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“But think of the amazement! The sheer amazement of it all!” The old man gesticulated wildly, flinging his hands here and there about the air, replicating amazement. “The very energies of the earth harnessed by man and forced to do his bidding. Chakka and our hardest metals… together! Why—”
“Not interested, codger.”
It was the lanky one who spoke, all wheezing and threadbare. Likely a rough night. All four of them reposed in various states of unease at the south end of the porch: two wedged into the wooden beams of the half wall, while the speaker sat on top with his dirty trousers hanging over the brim. A fourth lay on his back behind them all, possibly asleep. Which was exactly how Kastle would have preferred himself, had he any choice.
As the old practitioner took a moment to reel internally over such a nonplussing, Kastle’s jaw fell to rest on the bindle he was using as a walking staff. This was the third such group of dun moths his master had stopped to entice into their traveling party, and Kastle was having trouble figuring which half of that statement was the greater lie—that they were, in fact, traveling; or that rising before the bells to idle in the gloomy morning constituted a party. A yawn took him for what seemed like the tenth time since waking and he inhaled the stalest of Thresh’s air supply—that which lingered between the hawkers’ cries and the drunkards’ calls. Above the railing of a nearby roof the sun rose to cast its sad light.
“Chakka power will save you lot a ton of work, you know,” Practitioner Pregio Impessio Miticent floundered, the morning’s failings at recruitment dulling his usually flamboyant style. Snickering followed—for such a statement to be true they would have to do some actual work in the first place. The lanky one just stared at him as if he was going to beat on the old timer for daring to attempt a second persuasion.
Kastle was unsure he had the energy or will to move his limbs in his employer’s defense. He was, after all, on a contract he would much, much, much rather simply ignore and when it came to making people disappear Thresh had a globally-recognized pedigree. Fortunately, his dawdling master waved his arms in one last gesticulation—the opposite of amazement—and began to plod his way back down the Diamond Path toward where Kastle waited with three mounts and the gear.
It was Misah’s fault, as usual, for demanding so much of him, as usual. He had worked hard, had he not? Not one of the scavengers of the Ring would speak a word against him. And he had brought home more than his share of treasures, even if treasures were indeed hard to come by. The trinket? How many times did he have to remind her of the trinket? Then the other stuff—that military net and the dented shield. Not to mention at least a fortclip in coin, even if some of that was in gen. Misah was never satisfied. ‘What are we going to buy with gen, Kastle?’ she’d fuss. ‘Beheading?’ She seemed oblivious, despite his assurances, that he knew a perfectly safe black-market trading den in which to secure proper currency.
He had been out of work for a while, it was true—but grown men took all the real jobs and one could not blame him for failing to enlist with such chaos bubbling up the world over. Would it do Misah and that unsavory sister of hers any good if he got his head chopped off overseas? Nope. That oaf the high sceptre was not exactly about to pay her to sit around looking after their cohabitation of hand-me-down children.
That left Kastle.
He had been resting on the steps, weighing his options, when his ‘saviour’ had approached, the royal sigil clearly displayed across his shoulders. Whatever the job, the money offered would be double what he could ever scrape up in a week on his own. Kastle was a reasonable man, if he had fallen in with a less-than-reasonable woman, and the timing was just right. Ten days, twenty fortclips, one job: haul the absent-minded practitioner’s junk out to the middle of nowhere and ensure the man filled that oversized, brown ledger of his with whatever Xyn’s arse could afford.
Not the middle of nowhere. The Basin. The Stillborn Basin.
He shook his head to scatter the thought.
Miticent scowled his way up to where Kastle waited, muttering under his breath. When he saw his young accompaniment looking an unhealthy combination of tired and sour, his weathered face burst into a sunny grin that warmed Kastle like an empty firepit.
“No matter, no matter, my friend. Such vagrants do not compare to the likes of you. I was just probing them for work yet to come. You have much more of a look about you. One that says you are curious about the mystical energies that flow from your fingertips to your toes!” Kastle was curious about when he would get paid, how long it would take to get out of Thresh, and if he would get a chance to slip his fingertips up the thigh of any girls. Mystical energies did not figure into his curiosities one bit, unless one counted that which shortly thereafter caused him to adjust his trousers.
Beyond, in the burgeoning haze, the prospective help lolled about, not one of them yet thirteen spans, and he well into his seventeenth. Had he not already hated everything about the expedition, he may have found insult in the old man’s barely complimentary appraisal of his skills. Instead, he vaulted onto his own horse, wobbling briefly before bringing her around to face south. Miticent was long past, and, having squashed his rotund bottom up onto his mount, was ushering his poor beast forward with a series of clicks and whistles. The man claimed such percussion was in fact a language he shared with horses. Kastle was quickly learning to keep his mouth shut.
With his left hand he led their third beast, easily the most miserable of the trio, a mule who was beleaguered by a heavy crate all but bulging with tote. The drab tarp Miticent had thrown over top did little to protect the contents from the weather, and earlier Kastle had peaked within while his employer was deploring the value of family to an early-rising washerwoman. He insisted she join their little escapade! She refused.
Under the makeshift protection, Kastle found a wide assortment of metal bars and links, all with paint flaked away or rust caked on. They were round and square, long and thin, tiny and—in one case—almost as large as the crate itself. Various objects that to Kastle held no similarity—a meat cleaver, an ornate ring, and the skull of what looked like a totar—all hung in carefully labeled bags nailed into the side of the crate and dangling like shanks at the butcher. Plenty of bottles ringed the bottom, some with dirty stoppers and others with threads leading from their mouth. He found it all unceasingly boring outside of the ring, which he planned to steal somewhere along the way.
Who’s going to complain if I come home with a rock like that? Not Misah, no sir. Not that gutter rat sister of hers neither.
A faint tickle in his brain belied his previous assessment of curiosity, but Kastle just snorted and snapped the reins.
* * *
“Residue, my boy. It’s in the residue.”
“Of course! Where else? I can’t send myself backward in time, can I? The residue is what remains after any chakka conflagration. It hovers there, quivering and expanding and pulsing like it is alive—which makes sense because it is alive! The thing is, you have to be a practitioner to see it. To feel it. To, according to my colleague Messer Ivanic Yullmuz—heard of him? No?—to taste reticent chakka residue. Not sure I believe that one myself. His studies are always severely lacking in proof because he performs them in the dark and his writing all smears into itself, you know? Can’t be trusted.”
It had only been one day and Kastle already regretted his decision more than any decision he had ever made in his life. Every other mistake paled compared to riding out here with the magnanimous bloat of Pregio Impessio Miticent. It was as though his sole purpose on the trek was to abuse any foolish enough to accept his bargain, assaulting them with near to nonsensical conversation about mystical energies, magical properties, and phantasmal forces.
Now, Kastle had as much faith in the four gods as the next man, although that was likely doing him too much credit. But everyone felt the warmth of Aneom and the fear of Xyn—the calm of Nagan and the flint strike of the mad mistress. Only these so-called practitioners ever mentioned ‘chakka’ as if it was not just the touch of the gods themselves. Like it was—and Kastle shuddered, realizing the word had just been somewhere in the most recent dose of rambling—alive.
They rode astride each other, the pack mule hanging back behind but doing an admirable job of keeping up, considering. The sun was high in the sky. To Kastle’s left were grasses, empty and boring. To his right the marginal improvement of trees. Beneath his horse’s feet, yet more road. Above, the sad sky.
“Now, my boy.” The voice broke his concentration. He hated when the man called him his ‘boy’. “Let us remind you of your duties during this expedition, hm? I need someone of great intellect, someone who is multifaceted. Someone who is capable of thinking as quickly as a clip spinning in place.”
Kastle felt like he was none of those things, but it helped ease the slight he had received at the onset of their journey. He stared back at the man with a blank expression, wondering if it was time to eat yet. One day in and he had already consumed near to a third of his food. Trust Misah to pack properly! He would have to slow down or he would have nothing for the return trip, but logic rarely soothed a troubled tummy.
Pregio Impessio Miticent wiggled his jowls like he was sucking on the side of his cheek, eyeing Kastle’s apathy with a cold stare. He rode easily, with only one hand guiding his horse, while the other lay aside his impressive girth as if to hold his belly in place. The thin hairs of his short, white beard fell about a fingernail from his chin, giving the impression that he had once been much woollier. They surrounded a small mouth, pressed on both sides by his voluminous apple-cheeks, and continued right up to the base of his bulbous, drink-blistered nose. Earlier, random wisps of hair flailed about when his hat blew off in the wind, but now, what was left of his dying mane was securely trapped beneath a broad sun hat.
“Are we eating soon?” Kastle asked, unnerved by the attention.
A broad smile blossomed on his master’s face, the fingers of his free hand tapping out some rhythm on the gullet of the saddle.
“Another hour of riding before we put in, hm? Yes, that will do. You really should eat more with the arrival of the sun, you know. Flesh those muscles out so they can actually heft a stick of steel when Sceptre Drakindl calls for conscription, hm?” Miticent then chortled to himself over Kastle’s assumed misfortune. Kastle twisted in his saddle to seek the bay yet distant, his master’s words filling one ear; the buzzing of insects the other. Between them, dreams of salvage.
