow it to happen. Don’t die in ignominy.”

The cleric produced a small, black pouch cinched shut with string and held it out to Osmun. “Take this… please.”

Osmun hesitated before taking the pouch from Egus’ open hand. “What is it?” he asked as he undid the string.

“Something to give you some peace. You deserve some peace, not the horrors that await you if you are captured.” Inside the pouch, in the light of the nearby candles, was a familiar-looking leaf.

Black thornleaf.

Osmun looked into Egus’s pleading eyes and saw them become glassy with tears.

“You think I’m this desperate?” Osmun muttered as he let the pouch drop to the floor. Egus’ opened his mouth to speak but he struggled to find words.

“You… you are this desperate! Can you not see it? You would see it if you could see yourself! You’re half-starved and half-mad, nearly crippled and wholly destitute.”

“You want me dead?”

“Osmun…” Egus slowly leaned forward, his bushy grey eyebrows arched in concern, and placed his hands around one of Osmun’s. “You are dead already, and you were the day that Vicar Eldon ordered the Ardent after you. You’ve been drawing your final breaths since that day. I only want you to realize it, and… and take some control of it. You have this one last thing in your grasp – your life – and they’re ready to snatch it away from you and squeeze it and smash it. Don’t let them have it. Don’t let them take this one last thing from you.”

Osmun slowly pulled his hand away from Egus’s. “Have you said all you’ve come to say?”

Egus nodded once.

“Then leave me alone.”

“I told you he was stubborn,” Oridus said as he walked back and helped Egus to his feet. “Too stubborn to see the plainness of his plight.”

“Wait, wait,” Egus said. “The, uh… what I brought. Leave it with him.”

Oridus nodded and produced a leather water skin and set it on the stool. “It’s wine. Thought you might need it given the state you’re in.”

“Thank you, Orry,” Osmun said.

“It’s the last thing you’ll have to be thankful for. I mean that.” They turned to leave and, as they neared the door, Osmun spoke again.

“Orry… the owner of this place… he hasn’t done anything wrong, and he’s not an enemy of the faith. He’s just offered me shelter. I had to beg him, and… I promised him he was in no danger.”

“If you mean to keep that promise,” Orry said, “then you should leave this place. One way or another.”

The voices returned as soon as they left – he didn’t even hear the door open or shut – and Osmun began to weep almost immediately. He wanted them to come back and talk. They could tell him how low he had become, and he would listen for hours only for the company. He looked down at the spilled pouch on the floor between his feet. Egus did care for him and was probably the last person he knew of that did. The cleric’s words echoed in his mind, nearly becoming lost and indistinguishable in the clamour, yet they remained, refusing to be lost; the words instead started to become more defined. Something gave them contour and definition, and Osmun realized it must be the truth that did so.

He wiped the tears from his eyes and reached for the water skin, removed the cork and smelled the contents. His mouth immediately began to water. How long had it been since he had tasted anything so sweet? The taste of it reminded him of the nights he would spend reading by candlelight or savouring his own accomplishments after cleansing the lands past the border provinces. He had been certain of himself then, assured that he had only just begun to grasp his potential, his true greatness. All of the clerics had known of him by reputation.

They did, still. Only now as a murderer and an enemy of the faith. And, if he did nothing, they would know that he died having his body smashed or torn apart, and the elders who observed his torture would tell of the things they saw and of the things they would make him say. They would make him confess to killing Nestor and for abandoning the faith… perhaps even that he discarded his vows in favour of lusting after an Ivesian shaman.

No. They would have none of that from him, and he would not give them the chance. Osmun picked up the pouch and carefully poured the remainder of its contents into the skin and squeezed it to combine the wine and the leaves.

“Xidius, I pray… I pray that I acted justly, that I acted in service of the truth; that I was not deceived or manipulated. I pray that I will be forgiven for whatever crimes I am truly guilty of, and that this world knows that I am innocent, that the church and the Empire remember me for the things I did in its name, and in its service.”

He raised the skin to his lips, drank until it was empty, then lay back on the cot. Osmun felt a weight lifting from his chest, felt his pain disappearing and felt the voices becoming quiet until they were completely silenced.

