Grimdark Story Battle Royale III: Finals

The Brood Must Endure vs. From Teeth and Claws vs. Smile of an Empress

The Brood Must Endure

Surandir was twelve when she saw her first demon. She could still remember the night, waking to see the creature standing over her baby brother’s crib. Alin, her brother, was dead. Dismembered. Lit by moonlight falling through the open window, Surandir saw one tiny arm hanging from the demon’s long, crocodilian mouth. Blood dripped from the creature’s jagged maw onto its pale, speckled stomach. A chaotic melding of toad, crocodile, and half-realized nightmare, the demon swallowed what remained of Alin before turning its eyes on her.

Surandir remembered her father in the doorway, axe in hand.

Too late to save the baby, he hacked the demon limb from limb.

The next day, the entire village mourned.

Her father, Torsk, was one of the village’s best hunters. That he had lost his newborn son so soon after the death of his wife was a tragedy, but it was not a singular event. That spring, six more children were killed, taken from their cribs.

Everyone knew what it meant.

The demons, once content to remain deep within the swamps, were growing in both strength and numbers.

Three days after the attack, Torsk took his daughter out to the edge of the swamp and taught her how to shoot a bow. Surandir took to it with astounding ease, and before she was sixteen she was one of the village’s finest archers. In the years after, her father continued to teach Surandir everything he knew about the swamp and the creatures that lived there. Every spring since the attack, Torsk and the other hunters made every effort to purge the swamp of demons, ensuring that the creatures never again rose to such numbers.

The first time Surandir accompanied her father on a hunt she was eighteen.

It went well. She killed two of the smallest demons, runts like the one that killed her brother, and even helped take down one of the bigger beasts. Heading home after that first hunt, sitting next to her father as he pushed their raft through the murky bog, Surandir knew she had found her purpose.

*

“Something on your mind?”

Surandir looked up from the sludge, catching sight of Maricus’ worried gaze. Four years had passed since her first hunt, and she often accompanied her father and the other hunters into the swamp.

The old hunter was tired, but pushed the raft along without complaint.

“Nothing that needs speaking,” Surandir said.

They stood on a bamboo raft. Maricus pushed them along, a long, narrow pole in his calloused hands. The third member of their party, a woman called Boshae, sat in the raft with her back against a small, raised edge. She was, Surandir believed, asleep. At Boshae’s side was her spear, the shaft decorated in red beads to denote every demon she had killed.

“Your father is worried about you,” the old man said, casting his gaze back out into the hazy swamps. “You spend too much time out here. Alone. We all see it.”

Surandir shrugged.

“You’re comfortable out here,” Maricus continued. “And that’s alright. But don’t let it consume you.”

All around them loomed the stagnant, humid, and demon filled swamp. Both Surandir and Maricus wore brown and tan sarongs, sandals, and leather jerkins. Surandir had her bow, her quiver and long knifehanging from her hip. Maricus carried a similar knife as well as his sword.

Somewhere ahead, drifting along the river on another raft, was Surandir’s father and two other hunters.

Maricus stopped pushing the raft, his eyes catching something in the mass of vines, roots, and branches around them. Silence. Somewhere off to their left, a bubble burst from the muddy, scum-covered water and Surandir felt a shudder down her back.

“Ready an arrow, would you?” Maricus whispered.

The old hunter bent down and gently shook Boshae awake. The woman rose silently, her spear in hand as she scanned the surrounding swamps for sign of the yet unseen threat.

Surandir crouched low, bow in hand, arrow nocked and ready to fly.

For several long moments, nothing happened.

Something nudged their raft. Without hesitation Maricus gave a shout as sludge and stagnant water burst up from below. Up from below leapt a tall, green-skinned demon. It landed before them, the small raft rocking beneath their feet and Surandir slipped, her arrow sailing off into the murk.

Maricus swung his blade at a demon, the steel tearing across creature’s pale, bulbous stomach. Blood leaked out from the wound, but it barely slowed the beast. Taller than either Maricus or Boshae, the demon lashed out at with its claws. Jagged teeth snapped. Boshae thrust with her spear, while Maricus tried to land a killing blow. The creature’s thick skin was a deep viridian hue, its underbelly a pale, milky white. Short, stocky legs supported the powerful body, while a long, scaled tail ended in a barbed spike. Maricus jabbed with his blade. The demon turned, the sword piercing the muscle of its shoulder instead of its heart.

Boshae, still silent as the demon began to hiss, slid her spear across the creature’s neck opening the flesh and sending a torrent of blood down its chest.

The demon swung a clawed forearm at Maricus, tearing through his leather jerkin and into his shoulder. Blood sprayed as the hunter fell back screaming. Surandir, still on her back on the bottom of the raft, drew and fired another arrow. This one took the demon through a fleshy pouch, a vocal sac of some sort, which hung below the creature’s jaw.

For a moment, Boshae stood alone against the demon.

Surandir drew another arrow, but before she could fire two other shafts flew from the murky haze.

Both sunk into the back of its neck, grating against bone. The demon staggered. Boshae leapt, pushing her spear into the demon’s already wounded neck. Cutting through more of the soft, unprotected flesh, the hunter pushed her spearhead up beneath its chin and into the creature’s brain.

It fell to its knees before Surandir. For one terrible moment, she looked up at the creature as it died, and saw neither hatred nor malice. Hunger, yes. The predatory gaze of beast seeking prey. But despite all that she had been taught, Surandir did not see evil in the demon’s eyes.

Boshae pulled her spear from the bloody corpse and kicked it back into the sludge.

Maricus grunted as he rolled to his feet. His shoulder was torn, skin hanging from the tattered, jagged wounds.

“Having a little trouble?” a voice called out from the haze.

Surandir squinted through the bog to see the silhouettes of three people emerging through the wispy murk.

“Our thanks, Torsk,” Maricus said, turning away from the other raft to rummage through their supplies for a bandage.

“You’re getting slow, old man,” Surandir’s father grinned, pushing his raft up alongside. “You’re lucky Viran is such a good shot.”

Another woman, Viran, stood next to Torsk, her bow still in hand. Taller, older, and stronger than Surandir, her arrows always hit harder, though she lacked Surandir’s accuracy. Beside Viran was Jaiso, the youngest member of their party. It was his first hunt, and one he had been eager to join.

“Look at this,” Maricus said, wincing as he examined his bloody shoulder. Grunting, he dug his finger into the torn flesh. With a grin he pulled out a small, pale sliver. “Damned thing left pieces of its claw in me.”

“That’s not suppose the happen,” Surandir said, staring at the bloody sliver.

“No, it’s not,” Maricus said. “It took more than the usual bastards too. No fear. Bigger, I think. Its scales were thicker, and did you see that tail?”

“We’re going further in than usual,” Torsk said from the other raft. “Maybe we’re seeing a type of demon that doesn’t come out too often?”

“My thoughts exactly,” Maricus said. “Watch out, the lot of you. If we’re taking on a new type of these bastards, I want everyone on their toes. We’re two days in already, which means help is a long way away.”

Everyone nodded, even Torsk, as the old hunter bandaged up his shoulder.