“There are rules I must address with you, boy. Before we reach the Basin and preferably before we cross the Landbridge. This is a matter of practitioning first and foremost and you are in the presence of one of the last great practitioners of our time. I will not let your buffoonery bludgeon up my experiment, you hear? Not saying it to be cross, just saying it. I need you to be quick. Quick as a spinning clip!”
He went quiet for a moment, replaced by the cry of a raptor off above the plains. Kastle tried to find it and failed.
“The first rule is to follow my instructions to the letter. Follow them with as much accuracy as you can muster. I am referring, of course, to when you will be called upon to put that contraption trailing us together. Yes, yes, I know. That is the main reason you are here. Not glamorous, no—but profitable, hm? So very profitable! Not just in clips, but in amazement, of course. Regardless, the first rule is to follow my instructions with as much exactitude as—”
“Yes,” Kastle burst, turning back. “I get it. I get it already. Listen, heed, obey your… whims…” In the sudden silence left by Master Miticent being cut off, Kastle’s voice withered from strikingly annoyed to a callow murmur. His master simply beamed at him.
“Exactly. I mean, of course, in constructing the device, not in everyday matters—although you would do well to listen to me then, too! Alas, you are a free man. Which brings us to our second rule. You work for me until we set foot back in Thresh, job completed. Not a glimpse of coin until then.” His face took on a sickly expression, one-eyed and squinting into his nose as if he smelled something awful. “Got that? Rule one and rule two?”
“Yes,” Kastle replied, keeping questions to himself in case they prolonged the increasingly-aggravating discourse.
“The third and final rule is to warn me during the experiment if you see any totar or studded gautuans.”
“Funny, is it?”
“Well… yes. The third rule is to keep an eye out for wild animals? I assumed you were going to say, like, raiders.”
“I’ve seen a gautuan pull a man’s head clean off. His neck, ribs and guts came with it, spraying everyone around him in organs. Anything funny about that?”
“So then warn me if you see any totar herds or studded gautuans, hm?”
“I will. What’s the fourth rule?”
Miticent rummaged through his saddle bags and came out with a small bottle of what appeared to be chalky peach-coloured dust. He poured some out into the cup of one of his hands and then rubbed them together vigorously, guiding his mount with his knees.
“That’s it,” he finally replied. “Only three rules.”
The rest of that day they rode in silence, Kastle hunched forward over his saddle like a man shot through by an arrow, staring at the road as it passed beneath him and wondering why anyone would choose to live this distance from the capital. Miticent seemed lost in thought, occasionally dropping back to ride parallel to their beast of burden and dig through the heap of metals in the crate. More than once the crate itself nearly toppled from its perch, only saved by the frantic grabs of his employer amid a slew of curses. Each time it was righted again, the mule was calmed, and whatever his master was doing was resumed.
During one of the longer stretches, Kastle actually began to enjoy the journey west. At the head of the group he felt more important than a hired hand, and he imagined himself finding a cave full of forgotten treasures he could bring home. In Thresh and the capital he was one of many, but out here he felt more of an individual—as if his physical geography gave him purpose by way of population density. He was Kastle, fortune-seeker.
It fell apart as soon as Miticent returned from his tinkering. He pushed his way ahead and Kastle’s unencumbered view was encumbered by a bulging backside of flush green wool and pompous shawl. Reminded again of his unwelcome circumstances—of the economic hardship that drove his life and the familial pressure of his homestead—he scowled bitterly and returned his gaze to the judge-free road. It gazed back at him and judged him, mocking laughter rising from its scattered cobbles and jam-packed dirt.
As the day neared its end and they picked their way off the road to find shelter, Kastle tried to recall all three rules, but he had forgotten number two. Not wanting to be lambasted as a simpleton, he held his tongue and set about unfurling the bedrolls that were stacked alongside the crate.
* * *
That night he attempted to steal the ring. He figured he could explain it away as having been jostled off during one of those times the crate nearly tipped over.
Kastle was going to have to slip from his bedding without waking the old windbag. He waited until their fire dwindled down and the moon was high overhead. Until a barrage of snores coming from the other side of the firepit.
First Kastle rolled onto his front, as if readjusting himself in his roll. Then he shifted so he was facing the pit full of ashes, unfortunate moonlight outlining the bulk of Miticent’s prone body. Gentle wind whispered across their camp, the only sound not the distant crush of Tree-raze Bay. In Kastle’s ears it was loud as a hurricane. He pushed with both hands to raise his body, carefully tucking one knee in underneath and shifting onto all fours. Then he straightened until the pressure shifted from his arms to his thighs, and got two steps sideways before caution bleated warning. Legs quavering as surely as his heart was pounding, he squinted at the moonlit form. His master lay still, eyes completely open, watching him slink away.
The Mistress’s tits, no way!
Kastle blinked, unsure if his perception deceived him. Miticent did not move, but his eyes appeared open, the faint moonlight reflecting off two whites wide and oval. The practitioner had not moved so much as an inch, but the chill in Kastle’s spine screamed of being watched.
He opened his mouth to speak, but then thought better of it and moved off behind a clump of tall cedars. After urinating he returned to his bedroll and lay still in the darkness for half an hour before sleep took him.
* * *
The next day proved sodden in weather and company. Kastle was uncomfortable, caught halfway between guilt and dreariness, and if his master had indeed been awake, he kept a frustrating silence. It was possible the man slept with his eyes open like something inhuman, or that he had seen him and taken the pretense of urination as the truth. However, it was the third possibility that loomed largest in the back of Kastle’s mind: that his little gambit had unequivocally exposed his threadbare loyalty.
They broke their fast in silence under a graying sky, Kastle stubbornly refusing to eat more than a few handfuls of bread. Then they rode in the hush of a drizzled rain fine as mist. The coastline was now finally visible, the rough waters of Tree-raze Bay slapping at the shore without propriety. He was prickled with chill, his woolen coat and tunic as unfit for prolonged exposure to rain as they were for fitting in in the capital.
Contrarily, his master seemed at ease in the rain, despite the moisture causing the skin of his bulging chin to appear through his swirled-up beard. He tinkered less than in the days prior and stared west with a look Kastle could not quite identify. A kind of reserved eagerness that a man of his stature should neither feel nor betray. For the first time Kastle questioned just what exactly his master had planned. The rambling about chakka was all well and bad, but just what was the device supposed to do? Kastle expected the man was excited to test whatever he intended to test, but his face bordered on… impatient. As the rain began to tail off, Miticent spoke for the first time since the day before.
“So, you do have some sense after all.”
“In your head.”
Kastle held up a hand to shield his eyes from the newfound glare, then caught his horse up to ride alongside. Eyeing his master carefully, he looked for any signs as to the purpose of such a remark. At last, unable to crack the veneer, he succumbed.
“What do you mean?”
Master Miticent’s mouth flashed into his characteristic munificent grin. “Your silence,” he went on. “It shows you have traveled perhaps more than you let on. It is wise to save one’s energy when these cold runs of water dip into our stores, hm? ‘Reticence is the better part of sense,’ I always say. At least, I think I say that. It is somewhere in my lengthy treatise on my attempts to bottle raw chakka energy.” He guffawed then, loud and abrasive. “Imagine: I tried to use a reinforced cork the diameter of my hand. Preposterous!”
“You’re wrong. I just didn’t talk because I had nothing to say.”
The grin slipped, just for a moment, before returning—and in that moment Kastle was certain his master thought him the kind of dense peon who might sleep in an unlit fireplace.
Let him. I can play your game, old man. You have me out here to do your pointless research, and you dangle fancy metals and rings in front of me… but I see through your facade. I have my share of secrets, too. Who can say whose give who the upper hand? Kastle was unsure he had the secrets he claimed, but it suddenly felt necessary to cause that infuriating grin as many slips as possible.
They looped south, keeping the bay on their left, but later that day veered away from Tree-raze and on toward the Landbridge.
* * *
“Wake up, Kastle, my boy.”
An unpleasant kick stole his breath, and then a gasping Kastle pulled his knees up to protect himself. “Toughen those ribs, lad. On the road you need tough ribs for sun-up kicks such as that one. Now get with the packing.”
Kastle groaned and rolled away from the light and sound. He lasted half a second with his face shoved in the dirt before coughing it up and lurching onto his knees. Bracing himself against the chill wind that ran the length of the Landbridge, he glanced over to see his master roping their box of scrap metal to the pitied mule. Muted curses and grunts. Fat, little fingers flying about the cords in haste.
After two nights of mulling it over, he had resolved to put the ring out of his thoughts—for now. It was best to hold off at least until—if—the experiment was a success. No doubt the practitioner would be so enraptured by his own hubris as to lapse in his vigilance. If an opportunity arose before then, well, Kastle was not one to let such a chance slip by.
He had also resolved to stop being so afraid of the man. Any confrontation between the two of them might come down to a flash of steel or rush of knuckles—and in those cases there was no doubt who would overpower whom. Mock all you want, fat man, but conscription or no, Sceptre Drakindl would bet on me in a scrap.
Kastle stood, stretching. He let the ever-present winds and whipped-up detritus of the Landbridge buffet his face. They had managed to cross almost all of the huge jut of rock yesterday, but had a mile or two left for the morning. A natural arch of compounded sediment rose away behind them, curving like a man-made bridge over the shoal-strewn eddies of the waters below. A massive drop awaited anyone brave enough to peer over—or bedded by chaos enough to step over—the edge. Kastle was neither. The prospect gave clear view of the waters for runs in either direction.
