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Warrick’s boots punched through the snow. He was used to the cold, but this was nearly intolerable. The wind felt like a promiscuous woman, reaching past his furs and leather vest, touching his skin with icy fingers. Frost clung to his long blonde hair and beard. His hair was elaborately braided, in the traditional way of his people. He frowned, sure icicles were forming along the strands.
He trudged on, tightening the strap on his shield. It hung from his left arm, a circular mass of thick wood and steel. Warrick also carried a large double-sided axe, strapped to his back. The combination of the two were a comforting weight, something familiar in an unfamiliar country.
The incline of the land began to elevate. He and his party carefully trekked uphill, forging through the thick snow. The surrounding forest was unnervingly silent. No birds. No rustle of creatures within the brush. Warrick wondered what kind of place had no living creatures within it. He studied the four people walking in a single file line in front of him. They were a fucking odd group, if he ever did see one.
Gwendolyn, the leader, was wrapped in a green cloak, her leather boots poking through the thick folds in regular intervals as she led the party on. Her hair was black but shaved to the scalp on one side. The rest of the ebony mass was braided tightly to her head. Her brown eyes were lined in kohl, giving her beauty an edge of fierceness.
Behind her was Mpho. He was well over six feet, with skin the color of cinnamon. His black hair fell like silk to his shoulders, the elaborate golden tattoos on his muscled body marking him as a clansman from Kara-Ordos. It was a place far from here, a country of desserts and tropical jungles. Warrick knew little about the people from that region of the world, but great tales have a way of travelling no matter the distance. The clansman of Kara-Ordos were rumored to be great fighters, some of the best in the known world.
The other two, Aiguo and Lin, were an absolute mystery to Warrick. Neither of them had uttered a word in his presence. They both remained huddled deep within in their hooded black cloaks. All Warrick could see of them were thin lips, caramel skin, and the hint of gold eyes. Strange letters were threaded along the hems of their robes in yellow, characters that made Warrick wary. He recognized them as symbols of magic. It marked the two silent figures as mages, but from where? If Gwendolyn had taken the trouble to acquire a soldier all the way from Kara-Ordos, where the hell had she dredged up these two?
“I thought this was an assassination attempt on your queen,” Warrick asked, his breath billowing on the frigid air.
Gwendolyn stopped, halting the group. She turned, anger crackling in her eyes. “She is not our queen.”
Warrick nodded, “Aye. A technicality. She has in fact taken over your land, and the Northern stronghold of Akranes.”
“Do you have a question, soldier?” Gwendolyn asked.
“More of an observation,” Warrick said.
Mpho laughed, his voice a thunderous boom in the still forest. “The Dunedin savage has an observation.”
“We are approaching the castle head on,” Warrick continued, ignoring the slight. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
Gwendolyn bristled. “I am not paying you to question my decisions. I am paying you to kill a target.”
Warrick held his ground. “You posed this mission as an assassination. You either misrepresented the objective or you have zero tactile skills.”
Her nostrils flared. “Keep going,” she barked at the other three. “I need to have a word with our Dunedin savage.”
Mpho chuckled, “My lady. Come on you two.” Mpho continued up the snowy hill, with Aiguo and Lin trailing behind.
Gwendolyn quickly made her way down the incline, stopping mere inches in front of Warrick.
“Don’t ever question my decisions in front of my team again,” she said through bared teeth.
“Gladly,” Warrick said. His voice was a gravelly rumble, as if the stones of the earth were being rubbed together. “First, cut the bullshit and tell me what we’re really doing on this mountain. I can’t be effective if you aren’t straight with me.”
Gwendolyn exploded out of the snow like a leopard. She threw her arm across his neck and shoved Warrick back, slamming him into a tree. “What do you know about Komi-Okrug, foreigner? Your people hide in the forests of your tiny green isle, oblivious to the troubles of the world.”
Warrick held still, letting her talk.
“I pegged you for a Dunedin savage as soon as you stepped onto our docks,” Gwendolyn went on. “Your axe and embroidered leather tunic told me all I needed to know about you. A King’s guard, a member of his elite Munin. You spent your life fighting for him, defending his borders. And he exiled you, shipped you off like cattle. Let me guess, the King finally asked for something you weren’t willing to give?” Gwendolyn smiled. “Was she pretty? Do you think she wept in his chambers, when he finally took her?”
Warrick growled, the truth of her words hitting his heart like a flamed arrow. He grabbed a fistful of her cloak and yanked Gwendolyn forward. He shifted his weight, twisting as he pulled, so that he came around her. He roughly shoved her into the tree, wrenching her arm behind her back. Gwendolyn struggled, but Warrick increased the pressure on her arm. She sucked in a breath through her teeth.
“And what about you?” Warrick said. “Your rage. I’ve seen it before. It’s fueled by a need for justice, for retribution. It has made you irrational. Who did the queen take from you? Your brother? A sister? Or did she kill your whole goddamn family?”
Gwendolyn kicked off from the tree with a snarl and then threw her head back. Her skull connected with his nose with a loud crack. Warrick released her arm as blood gushed from his nostrils. Gwendolyn elbowed him in the gut.
“Omph!” he grunted, staggering back.
She spun, facing him. “You’re a bastard.”
He wiped the blood from his face, smiling. “And you’re a crazy bitch.”
Gwendolyn regarded him silently for several moments, debating. She had wanted to tell the foreigner as little as possible about the mission. Unfortunately, the savage was smarter than he looked. She couldn’t risk him backing out. Gwendolyn needed him. She needed all of them if she was to stand a chance against Rosamond.
“It is an assassination. I did not lie to you. But instead of quiet infiltration, we are approaching the front gate,” she said.
Warrick gripped his leather vest, the blood drying on his beard like crystalized cherries. “Why?”
“It’s the only way we can gain an audience within her chambers.”
“And how will you be granted audience?” Warrick asked. “If what you say about Rosamond is true, she will kill all of us on sight.”
“We have something she wants,” Gwendolyn answered reluctantly.
Gwendolyn sighed. “I’ve said too much already.”
“You’re just getting to the good part. Spit it out woman, or I walk.”
“What about your gold?”
“Walking into danger without all the facts isn’t worth any amount of gold. Sorry,” Warrick said.
She gritted her teeth, furious that this Dunedin savage was forcing her to spill her one and only advantage. “We have the Orb of Tchogha. It is a magical artifact. One that will allow her sisters to enter this realm.”
Warrick digested that for a long moment. Rumors had reached Dunedin, tales of a demon that had descended on Komi-Okrug, taking the throne and eating the souls of the people. Warrick was a logical man. He knew that descriptions of rulers were always embellished, especially the ones with brutal tendencies. However, he also had knowledge of the magics, the existence of other realms. The ‘unseen’ as he called it.
“What is she?” he asked.
Fear crept into Gwendolyn’s face, her self-assurance wavering. “I don’t know.”
“It sounds like bad things will happen if she gets her hands on this orb,” Warrick said.
“She won’t. That’s why I need you. Mpho. Aiguo and Lin. The orb is just our way in.”
“It’s all we have,” Gwendolyn said. “She is nearly untouchable. It’s the only way.”