“Good,” Maricus said, spitting into the sludge. “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s go hunt some more demons.”

*

At the end of the day, the group found a small island choked with old, gnarled trees rising up from the mire. Torsk, Viran, and Jaiso went first. Boshae pushed their raft up to the muddy shore, allowing Maricus to climb up onto the island as well. As he climbed, the aged hunter coughed and fell over into the mud. Surandir raced to his side, but the old hunter pushed her away.

“Stop your worrying,” he snarled. “Just tripped is all.”

“Here,” she said, insisting. “Let me help you.”

“Don’t need your help. But you can give Boshae a hand with the raft.”

Surandir let the man go. She saw the festering wound on his shoulder. She turn, catching Boshae’s gaze, but neither said a word.

At the top of the rise, Surandir saw Torsk and the others examining a strange site. Old, weathered stones lined a rough, circular area clear of trees or heavy vegetation. In the centre of the site lay piles of animal remains, shattered teeth and claws, as well as piles of rotting skin.

“It’s a nest,” Jaiso said as Surandir climbed up beside them.

“They shed their skin?” Surandir said, poking through the sodden, stinking mess.

“Just like a snake. I’ve seen the pythons around the village do this too.”

“But crocs don’t,” Viran said. “Neither do toads.”

“Spiders shed their skins.” Jaiso offered.

Boshae, silent as usual, shivered at the mention of spiders.

“These demons aren’t spiders,” Torsk said, his eyes on Maricus. “Though I’ve heard up in Haurang they’ve got a type of demon with eight legs.”

“Stop,” Viran said, rubbing her arms. “Just… stop. Crocs, snakes, and toads are one thing. Spiders are where I draw the line, alright?”

“Alright,” Torsk nodded. “Though, we do have to consider something else being out here. Look, these markings here, they aren’t the usual tracks. This was left by something new. Something… big.”

He bent low to the sodden ground, pointing out the strange tracks to Surandir and Jaiso. Maricus remained off to one side coughing into his hand. The aged hunter sat down against one of the larger stones and scratched at his shoulder. Trying not to stare, Surandir picked up a discarded tooth. It was long, at least five inches, but thin. Curved slightly, the tooth would break easily, especially if the demon in question was trying to deliver a killing blow.

Just like the claws, Surandir realized. They are meant to remain in their victim’s wounds.

Maricus coughed again, a deep, watery sound that drew everyone’s attention.

Torsk looked back at Surandir, the two sharing a fearful look.

“Maricus, how’re you feeling?”

The old hunter didn’t even look over to Torsk. He coughed again, and this time Surandir could see blood on the man’s lips.

Torsk motioned everyone over to their rafts, a dire look in his eyes.

“We need to get Maricus back to the village,” he said. “Surandir, Viran, you two take him back. Move fast, don’t stop to engage any of the demons. Got it?”

“Not a chance,” Viran said, knowing that Surandir would fee the same. “We all go, or none of us.”

“It’s too dark to travel now anyway,” Surandir added. “Too risky. We head back now and we’ll be lost in before midnight. We need a fire. We’ll have to wait until dawn.”

“Maricus might not have until dawn.”

“We can’t navigate the swamps at night,” Viran said, looking over her shoulder to Maricus’ hunched form. “We don’t have any choice, Torsk. We can’t help Maricus if we’re dead.”

“And if he dies?” Torsk snapped.

“We all know the risks,” Viran said, her voice cold.

For a moment Surandir thought her father would continue to fight them. His fists tightened at his sides, but she put a hand on his shoulder. Exhaling slowly, Torsk relaxed.

“Alright,” he said. “We camp here and move out at first light. All of us. Surandir, you have first watch. I’ll take second, and then Viran. Boshae, Jaiso, look after Maricus, alright?”

They nodded their agreement and set about making camp. Maricus coughed the whole time, even after he fell asleep against the stone. They did what they could for the old hunter’s wounds, but he needed more than they could give. The ground was firm enough, and they were all accustomed to life in the swamp. Boshae was able to get a small fire going, which kept most of the smaller demons away.

One by one, the hunters checked their gear.

Everything needed to be oiled and cared for or else the moisture, humidity, and very essence of the swamp would wear away at anything they carried. They ate a small meal, feeding Maricus what they could, before laying down and leaving Surandir to watch the camp.

The fire burned in the centre of their camp, flames flickering through the night.

Above, the trees were too thick to allow much moonlight through the boughs, but it was enough for Surandir to make out her surroundings. Snakes slithered though the branches. Mosquitoes darted over the murky waters, and small millipedes crawled over the roots by her feet. The swamp bubbled and moaned. Creatures called out from the darkness.

Surandir kept her bow in hand, quiver on one hip and long knife on the other.

Maricus coughed as he slept, once or twice even mumbling something under his breath. Tired, Surandir tried to listen, to hear what the aged hunter was saying, but couldn’t make out the words.

*

The next morning, Surandir woke, Viran gently shaking her shoulder.

Something was wrong. Torsk and Jaiso were at the edges of the camp, hacking at the surrounding vines as they went. Boshae was out in the water, waist deep, pulling up roots, lily pads, and anything else that got in her way.

“What is it?” Surandir asked, reaching for her bow.

“Get up and help us,” Viran said. “Ready your bow. Go help your father.”

“What happened?” she asked, stringing her bow before pulling her belt and quiver around her waist. “What’s going on?”

And then she realized what was different.

Maricus was gone.

“Just now,” Viran explained, fists clenched in frustration. “He was there all through my watch. I woke Boshae, then went to get some water. Turned around, and he was just… gone.”

“Just find him, okay?” Torsk shouted from the edge of the camp. “Talk later.”

Surandir helped, but after a while with no sign of their friend, they began to lose hope. Maricus was gone. Without a sound, he had vanished.

“Was he taken by a demon?” Jaiso asked.

“A demon would have attacked us,” Viran said. “I think he did this. Willingly.”

“What?” Torsk growled with more anger than he meant. “He didn’t leave. The damn fool could barely walk on his own.”

“It was that wound,” Surandir said. “A bit of the claw was still in his wound. Infected. It did something to him.”

“We have to find him,” Jaiso said.

“We will,” Torsk said. “Get the rafts ready. We push through. Search until we find him. This little patch of mud isn’t that big. We split up, circle the island, and meet on the other side. Got it?”

They nodded. The rafts were pushed onto the water, and then loaded with their supplies. Torsk and Viran took one raft, while Surandir, Boshae, and Jaiso took the other. With barely another word they split up, poles in the water as they navigated the swamp.

Boshae navigated through the bog. Slime and thick weeds clung to the long pole as it dipped down in the mud. Surandir stood beside the woman, bow drawn and an arrow nocked. Jaiso hacked though the occasional vine or branch that hung in their way. They followed the edge of the small rise in land, roots and weeds growing thicker as they went.

“My father was wrong,” Surandir said. “This island is bigger than we thought. Maricus could be anywhere…”

“We’ll find him,” Jaiso answered. “We have to.”

“Wait…” Surandir whispered, seeing something through the haze. “What… what is that?”