It was staggering, and enough to make him queasy.
Seeing all this—all this—what would Misah say? ‘Always exaggerating, always exaggerating.’ Then she’d hold the baby like a shield to prevent me approaching her. Riconah would give me one of those glares that whispered of stabbing me in my sleep if I disagreed with her sister again, a baby would start wailing, and that would be that.
Kastle avoided thinking of the part where he slunk from the room muttering to himself.
Rolling up his spare clothing and the last of his rations into a bundle, Kastle noted with more than a little pride that he had retained enough sustenance to last until Fort Slumber on the return trip. At the height of this strange and unaccustomed sensation, the crunching footsteps of Master Miticent drowned out his satisfaction.
“You know, they say Kiljag Monstrewn found a way to channel his Chakka’armed like Chakka’torrentia, drawing the mystic energies from the blacksmith’s work as if the tinder was still red hot and the bellows still wheezed.” Accustomed to the soliloquies, Kastle tilted his head to feign listening while stowing the last of his water. “It is my idea—uh, and that of Yullmuz’s assistant—that it is through this arcane delicacy that the Chakka’corda work.”
“Don’t be so daft, hm? You know who Kiljag was, do you not?”
“Yes.” Even the four reposing waifs from Thresh knew that story.
“So? So? So make the connection, Kastle. Quick as a spinning clip!”
Kastle tried to make the connection, but all he could picture was his own hands grasping at white nothingness.
“The Chakka’armed have imbued power. The practitioners who build them hammer the chakka home, but then it grows on its own accord. Alive I say! Chakka’torrentia project the energies outwards, as though the chakka is formed within and then croaked out like vomit from a drunk. Amazement! Vomited amazement!” As he spoke, Miticent walked in a small circle, not addressing Kastle directly but ensuring his voice rose above the harsh wind. Standing still in a whipping wind, Kastle wished his master’s delight at tormenting him could wait an hour until they were off the battered face of the Landbridge. Something caught his ear amid the man’s garrulousness.
“Wait, what did you say?”
“I said Chakka’corda must be a working of ‘armed and ‘torrentia together!” Miticent crowed.
“No, before that.”
“Oh, uh…” He paused to remember, spinning his hand like a joint in a fulcrum, eager to get back to the main track of his thoughts. “That the gods probably wouldn’t like it if people, uh, each had their own channel to their realm and such.”
“Each person… a private path to Aneom?” The concept seemed so bizarre and… life-changing. Maybe the bastard would actually shed some of that sunlight his way if he could explain the hopeless plight of his life. Somehow I doubt it. “Is that what all this metal is for? To build a channel to the gods?”
“Don’t be silly, boy! Of course not.”
Pregio Impessio Miticent tilted his head to the side and opened his mouth as if to speak again, but then shut it so quickly Kastle almost heard the snap. He glanced skyward, one cheek rising up and pinching his nose as if considering something, and then looked Kastle dead in the eye and blinked a few times. Nothing else. Kastle had never seen the man out of words. He stared at his master’s pinched lips with barely-restrained contempt. Always flowing. Always flowing words. He was unsure what to make of the pronouncement, but a hatred flared in him about everything in how his master pronounced it. Too many words, too much bluster, and too many damned infuriating words!
Lost in his own thoughts, Miticent waddled to his horse and mounted up without aplomb. Brooding, Kastle resolved to push his earlier resolutions one step further.
* * *
Crests of red dirt slashed across the cracked terrain of the Basin, the hooves of his horse now speckled like murder. The air above was not much better, but at eye level it tended to swirl instead of cut, and the headscarf Master Miticent had extracted did a fine job of protecting Kastle’s face. He could see little to either side besides the blotting outline of some mountains. Not that Kastle cared. He was concocting a plan.
He would do his job. He would follow the three rules once he remembered that second one. He would feign the daft simplicity the elite expected of diamond scavs such as himself, yet maintain the poise he employed in his subtle midnight urinary diversion. Such tact had worked before—Miticent had never mentioned the incident—and it would work again. All he needed to do was get the machine working properly. Provide Miticent with his successful experiment, then, while his pudgy detractor danced in Acadiumic excitement at proving his own excellency, shouting to the empty wastes about the mystical energies of dirt, Kastle would hack him in the neck with the meat cleaver.
It was not clean, but he had considered every angle and there was nothing to stop him. They were alone, having left the last vestige of civilization a few hours prior and with a few hours still to go. He had traveled with the practitioner long enough to know the man was not armed, not even in secret, and that his flabby body was soft and slow. He also had the element of surprise because upon assignment Miticent took inventory of Kastle’s equipment, finding no weapons as Kastle could afford none.
But you looked after that for me, didn’t you? Hanging three bags down from the one with the ring. Just such a tool. And once it is done, I can sell your provisions at Fort Slumber—your clothing and your fancy powders, your pouches and elixirs. I can dismantle the machine and sell it for the scrap that it is. Pilfer a ring? Not nearly enough. Not enough for Misah, not enough for that cadaverous Ricondah who knows what I did with that lass from Roiling Alley. Not enough for her greedy, Xyn-fingered pockets.
No, this is the way things are now. A man such as I cannot be expected to make a decent living—an honest living—without gladly sticking my neck onto the pricks of foreign spears. But I refuse. I refuse the life they want of me. And I refuse my old life. I have a new way. A profitable way. A way that reaches the treasure in the depths of the cave. All it takes is the courage to act on the desire that has ridden me the entire journey, itching beneath the skin. The courage to take.
He followed, between his master and his mule, as the crimson swirled with like-minded violence. Now all that was left was steeling his spine to the task. Mind made up, red-lipped Kastle let rasp a grim chuckle. The sheer amazement of it all!
* * *
The call was hardly relevant. With Miticent leading, Kastle stopped when he stopped.
They had reached a stretch of land that was perhaps the least distinct stretch of land yet, and considering the plains that said something. To the north-east a chain of mountains rose to stagger the horizon, while nearer spread a vaguely hilly plain speckled with little desert plants amid the broader speckling of heaped red dust. How cacti and dry sod blossom could live under such airborne assault was beyond Kastle’s knowledge.
He dismounted, wedged down a stake to keep the mule and horses from wandering off, and then took a few strides away to scan the periphery. Before them, to the west, the earth was a dark, violent orange and shock empty, a mess of cracks and crevasses interwoven into a shattered land. The ever-present dust remained, but in wide patches it bared the sore ground it danced over. Red blew from the mouth of crooked cracks piled high, while other crevasses sucked the dust in like they were the throats of some hungry beast. Kastle felt a rueful smile stretch his cheeks. The area was a deadlands.
“What am I paying you for, boy? Your cartography skills? Your prospective architecture? Might as well be about it, hm? Spare that poor mule and get to work.”
He took a deep breath.
No way around it. No hesitation. Let’s get us this contraption built as sure as can be. Time to get dirty, Kastle. Time to get dirty then wash my hands.
When he returned to the horses, the ornate ring sat out among various pieces of metal the practitioner was assembling. As Miticent’s pink, uncallused fingers were busy elsewhere, at the moment it was forgotten. Without hesitation Kastle spat on caution and slipped it into his pocket.
* * *
“Lummox of the ages! Is it so hard? Kastle, you dud burrowed in Aneom’s breast, this one goes here and that one goes there!” Miticent roared his displeasure over Kastle’s own paltry hammering. Determined not to let the ridicule phase him, Kastle snarled internally and wrenched the bar of metal free. Twisting it around, he manoeuvred it over to where Miticent gestured—ready to try, and likely fail, again. This time, however, as his banging on the bar sent minor reverberations up his arm, his master turned away to huff and puff. He must have guessed correctly.
Let the man fume. They are just words, just words…
He had already soaked his shirt. The sun was hot out this way and there was quite plainly no shade to hope for. At least Miticent was wet-faced, too. Kastle could imagine the rotund man producing a thin vial of something peculiar where, upon consumption, he became contently dew-kissed.
Gripping the underside with his dirty fingers, Kastle aligned the hole in his bar with the hole in the larger arcing piece he assembled earlier. It did not match up. With all his strength he shoved his end up and the screw wedged into the hole, crooked and with Kastle’s distinctive inadequacy written all over it. Good enough. He took a step away and arched his back, admiring his handiwork.
It was not done, but it was close. Three sets of bars made a pyramid base, with each set comprising a load-bearing tripod. The rest of the device loomed above: a singular tower built from the rods bridging the radius of the circle. Rounder hunks of metal stretched out to the sides, making a wide circumference in which Kastle stood. To these the master practitioner was applying his madness—packing the inside rims tight with a black and chalky powder that reeked like belched-back oil.
But it was not the odor that bothered Kastle, nor his building anxiety. He knew the gods saw to the whims of the people, more or less. He knew their touch was the true power. But despite his unperturbed cynicism of chakka magics and the people who prattled on about them, he could not shake the feeling something was different about the air he breathed. It was as if it was pounded upon by miniscule smiths, making indistinguishable sparks flit into existence and then disappear before he adjusted his taste. The land itself seemed to hum—a low buzz somewhere between hearing and touch. Earlier he accidentally crushed half of a sod blossom plants beneath a leg of the tripod. The remainder wilted to dust in less than the time it took him to retrieve his next piece.
Kastle took a deep breath, absently fingering the ring pocketed against his chest before catching himself. Quick as a spinning clip!