Warrick studied her, recognizing the things he saw in her kohl lined eyes. Loss. Anger. The call to protect loved ones from evil. Warrick knew what it felt like to fail. He hadn’t been able to save Kara, his soul, his reason for breathing. Her hair like newly sprouted wheat, eyes the color of a clear sky. The pain of being separated from her was a thorn in his heart, a constant torment.
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Warrick turned and started trekking back up the hill.
Gwendolyn jogged after him, soon coming abreast of him.
“That’s it? Fine, lets go?” she asked.
Warrick shrugged. “Like you said, I’ve been exiled. I’m a savage, in a foreign land. Seems silly to turn away a good paying job. Despite how ass backwards it seems. Although I would appreciate you being upfront with me from here on out.”
“Agreed. But there are some things that you must see to believe,” Gwendolyn said.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“I’ll explain on the way,” Gwendolyn said.
Warrick and Gwendolyn walked side by side, soon catching up to the others. The sun crawled slowly towards the horizon as the team hiked through the snow. The shadows lengthened. A light snow began to fall as darkness crept into the sky, like an outstretched hand snuffing out the light.
Castle Akranes rose in the distance, flanked by jagged mountains. The castle was composed of black stone, with numerous windows and twisted spires. Moonlight fell across the castle, bathing it in silver light. But instead of illuminating the dark edifice, the moonlight created more shadows, as if the light itself wanted to crawl away from the evil lurking inside.
Warrick whispered a silent prayer to his gods, wishing he hadn’t thrown away the wooden totem’s that normally rested in his breast pocket. He had tossed them into the sea after being exiled from Dunedin. Surely, the gods despised him. They had taken the one person he loved. Warrick had fought to protect Kara, openly defying his King. To what end? She had still slipped through his fingers and he had been whipped in the public square and thrown onto the next ship sailing to Komi-Okrug. He had lost everything. His woman. His country. His very place in the world.
Still, he couldn’t stop the prayer resting on his lips. Warrick could feel the evil emanating from the castle. It was like thick oil seeping into the air. Gwendolyn had filled him in on a few details. A tempest of disbelief, fear, and anticipation thundered inside his chest. His fingers twitched, yearning for the cool steel of his axe.
Gwendolyn raised her fist, halting the group. “Here.”
She motioned to an outcropping of rock that was surrounded by a cluster of rowan trees. They gathered behind the trees, forming a semi-circle around Gwendolyn.
“Remember,” Gwendolyn said. “Do not let the appearance of her soldiers fool you. They are strong and inhumanly fast. When we approach the gate, they will surround us immediately. Remain still and silent. Under no circumstances are you to draw your weapons. Her first in command, Gael, will most likely accompany her forces. No one speak to him. Either I or Aiguo are to answer his questions. Understood?”
The group nodded their agreement.
“Our only prayer of survival is that she wants the orb more than she wants us dead,” Gwendolyn continued. “As soon as she has it in her hands, that is your cue Mpho. I want you and Warrick to attack, without hesitation. Dismember her and burn the body. We will retreat through one of the rear windows. I have repelling equipment attached to my waist. If I go down, someone will need to take it to get the others out.”
“Is it really necessary to dismember her?” Warrick asked.
“Yes, it’s necessary,” Gwendolyn said.
“Well shit. Alright then,” Warrick said. “Let’s add dismemberment to this evening’s events. And how do you expect us to get through the gates armed?”
“Aiguo and Lin, go ahead,” Gwendolyn said.
The mages moved forward, simultaneously lowering their hoods. Aiguo placed himself in front of Gwendolyn, and Lin stood before Mpho. It was the first time Warrick had seen their faces. They were male and female twins, with hair whiter than the snow. Intricate turquoise tattoos arched above their delicate eyebrows, framing their golden eyes.
Aiguo and Lin reached into their robes, their movements perfectly in sync. They pulled out two small wooden bowls, removing the lids. Inside lay a fine crystalized powder. It sparkled in the moonlight. Aiguo and Lin began chanting, dipping their fingers into the powder.
Warrick felt the air around him change. It became heavier, dense, crackling with magic.
“What the hell is this?” Warrick said.
“Shut it savage,” Gwendolyn said. Her eyes were closed, her body still. “You want to take your weapons inside, don’t you?”
Warrick shifted in the snow, uncomfortable. He knew enough about magic to know that he didn’t want it done on himself. Warrick grunted as a response.
Aiguo and Lin touched their powdered fingers to Gwendolyn and Mpho’s collarbones, drawing the powder across their skin. Their chanting increased, filling with authority. Warrick couldn’t understand the words, but he could feel them. They swirled around his body, and invisible force of power, making the hair on his arms stand on end. Gwendolyn’s sword that was poking out of her cloak began to glow. Warrick’s eyes widened. Mpho’s scythe did the same, the sharp metal becoming bright like a star in the night sky. And then, both weapons disappeared with a pop.
Gwendolyn opened her eyes and looked to where her sword had been just a moment ago. She grinned. “Well done.”
Aiguo inclined his head. Lin stepped away from Mpho and moved towards Warrick.
He backed up. “Hang on a minute.”
“Relax Warrick,” Gwendolyn said. “Nothing will happen to your precious axe. It’s an illusion. One that will wear off by morning.”
Lin looked up at him, her golden eyes mesmerizing. She said something in another language and slowly raised her hands, stopping inches from his chest.
“Let her do it, Warrick,” Gwendolyn demanded.
Warrick looked down at Lin. She was incredibly attractive, with a delicate beauty that was almost too fragile for this world. Warrick instinctively wanted to protect her.
He sighed. “Go on then.”
Lin moved his vest aside, resting her fingers along his skin.
“Wait, Wait,” Warrick said. He placed his hands in-between his legs, covering himself. “Alright, now I’m ready.”
Gwendolyn rolled her eyes. “She’s not going to make your dick disappear you idiot.”
Warrick shrugged. “Better safe than sorry.”
Lin began chanting. Her words spun around Warrick, warming the air. He closed his eyes, praying once more to his forgotten gods. Lin’s voice increased in volume, the spell rising on the air. Warrick felt the slightest movement on his back and left arm, and then he heard a distinct snap.
He opened his eyes and sucked in a breath. “Holy fuck.”
His shield was nowhere in sight, but he could still feel the weight of it on his arm. Warrick glanced over his shoulder. His axe had also disappeared yet the solid form of it pressed against his back.
“Let’s move out,” Gwendolyn said.
Lin smiled and then pulled her hood over her eyes. She returned to her place beside Aiguo. The twin mages followed Gwendolyn, their footsteps punching into the snow in perfect unison.
Mpho glanced over his shoulder and said, “Come on savage. We’ve got an evil bitch to kill.”
Warrick adjusted the position of his now invisible shield and followed Mpho. The powder along his collarbones prickled, like insects crawling across his skin. He shook his head a little. Missions and magic, he mused. It was either brilliant or incredibly stupid. The magics were unpredictable. Forces that held a will of their own. Warrick hoped the two mages had control of their skill.
He picked up his pace, eager to get this over with. The sooner he killed whatever needed killing, he could travel South. Far from the obvious madness going on in the North. Start over. Maybe buy an inn. Warrick could brew a decent ale. A little bitter maybe, but hearty all the same.
The castle was now directly in front of them. Warrick watched as movement erupted on the battlements. They had been spotted.