Egus was right. The peace in the last moment was the best thing he had ever known, a place he could linger forever; it was without pain, without need or desire. The perfect place for a serenity that was absolute, its only flaw being that it had to end.

And for Osmun, it ended.

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 24

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

Zayd scanned the trees, trying to see if there were others. “I lost them,” he blurted out, not knowing what else to say. “I lost track of the Dramandi.”

Barrett approached, leaving his warhorse standing behind him, keeping his blade levelled. “Is that so?” he asked, just loud enough to be heard over the water at Zayd’s back. “My guess is you never had them.” The knight pointed to the wheel tracks in the soil. “What’s this?”

Zayd clenched his jaw. What could he say? He doubted Barrett knew exactly what had transpired, but he also knew there was no lie that could be told. Even now the knight looked at him the way he used to – with anger brimming, ready to boil over.

“Why did you go off on your own?” Barrett pressed, stepping closer still. The warrior stood only a few paces from being able to strike him with his sword, and Zayd would have no time to react. “Were you even on your own? None of your kin were missing from the fort. Was it one of them?” Barrett looked around to make sure they were indeed alone there on the precipice. Zayd acted, drawing his blade while the knight was looking away. Barrett saw and reacted just as quickly, raising his sword and taking a step back and adopting a defensive stance. He looked confused.

“Zayd! What… what [_is _]this? What are you doing?”

“You’re going to find out, Barrett, but you have to know that I had to… I [_had _]to do this. Do you understand?”

Barrett looked again at the tracks, his eyes following them over the edge of the gorge, and he realized. “But… the mariners took it. The mariners took it, didn’t they?”

“No, they didn’t. We couldn’t let anyone take it.”

“That was not your decision to make,” Barrett said, edging closer to Zayd. “And we… who is that? You and who else?”

Zayd backed up, closer to the gorge as Barrett closed distance. “I know what you’re going to think, but –”

“You… you god-cursed liar! It was her! That Dramandi witch, wasn’t it?”

“Listen to me!” Zayd yelled. “I didn’t take it for me or for anyone. I took it because there was evil… sowed within it somehow. She saw it, and so did I.”

“Is that so?” Barrett took another step. “More like she made you some empty promises. What did she say, Zayd? Or was it something she did, hmm?”

Zayd could not stop himself. The thought of Symm. He hurled his sword at Barrett with rage and abandon. The pommel struck Barrett in the head and sent a stream of red down his face instantly, and he sank to his knees, unbalanced.

“Always so ready to blame me just because I wasn’t born the same! I’m not Trueborn, you proud bastard, but if that means I’m not a man like Praene, then so be it! I did this for the Empire, because no one else saw the danger, all they saw was the treasure, and it blinded you –”

The blow took him by surprise. Barrett was on his feet faster than Zayd could react and rammed his fist into Zayd’s sternum. Zayd toppled over, gasping for breath. Barrett wiped blood from his brow and stepped on Zayd’s chest, pinning him in place. “You expect me to believe that? Do you think I’m a fool?”

Zayd shook his head and spoke in between breaths. “Not a fool… it is… unbelievable. Why do you think the Dramandi never unearthed it? They were going to bury it again…… Why have men like Praene been coaxed into treason? Why would soldiers try to fight Talazz?”

“For the gold,” Barrett said. “For simple greed.”

“No… for whoever…whatever… really claims it. That is why…… something has its own design, its own will, and it was using us as servants for its scheme.”

“What scheme?” Barrett asked, pointing the end of his blade inches away from Zayd’s throat.

Zayd finally caught his breath. “Only it knows, Barrett, but… is it not enough for the faithful, for you and I, to know that Xidius commands this kind of darkness is expelled into the Beyond? If it wasn’t this, then it would have gone to Lycernum… and, maybe the clerics could have dealt with it… but I don’t think they would have. It would have used them like it used Vard and Bailern to do its wickedness. There was that chance, Barrett, and even just the [_chance _]of it is too much. Just the chance of it is not worth all of the gold that disguises the danger. I would not take that chance, knowing what I know. Would you, Barrett? Would you let abominations desecrate our holy places? The Great Cathedral? Would you allow it to happen and blaspheme in doing so? Tell me you would and kill me, or tell me you would not and let me up.”