Boshae and Jaiso saw it too. Before them, half on the sodden island and half in the sludge-covered water, stood several dozen pods arranged in three haphazard rows. Colourless. Translucent. Within each pod was a small, vaguely reptilian shape.

“Get closer,” Surandir whispered.

“What?” Jaiso hissed. “No. We need to run.”

“Closer,” Surandir repeated.

Boshae nodded and gently pushed the raft closer to the pods.

“They’re alive,” Jaiso said, staring. “See, look at the way they seem to pulse…”

“They’re eggs,” Surandir said. “These are unborn demons…”

“Unborn? Or larva?”

“Either way, this is where they come from. And we can kill them all. Take out a whole generation of the bastards.”

“Fire,” Jaiso said. “Get the lantern oil and light them up.”

Boshae nodded again and pushed them even closer. Nearly at the edge of the vulgar collection of pods, Surandir saw the pods were mounted on a grey porous stretch of flesh, muscle, and fat. She took a breath, suddenly realizing their mistake.

“They’re attached,” she whispered, eyes trailing the long, mud covered surface they grew from. “They’re larva alright. A brood, but they’re not unguarded.”

The grey flesh, half submerged in the water and half out of the sodden ground, began to rise up from the swamp. It was, they all realize, the back of a much larger creature. The pods were nested within pores on the back of the brood queen, a demon unlike any Surandir had seen. It rose from the water, a beast nearly twenty feet tall. Like the other demons, the brood queen’s head was that of a crocodile, her long snout filled with hundreds of curved teeth. On either side of the demon’s head were three sets of multifaceted eyes. Her limbs were knotted with muscle, each of her claws longer than Surandir’s forearm.

The brood queen stood for a moment, hunched in the water, turning to face the hunters and protecting the demon larva on her back.

“Run!” Jaiso shouted, but there was nowhere to go.

Trapped on the small raft, the three hunters had little choice. Surandir loosed an arrow. Her shot was flawless, the arrow piercing one of the brood queen’s eyes. Jaiso shouted again, his sword useless in his hands. Boshae put down the pole and grabbed her spear. The silent woman stood between the two younger hunters, eyes fixed on the demon before them. Surandir fired again, the arrow piercing the brood queen’s neck. The demon didn’t even flinch as she swept one great clawed limb down onto the raft. Wood, bamboo, and rope cracked and burst apart. Supplies flew everywhere as the raft split in two.

Surandir leapt to the water on one side, Jaiso to the other.

Boshae, caught between them, took the full force of the brood queen’s monstrous swipe. Her head and chest crumpled beneath the demon’s claw, her body broken apart as she went down with the raft.

“Boshae!” Jaiso screamed, terror flooding the young hunter. “Boshae!”

Surandir pushed through mire, dragging herself up onto a small collection of roots and mud. Her bow was still in her hand. She only had four arrows left. The rest had fallen into the water.

“Jaiso,” she called out, loud enough to catch the queen’s attention. “Jaiso, hurry, find somewhere to hide!”

Taking a breath, Surandir pulled back on the bowstring, calming her nerves as best she could.

“Four,” Surandir whispered, firing the arrow.

There was moment when Surandir thought she missed, but the arrow flew straight, hitting the second of the queen’s eyes. Black blood spurted from the wound as the queen roared in pain.

“Surandir!” Jaiso shouted from within a collection of heavier trees and roots. “Over here! Come on!”

“Quiet, you idiot!” she answered but it was too late.

The brood queen swung her reptilian gaze to Jaiso.

Lunging through the water, eager to defend her brood, the queen was upon him in two steps. The trees protected the young hunter for a moment, but Surandir could tell they would not last long. The massive demon tore at the trees, breaking branch and root to get to Jaiso.

“Three,” Surandir said as she fired another arrow. This one missed the brood queen’s eyes, sinking instead into her neck.

The demon ripped up the trees between her and Jaiso.

“Two,” Surandir said, firing her second-to-last arrow. This one missed entirely, sailing off into the swampy fog.

The brood queen tore through the remaining trees and reached for Jaiso. The young hunter swung his sword and stumbled, one foot caught in some roots. He screamed as the demon wrapped her claws around him, scooping him from the ground. His leg, still caught in the roots, tore at the knee.

He only screamed for a moment before the brood queen bit him in half.

Memories of her brother filled Surandir’s thoughts. Memories of fear. Of helplessness. Loss.

“One,” Surandir said, firing her last arrow.

Her arrow flew true, sinking into the third of the demon’s eyes. Blinded now on one side, the brood queen dropped what remained of Jaiso and flailed. She scratched at her wounds, trying to remove the arrows, blood flowing down her nightmarish, crocodilian face. Maddened. Wounded. Enraged. The brood queen rushed at Surandir across the putrid water, claws tearing at anything in her way, water and sludge spraying everywhere.

Panicking, Surandir slid down into the roots.

She knew it wouldn’t give her much protection, but she didn’t have another option. The brood queen pushed her long snout into the roots, teeth and claws tearing as she sought out her prey. Surandir screamed as the demon shredded through the roots. She tried to kick at the demon’s maw, but the queen would not stop. Teeth tore into Surandir’s shoulder, agony flooding her senses. Excruciating pain exploded across her chest and arm. Blood burst from the wound, splattering across the roots. Surandir screamed, the demon easily biting through the leather jerkin and into her muscle.

Surandir knew her death was close at hand.

Then, a moment from the end, something changed.

The brood queen pulled her head back, out from the roots, teeth tearing Surandir’s shoulder even more. Free for the moment, Surandir screamed and fought her way up through the roots.

Above, the brood queen flailed, thrashing as two figures clung to its back.

Father?

Swords flashed as blood and chunks of flesh fell into the water.

Viran?

Surandir stumbled. Her vision swam, her thoughts broken and scattered by the fire racing through her veins. Blood flowed freely down her arm. Trying to cover the wounds with her good hand, she felt several long shards stuck in her flesh. Each one was as long as her finger.

Teeth, Surandir realized. Teeth of the brood queen.

“No, no, no,” she hissed, clawing at the wound. Surandir began tearing the teeth from her shoulder. They broke easily, shards and fragments left inside her muscle.

Torsk was on the brood queen’s back, his sword driven deep into her neck. Black blood coursed down from her wounds. Viran was beside him, stabbing furiously into the eggsacks nestled within her flesh. Still blind on one side, the demon flailed as she tried to shake the two hunters from her back. A vulgar barking sound emanated from her throat as Torsk stabbed her again. The blade went deep, the hunter twisting his blade once embedded in her flesh. He stabbed again, shouting a ferocious battle cry. His sword severed arteries, the queen’s blood spilling down into the mire.

Jaws snapping, limbs flailing at the surrounding trees and mud covered islands, the brood queen fell.

Sludge erupted as the demon’s body hit the water. Viran and Torsk fell from her back, the two hunters hitting branches and roots on their way down.

It is done, Surandir thought. Done, but something is wrong…

She tried to breath. To stand. The pain in her shoulder was like fire. Venom. A poison spreading through her veins. She pulled at the teeth still embedded in her flesh, but one and all they shattered, leaving fragments deep within her shoulder.

