How long he’d been climbing, Cambriel Vyslin couldn’t tell. Flickers of light sometimes moved through the Palace walls above, but they were like fireflies, there then gone: broken remnants of the Emperor’s glow. Below, a creeping swathe of fleshy corruption tainted the amniotic waters and consumed the hive he’d just escaped, its long tendrils snatching at survivors as they tried to swim away. To fall back in would be death.
Inside the white armor, his arms quaked. Dragging himself up the dangling shreds of floor was no easy feat, made even tougher by the state of his new right leg. He’d lost the old one to the Darkness in Bahlaer, and had come here to claim his compensation in the form of a White Flame lieutenancy, but though he’d awoken in the White Flame armor, it didn’t respond well—as if it wasn’t quite set. His leg from mid-thigh down was just a twisted hook, incomplete, and the helm had peeled from his face as soon as he’d left the water, as if it couldn’t sustain him any further.
Still, climbing gave him something to focus on instead of what he’d seen. The crushed honeycomb cells, bodies pulped within; the greasy black tentacles that had tried to drag him back into the depths…
Nearby floor-shreds had been transformed into that stuff, writhing slowly in the flickerlight as if waiting for him to get close. He glanced up frequently to make sure his route was still clear; the way things were going, he wouldn’t be surprised if the whole Palace started to collapse. He could already see holes opening in the ceiling, black sky and stars glinting through.
Only marks ago, he’d been kneeling before the Throne, arms hooked around his crutches to stay steady, murmuring the petitioner’s words alongside the other new converts. He’d been forewarned of the way the floor would unravel and the threads draw him down to be remade.
But had it really just been marks? For all he knew, his time in that amber dream might have been days, months—centuries.
He’d been awakened by the blast that broke the hives, and had spent his precious first moments scrabbling at crumpled walls and fighting through burst membranes. Whatever had caused this destruction, or brought the corruption, or banished the Emperor’s light—
His reaching hand grasped an edge and all questions evaporated. Looking up, he found the ragged lip of the pit just above. Enthusiasm surged, reawakening his climb-numbed frame; a clamber, a heave, and he was over the top, to scramble a few swift yards more before letting himself collapse.
For a long moment, he just lay there, relishing the solidity beneath him and the thunder of his heart in his ears. He was safe. He’d survived.
Then he registered a presence nearby, and turned his head.
Another White Flame stood by the edge, helm off, staring blankly across the pit. His face was nearly as pallid as his armor but pitted with old scars, his hair like flattened white spines, the line of his mouth too long to be human. A broken black sword shivered in his hand, red light streaking the blood-groove.
Ruengriin, Vyslin guessed. He’d known a few in Blaze Company, and had found them companionable enough once his conditioning had worn off. No different from any other soldier.
This one, though… He wasn’t sure if it was the sword or the weird look on the man’s face—the rapt wideness of his starburst pupils, the listening tilt to his head—but he seemed different. Dangerous. Vyslin tried to listen too, but all he heard was the glurp of the water below and the creaking and ripping of the Palace walls.
Cautiously, he gained his feet—well, his foot and his weird white stub—and hobbled toward the man. As he came close, the black-and-red sword twitched upward like it had a mind of its own, its broken edge turning toward him. Vyslin shifted back, wary, but when the man didn’t move, he said, “Hoi!”
The man blinked once, twice, then shot him a venomous look, pupils contracting to show the toxic yellow of his irises. “What?” he rasped, razor teeth showing briefly between his lips.
Vyslin paused. He hadn’t approached for any reason but relief at seeing another survivor, but he could already tell that wouldn’t be enough. He cast a look across the pit instead, to where the man had been staring—then stared himself.
Where the Imperial Throne and its dais had been, there was now only a slumped, peeling mass of white material no different from the damaged floor. Black stains covered it and the wall beyond, their corrosion opening gaps through which he glimpsed some sort of stone column, ringed by a spiral stair.
“Hang me up for the vultures,” he swore. “What happened? What’s that?”
No answer. His companion’s eyes had gone distant again, skimming the walls between here and the Throne as if seeking a way across, but there was no surface that hadn’t been half-eaten by corruption. No safe passage.