Zayd felt the end of the blade on his chest, ready to cut through him with nothing more than Barrett shifting his weight to it…

But the weight lifted, and Barrett drove the end of the sword in the ground next to him and offered Zayd his hand. The knight lifted him to his feet as though he weighed nothing.

“The mariners took a carriage,” Barrett said. “What was it?”
“Unused timber, mostly. And stones to give it weight.”

“They’ll find out once they get to Lycernum, if not sooner. They’ll find out they’ve been deceived. What will you do then? Won’t it lead back to you?”

“It might lead back to Ten Tower, but I doubt it will lead to me.”

“Marinus’ mother,” Barrett said. He looked at his feet and then at the sky. “What am I to do with this? What am I to do with you? You’re a traitor in the eyes of the Empire.”

“The eyes of the Empire do not see what you and I see,” Zayd said. Barrett looked at him with disdain, at least for his reasoning, if not for him altogether, until he at last looked back to the sky.

“This problem is better suited for a general or a high marshal, one who is used to the grey. I am a man of two worlds, two sides: good and evil. This is both and neither.” He looked at Zayd. “I will say nothing and I will do nothing. I will let Xidius decide your fate, which He will. Once the mariners discover what you’ve given them, it will be up to the Beacon what will happen to you. His wisdom, His judgment.”

Zayd tried not to, but he smiled, and he couldn’t stop smiling. “I… I accept.”

“Of course you accept – it was never a choice.”

“Then… I applaud.”

“Yes. I suppose that is fitting.”

Barrett knelt, picked up Zayd’s short sword and handed it back to him.

“What now?” Zayd asked.

“Go back to the fort.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll return. Later. But not with you. You’ve built a house out of lies, and I will not enter into it. You can deal with Walrend yourself, but I won’t have him thinking I’m part of your deception. You tell them we never crossed paths, do you understand?”

Zayd nodded.

“Good. Because that is what I will tell Walrend. I’m not a part of this and I never was, and if you say any differently –”

“I understand,” Zayd said.

Barrett turned his back to Zayd and looked towards the gorge. “Then go. Go back to the fort. I need to pray in silence and solitude,” he said as he sat on the rocks.

Zayd began to leave, but he stopped himself. “Thank you, Barrett.”

The knight didn’t turn around; he just sat motionless. “Wasted words. I haven’t done anything for you.” Zayd walked slowly back the way he had come while looking over his shoulder to see that Barrett was still as he was, and before long he was running through the forest following the path made by the carriage. He couldn’t do anything but run; he had been so close to fighting Barrett and, likely, just as close to death.

It was the joy at new life that was infused in him, what gave him the fire to run as fast as he could. And he kept running, for how long – miles? – he wasn’t sure. He only knew he was not tiring, and maybe he never would. All he could hear was the breeze, his heart, and his steps as he went.

And it was why he was instantly face to face with Talazz without warning. The giant seemed almost as surprised as he was, but Talazz wasted no time in drawing his blade.

“Zayd Cothar…”

Zayd began to back away. “Talazz, no… you can’t… don’t…”

“By the laws of the Ryferian Empire and by the grace of the Holy Emperor Madriceth, you are found guilty of treason.”

“That’s not possible! Talazz, you know I wouldn’t –”

Talazz took slow, heavy strides towards Zayd. “Yet you did. The mariners returned. Walrend knows what you did.”

“What does he know, Talazz? He thinks he knows, thinks he understands but he doesn’t. He doesn’t know what is going on!”

“The order has been given, that is the fact. Circumstance matters not. You betrayed your duty, so I do mine.” The giant stopped for a moment and Zayd felt the briefest spring of hope that he was having second thoughts. “You can surrender and plead your case to Walrend.”

“Talazz, you have to listen –”

“Don’t plead it to me. You are returning to the commander. Alive or dead is your choice. Make it.” Talazz tightened his grip on the handle of his menacing greatsword. The muscles in his arms tensed and flexed impossibly, suggesting limitless strength that was about to be unleashed upon Zayd. Countless times he had imagined what the enemy who faced an En Kazyr might feel, and now he knew, and it was more terrifying than he had thought. Talazz was still a full ten strides away but the greatsword looked ready to cut across that distance faster than Zayd could hope to evade it.

