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Lord Rudolfo of the Ninefold Forest Houses, General of the Wandering Army and Chancellor of the Named Lands, brought the glass of chilled peach wine to his lips to drink deeply.
Then watched his enemies do the same.
The effect was instantaneous and it caught him off guard, blinking for a moment before fastening his eyes onto Yazmeera’s. Hers were wide now even as she dropped her wineglass. He smiled and kept his eyes locked onto hers, his hand straying to the pouch of magicks tucked within the bandage that wrapped his chest. The wound ached with each beat of his pounding heart, and an exhilaration washed through him. The Y’Zirite general collapsed, wheezing and thrashing about on the floor.
She was not alone. Her officers and her Blood Guard joined her there—a room full of people dying together in puddles of spilled peach wine in the midst of a half-eaten banquet. This—the sight of them kicking their last upon the floor—was the very future he’d drank to when she’d suggested it as a toast just moments before.
Rudolfo wanted to stay and watch, sipping this victory like the finest of his wines. He wanted to crouch next to Yazmeera and watch her breathe her last, maybe stroke her iron-gray hair and whisper to her how happy the moment made him, but he forced that desire aside and pulled out the pouch.
He opened it and threw the powders at his forehead, shoulders and feet, then licked the remaining bitterness from the palm of his hand, bracing himself for the sudden lurch as they took hold. He moved for the door that led to the stairwell, picking his way across a floor of thrashing limbs already quieting as death took hold.
The speed and efficacy of it astonished him. According to Renard, this was the first test of the poison in the field. Rudolfo knew very little in the way of specifics, but he knew that Orius—the Androfrancine Gray Guard general—and his own General Lysias both had armies hidden in the Beneath Places with plans to use the poison on a bigger scale. A weapon like this, he realized, could turn the tide of the war.
Not that he would be present to see it. All of this—his taking the mark, the poisoning of Yazmeera and her staff—was for Jakob. Rudolfo had been lost, overwhelmed by circumstance and uncertain of his path until recently, but it had become clear to him. His son was in more danger in the Empire of Y’Zir as that blood cult’s Child of Promise than he could ever be in Rudolfo’s care, even in the midst of an invasion.
And so now he fled the rooftop garden, feeling the strength gathering in his legs as the scout magicks flooded him. The spiced food from the banquet churned in his stomach, and he gritted his teeth against the nausea and vertigo that seized him. The powders had that effect, and he knew it would grow worse before too long. When he reached the doorway, he felt hands upon him.
We must flee, Ire Li Tam pressed into the soft skin of his upper arm.
She slipped a loop of thread around his wrist and pulled it taut as she moved ahead of him. She went slowly and he followed, taking the stairs down from the rooftop garden where Yazmeera’s officers had dined. Behind him, he heard the first screams as the servants discovered his handiwork, and Rudolfo smiled again.
Twice, Ire pulled him aside as Blood Guard swept past, unmagicked but with knives held ready. When they reached the first floor, she led him out into a warm evening as the sounds of third alarm rose up around them.
Outside, soldiers assembled and Rudolfo saw the eddies of dust that betrayed magicked scouts as they moved in. It would take them time to determine exactly what had happened; and until they identified the dead, they wouldn’t know that he and Ire were missing. And certainly the loss of the majority of their officers was going to work to Rudolfo’s advantage, creating chaos in the Y’Zirite chain of command. Still, he could not afford to waste time. At some point, the enemy would find their footing, and by then Rudolfo needed to be at sea.
They ran for hours, and he was grateful for the running he’d come back to in recent weeks, though the little he’d managed had certainly not prepared him for this. Even with the magicks burning in him, he felt his legs growing heavy and his breath growing ragged as they put the leagues behind them. Still they ran, keeping to the fields and forests away from the roads. In the distance, Rudolfo saw the scattered farmhouses and villages of Merrique County slipping past, washed by the red-gold of evening.