“Kastle, my boy.” Miticent said the words with a fanfare last heard in Thresh. “You have outdone yourself. A marvellous beacon of hope to the world of practitioning that shall bear witness to one of humanity’s greatest triumphs. This construction, once activated, will work the way I expect it to, or fail for reasons unknown, but either way its very creation will remain as a gift to Aneom—a bestowal of our appreciation for his gift: chakka that flows.”
Outdone myself? Gift to Aneom? Holy chakka?
“As such, I am paying you early.”
Kastle’s attention was suddenly as sharp as his tongue was dull.
Miticent waddled over to the horses, still tethered up near forty feet from the structure, and rummaged through his saddlebags until he produced a cloth bag. Kastle’s eyes fixed upon the sack like a vulture upon the mortally wounded. Once handed over, twenty fortclips were revealed within. He had never seen so much money in one place. He was not sure a Ring scavenger had ever profited this much from a single venture. As it stood, his legs almost gave out from under him.
“Now move from the interior, hm? I will make the final preparations myself.”
Kastle did so.
* * *
The totar stared at him without interest. Eyes that lolled into the path of least resistance took his measure as Kastle approached, one of the Basin’s feeble greens being munched on one side of its mouth. Fist clenched, he thrust his butcher’s cleaver into the air.
“Get on, you! Get on! Get out of here!”
The beast eyed him lazily, but as he kept coming it put a little oompf into its step and shuffled off in the direction of the distant hills. Kastle lowered his weapon. Rule number three: do not let any wild totar or studded gautuans get near the device. Now he understood a use for the cleaver, though apparently Kastle himself was supposed to use the tool as part of the experiment. Fine with that. I could not have asked for a better situation. I will stand right next to him with blade in hand and he will never suspect a thing. I bet he doesn’t even flinch it happens so quick.
Totar successfully moseyed, he turned and headed back toward the structure. Miticent was finished and waiting at its edge with his arms crossed, openly displaying one of those impatient impulses Kastle already noticed. He had scared off the totar in less than a minute, but then he doubted there was a man amongst the sceptre’s esteemed nobility who did not think the bloated Pregio Impessio Miticent was anything but odd.
Arriving, he knew his time had come.
“Shall we begin?” quested his master. A brown ledger was wedged in the crux of his arm, while his other hand fished for a quill. Finding one, the practitioner took a moment to jot some ink across the page, but Miticent’s hazy regard soon sharpened to convey instructions.
“See the twin ropes tied near the top?”
“Cut them simultaneously.”
Kastle looked at the device, calculating. “I’d have to climb some,” he said.
“Just up onto the ring section, yes.”
Kastle was ready, but for some reason remained rooted. Following the thin ropes with his eyes, he trailed them down the outside of a protruding arc of metal resembling a taut long bow. At the tips of the bow were two gourd-shaped jugs. The ropes disappeared within. Both sides were symmetrical.
“Will I get hurt?”
“If you do not proceed? Perhaps.” The practitioner’s tone re-established the pomposity he frequently re-established, urging Kastle to task.
But Kastle remembered his vow to himself—that Pregio Impessio Miticent was not going to browbeat him any longer—and came to a quick understanding: that class and fanciful speech meant nothing out in the wild. He could stake his own claims out from under the man’s immense shadow.
Kastle remembered all this in a moment, yet capitulated.
Rusty flakes fell about his legs as he climbed up the bars, and then he reared back with one hand and severed both ropes with the cleaver.
The jugs tied on either end dropped as soon as he severed the ropes, but then twisted and spun in together like mirrored pendulums. A loud crack broke the silence and noxious powders plumed up from the ruptured containers, choking him. Shrill crackling arose from where the practitioner packed the black and chalky oil, and the whole device shook with a terrible clanging. Kastle’s eyes darted wildly, watching for… he was not even sure. On cue a thunderous rumbling trembled the metal in his grip. He waited. And then he knew.
Aneom, be merciful!
A blast of scorching-hot sorcery burst from the top of the device. Metal screamed and the pressure pummeled his face. Red dust stirred up and about the machine like demented acolytes dancing around an altar.
“Ch-chakka?” Kastle called at Miticent, desperate to be heard over din. Cast in amazement, he stumbled back down the metal rungs. “Is-is this chakka?”
He craned his neck around, but the practitioner was not where Kastle left him. He was way back by the horses and mule, watching.
Then Kastle’s pocket went cold.
* * *
The explosion was massive, a booming detonation of orange fire and white smoke that bore the body of Kastle away as it expanded in its ruthless hunger for oxygen. Flames burned skyward, propelled up the powdered bars, and Pregio lifted an arm to protect his face from the ferocity. A hot blast of air buffeted him and he stumbled, but once abated the practitioner flung his arm away and rushed headlong toward the wreckage, grinning with excitement despite the abrasive heat searing his face.
He reached the charred framework and began scribbling frantically without looking down. His eyes were captured, as always, by the residue.
The remnants rose, snaking, faint to even his experienced view—long strands of chakka bleeding into the sky as if from a soldier’s wound. Sweat thick on his brow, he recorded details with rapt attention, eyes darting back and forth while a frantic palsy took his fingers. A minute passed. Then two. Pregio hit the bottom of his page, glancing down in confusion. It broke his twitchy concentration. Snapping back, he found the residue gone, dissipated in its return to the natural world—exhausted, shorn, but fraught with potential. It was over. Done. He quivered a long inhalation before collapsing his rump onto the cracked stone.
Only then did Pregio Impessio Miticent feel the pain of his burn wounds—the throbbing heat that now felt a part of his fingers and knuckles, his cheeks and nose. His eyes were devoid of wetness, his lips wet from cracking in the heat. He ran in too soon for the part of him that was corporeal, and now his body paid the price. Between the two, his body was always left with the toll while his mind collected the fare. Unfortunate, then, that this experiment was a failure.
Leaning back as he was, Pregio fingered one of the thin cracks that split the land in thousands—scorched by heat, bits of char already flaked under his fingernails. With a frown he felt with his other hand what he already knew he would find a mere foot away: cool, flat soil, untouched by flame, unblackened by smoke. The very edge itself.
Pregio stood and gazed out at the Stillborn Basin, its broad continent-spanning circumference making a sweeping, clean arc through the alchemical destruction he had wrought for leaps in every other direction. To the laymen the Basin began at a physical dip in the land more than a few runs west, but any practitioner worth even their most insignificant induction knew, upon stepping over the threshold, that the stillborn part of the basin ranged to the very rim along which he now stood.
Now, of course, the edge was clearly visible.
How could anyone wield such power? How much control? How much sheer willpower? Kiljag Monstrewn brought it all to bear in the greatest outpouring in history and all anyone saw was the bodies. The death. All they saw were the obliterated walls of their piss-poor city. No one saw the strain. No one could understand the utter… capability with which the Scalion wielda conducted his business. So many of my contemporaries flee from that which dabbles with morality, but surely there is no greater intruder upon one’s work than to betray it over a soft heart. Kiljag… you understood better than anyone. Even in oblivion you saw that it was better to live as the sun for a moment than to cower in caves for a lifetime. That to hold such power rendered morals… immaterial.
Pregio crouched down, staring at the line where his chakka nova found no purchase. So broken. So empty. So fascinating. Where chakka goes to die. His finger traced along the edge, feeling nothing but dust and hard rock.
He stood, ledger clutched firmly in one hand, and began the walk back to where the horses heaved at their ties, spooked to the core.
Introspective with ideas for new experiments, Pregio was startled when something large and dark blocked his path.
The body of his assistant Kastle looked barely human, heaped in a twisted pile and blackened near to skeletal. Pregio blinked a few times, made to pass by, but then remembered. Kneeling, he used the edge of his ledger to push around through the charred bones and ashes until he found it—a ring far too intricately cut to belong in such a mess. Righting himself, he slipped the Chakka’nul onto his finger and felt its ever-present thrum of nullification. It was cool to touch, almost cold—as if the explosion had been one of hoarfrost and not spewed torrents of flame. It did that.
It took a torrent and a nul to make a nova, but then more to localize it. He would need more chemicals. And another apparatus. These details, however, spared him no mind. He conceived of twelve such contraptions back in his basement at the citadel and had another already primed for his next trip. A small bag even hung empty, waiting for the very ring he just plucked from his worthless assistant.
The only irritating part was that he would need yet another, and they were getting harder to come by. Sceptre Drakindl’s arch-practitioner had first provided near to a dozen louts from the jails, but such a gift yielded the unwelcome poking of his rather intrusive nose. The fuss when families came crying to the throne after none of them returned was not worth the provision. After that, it had been up to him and he had successfully recruited at least six youths from the gutters with promises of wealth—until near to half of them tried to stab him in his sleep or simply rode off with the horse.
Indeed, he was considering new tacks when word came of a potential body. One of the lords at court approached him with a name. It seemed one of the man’s mistresses, whom he kept at arm’s length in Thresh, sought the means of removing a single diamond scav tormenting her sister. One whose desperate financial situation forced his hand a great number of times over a great number of things.
Shrugging ever so slightly, Pregio continued to the horses. He would find another means. He always did. The fleeting secrets of the residue were his to discover.
