DUSTBEARER and Other Stories (cover art by Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein).
Well, other story, technically. But they’re both pretty long if that makes you feel any better. Fantasy wrapped around a core of some pretty personal horror, so if you want to call it dark fantasy, go ahead, but you might be making a mistake.
Two stories, same world, both about warriors doing perhaps more than they were asked to do, both leading to similar results.
The long-term plan is to have a full-length novel featuring one of the characters from these stories (kinda obvious which one if you read the stories themselves, or perhaps not so obvious.) Will have to see how these are received in the first place. In both cases, you get the first third or so of the actual stories. The rest of them are available for your Kindle device (which includes desktop computers, tablets, phones and maybe even your Xbox) at the following link:
Enjoy the preview. Hopefully it’ll push you to finishing the whole book for about the cost of a fancy cup of coffee.
Oh, and if you want to download and read at your own leisure instead of in the browser window, hit the link below. It’s tiny. Like half a meg.
People are sometimes weirded out by my writing fantasy fiction. Not sure why. Granted, I’m not reading a lot of it, though I did when I was a kid. In the mainstream it’s a completely underrepresented genre (LORD OF THE RINGS and GAME OF THRONES aside). Or we end up disguising our fantasies as horror. That happens a lot too.
I suppose that since I don’t talk about the genre a lot online, I’m perceived as being against it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Think of these as payoff from all those afternoons reading DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS modules and rulebooks and playing ROLEMASTER or MORIA in college instead of doing my close readings of texts. And in all these fantasies, I’m imagining Ray Harryhausen animating armies of the damned and their titanic minions.
I’m no good at influence maps, but here’s some names that you might want to look into further if you dig what’s going on in these pages.
Chandler, Waits, DeMatteis, Kirby, Morrison, Gibson, Wolfe, Zelazny, Anthony, Morhaime, Lord British, Harryhausen (so good he has to be namedropped twice), Matheson, Lovecraft (though that’s a complicated subject), Serling, all my third-grade literature reading selections, WIZARDRY, ROGUE, Games Workshop, BLACK TIGER, WARCRAFT, Clavell, Blake and Ann Maxwell for getting me to read anything in the first place.
A MERE DEATH
It would have to hold, thought Nord. There were enough hands lashing together enough timbers. Enough to stop men, anyways.
None had abandoned the township, even after the morning that showed the smoke of the coming host. He cursed the rain-muddied roads that refused to dust. The clouds would have been visible a day earlier and there would have been that much more time.
It was one thing to listen to Andrian’s words and suffer through her visions. It was another to see that he was actually right about one this time. He wondered where Kalin had been off to. She had overseen the planning of the rushed defenses but was not here now.
Morning was bone-chill and dripping. At least the road up the mountain would be slippery and treacherous. Nothing larger than a single horse would be coming up that path. Not today, at any rate.
“Nord! Nord!” came the hoarse cry from down the road. The runner came around Chal’s Elbow, the last bend before the road into the township cleared. He slipped on the greasy mud as he ran, scared more than he should have been. “We’ve seen them!”
The ground at Nord’s feet gave way for an instant as he landed, leaping down from the makeshift bulwark. “The host? Who is it?” Armies didn’t march in the foothills of Antemen without good reason.
Timothy stopped, haltingly, finding his grip in the mud, gray furrows dug inches in. “Nord, it’s the ulaan! They’re coming!”
The ulaan had hundreds of forms. Some were pale-skinned humans with blackened eyes, some were skeletons held together by nothing but will, and some were terrible patchwork creatures seemingly put together by powers driven mad. But there was one thing that bound them all together. They were neither living nor dead, but the worst qualities of both. They possessed a mindless determination and felt neither pain nor fear.
Worse then were the Kilnret, who were not to be spoken of, not lightly. There was no sense in filling anyone with more fear than was already coursing through them.
Nord’s heart stilled an instant, then hammered in his chest to bursting. “You’re sure?”
“Yes! They’ve marched without stopping since we first spotted the smoke. That’s more than a day! The living do not march like that.”