“Surandir!” Torsk shouted, pushing through the roots to reach her. He grabbed his daughter, staring in horror at her wounds. “Surandir! Oh… no, no, no… not again… come on girl, you’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna be alright… Viran! Viran, where are you?”

“Here,” the other woman said, running through the swamp to Surandir’s side.

“Help me, please!” he said. “The raft. Get the raft! We have to get her back to the village.”

Viran nodded and climbed up over the mud-covered roots covering the island.

“Boshae is dead,” Surandir said, blood on her lips. “So is Jaiso.”

“It’s alright,” Torsk said. “You’re gonna be alright.”

“What about Maricus?” she asked, trying to focus on her father’s face. “Did you find him?”

There was a sad, broken pause before he nodded.

“Yes…” Torsk said, tears running down his cheeks. “He was… different. Like he was becoming… one of them. He is… he’s at peace now.”

Surandir looked up into her father’s face. She felt warm at first, like she was on fire, but then a chill spread across her chest. Comforting. It spread to her limbs. What was so painful a moment ago quickly became a gentle embrace.

Viran returned on the remaining raft and they hurriedly dragged Surandir on.

“Torsk,” Viran said. “Look. Her wounds… the blood has stopped…”

“I know,” Torsk said. “It’s the teeth. The shards in her shoulder. They’re doing this… doing something to her.”

“She’ll turn,” Viran said. “Just like Maricus. Only different…”

“Don’t you dare say it! She won’t. She can’t!”

“Maricus was quickly turning into a demon, same type as the one that attacked him. You saw the demon that bit Surandir. A queen of some sort. A brood queen.”

“That’s not how it works,” Torsk growled, denying the truth. “We don’t become them. They were growing on that damned bitch’s back.”

“Torsk,” Viran said, a hand on his shoulder. “I know this hurts… but we don’t know how any of it works. We don’t know anything about how the demons propagate.”

Surandir coughed. She listened to her father arguing with Viran. She knew it didn’t matter. They couldn’t save her. Take her back to the village, and she would only get worse. They couldn’t remove all the teeth from her wound in time. Her hand drifted over the side, fingers trailing in the water. What once felt so alien and dangerous was now welcoming. Pleasant. She wanted to swim. She wanted to sink down into the murk.

She wanted to be one with the swamp.

As Torsk and Viran argued, Surandir pulled herself up onto the side of the raft. The shards of teeth scratched against bone. Her skin began to itch. She thought of the brood queen and the larva growing in the demon’s back.

She thought about how nice that would be.

Before Torsk or Viran could stop her, Surandir pulled herself over the side and slipped into the murky water. Torsk shouted as he ran for her, hands failing to grab her legs as she hit murky water. She kicked, sinking down into the sludge. She felt it now. Understood it like never before. The villagers called the demons monsters. But they weren’t. Not at all. The demons, trees, vines, insects, mud, snakes, and tangled roots all played their parts in the endless cycle. Even the stagnant waters between the mud-covered islands were like arteries feeding a living host.

Everything here was as it should be.

The demons were not alien. They were integral.

She thought of Alin, her little brother, and the tragedy of his death. She thought of the hunger that demon must have felt. Worse still was the violence that was done to it, a predator merely hunting its prey. Surandir understood now. The people of the village were no different.

Her head barely breaking the surface of the water, Surandir watched her father calling out her name. Viran was at his side. They cried. They shouted. They railed against injustice, knowing neither the truth nor balance of all things.

Everything was needed. A cycle, perfectly balance.

The brood, Surandir knew, watching from afar, must endure.


From Teeth and Claws

The guilty man writhed underneath the body of the monstrous Warg. The colosseum echoed with the applause of thousands, drowning out whatever screams the man had. The demonic hound was the Goddess’s most beloved beast. Towering above horses and doubling the mass of normal wolves; the man’s efforts to push the beast off were futile. It’s protruding fangs were still embedded deeply into his shoulder, pinning him down by weight and pain.

There was an eruption of applause as the beast ripped off the man’s flesh and then showered in the gore that sprayed out. The audience began to chant “For our Queen, for our Queen, for our Queen,” even as the man was disappearing beneath the animal, into the dust and blood.

Talys did not raise his voice to join the chorus. He was standing up above, upon the Royal platform surrounded by the Queen, royal advisers and guards.

 By wearing the mask of the Warg and training rings on his fingers, it indicated that he was leading today’s ceremony. On Judgement Day, Trainers wore white to symbolize the purity of the trials. The white striking a harsh contrast against his dark umber, scarred skin. He was considerably short for a Diorin man and even smaller for his frame. Despite his disappointing stature, today Talys stood with importance above all others. It was his beast below, the Warg he had dubbed Syn.

“The first drop has spilled!” an announcer boomed in a baritone voice over the crowd. “May the guilty BLEED by the Wargs of our Goddess. May our Queen, who embodies our deity….”

Talys forced himself to ignore the speaker and the commotion around him. It was his duty to make sure that he used his rings to stop Syn at just the right moment. Wargs were trained to inflict devastating, but not outright fatal wounds.

“…deem whether he is worthy to rejoin society.”

 The crowd watched with vengeful lust as Syn ravaged the poor man, captivated by the violence before them. Talys held no ill will towards the defendant. Even now, he was merely surveying the magnitude of the victim’s lacerations. Any who survived the trials were considered reborn. To bring an individual to the doorsteps of death was every Trainer’s goal and Talys and Syn were the best. He poised, ready to strike with his rings. The Wargs attack and holt on the snaps.

With sudden gusto, Syn snapped her jaws around the man’s head and freed it from his body. Entrails plummeted out through the neck and painted the naked body below in red.

As the crowd roared their approval, Talys felt the piercing eyes of those he was surrounded by while his own eyes were ready to burst out in shock. The royal adviser, Guerin, was practically igniting Talys’s whole head on fire with his gaze and the Trainer could almost hear the man plotting his condemnation. There are certain moments in life where you do not screw up. At the top of this list would be fucking up the Queen’s Royal ceremony. Talys had no idea what the man below did, but he needed to act quickly before he joined him next.

With a flare, Talys attempted to stand taller and then walked to the edge of the platform, addressing the crowd. The audience settled into an eerie silence, waiting for the Trainer to explain this turn of events. Down below, Syn was still gnawing at the man’s head, cradling it fondly with her colossal claws. Talys raised his arms up to the heavens in dramatic gesture and then bellowed

“And our Queen has spoken!”

The Colosseum almost shook by the audience’s standing ovation. When life shits on you, it is indeed best to blame the Gods.

Talys made a point to flick his rings together while he was still on the edge, for all to see. Upon hearing the frequency that only Wargs can, Syn dropped the man’s head and heaved up to reveal the lifeless body underneath her. Church was over.

He turned and awaited his own judgment. The Trainer almost hurled in relief when he saw the Queen’s reassuring grin.

The ruler clapped Talys on the shoulder “our Goddess has spoken,” she echoed back to him.