The sun had set by the time they reached the small river that served as the border with neighboring Jessym County. There, Ire Li Tam turned them west to run downstream in the deepening shadows of cypress trees that lined the bank. She slowed them from a sprint to a jog, and Rudolfo felt gratitude for the change of pace in his ankles and knees.
They’d run alongside the river for perhaps five leagues when a low whistle brought them to a stop. A dark figure separated itself from the shadows.
“Hail, Rudolfo,” a quiet voice called.
“Hail, Renard,” he answered, settling into a crouch as he slipped his hand from Ire’s guide-thread.
The tall man took shape in the dim light of evening, the simple garb of a farmer looking out of place on his angular frame. “You’ve kicked up the hornets,” the Waste guide said with a grin.
Rudolfo smiled, though the magicks masked it. “I’ve set fire to their nest. Now you and Orius and Lysias will need to keep it burning.”
“Aye,” Renard said. “We will.” His eyes wandered the gray landscape around them. “They’ll likely realize it was you and be looking for you by morning, so keep moving. Stay magicked and off the roads.”
Rudolfo silently counted the leagues before answering. “Yes.” They were two days from the coast, and a quick sail to the mainland. There, he could get word to Philemus and arrange for a ship to bear him across the Ghosting Crests in search of Y’Zir.
To take back my son. He blinked, his memory suddenly flooded with the sight of the boy in the dream, calling to him and so real that Rudolfo could smell his hair. He pushed the memory away and turned his attention to Renard.
“There is a bridge house at the next crossing with fresh clothing, magicks and some supplies. Send what you’re wearing down the river before the magicks burn out. Our friend in Talcroft Landing is Simmons. Ask for him at the docks and he’ll see you to the mainland.”
“Thank you,” Rudolfo said. “And thank Orius for me as well.”
Renard’s face sobered at the mention of the Gray Guard general. “He bid me ask you reconsider, of course. I told him that if I had a son in the clutches of those bloodletters, nothing could keep me from taking him back. Still, with what’s coming, I can’t blame him. We’ll need every soldier in the field and every general on the hill.”
“Philemus and Lysias will serve well on my behalf,” he said. But he also wondered exactly what was coming. Rudolfo had seen the poison do its work in one room with the element of surprise in his favor. It remained to be seen how they would deliver that poison in such a way as to make a difference in a war they were losing. But he knew better than to ask. “My son will need a home to return to; I trust you all to give him that.”
Renard nodded. “We will do our utmost. You’ve given us a good start. Word of it will spread, and hope will spread with it.” The man extended a hand toward him and Rudolfo took it, squeezing it. “Hunt well, Rudolfo.”
“Aye,” Rudolfo said. “You also.”
The Waste guide paused, his face clouded as he looked around. “Your companion goes with you?”
Rudolfo hadn’t asked but had assumed, given that Ire Li Tam had sworn allegiance to him the night she’d found him in his tent. He said nothing, waiting for her to answer for herself.
“I follow him to Y’Zir,” she said. “I will help him reclaim my nephew.”
Renard looked in the direction of her voice. “Good. Soon enough, it will not be safe for you or your kind in the Named Lands. Heed me carefully, Ire Li Tam: If you return with him, you will die.”
She said nothing. Rudolfo opened his mouth to the threat but then closed it. There’d been no animosity in Renard’s tone; he’d spoken the words as a matter of fact.
They’ve found a way to deliver the poison broadly. Curiosity pushed at him, but he knew inquiring was pointless. Renard had said what he would say, and Rudolfo knew the benefit of knowing less rather than more in the event of his capture.
“Now run,” Renard said.
This time, no looped thread slipped over his hand. Instead, he felt strong fingers interlace his own as Ire Li Tam pulled him alongside her. They ran at a measured pace, Rudolfo’s mind replaying every word of Renard’s as he worked through the implications of what was coming. Somehow, he thought, the Androfrancines must have access to the Y’Zirite supply lines. Though he wasn’t sure how that was possible, especially given the additional security their enemy would certainly implement after the massacre at Rudolfo’s Markday Feast.