“Not even Zealots march like that,” Nord sighed. He wished it had been only me. They could be dealt with, even bargained with. The dead, the ulaan…
“Tell the others, Timothy. How long have we got?”
Timothy shook his head. It was not that he couldn’t guess how long it would take for them to get here.
“All right then.” Nord withdrew his staff and leaned upon it. “All right then.”
“The sun itself was too frightened to come out,” Kalin muttered. “But it’s seen fit to set in blood.”
Indeed it had, Nord saw. Crimson and gold glinted off of the dampness from the day’s mist. On another day, this would have been a glory. Today it felt like a banner draped on a tomb.
Kalin was made even more radiant by the sunset, not that she had ever needed it.
Nord kicked at the one of the buttresses as he looked away before she could spy him. “Why didn’t you leave, Kalin? Why didn’t any one of us leave? We could have made it to Hansport, perhaps.”
Her smile was bitter as snowrose tea, but warm. “She’d never been right before, why believe her now?”
Nord shrugged. “Maybe because she’s right.” He scratched at his short beard nervously. “I don’t suppose she’s told anyone how all this will turn out?”
“That would have at least been useful. I saw her this morning and… just… More riddles.” Kalin set her quiver down, carefully so as to avoid the mud that had been tracked up by the soldiers mustering there. The arrows in it were all fletched red and orange, tiny bits of flame clinging to the shafts, made even brighter by the last bits of sunset.
Nord glanced over the soldiers gathered. Well, they thought of themselves as soldiers. Days ago they had been farmers or simple merchants or fathers or sons. Today, though, they were at least pretending to put aside their fear, strapping on armor that was too old and too small, rusted and not shining.
But their weapons were sharp. That much was right.
“Kalin, I…” Nord started, fitfully.
Kalin turned to him, not with sadness in her eyes, but with cheer. “Tell me after we put these bastards in the ground a second time. You freeze them and I’ll burn them.
“Then you can tell me.”
Nobody had noticed the sound until it was upon them. But it must have been building all afternoon and into the sunset. Underneath the clatter of armor and the falling of hammers on the new walls, it had been building and none had noticed. There was no other explanation.
Suddenly, it was there. The sound of a thousand footsteps, the scrape of metal on flesh and even bone, and something else, not breathing, not laughing, not song of battle. It was the rush of blackened wings, of cold wind from the north, hollow and demanding, hungering from its own chill. They rounded the bend like a slow flood.
“Archers! Fire!” Kalin called. “No wasted shots and use the pitch carefully!” Her voice rang out clear as the bell at the Elder’s temple, calling faithful to the service, faithful who never believed. Not until today.
There weren’t faces in the host. It rolled like a wave of bodies, like a surge through a ruined slaughterhouse. Blue sparks snaked from naked eye sockets and black armor crusted with mud and filth seemed to suck the very light from the Sun’s setting
But Kalin and her archers brought their own light. Where arrows struck, even the dead burned. Bursts of flame licked at the figures, who kept marching, oblivious to their own consumption. Some slowed and fell, only to be trampled by the army sweeping up from behind. There was no stopping it, no slowing it, the only fellowship in those that continued to march forward over the tangle of smoking bones. They were lucky, it was only a mindless horde, unthinking soldiers who would march until they found their destination or were annihilated. Simple ulaan and nothing more. She could accommodate that. She thanked her luck that they were not facing a calculating foe.
“Nord, the ice! Call it now!” Kalin said, volume not from panic but excitement and thrill of the coming battle. “Behind their lines! Pitch barrels to the front!
Clearing his mind of the clatter and march of the coming host, Nord reached out and coaxed a slowly freezing hell into the host, as far back from the defensive stand as he could, hoping to tangle them further. Needle shards of ice whipped by sudden winds jetted down, seething and hissing against rusting armor. There were no sounds of confusion or clamor, just the unrelenting march. Slower now. The ground grew slick, pelted with frost, feet slipping and slowed.
The pitchmen went to work and upended their barrels. Thick black liquid slopped onto the ground and ran slowly down the slope towards the oncoming dead.