 She too was wearing white. Her gown traveled well past her feet and its tail was catered by two servants. Time did not seem to affect the Queen. Her skin was of deep sepia and her eyes like honey amber. Golden rings encased her throat, making her neck appear abnormally long. Her mane was dark, tightly textured hair that almost commanded power on its own, but it was her teeth that struck attention the most. Her top incisors were extraordinarily long and sculpted into spears. The Queen radiated her sovereignty and, in her presence, Talys found himself almost believing her claimed connection with the Goddess. She nodded down at him in approval before taking her leave.

Talys hoped that this meant he was saved, but the Queen was not the only one that had passing words for the Trainer. Talys could almost hear the old man sniveling to himself as he approached. He breathed in a mouthful of what must have been shit hiding in the Adviser’s robes. The fact that the smell was able to override the crowds’ stench of body odor was an incredible feat.

Gripping Talys on the same shoulder the Queen had, the Adviser bent down to get closer. Talys was disheartened to realize that the source of the smell was coming from the Adviser’s mouth. Foul breathe penetrated through his mask; the adviser’s gums were clearly rotten. “Yar nay-did at da castle. Af dusk, boy” the man grumbled, his words congealed together by his lack of teeth.

Talys had to force himself not to grunt at the Adviser’s remark. He was a man, even if he struggled vertically. He watched as the hunched asshole exited through the back, leaving him alone.

The Trainer glanced back down in the arena to Syn. She was back to feasting, though her gigantic body was once again shielding her victim mostly from view. Without the audience, Talys could hear her ripping through flesh and organs, snapping bones with her teeth. Her dark fur was matted with guts and blood. He will always love her.

With the commotion gone, Talys was now left with the realization that he had just murdered someone. This wasn’t the same as someone succumbing to blood lose or dying days later from infection. The promise was that anyone should be able to heal and rejoin their community. There was no coming back without a head.

He wasn’t sure what most murderers did with themselves, so the Trainer wandered the streets of Diormire. Trial days always stimulated the markets with excitement. He had removed his mask and was assaulted by the sights and smells of the stone city. It’s scent of food markets and livestock were familiar, but only heightened his nausea now. All around, he could hear the clamor from citizens as they discussed today’s proceedings as they shopped from tent to tent. The sounds of drums and string instruments accompanied the vocal exchanges of coin and rumors. He had thrown on a brown poncho to conceal his Trainer attire. No need to be further harassed by the public.

Talys stopped at one tent. The flaps were open and inviting to all who wished to enter, and a great many had. On the center table was an adolescent girl. There were sugar canes in the corners of her mouth to keep her jaw open as the Shaman chiseled away at her teeth, sharpening them into fangs. The true way to remember the Goddess and achieve holiness was through the practice of Lupinu; the sharpening of teeth.

The Trainer found he didn’t enjoy the whimperings of the innocent and immediately left.

He recalled when he went through the Lupinu. When one reached maturity in other cultures, he heard they merely dunked themselves in water and threw a party. Not our Goddess. Forgiveness and acceptance is pain and the first sin was people lying through their teeth. The Lupinu was a recognition of temptation and remembrance of their Queen. Talys found he sinned equally as well even with his canine’s sharpened. Had the crown known of his agnosticism, he would have likely been facing his own Warg this morning, let alone leading the ceremony.

The shades of the evening were falling rapidly and so the Trainer made his way north of the city. The first Queen had made a statement by ensuring that her dwelling was within the midst of her people, her castle standing at the head of her city. The citadel was at least three times taller than the surrounding buildings, with its two spires out front even more so. The tips were painted white, no doubt symbolic of the Queen.

Talys had removed his cloak to reveal his true station and was ushered inside by one of the standing guards. While citizens were allowed to carry certain weapons, Trainers never did. True power was the might of the Wargs. Talys always thought that this ruling was foolish since Syn never left her enclosure, except for Trials. Undoubtedly, he would die just as easily from a knife wound as any other poor bastard especially given his height. He stood about a head shorter than most men and a reach to match his stature. The Trainer had bluffed his way out of most street fights by pretending to snap his fingers to summon Syn. He doubted that would work inside the Queen’s castle.

The guard led him to a small chamber.  Talys wasn’t sure why he expected to be led to a throne room, but took a seat at the stone table in the center. He was abandoned by the guard and left in the presence of the Royal adviser.

“Our Queen will jon short-re,” the old man curdled, eying Talys with distaste. Both men faced each on opposite ends and stewed in silence.

A full wretched lifetime must have passed and died before the Queen entered the room. She had forgone the white and had donned on a blood dress that corseted around her waist. She took a seat beside her adviser and flashed her fangs at the Trainer.

“Tell yus how you tamed Syn,” it was Geurin who spoke. Not expecting that question, Talys didn’t have a readily answer.

“You don’t tame a Warg,” he said thoughtfully. As much as he doubted the faith, there was no denying the power of the Goddess’s hounds.

The Queen beamed at him with delight but with her teeth, it resembled more of a sneer.

“This is correct, Trainer,” she mused “the Wargs enact the will of our Goddess, just as she uses my tongue to speak her words.”

“You war not meant for tovay’s trial,” the adviser interjected. He moved himself closer across the table to stress his point. “A Trainer has bar-trayed the Queen and forsaken his duty.”

“That’s not possible,” Talys retorted. Trainers were selected from the time they were three and raised alongside Wargs. There was no other life for a Trainer and no one in their ranks would betray their order.

“Broker,” the Queen hissed “he refused to participate today. Our Goddess knew and a man died in the arena for his treachery”.

“Broker will not be granted a trial. We cannot allow the public to know that one of our own has betrayed the sacred rites.” the Queen declared. Her eyes flashed with the warning of the suns.

The Trainer didn’t know what to say. Broker was the one who instructed Talys in his youth. He had selected him to become a Trainer and gave him a life of what otherwise would have been pure mockery.

“Please don’t ask this of me,” Talys found himself pleading. The events of today was already crashing down on him without adding on another’s sins. He faced his Queen in defeat, but he saw no pity in her eyes. He was frozen in place by the lack of warmth there was in her hallow gaze.

She seemed to hesitate but then reached into the bodice of her dress. She removed a fang, several inches long, and slide it across the table to Talys.

He picked up the tooth and examined it in his hand. The incisor was stained yellow from wear and crimson from where it was ripped out from its owner. No other beast that walked possessed as large of a canine. He knew instantly that it belonged to Broker’s Warg, Deth. Terror flooded the Trainer’s mind as he gazed back up at the Queen.

“The Warg and Trainer are one.” The Queen explained as though that clarified everything.

The adviser spoke now, “Yar to go to Brokar to-nigh with Syn and Tabitia. Tabitia will see the deed is done. Yar dismissed.”

**********************************************************************

The Queen had issued a state of emergency and forced everyone in a lock-down for the night’s event. Talys was never fond of Tabitia even before this evening, but he could have gladly added her onto his ever growing murder list. Dressed in white Trainer’s garb, she stuck out like a shit poor excuse of an assassin. Though in all fairness, he reminded himself, Trainers never needed to bother with stealth. Outside, in the light of the moon, her uniform shun like a beacon,begging attention for all those inside to witness their act. While her mask was able to conceal her identity, there was only one Trainer that stood with the height of an adolescent. 