He continued to ponder it, even after they let themselves into the bridge house to change and remagick themselves. As the stars appeared overhead and they continued their run north through darkened fields, his mind kept at it like a hound to a rabbit. With each muffled footfall, the question echoed within him, and by the time the sky lightened, Rudolfo still had no answer.
What home will we return to?
His breath ragged and his companion’s hand cold and firm in his own, Rudolfo kept running and hoped his feet could carry him past the fear that snuffled at his heels.
Jin Li Tam
Jin Li Tam danced the knives in utter darkness and let hatred fuel each move. She went from crouch to lunge, dodging deftly around the room’s furniture, building speed as she went. The knives—gifts given to her by Rudolfo on their wedding day, though she’d already wet them in battle months earlier—were perfectly balanced in her hands, precise extensions of her rage.
And they went where she pointed them, the blades whistling up and down as she slashed and thrust at the air ahead of her.
She forced her awareness into the moment and gathered her focus toward the only objective that remained for her: vengeance upon the man who had taken everything from her.
She remembered the night she’d found her father’s note beneath her pillow, bidding her to bear Rudolfo an heir as part of Vlad Li Tam’s great, secret strategy in the Named Lands. She’d come to motherhood reluctantly under those conditions but had grown to love Rudolfo and the idea of giving him a family. Then, so soon after Jakob’s birth, she’d found herself—and their son—at the center of the Y’Zirite blood cult as their Great Mother and Child of Promise. Most recently, they’d been carried to this place—an empire she’d had no knowledge of until recently—to meet the Crimson Empress, her son’s betrothed based on the Gospels of Ahm Y’Zir.
She’d watched Jakob play with the little girl, Amara Y’Zir. And then, in a night filled with blood and fire, she’d watched her father murder both children before her eyes.
She flinched at the memory but kept her pace. Jin had chosen a larger room this time, one she was less familiar with. So much of the palace was empty now between the plagues and the uprising of disillusioned, despairing faithful who’d never imagined a world in which their faith could so easily shatter.
A part of her felt a deep connection to them, though she’d never embraced their religion.
Because, she realized, I am shattered, too.
Jakob’s face flashed before her eyes, and she felt a sob tugging at her throat and shoulders. Jin missed a step, staggering as she clipped a chair with her thigh. She recovered quickly and conjured the one face that could drive her child’s face away and give back her form and substance. She held it before her and danced toward it, knives carving at it as she moved.
Father, I am coming to end you.
She heard the door behind her whisper open. “Great Mother?”
I am no mother now, she thought with a flash of anger and bitterness even as she recognized the voice. Jin untied her blindfold and turned to face the older woman. “Sister Elsbet.”
The woman closed the door behind her. She wore the dark robes of her office as Chief Mother of the Daughters of Ahm, her long white hair braided and hanging over her shoulder. “Lynnae told me you were here.” She took in Jin’s sweaty night shift and knives, and Jin was uncertain how to catalog the look upon her face. Of course, whatever emotion Sister Elsbet showed was quickly subdued and washed out with a look of strained, forced calm.
Jin inclined her head. “I’m sorry for my appearance, Sister Elsbet. I am training.”
She returned the nod. “I see that you are. Should I come back at another time?”
“No,” she said, sliding the knives into the sheaths at her hips.
Sister Elsbet gestured to a pair of sofas facing each other across a low table. “Shall we sit?”
By habit, Jin picked the sofa that offered the widest view of the room, including its two entrances and three windows. She’d not studied the room when she’d first selected it, and now she saw it was a meditation room of some kind—various paintings of a younger Ahm Y’Zir in different reflective poses, fixed to the wall within view of scattered chairs and sofas.
Jin’s eyes went from the room to the woman before her. Sister Elsbet’s signature calm still dominated the woman’s face, but Jin could see the frayed edges. And deep in the woman’s eyes, she saw something far more than disillusionment.
She is as lost as I am.
The realization was so intense that Jin broke eye contact. They were quiet, together, for a minute.
Finally, Elsbet leaned forward. “Are you sleeping?”
Jin shrugged. “Only a little.”