“There, there, girl,” he clicked and whistled to his mare as he approached. “You’re safe now. The noise is over.” The beast nodded and lowered its hairy neck to lick Pregio’s palm. He then brought his gaze up to the rheumy-eyed mule awaiting its crate.
“You may go,” he clicked. “I have burdened you enough.”
The beast swung its neck around and plodded east, leaving the crate where it lay.
A Fable of Blood
He’d never been wise. But as Tal Harrenfel ghosted down the cliffside, he wondered if he’d ever been more foolish.
He kept his eyes on his boots as he slid over the uncertain scree. A hundred feet below, the Obelisk, a tower of stone with no windows and one door, stood empty. He’d watched its sole occupant — at least, the only one he’d observed — shuffle down the mountain path hours before until he disappeared out of sight. Tal had never yet followed; in fact, he’d barely moved from his cliffside perch for three days, and only then when compelled to by his tortured bowels.
He’d learned long ago that when you were prey, it was best not to move until you knew where the hunters lay. Yet four months could erode the resolve of even the hardiest of men.
Four months since he’d had a meal other than hard tack and half-cooked mountain ram mutton. Four months since he’d had anything but his cloak between him and the hard stone as he snatched at sleep. Four long, hard, cold months that he’d either been predator or prey in his sojourn across the East’s endless mountains.
But he was close now. Close to the answers he’d sought for all his time in the untamed wilderness, and much longer before.
Close to knowing how to defy a man who had become a god.
“Close,” he muttered as he scrambled down the cliff. “Yet still so very far.”
He paused in his descent to gaze at the smooth-sided tower again. The Blue Moon Obelisk, he’d learned it was called, from a Nightelf tinker he’d waylaid on the road two months before. Tal had been intrigued from the first. Coaxing the story out as gently as he could — which, in the East, didn’t amount to very gently at all — he’d learned the Blue Moon Obelisk had once been one of many towers home to sorcerers fanatically devoted to Yuldor, the enemy of all in the Westreach. But the mages of the Blue Moon Obelisk, it seemed, had been less than devoted to their Peacebringer. After the leader of the tower disseminated heretical thoughts, Yuldor had slain every one of the sorcerers and cursed the stones that remained.
And if Yuldor feared something here that much, Silence knows I need to discover it.
According to the tinker, those events had taken place two hundred years before, and the tower had lain empty ever since. Only, Tal had arrived to find it hadn’t been completely abandoned. For over the three days Tal had kept watch, he’d seen one man come to and from the Obelisk, ending each day within its walls. If the tower were cursed, that man was able to survive it, and Tal wagered he could as well.
“After all,” he murmured as he massaged his gut and winced as it gave a painful throb, “I am a living legend.”
At one point in the not-so-distant past, he wouldn’t have waited nearly so long before charging in, sword swinging and cantrips rattling off his tongue. But if the interceding years hadn’t driven caution into him, the last four months finally had. Tal had been hunted most of his life, but never so ardently and capably as once he’d crossed the Fringes and into the East’s craggy lands.
But it had been three days since he’d lost the Ravagers who pursued him, and he’d seen no sign that they’d yet caught his trail. And so Tal had decided the time for caution had passed, and the time for risk had begun.
It took nearly an hour to descend the cliffside, but finally, Tal reached the bottom. He quickly found a boulder to hide behind and stretched his neck, aching from constantly looking down during the climb.
Now begins the wait.
But the sun was still far from overhead by the time the hooded man finally appeared again, bent nearly double as he trudged up the steep incline. As soon as he appeared, all of Tal’s aches, pains, and niggling hunger dissipated, and he rose swiftly to his feet and crept deeper into the shadows.
Hidden from sight by the boulder, he listened to the crunching of the hermit’s feet on the loose stone. With his hood pulled close around his face, the hermit likely wouldn’t have seen him, as he always seemed completely intent on reaching the Obelisk as quickly as his slow steps would bring him, head bent to look at his boots. But Tal knew better than to take more risks than he had to.
As the footsteps on stone softened, Tal made his move, slinking around the boulder on silent feet until the hermit came in sight a mere dozen feet away. Readying himself, he made three swift bounds, then was behind him. Finally alerted, the hooded man spun around with a startled cry, but Tal had already seized him, a knife held to his throat.
The hood fell back, and Tal experienced a moment’s hesitation. Hair as white as freshly fallen snow and as thin as dandelion seeds blew free of an onyx-hued, weathered face. Even though he could only see the profile, and the features had long since lost any delicacy they’d once possessed, it was an unmistakably feminine face. A glimmer of pink eyes, like those of an albino rat, showed as the old Nightelf twisted her head around to glare at him.
She said something in a language he didn’t recognize, though her meaning was clear enough.
“Reachtongue?” he asked her.
The woman seemed to struggle with that for a moment, then said with a throaty accent, “Then it is a Western marauder come to kill me.”
“I’ve been called a marauder more than once in my day, but I didn’t come to kill. I need your help.”
“Then perhaps you would have been better served asking for it.”
Despite the knife to her throat, the old woman seemed to possess no fear of him. The trembling of her body, he suspected, was more from the laborious climb up to the Obelisk than terror. He considered his options. While the old woman hardly seemed a threat, she was a Nightelf, born with sorcery in her veins. However ancient she seemed, she could still be dangerous if she wanted to be.
But didn’t my mother teach me to respect my elders? He withdrew the knife and swiftly stepped back, secreting the blade up his sleeve. “Please, accept my sincerest apologies for my boorish behavior.”
The old woman rubbed one hand over her throat as she turned to stare at him, bushy white eyebrows lowered. “You like to hear yourself talk.”
Tal smiled sheepishly. “I have been before accused of that quality.”
The Nightelf shook her head, then turned away. He watched her with admiration as she completely ignored him and continued toward the tower door two dozen feet away.
Tal tailed her. “Aren’t you going to ask what I want?”
“Why ask when you’ll tell me?” She didn’t look around at him, but kept her head bent to her feet.
Another smile tugged at his lips. “I think I’ll like you.”
“I suspect I won’t.”
They reached the tower door, and Tal studied it in surprise. Always before, the woman had pulled out a key to open it — or, he’d thought it was a key. But this door had no keyhole, nor any visible contraption to reveal one.
“How does it open?” he wondered aloud, then added, “It’s like a riddle, isn’t it? What unlocks a door with no key, hole, or latch?”
The Nightelf glared at him, not bothering to hide her disdain. “If you wish to enter, you will not learn the secret from me.”
“That’s alright. I’ve always been clever with riddles.”
“No other soul has entered this tower since the day our Lord meted his punishment upon the Blue Moon Obelisk. And no other shall so long as I live.”
Tal frowned. “Now, that’s a rather stringent measure. You sure you can’t find an alternate guideline?”
But though he kept his tone light, his thoughts spun through idea after idea on how to enter. For he’d known as soon as he’d discovered it was an old woman he’d accosted that he couldn’t kill her.
The woman stared at him, unblinking, pink eyes swirling with the subtle glow all elves possessed. She didn’t speak, but her answer was clear.
Tal sighed. Though he didn’t like to resort to it, he knew he had only choice left. Telling the truth.
“My name is Tal Harrenfel. This side of the mountains, you’ve likely never heard of me, but among the Reach Realms, I—”
“The Man of a Thousand Names.” The Nightelf’s eyes had widened, her puckered mouth parted as she stared. “Devil Killer. Red Reaver. Magebutcher. I know you, Tal Harrenfel. I know every story about you.”
She took a step forward, hand half-rising, and he flinched, almost stepping back. She didn’t seem to notice. “Of course — I see it all now. His hair, streaked white, with scars no blade could inflict. His smile, daring and cutting, dampened by no enemy or obstacle. His eyes, hungry and lupine, that see beyond this World.”
With every half-sung word, Tal’s gut twisted all the tighter. “I wouldn’t believe everything the songs say about me — they were composed by a rather unscrupulous bard.”
The old woman wore a smile, every bit as daring and cutting as Tal’s was made out to be. “There are other names for you in the Empire. The Scourge. The Puppet. The Widowmaker. You are both enemy and ally, both feared and lauded, for all you have done against and for the Peacebringer.”
Never had he imagined this. Tal stared at her, mouth working to find the words. “I’m flattered,” he finally managed with a weak smile.
“But my interest in you goes beyond the tales, Tal Harrenfel. Only the truth of one matters. Who is your patron spirit?”
“Patron spirit? I have none.” He shrugged. “I am no warlock.”
“Then on whose side do you descend from the Heart Races?”
His brow furrowed. “I don’t know what you mean by the Heart Races. But as far as I know, only human blood runs in my veins.” He shrugged. “Though perhaps I have a distant elven ancestor. I’m not exactly close with my father.”
The aged woman scarcely seemed to be listening, but studied him with eyes almost feverish with desire. “I have guarded the Blue Moon Obelisk since long before you were born,” she said softly. “If I permit you to enter, then you must do something for me in turn.”
The back of his neck prickled, but he relaxed his expression. “That only seems fair. What did you have in mind?”
She didn’t respond, but turned and approached the door, fishing out an object that resembled a seal from within her dark robes, then pressing it to the center of the door. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then, in complete silence, the door unsealed from the stone around it and swung slowly inward.
“Come,” the old Nightelf said, eyes darting toward him as she entered. “Let us discover if we can both find the answers we have been searching for.”
“Should I not at least know your name before I follow you into darkness?”
“You may call me Keeper.”