As predicted, Rosamond’s forces rushed through the front gate and surrounded the small group. Warrick stared into the opaque eyes of her soldiers, astonished. The men and women in front of him were very obviously dead and in varying levels of decay. Some simply had gray skin, removed of all color. Others were rotting, strips of flesh hanging from lopsided jaws, their bones and muscles exposed. Warrick had seen plenty of corpses on the battlefield. This was different. This was a twisted mockery of the dead. Unnatural. Evil. Warrick swallowed against the bite of acid under his tongue.
Rosamond’s army of the dead wore no armor, only tattered clothing. They held weapons, which were all pointed at Gwendolyn and her small band of warriors. The sensation of evil Warrick had felt earlier returned, but now it was incredibly potent. The presence of dark magic clung to the air, the scent like burning sulfur. It wafted from the dead army, so strong his nostrils burned. Warrick balled his hands into fists, the urge to grab his axe overwhelming.
“Stay still and calm,” Gwendolyn whispered to Warrick.
“Fucking easier said than done,” Warrick shot back, also whispering.
“I told you about them Warrick,” Gwendolyn said quietly.
“People say a lot of things,” Warrick responded. “Your queen eating the souls of the living and then reanimating the bodies is not something a man can easily digest. No pun intended.”
“Shut up, he’s coming,” she said.
A man strode forward from the castle, his dark robes billowing. He was deathly pale, with clear blue eyes and long black hair. One word entered Warrick’s mind at the sight of him—snake.
The man extended his hands in a welcoming gesture. “Friends, loyal subjects of Queen Rosamond, the immortal, the inexorable, the goddess of darkness. Are you here to serve her? Brave tributes! Offering yourselves so willingly. To join her army is to have a taste of her power, of her immortality.” He smiled. “Come in from the cold, we will prepare you as a worthy offering!”
Gwendolyn dipped her head in a sign of respect. “We are not here as offerings, Gael. We seek audience with the Queen.”
The smile disappeared from his face. “To not offer yourself to the Queen is a most egregious act of treason.”
The army of dead took several steps forward, their sharpened weapons held at the ready.
Gwendolyn lifted her hands. “Hear us Gael. We mean no ill will. Please listen-“
Gael cut her off, his eyes hardening. “No ill will! You approach with a warrior from Kara-Ordos and expect me to believe you?” His voice raised, becoming nearly hysterical, his face twisted with rage. “Do you think I am a fool? Do you think I cannot see through your lies? Two mages are in your party! And a Dunedin Munin! Foul beasts! You will pay! You will burn!”
The army of the dead advanced, their weapons mere inches from the band of warriors. Warrick steadied himself, ready to fight, eager to see the blade of his axe hack through decaying flesh.
“We have the Orb of Tchogha!” Gwendolyn shouted.
Gael held up a hand, halting the army. “The Orb?”
“Yes,” she said. “Just as her majesty wanted. When she demanded-“
“Graciously asked,” Gael corrected.
“When she graciously asked,” Gwendolyn continued. “That her subjects find it and bring it to her, I took it upon myself to accept the mission. The mages have great knowledge of the orb. I needed them to obtain it. And the two Warriors accompanied me on the journey, for my own protection. The orb was in a distant land, and the road was dangerous.”
Gael studied Gwendolyn for several moments. Finally, he said, “Give me the Orb. I will deliver it to our Queen and the five of you will offer yourselves to her. My lady is hungry.”
“That is not possible,” Aiguo said. His voice was calm, holding the thick accent of his country. “The five of us were present when we plucked the orb from its resting place. It is bound to us. I must perform a ritual, in order to untangle it from our essence. These magics run deep my friend. From a time that has long since passed. It is the only way.”
Gael clapped his hands and began laughing. “How delightful! I love magic. You shall perform the ritual immediately, in the throne room. The Queen will be ecstatic!” He rubbed his hands together, grinning wildly. “Come along. I will bring you to her. The Orb of Tchogha! Finally. I hope its shiny.”
Warrick worked to keep his expression blank. This man was fucking insane. He would need to be put down quickly.
The army of the dead formed two organized lines, and marched back into the castle. Gael led them through the gates, chatting amicably with Aiguo about the nature of magic.
Warrick came up behind Gwendolyn.
“I thought you said we needed to be in her chambers,” he whispered.
“As long as there is a window, we will be fine. Now shut it, savage,” she whispered back.
Warrick grunted, studying the surrounding castle. As they walked through dimly lit stone corridors, Warrick memorized the layout, taking note of the exits. By the time they reached the doors leading to the throne room, he had already planned out several exit strategies, prioritizing them in his mind as most likely to survive to we are going to fucking die.
The doors leading to the throne room were composed of dark wood and metal spikes. Two massive guards stood in front of them. The guards were also reanimated corpses, with opaque eyes, but their skin looked almost normal. Warrick guessed they were recently killed.
Gael paused in front of the guards.
“Please open your robes and lift your arms,” Gael instructed. “No weapons are permitted within the throne room.”
Gwendolyn and her small band of warriors did what they were told. Warrick raised his left arm above his head, ensuring his shield was well out of the way. The two guards inspected each member of their party. Satisfied, the animated corpses nodded and opened the doors.
Gael eagerly stepped across the threshold. Gwendolyn walked behind him, followed by the two mages, and then Mpho. Warrick brought up the rear. The throne room was dark and cold, the walls comprised of smooth stone. Nothing hung on the walls. It was an empty place, hollow. It reminded Warrick of a tomb. Torches hung on the walls, the light weak. The flames flickered, sputtering, as if they couldn’t bare to exist in a place so bereft of life.
Gael sank into a dramatic bow. “My Queen. I present to you the Lady Gwendolyn and her band of noble warriors! They have travelled far and wide to deliver the Orb of Tchogha! It is my greatest honor to bring them before you, Queen Rosamond, the immortal, the inexorable, goddess of darkness!”
Gwendolyn and the others fanned out in a line before the throne.
Warrick immediately noticed two things and he had to grit his teeth to stop himself from cursing aloud. One, there were no windows anywhere within the room. And two, the person sitting on the throne was a small child.
Warrick wished he was standing beside Gwendolyn. He wanted to grab her and shake her until an explanation fell out of her mouth. Queen Rosamond couldn’t be older than eight years old. She sat upon the throne, a perfectly crafted porcelain doll. The child was dressed in a long gown of fine black silk, overlaid with white lace. Her auburn hair tumbled to her waist in a precious display of soft curls. Her eyes were a vibrant green that sparkled with innocence, her lips pink, the color of fresh strawberries.
Queen Rosamond smiled, her voice a delicate bell. “Can it be? Has the Orb finally found its way home?”
Gael straightened, and approached the throne. “Yes, my Queen.” He knelt, gazing up at her like a dog begging for praise.
Queen Rosamond trailed a finger along the side of his face. “Do you know what this means Gael? My sisters can finally be free. We shall bring them to us, and this world will be ours.”
Gael’s pupils dilated and his breath hitched.
“When they are here, I will no longer have need of you,” Rosamond said. “I shall make you immortal. You will join my army. You would like that wouldn’t you, Gael?”
Gael nodded. “Very much so, my Queen.”
Warrick’s stomach turned. Dark magic surrounded the child like a shroud. It emanated from her in hot waves, as if Warrick were standing before a raging fire. Rosamond was evil. That was clear. But did Gwendolyn expect him to sink his axe into a child? Warrick balled his hands into fists, furious.