“I could help you with that.”
Jin shook her head. “No.” She’d spent days asleep, kept under by their powders and medicines, after she’d watched her father murder her son. The memory of sluggish rage and nightmares, fueled by loss and chemicals, in which she could not run fast enough to save her child, made her shudder. “I don’t want to sleep more. I have work to do.”
The woman nodded. “You still intend to go through with it.” It was a statement, not a question.
Jin met the woman’s eyes. “I do. Yes.”
Now Elsbet looked away. “Part of me,” she said slowly, “wants to talk you out of it, wants to remind you that even if you succeed, you won’t survive the blood magicks.” She paused. “But I know you understand that already. And I can appreciate why that might not deter you.” Jin followed the woman’s gaze to the window. “Part of me wants to strap on knives and join you.”
“Surviving is … irrelevant,” Jin said. She knew the Imperial Blood Guard started ingesting the blood magicks in infancy, mixed with their milk, to prepare their bodies for the toll they took. When she’d first begun learning V’Ral, the Y’Zirite tongue, Elsbet had provided her with a dreamstone and a small phial of blood magicks to enhance her learning, but that limited exposure would do little to help her. At best, she’d have four days under the Y’Zirite scout magicks, and at the end of it, her body would give out from the strain. A sacrifice she would gladly make.
Elsbet sighed. “Yes. I had thought you might feel that way.” She reached into the pocket of her robe and drew out a silver phial. Leaning forward, she placed it on the table. “Our own search for your father has yielded little fruit. Lately, he’s been abducting magisters and Daughters. We’re finding some of the bodies.” She looked away. “Not all.”
Jin reached out and touched the phial with a tentative finger. “He’s looking for something.”
“Yes,” Elsbet agreed. “We think it’s the spellbook, but we can’t know for sure. Regardless, it’s been relocated to a secure location.”
Jin knew little about the book—only that like the staff her father now carried, it had once belonged to the Moon Wizard, Raj Y’Zir. The Imperial Archaeology Society had found it, and for centuries it had been kept hidden deep beneath the Temple of the Daughters of Ahm. But she knew that if her father found it, it couldn’t bode well for the Y’Zirites. The Moon Wizard’s staff had already given him power beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, and he’d used that power to desolate their faith with plague and fire, murdering anything that stood in his way.
Even children. Jin felt the sob take her shoulders and she wrestled it down, forcing calm to her face. “I will kill him before he finds it,” she said. “He’s done enough.”
“Yes,” Elsbet said. “He has.”
The woman stood. “The regent has committed two squads of Blood Guard to aid you. He regrets that he cannot do more.”
Jin blinked, surprised that he offered so many. Most of a squad had committed suicide after the children were killed, grief-struck and despondent over failing to protect their Crimson Empress and Child of Promise. And with so many military resources committed in the Named Lands, sparing any of the empire’s most elite was significant. “Two squads is very generous. Please thank him for me.”
Elsbet walked to the door and paused. “There is one more matter, before I leave,” she said. She looked over her shoulder at Jin. “We’ve not been able to contain the news about…” The woman’s composure nearly failed along with her words. Her eyes were furtive and dark, her face washed in sorrow and weariness. She took a deep breath, her hand steadying herself against the doorframe. “About the children. Word is spreading and will reach our forces overseas.” She paused again, and Jin sensed this time that the woman was waiting for some kind of response. When none was offered, Sister Elsbet continued. “If you intend to inform Chancellor Rudolfo personally of all that’s transpired, it should be soon.”
Jin felt the ice in her stomach even as her face flushed. It was something she thought about every day and then tried hard not to think about again. How could she tell him that his son was dead? The child he’d never expected to show up in the middle of his life, the one she’d deceived him into having with her though it was a deception he’d welcomed despite her—and her family’s—betrayal of him. “Yes,” she agreed. “I do need to tell him.”
Elsbet’s composure returned, and she inclined her head as she opened the door. “I will tell the ravener to expect you. Thank you, Great Mother.”
