1: A KIND OF RESCUE
Twenty-four days after the Battle of the Well of Spirals
The Main Island of Devors, Quur
The emergency bells rang out all over the island, fast and loud, magically amplified. Talea regarded the Devorans running from the dining hall, noting how unprepared the priests all seemed to be. These people had been so certain of their fortress library’s inviolate, impenetrable defenses. They’d grown sloppy.1
Now the priests would pay for it. Everyone would pay for it.
Talea found little satisfaction in I told you so. She’d have gladly traded gloating opportunities for a little more serious preparation. For example, the panicking priests, monks, and assorted scholars running around like shocked rabbits weren’t paying attention to Talea’s group. Personally convenient, yes, but it demonstrated a fundamental flaw in training. When being attacked, the first thing one should always do was secure any unknown variables.
Talea being the definition of unknown variable.
She rushed to the ramparts along with everyone else. Tempest rains left the stonework slick, visibility shuttered to vague shapes crawling in the distance. The rains hadn’t muffled the sound of fighting, the retort of the scorpion war machines, the screams.
The Lash’s attack on Devors had begun.
“She got here faster than we thought,” Galen said, exhaling.
“Didn’t they say this was impossible? What of the wards?” Sheloran D’Mon whipped around as she scanned the defenses. Her expression suggested she wanted to conjure the abbess through pure indignation to begin scolding her.
“Someone must have disabled them,” Talea said, “but I don’t know where they keep the controls.”
“I do,” Janel Theranon said. She stood behind the assembled group, arms crossed over her chest, an unamused scowl twisting her mouth. “I know where they are.”
“Really? How?” Sheloran squinted at her, eyes narrowed with suspicion. Which made sense. If you’d never seen a Joratese person in your life before, let alone a Joratese person dressed like a vané knight, then Janel would be strange indeed.2
“Because I used to be married to the man who created them,” Janel answered. “Assuming they haven’t changed the location in a few centuries, it’s this way. Come with me.” She headed into the complex without checking to see if anyone followed.
Talea raised an eyebrow at Teraeth. He stared at her with a face wiped clean of emotion. “Wasn’t me.”3
She wanted to stop and talk to the man. Talea wasn’t stupid enough to ask why Teraeth’s manner suggested a thread pulled taut enough to snap; she knew what had happened to him at the Well of Spirals. Years wouldn’t be enough time to recover from being forced to kill your own mother. He’d had weeks at best.
But there was no time to talk, not even if Teraeth had been willing.4 Not with the bells ringing and Janel running. They followed her, joined by Thurvishar. The rest trailed behind like dangerous little ducks who’d imprinted on the wrong mother.
Janel ran to a large room off the main courtyard, where the warding array had been hidden under mosaic tile flooring. Kalindra Milligreest stood in the center, staring down at the broken tiles. Clearly, she too had known where the controls were kept. The woman was still dressed in Quuros mourning clothing appropriate for the High General’s daughter-in-law, now laughably unsuited for a siege. What Kalindra wore wouldn’t have stopped a gentle winter shower, let alone typhoon rains and sword blows.
Kalindra startled as everyone filed in. “I came here as soon as I heard the bells,” she said. “Someone sabotaged it—” She pointed to the discarded pickax left behind.
The whole group stared. The shattered stonework revealed elaborate glyphs, ruined. Entire sigil sections were missing, making it impossible to know the original pattern’s form.
“Is there any way to repair this?” Janel asked Thurvishar.
“Possibly,” the D’Lorus wizard said, “but the damage is already done if the goal is to keep out attackers—I have my doubts it was ever going to be capable of keeping out a kraken.”
“I’m going down to the docks.” Galen unsheathed his sword. “You’re welcome to join me.”
“Just try and stop me.” Galen’s wife, Sheloran, smiled as she spread her metal fan—her personal equivalent of drawing a blade.
Janel nodded but made no move to follow. “Teraeth and I will stay here. We’re going to guard Thurvishar until he’s repaired these wards. Then we find out whether or not Thurvishar is wrong about the kraken.”
Teraeth’s scowl turned murderous. “Do I get a say in that?”
“If you’d rather stay near the fighting—” Janel glanced at him, expression uncertain.
Teraeth snorted. “If I want to stay near the fighting, I’m sticking near you. Don’t pretend you’re not chasing after that kraken the moment he’s finished.”
Talea couldn’t tell if the man was angry or proud.
“Never killed a kraken before,” Janel admitted, trying to smile. “Today’s a good day for it.”
That seemed to satisfy Teraeth’s expectations.
“I’m with the kids.” Talea pointed toward the door the others had taken. Qown had already sneaked through; Talea was willing to bet metal Janel hadn’t even noticed he’d been there. She’d barely looked away from Teraeth the whole morning.
Talea left without waiting for Janel’s acknowledgment. As she stepped outside, a cask hit one of the towers with explosive force. The Lash’s pirate ship, the Cruel Mistress, had turned its own war machines on the monastery.5 Talea didn’t understand why the harbor defenses weren’t responding in kind. Clearly, something had gone wrong there too.