Rosamond turned her gaze to the five warriors. She examined each of them individually, silently assessing them. When her eyes fell on Warrick, he felt a thin trail of heat streak down his face and neck, as if a hot tongue were licking his skin.
Her eyes went back down the line, finally stopping on Aiguo. Her expression flattened, and her voice changed, becoming wider, amplifying until it filled the chamber and echoed off the walls. “Give it to me, warlock.”
Aiguo lowered his hood and raised his chin. “Yes, your highness.”
Warrick glanced at Gwendolyn, trying to get her attention. But Gwendolyn’s eyes were trained ahead, her jaw set in a firm line.
Aiguo drew a piece of chalk from his robes. “May I?”
Rosamond nodded her consent.
Aiguo knelt and began drawing upon the stone floor. The white chalk scraped across the stone. He drew a perfectly crafted circle and then filled it with symbols. Aiguo started chanting. The language was harsh, the syllables short and abrupt. An ancient tongue. Gael stood and placed himself beside the throne, his eyes wide with excitement.
Magic exploded on the air, producing a gust of wind that swirled through the room. The wind churned in wide circles, gradually tightening until it funneled around Aiguo. His hair flew wildly around his face, his voice rising in a powerful boom of authority as the spell reached its peak. The wind converged, slamming into the circle of chalk. The wind snapped out, leaving behind a small shining ball of light within the circle. The Orb of Tchogha was the color of water, a deep blue, with shafts of light shimmering inside.
Rosamond leaned forward, her face filling with desire. “Bring it to me.”
Aiguo gathered the orb into his hands and walked forward.
Warrick shifted, again trying to catch Gwendolyn’s eye. She was still looking forward, but now her hand was resting on her hip, on the hilt of her invisible sword. Warrick looked to Mpho. His hand was also on his waist, gripping his scythe.
Warrick could feel the tension of battle approaching, the promise of violence. He had only moments to decide. His gaze returned to the child on the throne.
Aiguo stood before Rosamond. Aiguo extended his hands, offering her the Orb. Queen Rosamond rose from the throne, her small delicate fingers reaching for it. And then, two things happened at the same time. Mpho shot forward without warning, like a spring that had been released. He rushed towards Rosamond, his arm raised. In the same moment, Aiguo uttered a series of words and the orb disappeared form his hands with a snap.
Rosamond screamed. Her green eyes flicked to Mpho. His arm was coming down in an arch, the scythe aimed for her neck. Before his weapon could connect, he was thrown back by an invisible force. Mpho slammed into the far wall and remained there. He growled, struggling. Rosamond held him in place against the wall.
Gwendolyn snarled, rushing towards the Queen. Rosamond turned her gaze on her. With one look, Gwendolyn was yanked upwards, her back smacking into the ceiling. Gwendolyn thrashed, but her body was pinned to the ceiling, like a butterfly pegged onto a tray.
Rosamond stretched a hand towards Aiguo, her fingers curled. The warlock fell to his knees and screamed, his back bowing.
“Bring it back!” Rosamond demanded.
Lin raised her hands and started chanting, fast and quick. Warrick’s eyes caught movement next to the throne. Gael held a dagger, his eyes centered on Lin.
“Oh, fuck it all,” Warrick mumbled. He ran to Lin, managing to step in front of her just in time. He threw his left arm up, the dagger glancing off his shield.
Warrick followed through with a front kick to Gael’s chest. Gael grunted, stumbling back. Warrick yanked his axe free, in a movement that was as familiar to him as breathing. Warrick swung, slamming the axe into the center of Gael’s chest. The unseen weapon sunk deep, biting into bone. Blood erupted from the wound. Gael gurgled, his eyes wide. Warrick ripped his weapon out of the man’s chest, not bothering to watch his enemy sink to the floor.
Warrick turned. Aiguo was now standing. He and Lin were holding hands, both chanting loudly and in unison. Powerful magic rose on the air, producing quick gusts of wind. Rosamond hissed. Her mouth opened, her jaw elongating. Thick purple tentacles tumbled out of her mouth, black ink dripping from the slimy, writhing appendages.
“Holy shit!” Warrick shouted.
Aiguo and Lin both stretched a hand forward, and then closed their fingers into a fist. Rosamond went rigid. A choking noise escaped from her throat, mingling with the sound of flaying tentacles. Her arms and legs were pulled outwards, as if she was being lynched by invisible rope.
Mpho and Gwendolyn both fell, landing hard on the stone floor. The doors to the throne room flew open. Rosamond’s dead army rushed in.
Gwendolyn got up. “Warrick, kill her! Do it now, we will hold them off!”
Gwendolyn and Mpho threw themselves at the armed corpses. They collided into the decayed mass, hacking off heads and limbs.
“Barricade the doors!” Gwendolyn shouted.
Mpho carved his way through, fighting his way to the doors. Gwendolyn was a wild thing let loose on the army of dead. She erupted in bursts of violence, taking on three or four at a time. Mpho managed to force the doors closed, jamming a sword through the handles. The doors shuttered, the wood groining as more forces tried to get in. Mpho jumped into the fray, his massive body moving with an incredible amount of grace, his movements precise and well-practiced. A dance of death.
“Dammit savage, do it now!” Gwendolyn growled as she stabbed a corpse in the chest.
Warrick turned, facing Rosamond. Lin and Aiguo still had her held, but the mages were not going to last much longer. Aiguo’s entire body was shaking. Lin was drained of color, her face deathly pale. She looked like she was going to pass out.
Rosamond’s eyes had changed. Her pupils were now narrowed into slits. Something slithered beneath the folds of her gown. Warrick swallowed hard. She is not a child, he thought as he stepped forward. She is evil. She is not human.
He raised his axe and swung, a Munin battle cry erupting from his throat. Warrick lopped her head off in one clean stroke. Her auburn curls spun and then fell, her head smacking onto the floor with a sickening squish. Lin and Aiguo continued chanting, keeping the remainder of her body in place. Warrick made short work of her, quickly slicing off both of her arms and legs. He could hear the tentacles still moving.
Warrick ran to the wall, grabbing a torch. He drew the fire along her torso and limbs first, and then located her head. It was laying in a pool of black ink. The tentacles slapped against the stone, slowly pulling her severed head forward. Warrick hurriedly lit it on fire. A scream pierced the air, one that did not sound remotely human. The flames spread, engulfing the mangled corpse. The tentacles finally stopped flaying, now blackened and charred.
Suddenly, the army of the dead collapsed, their weapons clattering to the floor. The doors stopped shuddering, and silence fell on the throne room. Her army became still, unmoving, nothing more than lifeless corpses.
Warrick was breathing heavily. He threw the torch down, sickened.
Lin collapsed. Aiguo caught her. He scooped her into his arms, cradling her to his chest.
Gwendolyn and Mpho stepped around the bodies that surrounded them, making their way to the throne.
“Well done, savage,” Gwendolyn said.
Warrick glared at her, but his anger was gone. “What the hell was she?”
“Something ancient that made its way into our world. I would have told you, but you wouldn’t have believed me. You had to see,” Gwendolyn answered.
Warrick examined the burning corpse. “What now?” he asked.