Kalin watched until she could see the moon’s reflection in the far reaches of the rolling pitch.
“Wait on it now! We don’t need to light this aflame with us on it.”
Kalin drew her bow again and let fly, the arrow whistling until it found its mark in the visor of an undead footman. It lurched as if mead-drunk, falling forward as flame spurted and ate the creature’s skull.
The first of the host’s boots touched the pitch oozing over the cold gray mud. Time was up. Nord sweat even in the cold, pouring his strength into maintaining the freak storm, silently repeating the incantation. Kalin thought of firing a last shot and then dropped it. No good ever came of a rushed shot. It was time to abandon the first line and let the pitch do its work. In his trance, Nord would be unaware and easy prey, but waking him was a tricky business.
“Pull back, quickly! Pass it along!” she hissed at the footman closest to her, a gangly boy who shook with each oncoming step. “Tell the townsfolk to go now. The ransom has been paid! Hurry and you get to live a few more moments! Now go!”
Carefully she turned to Nord and placed a hand upon his cheek. His skin was cool to the touch though his brow was bright with sweat, eyes closed and twitching as if in dream.
“Nord,” she whispered, barely breathing into his ear. “Nord, it’s time to move back. You’ve done what you can.”
His eyes snapped open and the ice-storm faded. “What? We’re leaving?” He was unsteady, drained and dizzy.
“There’s too many of them. We’re falling back and letting them burn here.” Kalin took as much of his weight as she could, leading him to the ladder.
“But I can’t do fire, that is seventh school magic,” he protested weakly. “The Blue Spire never taught me…” Delirium was upon him. He had spent too much in his magic, but it had bought them time.
“Leave the fire to me.” She tried to manage a grin, but it would have been wasted. He slid off the steps and stumbled away.
The ulaan must have reached the bulwark, for it began to shove and shudder, hands grasping and ripping at the timbers, dulled swords beating. They would be well in the pitch, mired in the black stuff and the frost from Nord’s storm.
“Fire! Fire now!” Kalin called.
There was an instant of crackle, rushing above Kalin’s head, hissing and spitting as the flaming arrows plunged into the oil-soaked ground. It burned hungrily, lashes of fire twining around the bogged host, consuming them. They continued hammering at the bulwark, spreading the flames even further amongst themselves and the wetted timbers. Eventually even it caught flame, flame that crawled unnaturally, dragged by the undead until disintegrating muscle and even bone prevented them from taking even another step.
The sun was well down as Kalin dragged Nord up the road, flames hot on their back, the oily smoke blackening even the moonrise.
“Come on! There’s not much time. We have to regroup!”
Sporadic cheers went up from the defenders, thinking that the flames would continue to spread and the mindless would just keep marching to their consumption. Kalin hoped they were right. Nord was walking, finally, though still leaned on her as they headed to the lantern lights of the town ahead.
The clamor at the bulwark continued, a steady thumping as the last of the host rushed to and broke against the flaming barrier. Orange light danced about them, but not reaching as far as the town itself in the settling night. Maybe they would make it. The host would mash itself into cinders, driven by their own blind stupidity. Even she was beginning to believe it now. The thought of it heartened her, lightened her step.
“Nord, you had something to tell me?” she asked. She knew, but she wanted to hear it from his own lips.
They stopped, breathing out misty clouds in the gathering cold.
“Yes, I did. I wanted to say…”
His words were cut short by a scream, cold and shrill. It was jagged bone piercing through skulls and clutching hearts.
“No. No no no no.” Kalin stopped breathing after that.
The dance of flame behind them became contorted, suffocated. The light twitched and writhed in strangulation. It darkened and deepened to a bleeding red that seethed.
They both turned to see what was happening. The bulwark was collapsing, but not just from the flame. There was something else at work, something that was snuffing the embers with an unnatural speed. Too quickly. There was no host hammering upon it any longer, but still, it was being destroyed. It was as if the ground itself was becoming unstable and the structure was sinking, falling in upon itself, or crushed by some outside force. Instead of smoke now, there was dust. The smell of it was dry and choking.