Wondering what he’d gotten himself into, Tal followed Keeper through the door and winced as it sealed shut behind them.
* * *
He’d never loved towers.
The day was nearly two decades past, but the memory still cut as sharp as if it were a newly honed blade. In a tower, he’d acquired the name he feared hearing the most, the name that sent him trembling, as if it were a sorcerous word to activate a long-simmering curse within him. In a tower, he’d been broken, wounded in a way that had taken years and many friendships to scar over, but had never fully healed. In a tower, one part of him had died, never to resurrect.
The Blue Moon Obelisk made him feel no easier.
No windows interrupted the solid stone of its walls, yet there was light, for balls of werelight flared up in dusty glass lamps mounted along the walls, illuminating their passage in ghostly, azure light. Tal followed Keeper, wondering if this tower was as cursed as the local tales would have it, wondering if he was placing himself right in the midst of them. Yet the Nightelf’s fascination with his fable had seemed unfeigned and lacking maliciousness, and he’d always considered himself sharp at sniffing out the truth in others. Unless he completely abandoned his conscience, it seemed he had to trust the bent crone. As much as I ever trust anyone.
Though the aged woman seemed to live in the walls, he saw little sign of habitation. Dust and cobwebs hung from every corner and covered furniture long broken. Shards of glass from broken frames and goblets caught the sorcerous light and glittered like a thousand watching eyes.
But as they ascended the spiral steps that ran the edge of the tower from one floor to another, one curious absence emerged from the chaos. Though there were innumerable bookshelves, not one of them held books.
At his question, Keeper paused amidst the flight of stairs and peered back, pink eyes glimmering with a light of their own in the dimness. Her robes shifted with each heaving breath. “I thought the stories of what happened here in Blue Moon Obelisk drew you,” she said between pants.
“They did. But they were not as specific as to explain this.” Tal gestured back at the last landing, where yet more empty shelves had been toppled and smashed in half.
“Perhaps not. You know the Obelisk was condemned for heresy?”
“Our Lord never was tolerant when it comes to unbelievers in his lands. But when he suspected Hellexa Yoreseer of fomenting heresy among his mages, it evoked in him a fury as has never been seen before.”
Tal thought of the beasts he’d seen come down from the East, and of the demon Heyl that had burned a quarter of the elven capital Elendol before he and the defenders had put a stop to it. He’d seen his fair share of Yuldor’s fury. But he only asked, “Hellexa Yoreseer?”
“She was the Pyramidion of this Obelisk, the sect’s leader. As one in a position of power, our Lord reasoned, she might have converted any of the mages to her beliefs. So he slew them all, and cursed this tower for her sins.”
“If it is cursed, how do we walk its halls?”
Keeper glanced at him. “Not all curses are meant to kill.”
His gut twisted again, but he tried to put it from mind. If I’m cursed, I was cursed a long time ago. The thought wasn’t as reassuring as he’d hoped it would be.
“And what of the books?”
“Again, every precaution was taken. A cipher might be hidden in a book, or its pages ensorcelled to only reveal itself to those seeking to believe it. Thus, every tome was held suspect, and every tome burned.”
For the first time, Tal saw another emotion in Keeper’s hard expression, one he hadn’t suspected in the aged Nightelf. She mourns them, he realized. Mourns the lost knowledge still. But what did she suspect was lost?
There could only be one thing.
“Hellexa Yoreseer’s legacy lives on,” he said softly. “She didn’t lose all followers when Yuldor expunged this place. She retains one, does she not? The phantom who wanders the Obelisk still.”
Keeper’s pale eyes met his, and the hardness returned. “Just as Hellexa Yoreseer was never a heretic, neither am I. But that does not mean even our Lord does not make mistakes.”
“What did Hellexa preach? What could she say to invoke Yuldor’s wrath? That he wasn’t a god?”
“Never that!” the old woman hissed. “Perhaps you Western infidels do not believe, but those of the Empire never question it. How can the Peacebringer be anything but our God? No — Hellexa did not question his divinity, but that his Path was inevitable. She feared that there were those who could interfere with his plans, and even break them.”
His skin prickled again. “Who? What do you speak of?”
Keeper abruptly turned away and began mounting the stairs again. “Come,” she said shortly, knowing her hook would dig into his skin and pull him further along.
Gritting his teeth, Tal gave way to the inevitable and climbed after her.
* * *
When sorcery was in the air, he’d long ago discovered, it was every bit as palpable as rot in an egg.
It wasn’t a smell, nor a taste. It wasn’t something he could see or hear or touch. Sorcery revealed itself in another sense, a sixth one, unaccounted for in the physician’s journals or the priest’s prayers. Tal’s one-time mentor, a warlock who’d taken him in when he’d had little cause to and a hundred reasons not to, had spoken of it before as a thing every worker of the World’s magic knew, yet found impossible to explain. For some, it was like the awareness of a presence before one turned to see a person enter a room. For others, it was like a weight on the bones.
For Tal, it wasn’t a feeling outside of him, but inside. Almost, his very blood seemed to rear up at the first hint of magic, like a hound scenting its prey. And just like a hound, he always found himself eagerly seeking after it, though sorcery had ever been more a bear than a hare to him.
As they mounted the last of the stairs onto the top landing of the Obelisk, and Keeper leaned against the wall to catch her breath, Tal felt his blood rear up in familiar acknowledgment. Only this time, the feeling was stronger than he’d ever felt before. Almost beside himself, it propelled him forward into the center of the empty room, where the feeling was strongest, and his blood seemed to sing with it.
Trying to keep ahold of his senses, Tal turned back to the Nightelf. “This magic. Is this Yuldor’s curse?”
She shook her head. “I long ago cleansed that.”
When she did not continue, Tal glanced down at his feet. A circular pattern was painted in silver on the floor, and did not seem to be aged as the rest of the tower. A series of waves and swirls dominated it, coalescing into two points, one with what looked like a droplet of water at the center, the other with the symbol of a harp.
“You painted this,” he said as he turned and observed the imperfect lines, the unevenness of the coat. “You have refreshed this symbol, year after year, so that it would not be lost.”
Her silence was his only answer.
“How long? How long have you guarded this place, Keeper?”
She approached the edge of the circle, but did not step foot on it. “Since it was desecrated.”
“Two hundred years?” He glanced around the room and saw little else remarkable. “For what?”
“For you. I hope.”
As the old woman painfully knelt down, the sorcery nearly swept his mind away. He told himself to flee, told himself he had blundered his way into an occult trap. But as his blood burned inside him, he could not make himself move an inch.
Then she touched the silver paint with her gnarled fingers, and he saw them: the white glyphs, now burning crimson, that had been subtly painted within the silver. Even as a curse formed on his lips, all thought was torn away.
* * *
“How can you do it? How do you work your magic?”
Another voice, another time, long ago and far away. Yet Tal found himself answering as he had then, a puppet fit to do nothing but dance along as each string was pulled.
“I suppose I must be blessed.”
“Blessed?” The man facing him from across the chamber barked a laugh. “Look around you, man! No spirit could bless you!”
Then he’d looked around, and he’d seen what he hadn’t just a moment before. Blood — the chamber was filled with it. Blood spattered in lines down the walls. Blood puddling beneath prone bodies. Blood covering his hands, dotting his face, filming his sword.
He wanted to fall to his knees and never rise. But instead, another presence forced his head upward and the words onto his tongue. “Someone clearly has.”
The man, shaking with fury, clenched his fists, but it didn’t hide the sorcery building within them. “You’re his. Yuldor’s servant. He granted you his fell powers.”
“Would it comfort you to believe he did?”
As the warlock raised his hands, Tal had thrown everything he had against the other presence inside him, that controlled his limbs and thoughts, that had made him slaughter everyone in that chamber. It fought against him, crushing him back down, but he didn’t have to hold it for long.
The domed ceiling crumbled above him and fell in great boulders. As the other presence stared up in fury, Tal whispered inside his mind: May this kill it. May it kill me.
* * *
“The Blood. It is in you. It is truly in you.”
Tal blinked open his eyes, and was dimly surprised to find tears in them. As he reoriented to the world around him, he discovered he was on his knees, and had fallen on one of the points in the silver circle, the symbol of the droplet. The burning inside him had faded to a gentle warmth that suffused his body, though it did little to soothe the pain of his now-aching knees.
He stiffly rose to his feet and stared at Keeper. “What did you do?”
For the first time, fear flickered across her gaze. Everyone is afraid of something, he thought bitterly. It is not death she fears now, but me.
“It was her test,” the old Nightelf said softly. “A test she never had a chance to try. Before her death, Hellexa Yoreseer had divined a way to determine if her theory was accurate. A ritual to determine if a man or woman was a Fount, and to see if it was the Blood or the Song in them.”
Tal slowly rested his hand on his sword’s hilt, a smile playing on his lips. “You’ll have to speak clearer than that.”
Her pink eyes darted to where his hand rested, then back up to meet his gaze. “A Fount. One chosen by the World to have magic in their veins, though they are not one of the Heart Races with it born to them.”
“The World cannot choose anything. The World just is.”
Keeper shook her head. “There is a better way to explain. Her book — you must read it for yourself.”
He found his patience quickly fraying. “Every book in this tower was burned — isn’t that what you said?”
“Every one that they found. But the Pyramidion planned for that as well. She hid the original tome in a place no one could retrieve it, not even I.”