“I give you the money that I promised you, and you can go on your way,” Gwendolyn said. “Or, you can join us. There are rumors, that another Soul Eater is in the South, occupying castle Hulgade.”
“Shit woman, how many of them got into this realm?” Warrick asked.
“Two. We think,” Gwendolyn answered.
“Did anything else get in?” Warrick said.
“A horde of infant chimera’s,” Gwendolyn said. “They are occupying a forest to the East. We need to exterminate them before they grow large enough to make the journey across the sea.”
Warrick shook his head. “You’ve got a hell of a problem.”
“Yes, we do.” Gwendolyn agreed. “But it is none of your concern. Unless you want it to be.”
Warrick fell silent, studying the group in front of him. Lin was now awake, and looking at him, her golden eyes soft. His gaze returned to Rosamond’s corpse. A thick purple tail had fallen out of the bottom of her dress, the flames eating away at the scales.
Warrick would never be allowed to return to Dunedin. He was a man without a country, without a home. If he was to remain in Komi-Okrug, these creatures had to be dealt with. For one thing, Warrick didn’t want them making their way to the green shores of Dunedin. And also, if he bought an inn, the last thing he needed was a chimera igniting it on fire.
Warrick sighed. “Let’s go. So glad you brought repelling equipment, that really came in handy.”
He walked passed Gwendolyn, towards the doors. The others followed, stepping over the dead.
Gwendolyn pulled the sword out of the handles and wrenched the doors open. “How was I supposed to know they would stop moving once she died?”
“We can use it to our advantage, in the South,” Mpho said. “It will be beneficial.”
“You know what is beneficial?” Warrick said. “Being correctly prepared for a mission.”
“Shut it, savage,” Gwendolyn said.
The castle was now still and quiet, reduced to a graveyard. Piles of corpses lined the hallways, limbs motionless, opaque eyes open, forever frozen in an unseeing stare. Warrick uttered a final prayer, this time for Rosamond’s victims. He hoped their souls would be carried to the halls of the afterlife and find peace.
Dawn broke across the sky as Gwendolyn and her small band of warriors headed downhill and began the journey South. Rays of sunlight broke through the clouds, illuminating the path ahead.
The Black Oyster of Wisher’s Bay
Sessa stared at her da’s gut, hanging heavy over threadbare trousers. There was an old scar there, white against tan, stretched as though it were smiling at a good day’s drinking. She’d often wondered how easy it would be to open that smile nice and wide. The whiteness of his scar reminded her of an oyster, the milky skin between its shell ready to part, ready to loose a tide of flesh. Sessa held to this fantasy as the old man spat and cursed. Da’s belly might be grinning, but his face was black fury under red cheeks.
‘Six?’ He kicked over her bucket, spilling the day’s meagre catch. ‘What the fuck am I supposed to do with six shells?’
Sessa had an explanation, but it’d be wasted on her da. He already knew the Empire’s garrison took a cut from the catch, they’d been in Wisherwick for a month now. Still, excuses don’t fill coffers. Or wine jars. So Sessa simply turned her head, anticipating the next blow. When it came, it set her ears ringing. She stumbled, having momentarily misplaced her feet, and found herself staring at warped wooden floorboards. She felt a calloused hand grip the back of her neck, as irresistible as the tide. Sour breath filled her nostrils just as a hiss filled her ears.
‘I want a full bucket, yeh shiftless sack of gull-cack. Come back with anything less, I’ll crack your head open ‘an sell whatever rodent lives inside.’
He threw her through the door and onto the street. Sessa landed in dust and hard mud, somehow occupying a space their neighbor’s eyes managed to avoid. She imagined their tongues waiting to wag, waiting to tell anyone who might listen but not help. Korgen Lant was a hard man, the kind it’s best not to rile. The folks that lived aside him might tut and shake their heads, but if they made to do anything more, he’d turn his red cheeks on them. Sessa sometimes wondered – between divings and beatings – if things would be different were her ma alive. Likely the only thing to change would be were Korgen’s fists landed, but the thought was hard to ignore. Imagining herself a new life was the best Sessa could manage.
She kept her face in the dirt until her father’s heavy step sounded at the back of the house, closer to his jug. When her head stopped its silent humming, she rose to her feet, brushing as much of the street from herself as she could. Sessa headed back to Wisher’s Bay, glad to be returning to the water. It was no secret the Bay held more comfort for her than home, no secret she’d rather been in the shimmering deep. Sessa loved scouring the seabed, eyes open for shells and trinkets and slivers of hope that might lead to a new start. The water called to her, in the siren voice that lured sailors and divers alike out into the blue. Despite her love for the Bay, she was in trouble. Trouble being, it was getting on to dark. Diving at night brought extra danger, apt to bring a catch of coral-sliced feet and little else. Not that Korgen gave a shit.
‘Looks like you met another angry goose, Sessa. Did this one happen to have fists?’
A smooth voice, wry amusement hiding… concern? Sessa closed her eyes, didn’t bother to hide her sigh. When she turned, the first thing she saw was Tana’s buttons. Despite the purple-laced twilight, they glinted hard and cold, a kind of beautiful Sessa rarely saw in Wisherwick. They matched her teeth, perfect-clean, ready to close around something and hold it fast.
‘Geese don’t need fists, they got plenty of muscle in the neck.’
‘Indeed. And where are you off to at this late hour?’ Tana gestured around the emptying streets. ‘I hope you wouldn’t think to break curfew.’
Sessa fought to keep her fists from clenching. Da’s first response – hit a problem and see if it hits back – seemed the wrong tack. She dropped her head, lowered her voice. ‘Got errands to run Captain. The geese don’t like it when they aren’t fed, if you take my meaning.’
‘Hmm. I take it very well, though I can’t help imagining some possible solutions. Perhaps you’d like an escort to the Bay?’
Sessa tried to hold her surprise, but lost her grip. She clung desperately to her dismay. ‘Wouldn’t like to keep you Captain, you being a busy woman and all. I’m just going for a dive, nothing else.’
‘Oh, it’s been a quiet few weeks. Indulge me, if you would. I’ve been keen to see the famed “Wisher’s Mermaid,” for some time now. That is what they call you, isn’t it?’
Sessa stared a second too long, then remembered to drop her gaze. Folks from the Empire called it rude to gawp, though it was hard to keep track of their niceties. There seemed no bloody end to ‘em. Sessa put an unconscious hand to her swollen cheek. The conversation was becoming uncomfortable. She just wanted to finish her dive and sleep through da’s next drunken rage. She wasn’t anyone. Why should an Empire Captain pay her any mind?
‘Wouldn’t know much about Mermaids, Captain. I respect the sea, and she’s good to me for it. Nothing more to it.’
‘You’re a taciturn sort, Sessa. Let’s see if I can prise more details from you. Shall we?’ A gesture, sweeping back towards Wisher’s Bay. Much like da’s grip on her neck, she could feel Tana’s hold on her, just as inexorable. Sessa set her teeth and nodded.
The walk earned her hard looks from the locals and Empire patrols alike. Tana tried at conversation, as though she were fencing with words. Sessa could see the cut and thrust, even if most of it was over her head. She just made sure none of it when through her guts. The Bay was almost deserted when they finally arrived, and Sessa silently thanked the Wavemother. Old schooners floated alongside Empire warships, the docks a haphazard arrangement of rotten wood and rusted struts. Tana tutted when she saw it.