Talys wondered why Tabitia’s Warg, Mace, wasn’t with them. He would have asked, but her demeanor made it clear that she felt he was responsible for Broker’s fate. She wasn’t exactly wrong.

They walked in solemn silence for their journey to Broker’s residency. Even Syn managed to stalk quietly beside him. Her massive paws may have appeared to almost be trampling Talys, but he has been training with her since he was 15. Talys had also constructed a face harness for her from a saddle. The Trainer was almost certain she has never been outside of the arena before today and he could feel her exhilaration of being outside. He had a death grip on her reins, but it was him repetitively striking his rings together in code that held her at bay. Talys’s life was on Syn continuing to obey the snaps.

They were finally outside Broker’s dwelling. Being one of the most prestigious and oldest Trainer, he had his own building of stone to live in. Talys looked over at Tabitia for direction, but she just nodded her head for him to go inside. She then folded her arms in disapproval for his hesitation.

He could have snapped his fingers right there for Syn to attack her. His stomach was sick for what he was about to do. Broker deserved a better fate than this and he grieved for bringing death to his doorstep. The other trainer raised her fingers to him threateningly, her rings poised to click. Talys gave her the middle finger and then Syn’s reins, furious that he was just threatened with his own Warg. He entered Broker’s house, leaving them both outside.

“I expected a Trainer but not you, Talys,” a familiar voice spoke out to him. Broker was sitting patiently at his table. His muscular but withered arms were folded across in preparation of unpleasant visitors. He had aged considerably over the years. He was completely bald, but the course stubble along his jaw was littered with white. Scars from training Wargs had sculpted his body, leaving pink slashes across onyx.  His face told a story with worried lines and healed wounds from teeth and claws.

“Oh,” Talys faltered in surprise and silently cursed at himself. So much for a dramatic entrance.

Broker chuckled at that and then gestured for Talys to sit down with him. His home appeared to only be one room and it contained little possessions, though someone of his position could have easily afforded more.It was like forgotten times when Talys used to visit in his youth, except altogether different. Not sure what to do, Talys accepted his invitation.

“So,” the Older Trainer said, peering at his disciple as though conducting a lesson, “Do you know what the man did to deserve the Trial today?”

“No, but I know what you didn’t do” Talys hurled out, his former embarrassment of being caught off guard fueled his anger now. Fuck Broker for putting him in this position. His thoughts went back to Deth’s tooth, likely the last remnant of the Warg. The Queen had ended up gifting it to him. He wondered if Broker knew his animal was dead.

Broker ignored the younger Trainer’s outburst and continued on “no, we Trainers never know what it is that makes a man guilty in the eyes of our Queen. Yet, Syn murdered a man today-”.

“I killed that man”, Talys interjected once again, defending his Warg. “I didn’t stop Syn in time.”

Broker’s face fell and he looked at Talys with renewed sorrow. He seemed to care little about his own fate, but was more curious about the state of his student. Talys’s mentor gazed inquisitively “Do you know what the people call you?” he asked, his disposition darkening.

Talys didn’t have a response to that. As a Trainer, he was removed from society so that the public could continue to love their Queen, even as they feared her Wargs. He knew there were plenty of families that would have loved to see him dead.

“Oh, you are the best in guiding Wargs to contrive pain and dismemberment. Perhaps the best Diormire has ever seen,” Broker praised cruelly. “The audience has come to love the midget Trainer for the blood shed you and Syn rain on them, all but your victim’s families.”

“They call you, Khilupin-The Teeth of our Queen”, He continued gravely “because no one has EVER survived their wounds from Syn”.

“Why are you telling me this?”, Talys exasperated, feeling as thought he was descending into madness. He needed this night to end and to be as far away from this room as possible.

“So you may know why I will no longer take part in the trials. Why I will never train another Warg to -”

A deafening boom came from the other side of the door, the attack causing the wall to quake. Startled, the older Trainer darted his eyes to the noise and then back to his apprentice.

“Syn is outside,” Broker said, his true situation dawning on him. It wasn’t a question and it took only a moment for the man’s adrenaline to kick in. He made to leap out of his chair, but Talys was too quick for him. His apprentice swiftly took out Deth’s fang and drove it down into his mentor’s hand, crucifying his palm to the table.

“How fucking dare you let Syn outside my home. She’ll fucking kill everyone…” Broker continued to swear incoherently, no longer the calm and meditative mentor he was only a few seconds ago. “This isn’t a fucking arena,” he tried to remove the tooth from his hand, but was unsuccessful. Already a pool of blood was forming on the table.

For Talys, Syn’s knock had caused time to slow down enough for him to remember his purpose. It didn’t matter if the Goddess was real, Syn was. His place had to be with the Queen so that Syn may live. He stood up in solidarity, but he ignored his former mentor’s words. The guilty were not allowed a final say. “By order of our Queen, I sentence you, he commanded. His rings snapped together and the wall came crashing down.


Smile of an Empress

As Harald entered the throne room of the Charred Citadel, fear and greed waged war inside him. No one liked coming before the Premier. Particularly not in the throne room. Particularly not after he’d been sitting judgment all day and was likely to be in a punitive mood. But Harald was familiar with the battle, and didn’t let his stride falter. Behind him came two other sets of footfalls. The woman and girl he had in tow stood as good a chance of pleasing the Premier as Harald was wont to get. Outside the tall windows, the ash fell lightly over Estanfall, and the sky was more orange than gray.

As fine a day as any for a mother to sell her daughter.

Straight-backed in his chair, cradled in the midst of the skull of a conquered Ruler, sat the Premier. He had no other name that Harald knew of, no other title, and he’d been in his service as a Courier for five years. The Premier was old, and had ruled Estanfal on the Ruler’s behalf for as long as Harald had been alive, and as long as his now-dead parents before him. Likely he’d continued to rule after Harald was dead.

It paid to be in the good graces of a man like that.

Stopping a dozen feet from the Premier, Harald bowed low and touch his hand to his forehead in the gesture of respect. “Premier.”

“Courier Harald.” The Premier’s voice was cool and measured. “I hope today’s candidates will be better suited to my specifications than yesterday’s.”

Harald hid a wince as he rose and stepped aside. “As do I, Premier. Please, allow me to show you them. Step forward, you two.”

The woman and girl shuffled forward, fear plain in their expressions. Harald hardened himself to it. “Don’t just stand there,” he ordered. “Show the Premier some respect.”

The woman and girl bowed hurriedly, the woman mumbling something unintelligible.

“Speak up!” Harald barked at them.

The woman cringed, but it spoke to her that she brought herself upright, her chin raising. There was some fire in her after all.

“Begging your pardons, ma’lord,” the woman said to the Premier. “I don’t know the right way to treat a man such as yourself.”

“Do not trouble yourself over it. I am no lord, merely the servant of our Ruler. You may just call me Premier. And what are your names?”

The Premier’s tone had shifted, from annoyance to interest. Harald didn’t yet dare hope, but stood silent, watching.

“My name is Mila, ma’lor — Premier. And this is my daughter, Telasine. Everyone calls her Telly though.”