“Then it doesn’t do us much good, does it?”
Keeper edged around the silver circle, seeming reluctant to enter it, and made for the opposite side of the room. Tal wanted to leave the circle himself, but stayed where he was, fear clenching his chest so tightly he could barely breathe. He couldn’t risk being dredged in the memories once more.
The aged Nightelf had reached the other side of the chamber and placed a hand on the wall. “Here. The Fount symbol again appears. This is where it would be hidden.”
Tal’s smile widened, bitter amusement flooding him. “So you don’t actually know there is a book hidden there. You only suspect.”
Keeper narrowed her eyes, some of her insolence regained. “Knowledge was what Hellexa prized above all else.”
“You speak as if you knew her.” Bracing himself, he took a step forward onto the silver paint, then flinched as he waited for the memories to rise once again. But as nothing happened, he let out his breath and quickly walked off the circle to stand at its edge.
Keeper watched him, her eyes losing the flinty look and gaining again the deep sorrow. “I did,” she said softly. “I knew her very well indeed.”
“Who was she to you? A friend?”
The Nightelf turned her gaze aside, looking every bit as ancient as she’d claimed. “Her sister.”
In a moment, everything he had seen in the Blue Moon Obelisk reoriented for him. Not a neglected ruin, nor a haunted tower. A monument. A memorial maintained just as it was from the time she lost the person she must have loved most.
Neither of them spoke for a long moment. When Keeper looked back at him, the softness had faded from her eyes, replaced with the familiar, feverish zeal. “You are the one I’ve been waiting for, Tal Harrenfel. You are the one who will confirm everything my sister died for. Come; do not fear the symbol. If it harmed you before, it will not now.”
Tal approached and found that, to his surprise, he didn’t fear it anymore. Reaching out for the small, silver symbol on the dark stone, he pressed a finger to it. His blood burned in his veins for a moment, then the stone softened under his touch, pouring away into smoke and dust, and revealing a small cavity in its stead. Breath held in anticipation, he reached a hand inside, and his fingers brushed against leather. Gripping the object, he pulled it out, and was hardly surprised to find a leather-bound book with the Fount symbol etched precisely into its cover.
Keeper’s expression held the reverence of a priest before a god’s likeness as she stretched a hand toward the book. But before her fingers could brush it, she pulled away.
“No,” she breathed. “It is not meant for me.”
As if to keep herself from further temptation, she turned her back on him. He thought her shoulders trembled.
Averting his gaze, Tal studied the tome. Letters were scrawled on the cover above the symbol, almost familiar, but defying his comprehension. Carefully opening it, he was surprised to find the book lacked the aged fragility he’d expected, but was still pliable as if it had been bound only a year ago, and the pages of vellum within were similarly fresh. Yet there, too, the words were unfamiliar, and though they were set in ink on the page, they seemed to twist unpleasantly before his eyes. He looked up to see Keeper had turned back to watch him.
“This is in no language I know, yet it seems familiar,” he observed. “Is it a dialect of the Worldtongue?”
She nodded. “The Empire’s dialect. What you might call the Darktongue.”
Tal grimaced. “No chance you have a translation lying around?”
Keeper scowled, but visibly tried to master herself. “I will translate for you. It may take a week for us to read through it, but I trust it has not been a short journey here, and a week will not be a much greater burden.”
He imagined all the things a week here kept him from. Roasted chicken. A soft bed. A chamberpot. Tal sighed. “A bearable burden at least.”
As if she had heard his thoughts, Keeper scowled again.
He hesitated, then asked the question he most needed to know. “This book, and the Founts it describes — myself included… We are somehow threats to Yuldor? To your Empire?”
The Nightelf’s expression went carefully flat. “I entrusted you with my sister’s knowledge because you are a Fount of Blood. But is this how you will use it? To destroy the Peace our Lord has worked so hard to forge?”
Tal kept her gaze. “It is not peace Yuldor has brought to my lands, but demons and death. I don’t wish harm upon your people, but I will do what I must to rid the World of the devil you name your god.”
Fear came into those eyes, and for a moment, Tal was ashamed to think he’d caused it. Then anger laced her expression.
“Intruders,” she hissed. “At the Obelisk’s door. Someone seeks to enter.”
His stomach sank. So close, and yet so very far. “No chance you get friends visiting? Distant relations?”
Keeper gave him a flat look. “Were you pursued coming here?”
“You wouldn’t exactly call them an entourage. Ever heard of the Venators?”
The Venators, he’d learned his pursuers called themselves, from a strange, hog-headed priest whom he’d held hostage during one of his harrowing experiences. The Venators, the priest had said, were hunters of any man or woman who dared to cross into the boundaries of the Empire of the Rising Sun. Tal had heard of them before, but by a different name: the Ravagers. They’d gathered a bloody reputation as the best headhunters the East had to offer, and now he’d witnessed the proof of it.
For four months, they’d tracked him across the mountains, nearly catching him on several close encounters. Once, they’d cornered him in a temple, and Tal had only slipped free by hiding in a sanctified tabernacle. Another time, they’d been driving him through the mountains toward an impassable valley, not knowing Tal had acquired a secret map from the tinker he’d encountered before, enabling him to give them the slip on a path they knew nothing of. The last encounter he’d only managed to escape by the happy coincidence of a flock of a dozen griffins alighting between him and the Ravagers, cutting them off in the narrow pass and forestalling a fatal battle.
Despite his victories, Tal knew it was as much luck as his wits that had kept him alive for so long. And so he’d sought to bolster his chances of survival through an abundance of caution.
She cursed in her own language vehemently for a long moment. “Fool!” she finally said in Reachtongue. “This is a forbidden place, and we are trapped in here! If they know you have entered, they can keep us in here until we starve!”
“I don’t suppose there is a secret exit then?”
Despite his light tone, he was having trouble finding a way out himself. Trapped in a tower until I starve to death — my worst nightmares come to life. He glanced down at the tome held in his hands, though, and knew he wouldn’t surrender that easily.
“You said you expunged all the curses?”
Keeper glared at him for a moment, then grudgingly said, “Most. I neglected the ones in the cellar.”
“That could help. And I know you can draw glyphs.”
The old Nightelf narrowed her eyes. “You are plotting something.”
Tal studied her for a long moment. How much could he trust her, now that he had revealed how he meant to use her sister’s legacy? Yet with what faced him, he knew he had no choice.
“Yes, my ancient friend. I’m plotting us a way out.”
* * *
Tal faced the dark, stone door at the end of the hallway. His sword, Velori, he held bared at his side, the runes glowing a gentle blue across the honed, silver steel. He’d set aside his cloak and now shuddered in the chill air of the tower. Better a minute of shivering than to trip over the hem and fall on an enemy’s sword, he mused.
The plans were set, the players in place; all that remained was for the choreography to begin.
Yet, just when he was supposed to open the door, his doubts finally found him. It wasn’t the first time he’d contended with the Ravagers. He knew they would be no easy prey. And as for himself… he was underfed, poorly rested, and still shaking from his brush with the past. And though he indulged himself in fantasy, how much of his legend was aggrandized?
“More than its fair share,” he answered himself aloud.
He gripped Velori’s hilt tighter, but the well-worn grip wasn’t the comfort he’d hoped for. Where had his bluster, his rakish confidence gone to?
That day, when the bodies of warlocks lay all around him. The day he’d been broken, never to truly repair. He’d faced it again, faced it and once more found himself wanting. It didn’t matter that he’d been under the enemy’s control — he knew it had been his hand.
And, for one moment, as he woke from the trance and saw the death and carnage surrounding him, he’d been delighted.
Tal shook his head, and a few wisps of his shaggy hair stole free of its leather binding. He pushed them back with annoyance, then had to laugh. “If I so revile myself,” he asked aloud, “what do I have to fear?”
Someone shouted from the other side of the door, jolting him back to the moment. He gripped his blade tightly again.
If not to stay alive, then for the answers I’ve been searching for, he told himself. For the old crone who’s dedicated her life to preserving her sister’s legacy. For the whole of the Westreach, perhaps, if that book contains the secrets that Keeper claims.
More voices joined the shouting, perhaps hearing his voice through the stone. Tal planted a smile on his face and strode forward.
“It would be boorish of me,” he said softly, “to keep our guests waiting any longer.”
Reaching the door, he withdrew the seal Keeper had entrusted to him. Then, taking a deep breath and releasing it, he pressed the seal to the stone.
The door came free and swung silently toward him, and the noise outside crescendoed to a din. Tal didn’t wait for it to fully open before he bolted back down the hall. A glance behind showed a burly humanoid with the features of a hog pushing himself through the gap, his black, beady eyes meeting Tal’s. Shouting something in a gutteral tongue, he squeezed inside and began sprinting after him.
Tal pointed at a spot on the wall behind him as he shouted, and a glyph, nearly invisible before, flared into glowing red life, then burst into flames. Tal heard the Ravager skid to a halt on the other side of the wall of flames and smiled to himself. The first trap, at least, had done its piece by delaying them.
Now to actually kill them.
Taking the stairs three at a time, he reached the top of the landing and spun back, panting, waiting. The roar of flames had died down below, replaced by the pounding of heavy boots on stone and the shouts of the Ravagers. If he’d been able to understand them, he could have anticipated their movements. As it was, he knew there was only one way for them to go in this tower: up.