Vyslin looked the other way and saw the great double-doors standing open, a few stragglers still hobbling toward it. Everyone else had already abandoned this place to the darkness gnawing at its ribs. The floor beneath his feet felt uncomfortably spongy. He had the feeling this whole chamber would collapse into the pit soon.
Reaching out, he grabbed the man by the elbow. “C’mon, you can ruminate elsewhere. We gotta go before—“
The man yanked away, virulent gaze lancing at him. “No. I have a mission. I need to follow them, finish this.”
“They killed Jas. Brought the Dark here. Tried to drown me in it, but she pulled me out—she says I’m right, I’m right. This won’t end until they’ve bled their last. They’re the monsters, not me. I’m the avenger. They’ve gone up there, but I will find them. I will bleed them dry.”
Vyslin leaned away, unnerved, but the diatribe ended there. He wanted to ask ‘her who?’ but this didn’t seem like the right time for it. “Uh, all right,” he said cautiously, “but unless you can leap that pit, I don’t think you’re getting them.”
“I will. I will. I—“ The man blinked, bewilderment and fear flashing across his face before his expression locked down again. The look he shot Vyslin was more lucid but no less daunting. “Who are you?”
Vyslin stuck out his fist automatically. “Cambriel Vyslin, Blaze Company, Crimson Army. Supposed to be a White Flame, but guess that’s gone to shit. Look, uh…friend, I’m with you on killing whoever did this, but I don’t think this is the time for it. Not that I’m gonna stop you…”
For a moment, the man just stared at his offered fist as if he didn’t know what it was for. Then he reached up as if to tap his knuckles to Vyslin’s, only to notice the blade still twitching in his grip. Frowning, he cocked it toward his back, where tendrils of white armor reached out to clasp it in place. The red light faded as it did, leaving it matte black.
“Erevard,” said the man faintly. “I think…you might be right.”
“Good. C’mon then, before we get eaten up.”
He took Erevard by the wrist and tugged the man through one step, then another. There wasn’t resistance, exactly; if there had been, Vyslin would have given up right then. He had enough on his hands without adding a recalcitrant crazy person to it.
But Erevard fell in beside him, so that was all right. He could deal with an agreeable crazy person. He felt a bit crazy himself.
Together, they left the fallen Throne behind.
Far above, three figures sat in tableau: Cob staring at Enkhaelen, Enkhaelen watching the sky, Arik eyeing them both.
“What are you talkin’ about?” said Cob.
Enkhaelen turned pale eyes on him and repeated, “We broke the sun.”
His expression was difficult to read, face just a wan oval framed by rough-cut black hair. The outsized pilgrim robe hung loose on him, no longer illuminated by the Seal on his chest; the glow had faded from the rock of the Hag’s Needle as well, leaving them lost in starlit darkness.
Cob shook his head slowly. It was cold up here and he had climbed for marks, mind numb, body aching, Light-singed face and right hand in agony. Resetting these Seals was supposed to be the end, a brief corollary to the victory over the Emperor. He didn’t understand.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I jus’… I lost track of time. It’s not dawn yet.”
“Maybe.” Enkhaelen didn’t sound convinced. He looked to the sky again, then shifted forward as if to push himself upright, but his legs refused to get beneath him. Cob saw his face twist in frustration as he struggled to command his own limbs.
If not for the situation, he might have laughed. Angrily. Cruelly. He didn’t like this man—this monstrous necromancer who had helped build the Empire only to bring it down around their ears. Because of him, Cob’s friends were scattered or dead and everyone he had come into contact with had been damaged. If he’d had a choice, he would have pitched Enkhaelen off the Needle and smiled when he hit the ground.
But he’d already decided his course, for better or worse. They had to replace the Seals, and that meant Enkhaelen’s life was precious.
“Stay down,” he said curtly. “Don’t waste your energy right now. If y’need to go somewhere, we’ll carry you, but you’re the only one who can make us a portal.”
Enkhaelen made an aggravated sound but sat back, breathed deep, then gestured a mage-light to life. Its radiance barely spread beyond the Sealing circle, marking out a tiny island in the vast expanse of night.