The Premier nodded, studying them in silence. Harald kept his eyes on the mother and daughter. Perhaps the Premier noticed how pretty they both were, even if the mother was well past her prime years, and they both had the poor manners of the peasantry. But they had good teeth, and all knew that meant good health.

He pretended to glance out the windows to glimpse the Premier’s expression. As usual, there was little to read in it. His face, scaled and flattened after countless years of close exposure to the Ruler, had always been difficult to read, and all the more in the shadowed throne room.

The woman Mila dared to speak again. “She’s very pretty, isn’t she, ma’lor — Premier? She’s quiet, my Telly, and she don’t talk back much. Very well behaved.”

Harald hoped her babbling wouldn’t ruin his chances. He found himself scratching at the scales on his neck, a nervous habit. But as the Premier seemed intent on the pair, he didn’t dare intervene. A hundred peasants had come in before them, mothers and daughters come to be shown before the Premier. None of the girls were older than fourteen, by the Premier’s request. The request had been vaguely worded, spread by Harald and the other Couriers, and discretion had been advised. Having told women of the Premier’s request, looked them in the eyes as realization dawned on them, Harald knew what the women assumed to be their girls’ fates. Yet they kept bringing them in.

Gold, he mused, was worth its weight in daughters.

The Premier shifted. “Let me see her smile.”

Harald turned his gaze back to the girl. For all her wheedling, the mother did not speak falsely. Young as she was, the girl was a rare beauty, with glossy black hair flowing thick down her shoulders, framing a finely featured face near perfectly symmetrical. Her peasant smock couldn’t hide the hint of a woman’s emerging figure beneath.

The girl bared her teeth, and they gleamed with the light of the braziers lining the room. White, and perfectly straight. It was more a snarl than a smile, but some men liked that in a concubine. And from the wording of his request, Harald would have bet an earl’s estate that the Premier was one of them.

He glanced at the Premier again. The Premier rarely showed emotions he didn’t mean to. So as he smiled, Harald felt anticipation clench his gut. If this interview continued to go well, he might just have an earl’s estate to do with as he pleased.

“Those are fine teeth,” the Premier said to the girl. “Good teeth are a sign of good health, did you know that?”

The girl stared at him with a baleful gaze until her mother roughly prompted her. She nodded reluctantly.

The Premier graced her with a smile, then glanced over at Harald. “Courier, I am pleased with this girl. If you would escort her to her new rooms, then show the mother her remittance for her sacrifice.”

Harald nodded, then moved to do his bidding. It wasn’t his place to question the Premier. Even he had desires he had to sate. If the mother was tearless, perhaps she looked forward to her reward. Even the girl won something here. She’d live in luxury and leisure, far better than she would have as a peasant.

He did not have to feel guilty for the warm glow of victory spreading through his chest. All benefited from this arrangement. Himself included.

“This way,” he said to the girl, and led her down the dark corridors of the Citadel.

***

The summons came late that night.

Harald stood in the throne room, waiting. The Ruler’s skull stared at him from its hollow eyes. Estanfal lay dark, the ashfall robbing it even of light from the moons and stars. The throne room was cast in flickering illumination by two braziers before the throne.

He scratched at the scales at his neck and shifted closer to one of the braziers to warm himself. It wasn’t the first time the Premier had summoned him from his bed, but he wished he’d at least not make him wait so long in the cold dark.

The Premier came some time later, dressed in the same red-and-gold robes as he had worn earlier. At his shoulder walked his protector, a hulking shadow of a man in iron half-plate and dark clothes, with a roughly shorn beard and ragged hair to match. Ven never left the Premier’s side that Harald had seen. He wondered if he watched him bathe, or on the chamberpot, or making use of his new young concubine. The concubine you brought to him, a part of himself mocked.

“Courier Harald,” the Premier greeted him. “Your promptness is appreciated.”

Harald bowed, touching his hand to his head. “Service is my honor, Premier.”

“And you will be rewarded for it. I am well pleased with the girl.” The Premier paused, a pregnant silence. “But to secure your reward, you must complete the task.”

A shiver ran through him. “And what task would that be, Premier?”

The Premier studied him. Even in the dimly lit room, his eyes had a faint gleam.

“In truth, the girl is not the one I am after. The mother has another, a female babe, whom I seek to possess. Your task is to take the babe, kill the mother, and cover it up as an accident.”

Harald couldn’t find his tongue for a moment. He didn’t want to meet the Premier’s impassive gaze. Yet to look away now, to falter in any way, might be a fatal mistake. He feared even to ask why. Some things you were better off not knowing, especially where spilled blood was concerned.

“It will be done, Premier.”

“Good. Do nothing for a seven-day. When her end comes, her neighbors will believe it her due, for selling a daughter for gold.”

Harald nodded. The question burned on his tongue. But he had not stayed alive as a Courier for six years without learning a few lessons. Never ask more than you’ll pay,as the Courier who had mentored Harald had often said. He’d said it to Harald nearly everyday for his first month as Courier.

He’d died in Harald’s second year. Harald had never tried finding out how. He’d learned his lesson.

He bowed again. “As you say, Premier.”

***

The first thing Harald heard when he entered was her whimper.

Swallowing hard, he ignored her and scanned the room around him. Bile, sour and hot, burned the back of his throat at the miserable conditions of the hut. Even without the chairs knocked over and the woman struggling to break free of her captor, it seemed a place barely fit for a home. Dirt floors. Straw and mud walls. Wind whistling in poorly patched holes. His lips curled.

On the slat of wood and straw that served as a bed lay a bundle of cloth. Harald nodded at the bundle. “You didn’t kill it, did you?” he said to the rough who held the woman.

“Now, now, Harald. You know me. Why would I do that?” Blackeye grinned and wrenched the woman he held hard, evoking a fresh muffled sob.

Harald clenched his jaw. He’d chosen Blackeye for this task for a reason. He just had to keep that in mind, and bear his cruelty for a little while longer.

“Didn’t even wake to its mother’s cries,” Blackeye continued. “Guess it knows she’d have sold her one day.”

Mila unwisely broke into a fresh struggle, which the rough put a quick end to with another blow.

Vomit threatened to come up again, and Harald swallowed hard. “She’s being punished enough,” he croaked. “Leave her to her misery.”

The rough eyed him. “Turning soft, Courier?”

Anger finally forced the sickness down. “Would you like to find out?” Harald offered coldly.

Blackeye met his gaze for a moment, then looked away and shrugged. “What’s the Premier want with this old hag, anyway? With that pretty daughter he just bought, why put his prick anywhere else?”

Never ask more than you’ll pay, Harald thought. A sickly smile worked its way onto his lips.

“He wants her to disappear, and to take her babe.”

The rough snorted. “What’s he want with a whore’s whelp?”

“You’ll have to ask him yourself. You lined the place with oil?”

“Think I had time to do that while holding this bitch? You’re thicker than I thought.”

Harald’s smile only grew wider.

Blackeye noticed. “Something funny, Courier?”

He ignored him. “Get her up and move her to the door.”

The rough’s eyes narrowed, but he complied, shoving the woman toward the door, the knife still to her throat. The woman’s whimpering increased. Harald stood a few paces inside the hovel so that the pair had squeeze past him toward the entrance. The woman’s eyes were wide and pleading as they met his. Harald glanced away. His hand reached inside his cloak. His breath came quick, his muscles bunched.