Then came the laugh, echoing up the road. It was human, but it was wrong. Too deep, too cold, too metallic. There was no humor in it, nor exultation, only mockery.
There was only one sane response. “Run!” Nord screamed. “Kilnret!”
It was an ancient word, one that even greatmothers and greatfathers had forgotten or wished away. There was no real translation for it, no single word. Some had whispered about a Death That Walked, but even that was somehow less frightening than what came up the road behind them.
“Run!” Nord shouted, his voice falling to a rasp.
Kalin would not. “One last shot,” she muttered to herself. “Just one more.” She drew her bow and notched one of her remaining orange-fletched arrows. It glowed like a coal against her face. She did not know what the Kilnret were, but there was nothing that did not fear the flame of her arrows.
“Kilnret!” Nord called again, this time to the town’s defenders, though he knew that it would lead to almost immediate abandonment of their posts. He would not ask them to stand and die in the face of that kind of abomination, legend or not. The stories of what they were capable of were so overblown that they had to be just that: stories. Even so, Nord was in no mood to find out for himself.
The laugh faded, echoes ringing far too long against the mountainside. It was cut off finally, by the total destruction of the bulwark. Timbers as thick around as a man’s thigh simply blackened and crumbled, forgetting even to burn as they fell.
Nord’s heart withered within his chest, and that was before he heard the oncoming hoof beats. The last of the red light bled out and faded.
“Come on, come on already,” Kalin whispered.
“Kalin, no! Get back!”
“Tell the others to get ready!”
Nord stood firm. “They already know. I heard them retreating.”
The hoof beats strengthened, too loud, too close. Nord could only barely make out the shape of the charger as it approached, silhouetted against the last of the dustfall and flame. He hoped that it was just the darkness increasing its power, amplified by his fear and the night. The figure on the beast’s back leaned forwards, sword arm slightly bent. The blade it held did not shine in the light, but it had its own. And that light was cheerless and grim.
Kalin pulled further, putting all of her power into the draw. Her fingers burned, tips reddening even through the calluses there. As she did, the point of the arrow flared white with gold at the edges.
“Die,” she breathed as she let fly.
The figure on the horse laughed in response. It saw the flame streaking and spoke a syllable that not even Nord understood. Sparks rained uselessly to the ground, hissing in the mud. The arrow hit, but only clanked off armor uselessly. The arrow must have hit a plate and not one of the mailed joints between. That had to be the explanation. It could be hurt, only that she hadn’t just then.
“Damnation. Hell and damnation,” Kalin spat. She hurried to notch another arrow.
Nord spoke the secret name of ice and reached ahead, thrusting his right hand out. From it flew a jagged shard, hurtling directly at the mounted figure. He started another spell immediately, ignoring the ache of his body and the pounding in his head. Soon he would be forced to spend the reserves of his flesh to bend magic, but he would not stop until he fell.
The Kilnret leaned forward, knowing what was coming for it. The bolt hit armor and shattered into a nimbus of ice vapor and dust, flaring in the moonlight for an instant before disappearing. The figure rocked backwards, but did not drop its sword or leave its saddle. It was still coming.
TO BE CONTINUED IN DUSTBEARER
Here’s that Amazon link again.
I must be rid of my brother, Lojun reminded himself as he sank his sword into the ulaan Trade-King’s shoulder.
Though dried to leather over generations of tomb-waiting, the creature’s skin was no protection against the steel edge. Lojun thought again of his brother and wrenched the blade from the thing’s sternum and through its bony shoulder joint. Ancient bronze armor slackened and fell to the ground, ringing as it did. The thing staggered.
A flash of white at the ground caught Lojun’s eye. The moonflowers had opened early this year. And while there was once a time that thought would have filled him with a furtive joy, his heart only clenched now.
The thing hissed at him as it lifted its head, already recovered from the blow. Its eyes were glittering blue in the moonlight and it stared him down hatefully. Neither dead nor alive, the ulaan were once just stories told to wicked children. But that had been before the fall of Cursed Hechetin, back when Lojun and Taref had been but boys.