Then he saw them, shadows large against the walls as they charged up the steps. The one in front might have been the same swinish man who’d first entered; he at least glared with the same hatred as he found Tal waiting above. With a harsh yell, he pointed at him, and his fellows behind raised their own weapons — crossbows, short bows, javelins — and took aim.
Blood pounding in his temples so that he could barely hear, Tal pointed his free hand at the wall and shouted “Broldid!” then threw himself to the ground.
First the whistling of missiles — then a resounding crack and a heart-rending boom, and pebbles and debris filled the air.
Tal coughed as he covered his face, waiting for the dust to settle so he could see and breathe again. Below, he heard the screams of wounded men and furious hunters thwarted in the chase by the demolished wall.
He smiled to himself as he stumbled to his feet and examined the damage for himself. The stairway had collapsed, cutting off the second level. But from what he’d seen of the Ravagers, he knew that wouldn’t hold them for long.
Face still covered with his shirt, he sprinted for the next landing.
* * *
As smoke and the acrid stench of the gas filled his nostrils, Tal staggered up the stairs and onto the final floor. Struggling to breathe, he saw Keeper watching him and tried on a smile, but it didn’t stick.
“My sister’s Obelisk has been desecrated,” the aged Nightelf said stiffly. “Are the invaders at least taken care of?”
He shook his head, and not just in answer. Only this old hag would be more worried about a ruined tower than our lives.
Keeper’s scowl deepened. “How many more?”
“More than I care to fight. But if the last trap didn’t deter them, nothing will.”
At each level, a fresh trap had awaited the hunters. Ice on the stairs. A series of fire glyphs that ignited as the highest one was stepped on. A gale set into the wall. Every trick Tal knew, he’d employed in the Obelisk — and from the screams that had echoed up the tower, to devastating effect.
Yet still, the Ravagers had come on. Tal had been forced to flee faster and faster, stitches stabbing at his sides as he tried to outpace the predators and avoid his and Keeper’s many traps.
Now, dozens of floors later, his vision danced with sparking lights, and his head felt dizzy and disconnected. Still, Tal turned and braced himself for the enemies that must inevitably come. For even if it was only for pride now, he knew they would. Hunters did not give up the chase once they had the scent.
“Tal Harrenfel,” Keeper said, her tone altered. “Listen to me. You must protect Hellexa’s tome at any cost. Do you understand?”
Tal glanced over at the old Nightelf to see a fear he hadn’t expected. “I do. I don’t exactly want to die either.”
“Then you will do whatever it takes?”
“I’ve already shown I will, haven’t I?”
He stared at the stairway, still empty of enemies. The Ravagers were taking their time in coming. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps they’ve given up the chase.
“Tal, you must listen. When the time comes, you must say these words, with this precise pronunciation. Do you understand me?”
He glanced back at her. “I’m beginning to think I don’t.”
“Then listen!” she hissed. “The words are: Hefisk. Dordry. Themult. Do you have them?”
Tal nodded with a frown. “Those aren’t the Worldtongue. Are they—?”
“The Darktongue, yes! You must say them when the time comes. Give me your word!”
“But what do they mean?”
Then he saw them. The first of the Ravagers, a lithe Nightelf, bolted up the stairway and knelt, a crossbow leveled at them.
No time to dodge — Tal threw up his hand and shouted, “Wuld!” The quarrel that had been snapping toward them careened and blew to the side as a gust rose from his hand. The Ravager cursed, dropped the crossbow, and drew a pair of short swords as his fellows came barreling after him.
Tal pushed Keeper back around the other side of the painted Fount circle as the Ravagers filed up the stairs. Five had survived, each of a different Eastern race, but united in a loathing that radiated from them with the intensity of a brush fire.
“You,” a bull-headed man said in Reachtongue as he pointed at Tal. “Reachman. Give in, and we make it quick.”
“A quick death or a long one.” Tal shrugged. “I’m not concerned about the method — just the results.”
The Nightelf cackled and gabbled something in his own tongue. The bull-man glanced at his companion, then back at Tal. “He says do not speak too soon. Ulash is master at pain.”
“Oh, well in that case…” Tal held his hands forward, wrists facing up. “Take me in now!”
Despite his bluster, he knew there was little hope of avoiding their fate. They’d run out of traps. The simple cantrips he could cast now would likely be countered by the Nightelf, and perhaps one of the other Ravagers if they had sorcerous blood. Five on two was never good odds, and least of all when he was exhausted to his core and had an ancient Nightelf as his second.
Recognizing the taunt for what it was, the bull-headed Ravager ignored him and glanced down at the Fount symbol, then motioned his companions to either side. They closed in, steel held at the ready, eyes full of their thirst for blood.
Then Tal felt an unexpected pressure on the end of his sword, and he jerked back in surprise. Keeper was staring at him, her hand closed over his blade and already wet with blood. The point of his sword was pressed into her robes.
“Now, Tal Harrenfel,” she said calmly, though her eyes were wide with fear. “Say the words.”
The Ravagers had not paused at the strange scene, but closed in, a mere dozen feet away. Yet, for a wonder, Tal found himself tongue-tied.
“For her!” Keeper begged, then pressed herself onto his blade.
Tal stared in mute horror as the old Nightelf shuddered and slumped onto Velori’s sharp steel. Yet just as he thought he could not stir, he met Keeper’s eyes and found his lips moving.
“Hefisk dordry themult,”he whispered.
Keeper snapped backward, her spine arched to an impossible degree for so elderly a woman, then collapsed and slid off his blade. Yet from her mangled body rose a sanguine mist that coalesced into an amorphous cloud, then into the vague image of a person.
The Ravagers had not slowed, but howled and charged at Tal and the crumpled Keeper. He moved on instinct alone, parrying one blow, sidestepping another, moving through the motions as his mind fell entirely blank. A scimitar chopped through his defenses and cut open a gash in his arm, but even as pain lanced up it, he felt it as if from a distance. Words of sorcery rattled off his tongue, and flashes of wind and fire burst from him. But even as the Ravagers failed again and again to kill him, he knew he was losing.
Then one of the two facing him, the Nightelf, dropped his weapons and grabbed at his own throat, eyes bulging, then crumpling backward. The bull-headed Ravager next to him took three wary steps back, bovine eyes wide as they looked up at the cloud rising from his companion, then turned tail as the mist closed in on him.
He couldn’t run fast enough.
Tal let Velori fall to his side and looked numbly around. All five Ravagers lay prone and lifeless across the painted, stone floor. No mortal wounds had been inflicted on their bodies, yet he knew they were dead just the same.
The red mist twisted above the Fount symbol, then morphed into a person’s shape for a moment, almost resembling the woman it had risen from. One hazy arm pointed down at him, then at the wall behind him. Tal followed its direction to see it pointed at the hole in the wall where he’d put back the tome of Hellexa Yoreseer.
Walking slowly toward it, he wiped his bloody hands on his clothes and carefully took the book in hand. The book he could not read. The book that Keeper was supposed to have translated.
He turned and saw the misty figure watching him still. He held it up, uncertain.
“Is this what you want, Keeper?” he asked softly. “Your sister’s life’s work?”
If it was the old Nightelf he spoke to, he couldn’t tell. But a moment later, the crimson mist dispersed like smoke, fading into nothing as it reached the pointed top of the ceiling.
Tal lowered the tome and held it loosely by his side as he gazed at the scene around him. He’d summoned a devil through blood sacrifice. He’d massacred an entire company of Ravagers. And he’d looted a desecrated Obelisk of its greatest treasure, the tome that could elucidate the deepest mysteries of his life.
Yet, as he mulled over his accomplishments, he found he beheld few of his past deeds with more shame.
“Enough,” he muttered to himself as he cleaned Velori on one of the corpses and sheathed it. “That’s enough. Tal Harrenfel must die this day.”
He took the tome in both hands. Keeper had died for this chance. For her sister’s knowledge to come into fruition. For a Fount to be recognized for what and who he was. Here, he knew, lay his purpose.
“I will find someone to translate it,” he said, eyes wandering over to Keeper’s corpse. Or I’ll be damned if I don’t do it myself.
Tal lowered the book and closed his eyes as he tilted back his head and breathed. But though he longed for a cleansing breath, the Obelisk didn’t hold it for him. Smoke, fire, and blood — stenches that a man could lose himself in, that he’d lost himself in for too many years.
But if he was to fulfill both of their purposes, he had to return to who he was before. To the simple boy in his simple town in order to labor on this, his final deed, until it was finished. Brannen Cairn of Hunt’s Hollow was his name once more, for with Bran the Bastard, it had all begun.
He opened his eyes again, and felt the change as if it had been a magic-bound oath. I am Tal Harrenfel no longer, he told himself as he picked his way across the room and down the ruined stairs. I will leave the tower a new man. He already felt lighter for it, the burden of the bloody violence lifting.
A long time later, after he’d burned Keeper’s bodies and interned her ashes within her sister’s beloved tower, he finally reached the open door and saw daylight beyond. Tears sprang unbidden to his eyes. He held the book close to him and walked across the fire-scorched stones and stepped out into clean air and blinding daylight. And as he breathed in, he smiled at the rush of heat through his blood. For the first time, he felt certain of what he needed to do, and he felt hope that he might succeed.
Bran took a step and knew that he finally stepped onto the right path.