Blackeye glanced at him and his eyes went wide, but it was too late. Harald’s knife darted in once, twice, three times into the gaps in his hard leather jerkin. The rough lurched back, releasing the woman as he fell to his knees, flailing with his knife in front of him. But as blood poured from his side, the fight was quickly going out of him.

Harald looked away from him to the woman, who stared wide-eyed at him. Her back was to the door, but she hadn’t tried for it, terror rooting her in place. Though his stomach turned and heart pounded and sweat trickled down his back, he hardened himself for his words.

“You heard what I must do. I have to take your babe.”

A whimper escaped her trembling lips. She said nothing but stared at him, wide-eyed, knowing what must come, but unable to stop it.

His resolve unspooled, though his muscles remained tensed. “It will be my life if I don’t deliver her. But you need not die.”

Her gaze did not shift. Harald clenched his jaw, wondering if fear had pushed her beyond understanding.

“Run,” he told her. “Leave here and never come back. If you show yourself in Estanfal, it will be both of our heads.”

Her eyes flickered to his hand, still clutching his bloody knife. Harald hid it behind his back and gestured to the door with the other one.

“Go,” he said roughly. “You know the alternative.”

The woman’s chest moved with her rapid breaths. Her tongue flicked out to moisten her lips. But still, she did not move from the door. Harald’s hopes began to sink.

“I gave up one daughter,” the woman said in a whisper so soft he could barely hear. “I sold her like a lamb. I won’t give up another.” Her eyes bored into him, pleading. “She’s my life, my only one now. I can’t leave her.”

Dread, disappointment, fear — all gave way to his anger. It rose red and hot in his chest. His face pulled back in a snarl as he revealed his bloody hand again. “Ashes take you then,” he spat. “You don’t deserve to live.”

As he stepped forward, she cowered from him, but she did not fight, did not run, as she waited for the red knife to fall.

***

The babe had begun crying as he’d neared the Charred Citadel, and was still crying as Harald waited in the throne room. He awkwardly held the bundled child, wishing he were anywhere else. Part of him wished to hurl the babe from the window, if only to stop its wailing. The greater part clutched it closer to him, hoping it hadn’t come to harm in the hard ride back to the Citadel. With blood smearing the child’s blankets, he knew better than to think it was for the child’s safety that he was concerned, and not his own.

The door to the chamber opened, and the Premier and his hulking shadow entered. “You’ve made your arrival no secret,” Estanfal’s steward noted with annoyance.

Harald felt sarcasm bitter on his tongue. “Yes, Premier. Next time I’ll gag it.”

The Premier stared at him oddly, then slightly shook his head. “Ven, if you would relieve the Courier of his burden.”

As the dark man approached, Harald felt the sudden urge to clutch the child close to him. But when Ven extended his arms, he reluctantly gave up the child to the bodyguard. It was a strange sight, the babe held against the dark metal of the man’s armor. Ven turned and walked to the door. The babe had begun to quiet in a way that made Harald feel strangely jealous.

The Premier, who had watched Ven’s exit, turned his gaze back to Harald. “I trust the woman is dead?”

His gut clenched tight. “Yes.”

“As are any accomplices? Only you and I know of this babe’s humble origins?”

“Yes.”

“Good. You have done well. Now, I wish to give you your reward.”

Despite his earlier dreams of being an earl, apprehension filled him. “As you would, Premier.”

“No doubt you are wondering why all of this is necessary. Why I had you search for a pretty girl with good teeth and a baby sister.”

Never ask more than you’ll pay. “A Courier doesn’t need to know to do his duty.”

The Premier laughed softly. “That’s true. The best tools are the ones suited only for that job and no other. But come, humor me. You must have been curious.”

Sweat trickled down his back. Whatever secret was behind his tasks, he wanted no knowledge of it. Yet he could see no way out now. None, but the unthinkable. Ven’s absence pressed on him with uncomfortable urgency. The hilt of his knife seemed to weigh heavier at his side.

He worked his tongue around his dry mouth. “No more than to complete the job.”

The Premier studied him, a small smile on his thin lips. “Then indulge my vanity. This was never about the girl. All she was to me was a signpost. Good teeth indicate good health. And if the older sister is pretty and hale, and the mother still has a full smile, then reason stands the youngest daughter may have the teeth of a queen and a face to enchant. Should she be taught so. Yes, this was about the babe. The girl is far too old to teach, to train, to groom. A babe, however, is a blank sheet of parchment. And upon her, I will impress all the things she must learn to become an empress.”

Harald had already heard too much. But if he was caught in the tar pits, he may as well sink deeper. “Empress of what, Premier? There are no empires in the world.”

“But there are the embers of one. Embers I wish to reignite.” As he turned his gaze, the Premier’s eyes caught the light of the braziers, making them shine. “Under my hand, Aspiria will rise once more. And this child will be its monarch.”

“And the Ruler?” Harald dared. “Will she not be the true empress?”

The Premier smiled like a snake at a mouse. “Of course. But power and fear alone will not forge a lasting empire. For that, love, too, must exist. And who can help but fall in love with a beautiful, powerful woman, unmarred by the Ruler’s influence?”

“As you say, Premier.”

The smile slipped from his lips. “You’re a clever man, Harald. You’ve known to never ask more than you need to. But cleverness can only carry you so far as a Courier when you have not killed your mercy.”

His heart hammered in his chest. “I don’t follow, Premier.”

“Did you not flinch when you delivered the girl to me? Were you not repulsed at imagining what I intended for the babe? Did you not try to save the mother?”

His throat constricted so he almost couldn’t breathe. “I killed the woman,” he croaked.

“But that is not all you did. I had you followed, Harald. I know every word of mercy you offered her. You didn’t think I trusted you, did you? You don’t live as long as I do through trust.” A cold smile creased the Premier’s scaled face. “How it must have hurt to kill her anyway.”

Weakness threatened to collapse him. Instead, Harald searched for the anger ever simmering inside him, embraced it, finding strength enough to speak. “What do you want with me?”

“Nothing that I won’t soon attain—”

Harald moved before the Premier had finished speaking, ripping his knife free and lunging forward. He grabbed at the Premier’s robes, but his hand closed over air. Frail and old as he’d always seemed, the Premier moved with impossible speed, dodging out of the way. Then his hand snaked out and closed over his wrist.

She flooded into his mind, choking him, drowning him. The Ruler’s presence burned as she inundated him, filling him so there was no room for himself. Harald was dimly aware of falling, his breath coming in gasps, his heart fluttering against the overpowering thrum of the Ruler’s heartbeat.

The Premier’s whisper came harshly in his ear. “The Ruler does not suffer betrayal. But I will not release you to death. For this, you will suffer a far worse fate. Your mind will break long before your body fails you. And still, I will not let you die.”

Harald fought with all his feeble strength, but he could not even move a finger. He barely had room for fear as the Ruler ravaged his mind. As anguish lanced through him, he was almost glad to sink into unconsciousness.

It would be, he knew now, his only reprieve from the pain.

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