“Make your choice!” Talazz boomed, taking a step closer. Zayd jumped. There was no hope of convincing Walrend from beyond this world.

“I yield,” Zayd said as he held his arms out to his sides, his palms facing up. Talazz paused and looked at the Tauthri, either attempting to discern if the surrender was genuine, or contemplating whether the choice for him to return alive should have even been given. The giant grunted and lowered his sword somewhat. “Alright,” he said, his voice as low as distant thunder. “You walk ahead.” He pointed, and Zayd walked. He noticed as they went that the greatsword was still at the ready, its bloodthirsty tip only a foot, at most, from touching him. If he stopped walking suddenly Talazz could easily impale him.

The forest was different somehow than when he had ridden through it with Sera just hours before. It was menacing, Zayd thought, where before it had been hopeful. But that was just in his mind, and he told himself that the forest was not menacing, and had not been hopeful. It was indifferent. It had nothing wagered on him, and did not care if he lived or died. Was it the same everywhere? Surely not in Tauth, where their old gods had smiled on them through the stars and the trees. Before they gave them up. Home… now so far, so close not long ago.

He heard the kisolark’s song and shook his head to snap himself out of his daydream.

No… it wasn’t a daydream.

He heard the quick-breath sound of the arrow and the giant’s grunt almost at the same time, and, without thinking, ran off the path into the dense protection of the trees.

“Are you hurt, vahr?” Tascell called out in Tauthral.

“Who speaks?” Talazz yelled. “Come out!” He began walking, surprisingly fast, after Zayd.

Zayd pressed his back to a large tree, hoping that Talazz had lost sight of him already. “I’m fine. What’s going on? Why are you here?”

“I came to warn you not to return to the fort, but I can see I’m late.” He heard another arrow take flight. The giant grunted again.

“I hope you have enough arrows to bring him down.”

“There isn’t a quiver large enough, but I have enough to distract him while you escape.”

Zayd looked from around the tree to see Talazz turn around and ran in the direction of where the last arrow had been loosed. It was his chance…

So he ran.

He heard a loud crash, as if a hundred trees were felling, and looked over his shoulder. Talazz had swung, was swinging again, and trees were falling all around him. Tascell emerged from the collapse, running as fast as he could, but the giant was close on his heels, not letting him gain any distance.

Zayd drew his blade and veered left to approach Talazz from the side, out of his peripheral view.

“Zayd, go! Get away!”

Talazz swung again as Zayd closed in and buried his blade in the giant’s leg behind the knee. The giant roared out, not in pain – in anger. He twisted and fell, and Zayd lost his grip on the blade, so he kept running, circling back to where he thought Tascell might be.

There was blood on the leaves everywhere. “Tascell!” Zayd hissed. He heard coughing and the sound of Talazz slowly getting back to his feet.

“Come out!” the giant yelled so loud it seemed to rattle the trees. Tascell was sitting, almost laying, behind a fallen tree trunk, his bow resting on his lap. Zayd knelt beside him.

“Were you struck?” Zayd whispered. Tascell was gripping his right side, and he gave Zayd a weak smile. “I think I was,” he said. He moved his hand and blood poured out everywhere. The cut must have cut clean through his ribs, and even as Zayd realized the extent of the injury, Tascell was becoming pale and short of breath.

“I can’t breathe,” he said, and his head slumped to the side.

“Tascell!” Zayd whispered.

“I’ve got one of you,” Talazz said. He was approaching, following the blood just as Zayd had. Zayd was not sure how close the giant was; every step sounded like it would land on top of him. His mind screamed at him to run, and it screamed in Symm’s voice. But his body would not obey. Tascell wasn’t dead. He could not be. There was still a chance he could be saved.

The bow felt alien in Zayd’s hands, like an instrument he had forgotten how to play. Symm’s voice was louder than the footsteps, yet he could tell that Talazz was nearly looming over him.

He stood up straight and saw the giant, saw the rage and determination in his face, and he saw the face change as it looked back at him, looking at the taught bow and the arrow that was levelled at him.