Something had turned the stories into reality, waking the bodies of the ancient Trade-Kings and their sacrificed armies. Whatever had awoken in Hechetin had spread wide now. Voices dropped and let slip the word ‘Kilnret,’ feared and loathed, the dead-who-remembered, the ulaan who spoke. The dead had shaken off the dirt and stone of their graves and marched when the moon rose. The moon that shone like the black and lustrous hair of–
No, Lojun thought. Not now.
The thing swung a curved falchion that had lost none of its edge or gleam in death. Lojun hastily brought his shield up, only able to block the blade with the upper rim. The blow struck purple sparks as it glanced off his shield and then breastplate.
“Nhaah!” Lojun gasped. He was lucky not to be paying a higher price for his mind’s wandering. Foolish.
The ulaan drew back for another blow and Lojun lunged forward with his shield, slamming all of his weight into the thing. Though moonlight shone through gaps in the creature’s skin, it held together and growled jealously.
This was taking too long. He would be missed on the ramparts, and who knew how many other ulaan would be gathering tonight: tombsisters or the titanic misshapen or worse. Take the things’s eyes and be done with it, he reminded himself
Lojun was thrown back, surely as if he’d stood in the winds that roared southward off the mountains of Ohoris. There was laughter in it too, as the returned gloated in tongueless sounds that seethed with hatred and envy of the living.
It mouthed words as Lojun clambered to his feet, straining to keep the shield up between him and the thing.
The clamor of battle rose up behind them, from the direction of the city. And above that came the plaintive wails of the tombsisters as they sang the ulaan into war. They floated on wings of silk and bone cut from their own legs, unable to stand the touch of earth any longer.
There was little time now. Lojun would have to explain a great deal if he were caught out here, beyond the city walls. He turned this fear into resolve as he pushed against the magic wind being directed by the undead Trade-King. Lojun would not be denied. He would have the thing’s head and most importantly its eyes. And then he would have what was rightfully his. All which his friend-brother had taken from him.
The sight of the moonflower heartened him, and he brought his steel down in an overhead blow. It cleaved into the ulaan’s good shoulder. The thing shrieked, a sound that cut through Lojun’s helmet, whispering into his blood and bones long after the Trade-King dropped to the sandy ground.
Lojun shook the sound from his skull and loosed his shield with a shrug. He then traded the sword for a long dagger and kneeled over the corpse. Moonlight danced over crystals of salt embedded into the things leathery skin. The Trade-Kings had always been salted and entombed, as was the custom for hundreds of years before Lojun’s time, maybe more. It had been done to keep them preserved for whatever afterlife awaited them.
He wondered idly if his ancestors would have been so eager to preserve the Trade-Kings if they knew that one day they would rise and demand the blood of the living.
No matter. It is done now. Merely another thing to endure in this lifetime.
The eyes were bright and moist, blue and clear as the waters of lake Nurash, the dying inland sea. It had provided Seltijn with the precious salts upon which its fortunes had been built since anyone could remember. Lojun cut the eyes with greater care than he had killed the thing, making sure not to harm them. These were precious things, the eyes of a Trade-King.
“Lojun? Brother?” came the surprised question from somewhere behind him. It was Taref, noble Taref, selfless Taref, Captain of the Guard and scion of the Krenn clan. Lojun’s friend and brother since childhood. The best brother because he had been chosen, not forced upon him by mere blood.
Lojun palmed the eyes and stood.
“What are you doing so far from the walls?” Taref asked. His hair and beard were white in the moonlight though sandy by day. No matter how thick, they never hid the thinness of his face. He was built like a scholar, though the armor-smiths his clan hired had done their best to hide it.
“I saw this one, a Trade-King,” Lojun offered. “He was directing many others. Better to fight twenty mindless ulaan than twenty acting as the arm of another, yes?”
“A Trade-King?” marveled Taref. “Well I certainly hope he wasn’t from my clan. That would be… embarrassing,” he said with a quick laugh.
“He predates the clans.” Lojun regained his breath. “How are the walls?”