On the other side of the circle, the silvery-grey skinchanger crept closer. Cob wanted to order him back; Enkhaelen could be feigning weakness, just waiting to betray them. But Enkhaelen was the vessel for the Ravager, spirit of predators, and thus a kind of god-in-the-flesh to a skinchanger like Arik.
And Arik was hurt, bright blood flecking his muzzle with each breath. Without the Guardian, Cob couldn’t fix the ribs or arm he’d broken in his moment of captured-animal panic in the swamp—and even if the Guardian had stayed in him, he wasn’t sure it would help. He’d hurt not just his friend but the Wolf spirit itself, with the Guardian’s tacit assistance.
They needed Enkhaelen to fix that too.
“I’ve recaptured some of what I used to brace open the Seal of Air,” said the necromancer, “but there wasn’t much to begin with. I think…I can make a portal, yes. If we’ve truly done the worst, then waiting and resting won’t help. —Oh, give me Geraad’s knife.”
Cob frowned, unburnt hand falling to the amber-pommeled blade tucked into his rope belt. It was one of the few things he’d salvaged from the chaos and destruction down below—and what Enkhaelen had tried to kill himself with, before Cob wrestled him free of the Throne. “Why?”
“I enchanted it. I can unpin the spell and take back the energy easily. Else we’ll have to risk me accidentally cutting my hand off when my portal blinks out mid-use.”
Enkhaelen’s slumped shoulders and rough, disused rasp of a voice made Cob inclined to believe him. Still, he’d seen the man puppeteer corpses far beyond mortal limits, so wouldn’t put it past him to magically control himself. Those glittering eyes gainsaid any disability, so full of calculation and cunning that one could almost ignore the wasted face they were in.
I have the silver sword, he reassured himself as he edged closer. If he tries anything, I can just tap him with it and he should stop.
Provided its spell-breaking enchantment wasn’t another one of Enkhaelen’s ploys.
He saw the necromancer’s gaze slide to it as he leaned in to offer the knife. It had belonged to his wife, a Muriae warrior—had perhaps been extruded from her own silver substance. Now it was slung across Cob’s back, its blade half-melted from contact with the Emperor. Earlier testing had shown that it unraveled Enkhaelen’s magic, but Cob couldn’t trust that; it made no sense to enchant a blade against yourself.
Then again, it made no sense to do a lot of what Enkhaelen had done.
The necromancer accepted the knife with his right hand, the left still curled claw-like from atrophy. As his gaze fell to the amber of the pommel, his face turned sad, regretful. Cob lingered close, ready to swat it from his hand if he tried to stab himself again.
“I gave him this as a parting gift,” he said quietly. “He wasn’t supposed to follow me.”
Cob stayed silent. Geraad hadn’t been a friend, really, but they’d helped each other—and then Geraad had died at Enkhaelen’s feet, to be consumed in the necromancer’s makeshift pyre alongside another friend, Dasira. Darilan. Cob had no desire to share grief with the man responsible for their deaths.
“It has no purpose now,” the necromancer sighed, and touched the blade with his atrophied hand. Filaments of light unwove from it, sliding into his fingers like needles. His veins luminesced dimly beneath his skin as more and more of the energy unhitched from the weapon, until finally the amber sphere contracted like a drying fruit, then crumbled.
Flexing his damaged fingers slowly, Enkhaelen regarded the blade, then offered it back to Cob. “For your peace of mind.”
Cob scowled but took it. Those icy eyes seemed all too aware of what he was thinking.
“Would that I had my gear,” said the necromancer as he drew a circle in thin air, his finger leaving a luminous trail. “It would be so much easier to just reach through a pocket. Fortunately I know the coordinates by heart.” Circle complete, he pressed his fingertips to it and seemed to focus, energy streaming down his arm to power the spell.
The circle shimmered like a soap-bubble, then clarified just enough to see a different darkness—not the starlit night but somewhere indoors. He reached through, felt around for a moment with a frown, then withdrew two objects that looked like silver pitons. In his wake, the circle popped.