Zayd’s scarred hand trembled and he nearly lost his grip on the end of the arrow. He exhaled, and the arrow was gone. Confusion was frozen on Talazz’s face. He stopped walking, dropped the greatsword, and reached up to his face where the arrow protruded from his right eye socket. His hands were still raised as he fell to his knees, then onto his side.

He stood amid the breathless bodies in the indifferent forest. How could it look upon this carnage and remain that way? Zayd returned to his slain countryman. Gently, he moved Tascell, laying him flat on the ground in a peaceful repose, placed the bow on his chest, and then he sat by him.

“I hope you make it home,” he said. “I hope we make it.”

He sat there until he heard a horse coming down the path from the direction of the gorge. “Follow me home,” Zayd said as he got to his feet and began to run. He went north, into the forest, as fast as he could. Fast enough to outrun the memories of the dead.

Behind him, Barrett Stern saw the slain giant and watched, through narrowing eyes, as Zayd disappeared through the trees

 

 

 

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

Chapter 25

[* *]

[* *]

[* *]

 

Cleric Andrican felt the satisfaction one feels when long labour yields an admirable harvest. It had been a long day in a week of long days, but all of them were smaller stepping stones to this: he was going to succeed Vicar Eldon.

It wouldn’t happen for some time yet, but Andrican did not mind. He was a patient man and understood that things within the church took time. Some priests and some clerics did not understand this. They let their egos prevent them from a deeper understanding, and because of it they made themselves into ships sailing into the wind. It would only take time for them to either correct their course or find themselves choking down sea-water as they sank.

He was the most senior of the clerics and, in a way, he had expected to be raised up to vicar, but in the past weeks he had proven that none were more deserving. Because of his scrutiny they had rid themselves not only of an unworthy priest, but a man who was more dangerous than they had realized. Vicar Eldon was unconvinced that Osmun was responsible for Nestor’s death, but because of Andrican’s recommendation, Eldon had ordered the Ardent after him. It amazed Andrican that the vicar needed convincing to begin with – but once he told him of Osmun’s sudden obsession with that imaginary ghost, Eldon’s mind was made up.

And though they had not yet captured the mad priest, which Andrican knew was certain to happen, they had found where he had been hiding, and the body of the Ivesian shaman who had attacked them in a most ungodly way the week before. It surprised him to learn that Osmun would turn to the wicked teaching of a shaman so readily, but that only spoke to the depths of the man’s duplicity and removed any doubts, if any at all remained, that he was an enemy of the faith. Andrican wondered how they had all been fooled for so long to begin with. Perhaps that was how he managed to kill the two Ardent outside that warehouse. The thought of it still soured his other accomplishments, but knowing that those men died in service to the church – fulfilling the pledge they had made with their lives when they had taken on the task – consoled him. There was no death more noble.

Andrican allowed himself a smile despite the small setbacks. Osmun would be captured as surely as Xidius was great. He only prayed it was soon.

The cleric, alone in his study in the Great Cathedral, poured himself a cup of wine, set it on his desk, and walked through the Cathedral halls to the library where he looked through the various tomes of devotionals and inspired poetry. Typically he was not a great appreciator of the poets – he found the odes and the acclamations to be bordering on vain –– but tonight he was feeling inspired, so it seemed appropriate.

The stone halls were warm that night. The Autumn sun would bathe its last warmth of the day on nearly the entire cathedral, and to Andrican it felt like a warm embrace. A message from Xidius Himself… his thanks.

He returned to his room and settled in at his table and took a sip of wine. “Perfect,” he said, just as he noticed a book and a roll of parchment paper before him. They had not been there when he had left…

“It is good wine.”

Andrican nearly fell from his chair. He dropped the cup, spilling out the wine on himself and the floor. He shot to his feet, ready to erupt in anger at whatever idiotic jester thought that surprising him could be tolerated. But when he saw the face, he couldn’t find any words to serve him. Save one.

“Osmun?”

The priest was thinner with a scruffy beard and dark circles under his eyes, the kind won by many sleepless nights. Despite his ragged appearance, he seemed as though he was untouched by any hardship. He had been standing next to the door to the study, and he walked slowly towards Andrican, his hands pressed awkwardly at his sides.