She felt the sting of the title again as the woman let herself out. Jin took up her blindfold and tied it over her eyes. Then she drew her knives and moved into the steps of the familiar dance.
But no matter how hard she tried to conjure the face of her father to focus her rage, all she found was the face of her husband, Rudolfo, General of the Wandering Army and Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses. She owed him words, and she had no idea how she would speak them.
Rudolfo, my love. It was how she always began with him. It had started in the early days when there was new love between them and she’d kept it as her preferred salutation. This would be her last message to him, she suspected, and it was fitting to start as she always had. But the fractures in her heart deepened at the weight of what she needed to tell him after.
I brought our son here without your knowledge or consent, and the man who manipulated your life, killing your parents and your brother—the man who commanded me to marry you and bear you an heir—has murdered him.
Jin Li Tam faltered in her steps and, in a flash of anger, hurled her knives across the room. They clattered off the wall, and the sound of it didn’t satisfy her. She ripped off the blindfold and kicked at a nearby chair, knocking it over.
Then, Jin Li Tam fell to the floor, sobbing and raging at the hole in her heart that threatened to swallow her utterly.
Vlad Li Tam
The warm evening air was heavy with the smell of smoke and decay as Vlad Li Tam forced his latest fish down deserted streets. He’d kept to the quarters of Ahm’s Glory that had been most ravaged by the plague, slipping out only to catch another and drag the poor unfortunate into one of a network of abandoned buildings he’d found.
How many now? Five, he thought. Maybe six.
He glanced to the man beside him. He looked less impressive without his magister’s robes and the silver markings upon them that had betrayed his rather high placement in that order’s hierarchy. Those robes were tucked away neatly in an alley most of a league behind them now.
Vlad squeezed the staff. “Turn left here. Then we cross the street.”
The magister moved with him, his eyes wide and bulging, his mouth twisted into a forced silence. Still, his step was steady and without hesitation. Vlad smiled despite the deep ache in his bones and the fever that burned his brain. For everything the staff gave him, it took as well. He knew that in the end, it would kill him. But he also knew that he would gladly be spent in such a way if it let him end this cult and find his lost grandson.
They turned, then crossed the street. Vlad led them to the end of the block to a blue door. “Open it and go inside.”
The magister obeyed and Vlad followed, closing and barring the door behind him. He closed his eyes against a sudden spike of pain and flash of light as he pulled power from the staff. “There is a chair in the next room. Sit in it and fasten your ankles and wrists into the manacles.”
As the man shuffled into the room, Vlad glanced quickly around them before closing the last door. Once the magister was secure, he stepped back, leaning upon the staff, and regarded his latest catch.
He tried to keep his voice warm and calm. “I think you know who I am,” he said. “What is your name and position?”
Vlad moved his finger over the warm steel, giving the man back his tongue to answer. The magister said nothing.
He braced himself for the nausea that swept over him. “You will answer my questions,” he said.
The man’s eyes went wide and his nostrils flared. “I am Tamyr Aviz, arch-librarian of the Magister Holdings.”
A librarian. That was new. And a favorable development, he hoped. The others he’d taken had known very little, mostly serving more bureaucratic roles, whether as Daughters of Ahm or the Magisters of the Knowledge of the Faithful.
Vlad reached into his pocket and drew out the round white stone, extending it before him in the palm of his hand. “What is this stone, Tamyr Aviz?”
The man squinted, and his face registered surprise. “It is a moonstone.”
Yes. The others had known that much at least. And Vlad had suspected as much. In the dream, the kin-raven had landed upon a similar, larger white stone. He put it away, then pulled out the small pamphlet he’d found with it, there in the empty warehouse where he’d expected to rendezvous with the others. He held the pamphlet closer than the stone. “And do you recognize this?”
“Yes. I do. It contains the prophetic utterances of a small, underground group called the Lost Children of Shadrus.”
Vlad nodded. “They seem to have been expecting me.”