Taref squared his shoulders as if it was all his doing. “The walls will hold. The ulaan are driven off. There is some mending for the sand-masons to perform, but a small matter.”
Lojun nodded his head and tried to smile. “A testament to the Captain’s leadership.”
“If only the Keyhold would not wander off and get himself killed. The soldiers look to you, too,” Taref said with only a frosting of reproach.
Lojun loathed the title. For him it was only a reminder that he would never be Captain. “It won’t happen again.” The eyes grew heavier still in Lojun’s hand. Heavy and wet. He hoped they did not drip.
“Tell me though. Why take its eyes?” A bemused smile pulled at Taref’s lips as he asked.
Lojun shrugged and kicked at it with a mailed boot, a final injury for a fallen king. “If it stands up tomorrow, it will be blind and useless.”
Taref’s laughter was crystal-delicate, calculated to cheer. “Good enough, brother.” He clasped Lojun about the shoulder, with a grip that was thin as his frame. “Will you join me and Danit in our home tonight? We will have fresh beef and moonflower tea.”
Lojun’s guts tore. “No,” he forced himself to say. “I have to oversee the ranks on the eastern walls.”
Taref’s smile was white as the moonflower petals. “Have your second do that tonight. Szharji is worthy of overseeing the catapults. Come. Join us.
It has been more than three moons now, and don’t think she hasn’t noticed.”
The eyes were heavy as skulls now. Lojun worried that their potency would not hold.
“Another night,” he said. “I promise both of you. There has been so much that needs be done of late. Being Keyhold for the city was not so much work in my father’s time.”
“And the ulaan still slept, then,” Taref said with a bite. He then softened, a smile blooming generously across him. “Then I will tell her that you are a kingslayer, and we shall drink in your honor.”
“Thank you, brother,” Lojun said as he stalked off to the city. The moonflower scent was sweet on the wind, but not sweet enough to clear the acid from his mouth.
Lojun stopped at the post only long enough to bark orders to Szharji. She nodded crisply and in turn barked the same orders to the massed soldiers, twice as harsh as she had received them. Czuair acolytes burned incense and scrubsand branches over the bodies of the dead soldiers and the undead who had been hammering at the city walls just an hour before. Bent in supplication to the Lords, they were ringed in flickering orange and wore halos of smoke.
They believed that all can be saved, the fools.
The ulaan didn’t deserve salvation, even if there had been any to dispense. After the fall of Cursed Hechetin and the collapse of western trade, Seltijn was dealt a hammer-blow. Travel had become an string of dangers that made mere banditry or rampaging tarabor seem a wondrous daydream. Trade required soldiers now, soldiers that the customers were never eager to pay for. Though they would surely mewl like kittens if their precious Nurash salts were delayed even a night.
An acolyte looked up at Lojun and pleaded with dark-browed eyes that he receive blessing.
“Save that for someone who cannot save themselves,” Lojun said with hollow reverence. “I have taken my own steps.”
The Czuair watched with reproach as Lojun slid down the alley. Someone had written “Chancetown” on the ancient stone wall, and it had been sanded off so many times that the wall was bowed in. But still the writing held, or reappeared elsewhere. The acolyte spat in spite of her vows and thought less of Lojun for walking there.
Chancetown smelled of roasted meat, sweat and spilled moonflower tea. Even with the city under growing siege, the nightly celebrations continued. Wages not yet earned were put on cockfights or cards or pressed into the hands of dancers for a lingering touch.
And then there were the fortunetellers. Destiny for a price. Only the foolish or the desperate pushed past their shadowed doorways, opening the silk curtains which always smelt of spoiled dreams or plans that would never yield. Since the coming of the ulaan, business had boomed. When times are good, there is no need for false hope, but when they darken? Any light will do, whether it be the purity offered by the Czuair or more material desires to be found here.
Lojun believed himself to be neither foolish nor desperate. He pushed into the shop ad the end of the alley. The sign above had been blackened out. One only walked in there knowing what they were after. It had taken two moons and several bags of north-shore Nurash, and gold, always gold, to find this place and have introductions provided.