“Cleric,” Osmun said. “You’ve spilled your wine.”

“What do you hope to gain by coming here?”

Osmun stepped forward again, his eyes widened as he grinned a maniacal grin. “Everything. Gain everything, cleric.”

“You know you won’t make it out of here, not even to the front door!”

“I don’t want to leave.” Osmun looked around the room, smiling still. “I’m staying. You are going.”

Andrican laughed. “You’ve lost your mind, Osmun.”

The mad priest shook his head and motioned to the desk. “Do you know what those are? The book is the tome stolen from the Compendium.”

“You… [_you _]are the one who did that?”

“In a way. The letter on the desk will say otherwise.”

Andrican picked up the scroll and unrolled it, keeping Osmun in his sight while he did so. The words were somehow written in his hand and, underneath, signed with his signature. He started to feel dizzy.

“How… I didn’t write this! How did you do this?”

“I looked at one of your journals while you were gone. Not hard to assume your writing and your language. It is… pitifully simple.”

Andrican looked at it again, hoping that he had seen it all wrong the first time. But it was all there – the confession, his confession, at stealing the tome, being in league with the shaman, and blaming everything on Osmun to focus attention away from him.

It is with great humility that I hope this last act will convince you of my sorrow and my regret for what I have done.

“You are mad if you think this will change anything,” Andrican said. His world was spinning. “What… what last act? Tell me!”

“You should sit down,” Osmun said just as Andrican’s leg failed him. The cleric looked up at him, fear in his eyes, and Osmun knelt beside him. “Black thornleaf has no taste. Your friend Egus gave me some. I think he’ll be glad to see Osmun, though. Together we’ll mourn the man we thought we knew.”

Andrican tried to scream but he was struggling even to fill his lungs with air. The last thing he saw was Osmun smiling that hideous smile before the creeping darkness pulled him from this world to the next.

Satisfied, Velskotahn stood. He looked into the cleric’s open eyes. “The same fate for all of you,” he said. The words came out in the hideous tongue of men, but this body, for all its power, was ill equipped to speak the language of the ancients.

It had taken him much longer to break the priest than he thought. But he was patient. What did time matter to him? There was one time where he felt a moment of passing concern, when the priest and that woman had created the opening. Velskotahn felt, just barely, the priest’s influence. He was powerful indeed. Even more powerful than he had first thought, which was why his spirit had to be broken utterly. The man had brought himself to the point of death, and that was when Velskotahn finally won.

He inhaled deeply, relishing the sensations that were constantly washing over him but displeased with the corporeal fragility of the vessel he now possessed. It was necessary, though, to come back to this place. With this body and its power, he would make right the things of the past. They would find the gateway. They would unite the keys.

To finish what he began.

 

 

 

Dear reader,

 

Once again I’d like to express my sincere thanks to you for reading this. I hope you enjoyed it enough to leave a review of it on the online retailer of your choice. You can also click here to subscribe to my mailing list.

 

- Tim.

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Mathias lives in an old house in New Hamburg, Ontario, with his wife.

 

He enjoys scotch and Dungeons and Dragons, preferably at the same time, if possible.

 

When he isn’t writing, he’s practicing at being a better misanthrope.

 

 


What Was Forgotten

In the last city of a conquered foe, a conscript named Zayd must escort ancient artifacts and the spoils of war back to the capital of the great Ryferian Empire. Yet something they took from the city is corrupting the soldiers around Zayd, and the only one who can help him fight the sinister presence is his enemy... Far away in the Imperial capital, a young and ambitious priest named Osmun is stalked by a mysterious being that has suddenly appeared from beyond all known history, and seems to have dark designs that center around him. As one war ends, another is about to begin, and Zayd and Osmun must confront an evil that has been dormant for untold eons. The first book in a new series, What Was Forgotten blends fantasy with elements of horror and mystery and features fast-paced action, suspense, love and betrayal all within a unique and fully-realized world.

  • ISBN: 9781311878120
  • Author: Tim Mathias
  • Published: 2016-05-24 06:10:18
  • Words: 98035
What Was Forgotten What Was Forgotten