“Portal stakes,” he said, setting them point-up, their flat triangular bases stable on the rock. “Already connected to the frame at my sanctum. All I have to do is power them, and then we can—“ He froze, a strange expression crossing his face.
“What?” said Cob.
“What about— Oh.”
The sword that would unravel Enkhaelen’s magic. The sword they desperately needed to keep, lest it fall into enemy hands. The sword Cob had promised to return to its fallen owner.
“It can’t go through the portal?” he hazarded.
Enkhaelen rubbed the bridge of his nose with his good fingers. “Not in the slightest. Any contact will disrupt the spell. But we can’t leave it, we can’t—“
“We could go back down the Needle. Walk it outta the swamp.”
The necromancer laughed curtly. “I suppose. But I doubt the White Road is faring any better than the Palace right now, and with the Seals closed, the unseasonal warmth here will fade. Shall we walk in darkness through a freezing swamp, you without the Guardian, your friend injured and myself incapacitated?”
Cob stared out at the darkness. It had taken several days to cross the swamp with his antlers up, and he knew from experience that there were no animals there and very few edible plants. And what had been edible to the Guardian might not be so for him. “If it’s our only option…”
“There is the spirit realm,” Arik rumbled.
Enkhaelen shook his head. “The spirits are…not fond of me right now. Or of you, Cob. I don’t have the strength for a struggle.”
“Y’say it like you’re the only one who can fight.”
Bristling, Cob opened his mouth to object—then thought twice. Arik was too hurt to be brought into battle; he’d struggled through the assault on the Throne but that had been chaos and necessity. As for himself, he had lost the Guardian, the Dark, the tectonic lever, and the full use of his right arm. Though he had Darilan’s akarriden blade, Serindas, he was leery of touching it, let alone trying to fight with it.
At least Enkhaelen could still use his magic. Somewhat.
“Then what d’we pikin’ do?” he said.
Enkhaelen shook his head. “No good options. And I won’t leave it behind. It pained me enough to cede it to you at the manor. To have it in anyone else’s hands…”
“I can carry it,” said Arik. “Take it to the spirit realm and meet you elsewhere.”
“No. No,” said Cob. “That sends you off alone. I can’t do that.”
The skinchanger regarded him through unusually cool eyes, and he felt a shock, as if something else was looking at him through Arik, or some part of his friend had surfaced that he’d never been shown before. “I have often been alone. Sometimes it is best.”
I’m sorry I hit you, he wanted to say. I’m sorry I’m such an irrational, angry fool that I’d fight you—that I’d hurt you so bad it injured your spirit.
But he couldn’t. Not in front of Enkhaelen.
“Is it safe for you?” he said instead, feeling ill at the prospect. “I mean, you’re associated with us. If some of the spirits hate us now…”
“He’s in far less danger than any human would be,” Enkhaelen interjected. “Associated or not— Wait. Human. Human?”
Cob eyed him.
The necromancer returned the look. “You’re fully human now, aren’t you? No more puppet-masters. Nothing to restrict your soul.”
“You can do magic.”
Cob’s jaw moved but no sound came out. After a moment, he repeated, “What?”
The necromancer shifted aside from the portal-stakes, then beckoned. “Come. Sit. I saw you fight; you already know how to manipulate energy. You can activate the stakes.”
Cob glanced to Arik for support, but the skinchanger wore a thoughtful look. “I can’t do magic,” he protested. “I only ever commanded the Guardian.”
“Don’t be dense. The Guardian may have given you access to its reservoir but the control was yours by the end. Sit! I won’t bite.”
With deep trepidation, Cob moved to sit cross-legged by the necromancer. The air close to him was bitterly cold, but the hand he set on Cob’s wrist felt feverish. It took all Cob’s will not to flinch away.
“All humans can work magic,” said Enkhaelen. “They just have to be taught. At its base, it’s simply the absorption and expulsion of ambient energy, much like breathing is the absorption and expulsion of air. My enchantments are already written into the stakes; you don’t need to shape anything, just power them.”
“But the sword,” Cob said, “won’t it hurt the enchantments?”