“If you have come back with the eyes of a common ghoul, you are wasting your time and mine,” the old woman’s voice stabbed. Lojun couldn’t tell where it had come from; it echoed around the darkened room.
A low brazier ebbed and glowed like something breathing. The light pouring from the coals was red, cold.
“The eyes of a Trade-King,” Lojun said with more pride than was needed. “Damnably heavy things.” He now felt like he was back on the shoreline, hauling bags of salt to the waiting wagons, but he dared not put them down.
The fallen priestess slid around Lojun and smirked. She wore black cow-skin and gold chains hung from her neck and waist. But these were not the lost fortunes of mere fools. This was gold earned in trade for secret knowledge.
“Hold them for me to see,” she said above a whisper. “And keep your voice down. The guards try to steal from me when they know I have business.”
“Why not summon something out of the shadow to take them?” Lojun asked with raw sarcasm.
Her smile did not fade. “Too direct.” She looked at his hands. “What you ask may be beyond my simple abilities, o mighty Keyhold.”
“Blackmail? I thought you were a true sorceress?” Lojun’s hand sweat uncomfortably beneath his glove, but the eyes felt cold now.
“There is more blackmail in sorcery than most of my colleagues would admit,” she said with a laugh.
“And I was told that you had no peer. Should I go see them instead?”
“None of them would be willing to do what I am going to do. Show them to me.”
Lojun tried a smirk of his own and then began to lift his hand. He stifled an expression of shock and grunted, but could only bring the eyes halfway up before his elbow refused to move any further. Sighing, he wrapped his right hand around his left wrist and lifted. The effort was crushing and his muscles burned.
“Your strength betrays you,” she said. “Rather, it tells me that you have succeeded.”
“What is this trick?” Lojun asked between gritted teeth.
The woman smiled blackly as she took on the aspect of a teacher with Lojun her slow student. “The eyes want to return to the earth, just as the ulaan themselves do. But something keeps calling them,” she said. “That much at least, I learned in the convents.”
“And the rest of it?”
“Is none of your concern,” she snapped curtly. “Yes, these will do quite well. He was a man of power, not one who simply wore a hollow title.” Her own green eyes flashed at the sight of the watery blue irises that stared at her. “I did not think you could do it.”
“Just so long as you keep your part of the pact, woman.”
“Do not fear for me,” she said, gazing into the depths Lojun held. “If you have the stomach to do what you have said, then I will give you the means do to it.”
“I have come too far to turn back.”
“And I have heard that before, from men who seem far more convinced of themselves than you do.” She poked gently at one of the eyes with a pinky nail that shone red. “Tell me, are you seeking evidence of ‘dark dealings’ or are you weaving it out of fresh cloth?”
“Does it matter?” Lojun asked with irritation. “I did not come here to be questioned. I came to have a thing done.”
“And what is that?”
“To make things right!” snapped the reply, with sudden venom. His arms burned with the weight, and more than that, his heart and shoulders grew heavy as what he wanted to do became real.
“And how have you been wronged? Quickly now, your strength falters.”
Lojun wanted to hide now. “I do not see—”
“Quickly!” the woman bit like a snake to a quailing rat. “Tell me! Tell me so this truth can go to spinning the lie you desire.”
Thoughts burned behind Lojun’s eyes faster than he could track them. It wasn’t a lie. His trade clan had lost the westward routes when all reason and sanity fled Hechetin. The things that awakened had claimed more than just souls. They had destroyed countless lives and withered more even than that. Had Lojun’s fortunes been different, his clan would be ascendant. He would have riches. He would be the Captain and he would lie with—
A hiss escaped his teeth and there was blood in his mouth. It spurted down his lips as he confessed. In the red glow of the braziers and the eager gaze of the enchantress, Lojun admitted that this was revenge and envy and desire laid bare. The salt taste filled his mouth as he gave word to thoughts that he had only kept to himself before.
“–My brother disgraced, to see everything stripped from him and made mine,” Lojun gasped through bloodied lips. “His successes, his title. If he should profit by darkness, then I wish to as well.”