“They are a variation on Lunarism cults that have existed for thousands and thousands of years. They were particularly focused on the notion of wrathful Younger Gods showing up at the end of time to make things right.” Tamyr Aviz paused and his mouth twitched. “Of course, we know that you are not a Younger God, Lord Tam.”
“Yes,” he answered. “Some of you do know that. But some of you aren’t sure anymore.” He’d planned it that way, even setting out to fulfill some of the prophecies. And it was as if they were waiting for him to do so, because even as the statue started bleeding and the plague began its brutal sweep of the city, there was a sudden outpouring—more and more of the tracts showing up. Vlad had been happy for the extra help in his carefully planned terror.
He put the tract away. “This is the last question.” He waited until the man’s dark eyes met his own. Then, he drew in a slow breath and released it. “Does the word Endicott mean anything to you?”
The man’s eyebrows arched. “Endicott? That’s an old word, one that’s been long out of use. A place. A myth, really, though I suppose most myths start with a seed of truth.”
“Where is it?”
Tamyr Aviz shook his head. “I don’t know. Nowhere, I suspect. It was a legend spoken of in the early days of the empire, a place of refuge for those unwilling to be saved by the blood and the blade.”
Vlad closed his eyes and saw the kin-raven again as it perched upon the stone. He watched its beak open and listened again to the single word it uttered. Endicott. “Surely there is more in the holdings about this so-called legend?”
“Some,” the man said. “But it’s largely myth and apocrypha. In two thousand years, we’ve found no evidence to support that such a place has ever existed.”
Vlad nodded. “Is there anything else you can tell me about it?”
“No,” Tamyr Aviz said. “Not anything specific.” His eyes narrowed. “Why are you asking me about Endicott?”
Vlad felt the weariness shifting in him as his hand twitched upon the staff, ready to be done with it all. He regarded the man. “Because I think it’s a real place,” he said. “And I think your Crimson Empress and your Child of Promise have been taken there.”
The man’s face flooded with a dozen emotions—hope being one of them even as his eyes filled with tears. He opened his mouth to speak, but Vlad held his breath and squeezed the staff, crushing the magister’s heart as he did.
As Tamyr Aviz slumped forward in the chair with glassy eyes, Vlad leaned back against the wall and forced himself to release the staff, propping it into the corner. The weakness poured into him along with the pain, and he gritted his teeth against it.
He would leave this one. He was too tired to dispose of the body, and he made a point of never using the same space twice anyway. There were plenty of other empty buildings and rooms, though he hoped this part of the work was over. A lot depended, he realized, upon how cooperative the Lost Children of Shadrus would be. Though he expected that given his own role in their prophecies, cooperation was probably not going to be a problem.
Vlad regarded the man he’d killed and thought about the hope he’d seen on his face. It was transformative in the midst of so much grief.
He’d heard the wailing now for days as the Y’Zirites mourned their lost. And as word spread slowly and as the group suicides and riots had grown in frequency and number, he’d felt a growing satisfaction laced with sorrow. Sorrow that his own daughter believed, with the rest of them, that he’d murdered the children, and sorrow that he could do nothing to change that belief without jeopardizing the work he knew would save them all from this madness. Still, despite the grief, the satisfaction was real. He’d traveled far from the days of his imprisonment upon Ria’s table, his suffering beneath her knife as he watched her cut his family away from him, child by child, grandchild by grandchild. And now, he’d shaken that great tree of blind, bloody faith to its roots. He would keep shaking it until he brought it down.
No, not me, he reminded himself. The staff. He’d accomplished more in a few weeks with this terrible tool than he’d ever imagined possible, and this from a man whose family had leveraged vast change over the course of its history in the Named Lands.
He couldn’t think about the staff without thinking about the blue-green ghost who’d brought him to it. His first sight of her, twisting and writhing in the water, and his last sight of her, suspended above him in the basement of the Ladder, filling the room with her light. “Thank you, my love,” he whispered.
Then Vlad Li Tam straightened, took up the slender silver rod, glanced once more at the dead magister, and let himself out into the darkening night.
Copyright © 2017 by Kenneth G. Scholes