The Bay churned in the fading light, torches from docked boats tinting waves flame-orange. Sessa shivered. Something about the water seemed uninviting, cold. The siren voice was muted, laced with warning and a strange hunger.
Tana touched her arm, and Sessa almost left her skin.
‘Erro’s teeth girl, are you always so jumpy? I just wanted to say, if you ever need help, I know a good recipe for goose.’ The Captain’s eyes were flint, the gleam of her buttons seemed to have migrated there.
‘I got to get undressed now.’
‘Of course, of course. I’ll take my leave. But remember my offer, Sessa. Skills such as yours ought not be wasted under an ignorant fist.’
The Captain turned her flint eyes on Sessa one last time, then spun smartly on her heel, heading toward an Empire patrol. As Sessa gazed at the sea, twin fears grew in her belly. The Wavemother was trying to tell her something, and she had a strong suspicion it amounted to “stay the fuck out of the Bay.” Still, she found that less unsettling than the Captain’s attention. Just as Tana had turned away, despite the darkening lilac sky, Sessa thought she’d seen the Captain blush.
Sessa felt more at peace in the water, despite the Wavemother’s warning. The moon cut a disc of silver from the night sky, a gentler accent to the ships’ fiery torchlight. She’d pulled further out from the shore, strokes sure and smooth, cutting through warm water with familiar ease. Here was real life, here lay real freedom. Not for the first time, Sessa wondered what stopped her from just swimming, stroke after stroke, out into the dark. She’d carry on until the Bay was a memory and the Wavemother’s tug pulled her feet, soft, so very soft, down and down until she breathed nothing but salt. Instead, she shook her head, picked her spot and dived.
Under the waves Sessa’s peace evaporated. She recoiled, almost losing her breath as cold swept into her, pushing her back to the surface with a choked gasp. Once she broke air the chill subsided, only a trace of ice lingering under her skin. The moon said nothing, lighting the Bay’s floor with an eerie glow that caught on stray baubles, setting them dancing. But there was a small patch of jagged reef which seemed to drain the light and draw the eye in equal measure, a patch which seemed to call her down.
Sessa closed her eyes, touched the single pearl pinned to her scalp, the only place her da wouldn’t find it. Her mother’s pendant strengthened her, and once again she plunged beneath the waves. Ice, ice and pain and biting shock. Sessa almost recoiled again, but bit her lip and worked her way downwards. She’d taken enough fists to know hurting was temporary, her da’s one gift.
The moonlight only served to highlight the Bay’s shadows; dancing shafts warped by currents as they stabbed the floor. The deeper she went, the more teeth the ice seemed to grow, tearing at her and trying to force her away. But when her hands touched the floor, the cold disappeared, another shock that almost cost her a lungful of air. In a world of white and black Sessa was swept along the sea floor, as though the current were a mob bearing her away. Before she knew what was happening, her hand closed around something darker than the night, colder than ice. Her fingers locked tight, as though pinned in place by a master shipwright.
Her vision filled with smoke and the hint of a face, twisting like spilt ink. She tried to scream, horror warring with surprise to fill her lungs with blackened water. Before her vision faded from the edges Sessa just had time to turn her eyes to the moon. Its bright, lonely face was replaced by something with less substance and more teeth, until the dark overtook her.
When Sessa woke upon the shore, her tongue was the first thing she noticed. It lolled from her mouth, collecting sand with an enthusiasm the Empire applied to territory. Despite having swallowed half the Bay, her throat was a husked desert, one that wouldn’t be using words without a drink. Not that there was anyone she wanted to talk to. If she really tried, she could ignore the biting panic that she ought to be dead. Since she wasn’t trying, that panic took her in a vice. She shuddered to her hands and knees, clawing away from the water like a rabid dog. Sessa didn’t hear the voices until it was too late.
‘…out past Curfew, girl?’
The Empire twang didn’t so much as cut through Sessa’s fear as add a new layer. She froze, eyes on the sand, feeling the gritty wetness as her hands clenched.
A phlegm-filled laugh. ‘These Bay rats don’t got any respect for us. All we did was raise ‘em from the muck, put some civilized ideas in their waterlogged heads. Still, what can you expect from pigs but a grunt?’
Sessa was used to violence. It lived in her home, wore bloodshot eyes and a broken-toothed smile, spoke with the drooping vowels of hard spirits and sour wine. She felt the air turn hollow, the way it does before a storm. She tensed, bunching the muscles around her ribs as a standard-issue boot sent shockwaves through her body. The air she’d been so thankful for left her lungs again as she rolled, lying face up and staring at the ice-white moon. It was interrupted by a face you could confuse for a rusty bucket, hard and old and flaking at the edges.
‘Diving for shells in the dark eh? At least you got some guts.’ As if to remind himself of where guts might be, bucket-face rammed his fist into Sessa’s stomach. ‘Let’s see what you caught then. The lads don’t much like ‘em, but the apothiks make a fine draft to raise your flagpole, isn’t that right Celis?’
Celis didn’t appear to have much opinion on the matter. He stood a body-length away, as though unsure where he ought to be.
Rust-bucket grinned. ‘Don’t worry boy, this is standard procedure. Rough them up a bit and take what belongs to the Empire.’ His face filled Sessa’s vision. ‘After all, these waters and everything in ‘em is property of the Star-Crowned Empress, blessed be her turds. So let’s see what’s in your hand love, before I got to break it off.’
Sessa blinked. She hadn’t realised she was holding anything, but it slowly dawned on her that she couldn’t feel her right hand. She turned to look at it, dazed, fearful. Something nestled there, dark as the sea and just as brooding.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake, we ain’t got all night.’ Rust-bucket lifted his boot, brought it down hard enough to snap bones.
Sessa’s howl rent her dry mouth. The black shell in her hand cracked, slicing through a hand already burning with pain. There was a cold hiss as air seemed to escape the shell, and Sessa pulled her hand back instinctively, cradling it against her chest. She was dimly aware of rust-bucket and Celis arguing.
‘That’s the Mermaid whose hand you’ve just broken! Word around the barracks is Captain Tana was interested in her, thinking about recruiting her to Navy duty. By the burning tits of Erros, she’ll string us up for this.’
Sessa stared at her hand. It was still a crucible of agony, but the hurt had changed to something deeper even than broken bones. The fingers seemed to be knitting themselves together, but longer, more fluid.
A grunt. ‘Can’t be sure she’s dead if there’s no body.’
The pain built to a crescendo. It felt as though Sessa’s hand were in a vice, as though all the blood had stopped at her wrist and turned away in disgust. Her hand was turning black.
‘What are you—’ Celis was cut off by the sound of a blade leaving its scabbard. ‘Jimil you can’t, we’re supposed to be protecting these people, bettering their lives—’
‘Quiet your mouth lad. This is how things are in the real world. If it’s her in the Bay or us on the gallows, there’s no choice to be made. Keep an eye on the harbor and I’ll do the work, you wouldn’t know what end to put in her.’ Jimil laughed at his own joke, then coughed again. ‘Now eyes up, before I gut you and say there was a fight.’
Sessa was dimly aware of Jimil’s heavy boots, making only a quiet sucking in the sand. She was still curled in on herself, holding her hand and staring as though it belonged to someone else.