The embers danced across the woman’s face, etching it deep as torchlight in a tomb. Her finger drew across her lips, erasing any smile of expectation.
“You are holding something back,” she warned. “Something is unsaid and that will not serve you well. Your lie must be bound in the truth. Without that, there is nothing you can do.”
His arms were failing. Lojun could not longer feel his hands, nor could he look at them, sure that the weight of what was happening was snapping bone and skin. He was standing at the core of the world, holding it all in his palm. Claws raked his biceps and shoulders from within as if the muscles beneath were splitting and frayed as old cloth.
He would fail and have nothing and be only Keyhold as he watched Taref climb higher still, taking the crown of Trade-King as he raised his family, each of the children coming from the woman who should be his. Pathetic Lojun would only be watching and not having.
“A woman!” Lojun spat red with the words, a glob landing on the floor between his boots. “May the ancients themselves hear! I do this for a woman!”
The sorceress sighed and shuddered, as if the weight was not Lojun’s alone to bear. She drew herself up and looked into his eyes. There was no color in hers any longer, only the dim ruby reflection of the brazier. Lojun stared into a dark place that swarmed with power, power that was at his calling now.
“Then let it be done,” the woman said with eager satisfaction. “Cast off your weight and let me do the work from here.”
Lojun shook with the burden. He could not let it go.
“Her name. Tell me her name,” she said with a wicked grin. She had peeled back skin to raw feeling beneath, and with that feeling, power.
Lojun found himself unable to. The words would not pass his teeth. He could not shame her in naming but would carry it himself. The world could burn around him and he would not speak her name. Even if he fell into that dark place behind the witch-woman’s eyes never to return. Better to let nothing stand. It could all end before. It could—
“Danit,” he whimpered. “Her name is Danit and she is beautiful as the moonflower and let me stop, please I beg you, let me stop.” The shame, however, did not buckle his legs or his arms. Instead the weight in his hands felt as steam.
“Danit? The wife of the Guard-Captain? You do this for her?”
“No,” he grated. “I do this for myself. Let that much weight be mine.”
Her eyes swam back to green now, and they were filled with something that rested between pity and scorn and sympathy. “Throw the eyes onto the brazier,” the woman said sharply. “Do not hesitate.”
“But they will—”
“That is no ordinary fire, you fool! It is now a crucible that burns truth and renders wish. Do it while you still can!
He acted without thought, and threw the Trade-King’s eyes down to the waiting coals. They flared purple now. Fingers of smoke encircled them, uncurling into hands of vapor. They hung over the flame and watched Lojun, offering no judgment. They only waited.
“Say it!” she commanded.
“I want my brother to be revealed as a traitor! as one who profits in consorting with demons or worse! I want then what he has!”
The woman was silent as she dabbed her thumb on Lojun’s bleeding lips. It came away black. She then swiped across the eyes which glowed black for a moment, eating the ember’s light.
“Take them,” she said finally. “Place them where your brother will be the first to see them. Their power will be released then.” There was effort in her breath now, and Lojun saw that sweat glistened on her brow.
There was no presence in the room besides the two of them. A moment before, the walls pressed in and pulsed with mighty power, as sure as anything that Lojun had felt before. It hadn’t been imagination: his hands ached as if he had been scraping salt from stone, something he hadn’t felt since he was a boy. His lip was split and tasting bitter of blood. He feared to look at his hands to see what lay beneath his gloves.
“Go now,” the woman said warily. “Do not walk through that doorway ever again.” There was something fearful wriggling around at the base of her words, something she could not hide properly. “Your business and mine is finished.”
“And if I should decide that you have cheated me?” Lojun said with a growl.
“Make sure that those are placed before moonrise tomorrow.”
That was all she said before covering the coals.
Lojun crossed Chancetown as quickly as he could without drawing attention. Soldiers could gamble their lives and drink here, but not the Keyhold.
So that should be enough to convince you that you’d make a wise decision in purchasing this book made of electrons for the low price of three dollars (though that will go up shortly.)