It had to have been an inside job, but they’d need to survive it before they could ferret out their saboteur.
The real problem became obvious as soon as they reached the docks: the initial dead pirates, sailors, and assorted sea life had all climbed ashore with murderous intent. Everyone they killed promptly animated and joined their side.
Galen and Sheloran began fighting from the start. All three—Galen, Sheloran, and Talea—had an unspoken agreement to keep any stray blades, claws, or teeth from reaching Qown. Talea reminded herself, again, that she needed to teach the healer to fight, but this wasn’t the place to learn. Battling the roaming dead required beheading and amputation; her sword suited that need perfectly.6 Galen’s did not. Talea found herself rescuing the D’Mon prince as often as she guarded his healer.
The rain made footing on the docks slippery, although that worked to the disadvantage of the dead husks too. Everyone was soaking wet, miserable, and fighting for their lives. To make matters worse, a huge shadow had fallen over the docks, visible through the downpour, which could only be the kraken herself. Any moment, Talea expected a tentacle to smash through the wooden planks and stone pier foundations.
Then it would really be a party.
A space formed around them, a gap between waves of undead. Talea knew right away that this wasn’t a lucky break. Just the opposite.
Xivan walked into view.
Talea’s ex-lover looked angry. Xivan had changed clothes for the occasion too. She wore silk, gold-embroidered lace, jewels; some irreverent prankster must have convinced the Lash all good pirates dressed to make a Quuros high lord blush. Talea’s traitorous heart warmed to see her.
Xivan spotted them, sighed, and strolled in their direction. She wasn’t in any hurry.
“Take Sheloran out of here,” Talea said to Galen.
“Oh, I think not,” Sheloran responded.
“Please—” Talea started to say.
“No, Talea, dear. I mean the way is blocked.” Sheloran gestured backward with her fan. Several lines of husks—Devoran priests and Quuros soldiers this time—lay between their position and the stairs.
“Hand over Sheloran D’Talus,” Xivan said. “The rest of you may leave.”
“Sheloran D’Mon,” the princess muttered. Galen flashed his wife a smile.
Talea stepped forward and unbuckled the spare sword. It was now or never. “Is this you or the Lash talking? Or Suless?”
Xivan’s eyes widened. “How do you know about—” Her gaze slipped past Talea. She let one short, mocking laugh escape. “Oh, I see. Hello, Qown. I didn’t recognize you back there. Having hair’s a new look for you.”
“We know it’s not your fault,” Qown said, “but what happened isn’t Sheloran’s fault either.”
“Oh, I know that now,” Xivan replied. “If only I had a choice.” She frowned as Talea tossed a sheathed sword down to the wooden dock. It skidded to a halt at Xivan’s feet.
“You dropped this,” Talea chirped.
“What’s this?” Xivan scowled.
“I’m returning your sword,” Talea clarified. “I asked Sheloran to fix it. I know I’m sentimental, but I thought, hey, if the woman I love is going to kill me, she should at least do it with her own sword. It’s … you know … tradition.”
“I don’t want to kill you,” Xivan said. “Please get out of my way. Please.”
Talea smiled. “We both know that’s not going to happen. Pick up your sword.”
Xivan looked heartbroken. “I told you—I don’t have a choice. This isn’t like a gaesh, Talea. She can make me do anything she wants. I can’t even kill myself resisting the order.”
Talea set herself into a proper dueling stance. “Pick up your sword,” she repeated.
Xivan kept her eyes on Talea. She stepped on the scabbard’s edge and levered it into the air so quickly, it looked like she’d kicked the sword into her hands. She glanced down at it. “Nice scabbard.”
“Do you like it? I had it made just for you.” Which was even true.
It was, in fact, the whole point.
Xivan looked like she might cry. She tossed her old sword aside and pulled out the new one, which came free from its sheath with a satisfying ring.7
Talea hadn’t told the others that the odds of Xivan keeping the scabbard had only been 26 percent. Most people would keep the sword and toss the sheath, especially if they already wore one. Xivan’s preferred fighting style needed both hands free.
“Please,” Xivan pleaded, “just hand her over.”
“You have to fight the Lash’s control. I know you can. You’re stronger than this.”
Xivan tucked the scabbard—scrimshaw carved with red roses, impossibly beautiful, because damn if Sheloran didn’t have standards—under her belt; Talea exhaled.
Talea wasn’t sure if this was a situation like being gaeshed, where the broken control would be obvious, or if Xivan would only gradually realize the Lash no longer held her strings.
But Talea was out of time: Xivan attacked.
Talea easily avoided the first slash, deflecting the blade as she stepped to the side, but she wasn’t naïve enough to think it would be an easy fight. She was fighting the woman who’d taught her everything she’d ever known about swordplay. Talea didn’t hold back. Easier to do when Talea knew Xivan would shrug off most attacks short of decapitation.8 But it wasn’t a worry—Talea wasn’t anywhere close to getting through Xivan’s defenses.
Copyright © 2021 by Jenn Lyons