‘Sweet dreams, Mermaid,’ said Jimil.
Sessa turned to face him just as his arm pulled back. It was a lazy thrust, meant to take her through the heart and kill her instantly, quiet any scream she might have loosed. But instead of poking a hole in her chest, the iron stopped point-deep in her blackened hand, as though lodged in mortar. Sessa felt only a vibration in her right arm and a distant tingling in a hand that no longer obeyed her head. She stared at Jimil, who was cursing and hauling two-handed on his sword. His eyes widened with every tug. When Sessa looked back at her hand, she saw fingers the colour of night locked around the blade. She opened her mouth to set free her scream, but her throat made a wet hissing noise, gurgling from her lungs with spittle and blood and not a little hate. Her face tingled as heat drained from the air.
The blade exploded. Jimil screamed and turned as he was doused with shards, slicing into his eyes and leaving ice-burn tracks across his face. Sessa tried to drag herself back, but she felt as though she were fighting the tide again, as though the sand were pulling her closer to Jimil’s howling. She couldn’t look away as one dark finger caressed the soldier’s back, parting skin like a fine prow in a still harbor. Jimi’s spine jutted through his uniform, the smell of fresh blood mixing with salt and sand. Sessa’s hand rose slightly, then one finger dipped gently into the rent in Jimi’s back, a connoisseur tasting a fine vintage. Jimil shuddered violently, the skin around his wound turning blue. He began to whimper, then whine, until finally he was still.
The sound of gentle waves wrapped itself around the horror, bringing Sessa back to the fact she’d killed an Empire soldier. When she finally raised her eyes from the mess that was Jimil’s body, she saw a trembling Celis stuck to the sand. She had completely forgotten the other soldier.
‘Sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—it wasn’t me, he tried to kill me…’ she trailed off, unsure what sort of excuse might be acceptable for eviscerating someone.
Celis drew his blade with a shaky hand, backed away a pace.
‘No, I said I’m sorry,’ started Sessa, fear curdling in her stomach, slowly turning to something else. Something more like rage. ‘He pulled his sword, tried to stick me.’ A flash of anger foamed through her like a tsunami. ‘And you did nothing! Just whined about a noose!’
‘In the name of the Star-crowned Empress, I order you to peace.’ Celis’s voice was stronger than the grip on his sword. ‘By the authority of Captain Tana Iomoku, you are under arrest for the… slaying of an Empire Sergeant. All rights and property are forfeit to the Empress until the stars have judged your guilt.’
Sessa’s right foot lurched forward. She was shaking with the effort of controlling her own body, fighting the urge to launch herself at the young soldier, to tear and bite. The waves of anger built again, taller, tinged red and black and cold as ice.
‘Halt or I will be forced to defend myself! Please, I don’t wish to harm you.’
Oh Wavemother, thought Sessa. A tear leaked from her left eye, while her right narrowed. Her mouth opened of its own accord.
‘Feel free to try,’ she said.
Alarm bells wailed through Wisherwick, raising the hairs on Sessa’s neck and Bayfolk from their beds. She crouched in a darkened alley, watching Empire troops thunder towards the Bay. She thought back, shuddered at what they’d find. When she’d finally gained control of herself, Celis had been a ragged mess strewn across the sand. She looked as though she’d bathed in his innards, but despite this there’d been no returning to the Bay to wash. That water was as tainted as she was.
Sessa looked at her right hand, hidden now beneath gold-edged rags from Jimi’s uniform. Not the most inconspicuous bandage now she thought on it, but the spreading darkness was setting her to panic and she needed a clear head. Just how clear her thoughts were seemed open to debate, given she’d headed straight for home and her da’s waiting fists. The old bastard surely hated the Empire, but he’d probably draw the line at sheltering a murderer. Still, the only other option was Captain Tana, and that seemed like jumping from a swollen river to a burning house.
Sessa waited until the street was empty, then skulked to her da’s door. When he answered, he looked up and down the street, took a swig from his jug, then — much to Sessa’s shock and relief — dragged her inside. She sat in the middle of the floor, dazed, exhausted. After Korgen slid a bolt across the door, he took three long pulls and tossed his jug aside. Bloodshot eyes fixed Sessa with a stare she knew well, but Korgen’s voice was gentle as a summer breeze.
‘What did you do, girl?’
Sessa said nothing, simply unwrapped her makeshift bandage. The rot had spread from her hand to her forearm, silky black mottling to brown as it gave way to her own skin.
Korgen hissed through his teeth, ran his hand over a lack of hair.
‘Take it those bells mean you met the Empire? Don’t bother answering, just tell me you made a mess of them.’
Sessa said nothing, but her stricken fingers twitched. Korgen nodded. ‘Fuckers the lot ‘o them. No idea of the world if it doesn’t fit their neat little rules. Still, we got to fix this before it goes too far.’
‘Fix it?’ Sessa pulled her hand close, backed against a wall. ‘Why do you care what happens to me?’
Korgen rubbed his face. ‘You might be an abomination girl, but you’re still mine. Besides, I been waiting for this a long time.’
‘You been waiting for me to meet a fucking sea-deamon?’
Korgen sneered. ‘That’s your mother speaking. She was as smart as I am drunk, but never wanting to see what was before her eyes.’
‘That why you sent her to Wavemother then, you fat old shit?’ Sessa’s hand twitched again, formed a claw. It looked eager. ‘Maybe it’s time I took a few answers from you, a piece at a time.’
Her da’s face blanched, but he recovered his spite without much effort. He’d plenty of practice, after all.
‘You think I killed her? By my foam-lathered cock, your mother was a fucking Siren, girl. Ever wondered why you’re so at home in the Bay? Think you were touched by the Wavemother’s gentle hand?’ He spat. ‘You’re one of her creatures, through and through. Got just enough of me in you for a tough hide and a thick skull though, I suppose.’
And a ready bank of hate. Sessa thought the words, anything to take her mind away from what her da had said. All the missing details of her life slipped into place, like a crab nestling snug in its shell. Every long-held breath. Every sidelong glance from admirers she’d never wanted. Every ages-long day she’d not been allowed in the Bay, making her skin feel tighter than her da’s purse.
‘Sirens are real?’ Sessa asked in a whisper. ‘All the stories are real?’
‘Aye, they’re real enough. Met your mother when I took one to many strokes outside the Bay. Got washed up, no idea where I was. She took me back, decided to stay a while. When she’d birthed you, she stayed as long as she could, then fucked off and left me with a ba I’d no idea how to care for.’
Sessa’s good hand went to her hair, rolling the fine pearl between finger and thumb. She thought she caught a scent of seaweed and old salt, somewhere in the back of her throat. But it could just have been her tears. Absently, she made to remove her mother’s pin. When her right hand touched it, she recoiled howling in pain. It was though she’d left her hand in the sun for a day and a half. It was blistered, and Sessa fancied she could smell cooked flesh.
Her da seemed not to notice. He was sharpening a long shelling-knife, talking as he worked.
‘Told me all the sea’s stories, your mother. Sirens ain’t just women looking for lads and lasses to seduce. They’re the Wavemother’s soldiers, hard as treated wood and more dependable. Only they’re caught fuckways between the dark of the deep, and us bastards above the surface.’
Sessa stared at her da. He’d never said as much to her in living memory. It was as though the thought of her mother had filled the hollowness of him, put something living back behind his eyes. When he looked again at Sessa, a little of that light seemed to die. He held out a wooden block.
‘Now, get on the fucking table, and bite down on this.’
He meant to cut her arm free. Outside, the Empire’s alarms made sirens of their own. It filled the silence of Korgen’s house. He gestured with the knife, eyes almost pleading, though Sessa doubted he was capable of such a thing.
‘It’ll only get worse lass.’
Sessa thought of all she’d lose with her arm. She’d still be able to swim, after a fashion. Still be able to function. But when Korgen sank back into himself? When the fists started flying again? Two hands can protect your face better than one. She held the pearl up with her good hand.
‘What about this?’
‘Wavemother’s blessed arse, where’d you get that?’ His eyes were wide. ‘Get the pestle, we got to—’
Korgen was cut off by their door splintering open. He turned just in time to catch a bolt in the throat and pitch to his arse, choking on his last words. He clawed the ground, then pointed at Sessa, pointed back to Wisher’s Bay. She fell to her knees, tried to read what he was saying. But for all the years they’d lived together, she’d never understood him. Never cared to, and with good reason. As she watched Korgen die she felt loss, but only for the words silenced forever, those that might have saved her. When he’d finally turned to a corpse, she closed his eyes and spat in his mouth. She didn’t want to waste decent salt on him. She’d certainly no tears to pay the Wavemother for his soul’s passage.
Captain Tana stood in the doorway, crossbow already sporting a new bolt. Her black and gold-trim uniform remained immaculate, despite Korgen’s blood decorating the room.
‘Sessa, did he hurt you?’
Sessa had to stop herself from laughing. The one time da hadn’t been about to beat her senseless, the one time he’d actually been trying to help, someone put a hand’s worth of iron in his neck.
‘No,’ she managed to whisper, returning her gaze to Korgen’s bulging eyes. ‘Not this time.’
Tana strode into the room, followed by what might have been a whole patrol. They started turning things over, searching for sedition. It was only then that Sessa remembered the beach, remembered the alarms. Her spine tingled, her right arm shuddered. The Captain moved to Sessa’s side, still standing while she knelt in her da’s cooling blood.
‘Sessa, I understand this might be difficult for you. I want you to come with me while we get things straightened out. You father has done something… let’s say illegal. There may be repercussions for you, but we have options for mitigation. I see a bright future for you, bright as the stars in the Empresses’ crown.’
Sessa nodded, relief flooding her. They thought Korgen had killed the soldiers. Blessed Wavemother, the bastard was good for something after all.
‘How’d you know?’ she asked.
‘Your father was a violent drunk, but something of an accomplished brawler. There was a veritable trail of blood leading back to his house. Then we enter, find him threatening you with a foot-long knife. What am I to think?’
Two things happened at that moment. Tana finally looked with her eyes, saw around the corners of her desire. Saw that Sessa was covered head to foot in flaking red. Realised Korgen was spotless, save for the hole gaping in his neck and the wide, white smile of his belly. Then one of her soldiers spoke, pulled Sessa’s bandage from the ground behind her.
‘Sir, looks like a piece of torn uniform.’
Sessa looked at Tana to find the woman staring at her hand. The blackened claw was dipped in Korgen’s blood, as though drinking. As she watched, the darkness spread further up her arm until it passed her elbow. When she locked eyes with the Captain, she saw desire fade and duty flare.
Before anyone could move, Sessa was on her feet. Anger swept through her, lancing through her thoughts and pushing muscles to action. An unholy growl left her throat as she lashed out at Tana, leaping past her and on to the soldier behind. The Empire man tried to draw his blade, but Sessa’s fingers sliced through his arm and left him screaming and stumbling through the house.
She heard the snap of a crossbow firing just as the impact rocked her sideways. The bolt juddered in her arm, half buried in soft brown flesh, half snagged on impervious darkness. With a snarl she impaled another soldier, lifting him with a strength that wasn’t her own. The clawed arm flung him backwards into the room, entangling bodies and slowing pursuit. Sessa leapt for a window, crashing through rotten wood and into the street. The siren started again, almost drowned by the pounding in her ears and the hissing in her heart.
She heard Tana shout as the soldiers – those with a full complement of limbs – piled from the house. Sessa’s body warred with her, trying to pull her back to the fray. The need to rend rose so hard in her she started to salivate. But when another bolt whistled by her head, the darkness relinquished control, like a sulking child throwing a toy in the mud.
She turned and headed to the Bay, sprinting with unnatural speed. Houses flashed by, the windows shuttered, eyes averted. Just like when Korgen used to beat her. The need to hurt flared again, but she bit her tongue and focused on the pain.
Only once did she encounter Empire troops. Three women, swords raised and stances set. She tore them apart, leaving mutilated bodies scattered along the road like confetti at a demon’s wedding.
When Sessa reached the Bay, the monster in her raised its objections. She slowed to a jog, then a walk. Eventually, she was forced to her hands and knees, huffing towards the pier like some injured beast hounded by hunters. Her right arm jabbed at her, scoring skin deep enough to draw blood. It clawed at wooden boards, ripping straight through them but snagging on the metal bolts beneath. Eventually, she made it to the end, panting, bleeding. The smell of salt and warm sea soothed her throat. Waves lapping at the pier provided a gentle accent to the pounding of booted feet.
Sessa hauled herself upright, swayed a moment. Tana stopped ten feet away. Probably not far enough had Sessa’s body not been broken. She could feel the sea-demon tensing her muscles. The Captain raised her crossbow, point glinting as bright as her buttons. Behind her, her soldiers did the same.
‘Explain yourself, citizen,’ said the Captain, words clipped.
‘Didn’t give my da much chance for words. Not that I’ll complain too loud. He never was good with ‘em.’
Sessa fought to buy time. She thought she could hear something in the distance… a sibilance, carried with the waves. And a new smell. The smell of seaweed.
‘Another monster. I should have known his spawn would follow the same tack.’ The Captain nodded to her arm. ‘What sorcery is this?’
‘Something the Empire’s not encountered before, I wager.’
‘You don’t know, do you?’
‘I know more than you, Captain.’ The sound was rising, coming closer. Sessa tried not to glance at the water, but Tana seemed to guess her intentions.
‘No sudden movements, Mermaid.’ The last word landed as an insult. ‘I can put one through your eye from here. I wonder if you would survive? Perhaps we should find out.’
‘I got something to show you, Captain,’ said Sessa, mouth drying. Even the demon seemed worried, which was a problem since she was counting on it.
‘Then do so slowly, citizen.’
With an aching slowness, Sessa put her arm to her hair. She pulled the pearl into the moonlight. It glinted hard, brighter than anything else in the Bay. Even Tana’s buttons dimmed in comparison.
Before the Captain could finish her breath, Sessa swallowed the pearl. She twisted right and off the pier, falling backwards into the Bay’s warm water and the Wavemother’s embrace. The demon hissed and screamed, tearing at her from the inside. The pain of it almost disguised the bolt in her chest. Sessa’s eyes stayed open as she sank, the moon growing almost painfully bright the deeper she fell. It was beautiful. Like the pearl she’d swallowed.
But still, it was nowhere near as beautiful as the song which filled the Bay. Sessa just prayed the fuckers would stop singing and hurry up.