“Yes, I imagine so. But the enchantments only provide the link, the…thread, as it were. Think of a portal as two distant holes in one piece of cloth. You can fold them together, but they fall apart as soon as you let go. If you stitch them instead, they stay together for as long as you maintain the stitch, and you can pass things through the gap. My ‘thread’ will decay rapidly once the sword enters the portal, but if its passage is swift, it shouldn’t be ejected into nil space.”
“So…I power the portal, then we throw the sword through?”
“It seems our best option.”
“And it’s jus’…pushin’ energy at it?”
Enkhaelen motioned to the stakes. “Set a hand on each. Most mages are taught to draw energy through their off-hand and project it through their main, but I know how the Guardian works. You draw energy from below—through your feet or whatever contacts the earth, to your core, and then outward. The Guardian isn’t what allowed you to do that. It merely showed you something you could already do. Now try.”
Cob stared at him, then at the stakes. He remembered the feel of the Guardian’s power moving through him, to construct his stone-and-bark armor and for finer work like mending flesh and blessing fertility. But to do it without the spirit? To wield magic on his own?
It frightened him. The last power he’d touched had been the Dark.
But Enkhaelen was watching him expectantly, as was Arik, so he focused his attention on the stakes. They were cool to the touch, made of rune-etched silver and approximately the length of his hand, with tapered tips that looked like they could punch through flesh. Immediately he felt a chill in his fingers like something was sipping at him—not insistent, just there.
Closing his eyes, he let his senses sink to the stone below.
He’d always felt at home surrounded by rock—though the idea of home, by now, was tinged with painful nostalgia. The Guardian had manipulated his memories of his parents and of Kerrindryr’s caves and cliffs for its own ends, and he couldn’t dismiss his bitterness.
Still, he felt rooted in that landscape: cold and wind-swept, austere, aloof. He could almost pretend he was there now, with the spine of the mountain beneath him and the slow, enduring strength of it in his veins.
This wasn’t the same, of course. The Hag’s Needles were a lopsided ring of narrow stone spires that protruded from Daecia Swamp as if trying to pierce the sky, and though this one was the largest, it felt nothing like a mountain. The tensions inside it were not tectonic but erosive, the whole thing shivering with the residual impact of the Seal.
He frowned. It was strange enough that he could sense the earth, though like his night-vision he supposed it was a lingering result of the Guardian’s tamperings. Stranger to think that he could harness it.
“We wield magic with our souls, like we wield weapons with our bodies,” said Enkhaelen beside him. “You’ve done it before. Reach out, grip, pull. Be careful not to get too much.”
Cob started to release the stakes, then stopped. He didn’t need to touch the stone with his hands. He’d grappled with the Guardian before, so if it was just like that…
The resonance in the stone—the Seal’s aftershocks—rippled against him like slow waves. Cautiously, he let his attention move with the pattern, then when it reached its apex he pulled.
It flooded into him, blood-hot. He gasped and almost let go—but there were the stakes beneath his fingers, still sipping at his life, and he saw the pathway imprinted on the insides of his eyes. It was water and he was the pipe; all he had to do was direct it.
As its surge touched the stakes, they snapped awake, and the portal unfurled before him. Even with his eyes closed, he saw it stitching itself into existence with the energy he fed it, drawing together disparate dimensions into a single pane as dangerous as a fault-line.
“Throw it through,” he heard the necromancer say through the rushing in his ears. Something tugged at his shoulder, shifted, then lifted, and Arik gave a grunt of effort—
The arch caved in, unraveling wildly. In his grip, universes sheared apart, pulling his soul in all directions, and—
Short nails bit into his neck, cutting off the flow. Residual power battered around him like storm-waves at a pier, his hands burning then freezing as it fled through them. Then it was gone, and he slumped forward and barely caught himself, gasping through lungs that felt frost-bitten.
“You’re a bit too open,” said Enkhaelen calmly, hand still resting on his nape. “I suppose that’s the Void’s doing.”
He couldn’t find his breath. His teeth chattered spasmodically, and the stone under his hands felt like nothing because he’d lost track of his fingers.
“Arik, pull him aside, please. I can’t do anything else for him until we’re in my sanctum.”
A muscular arm caught him around the ribs. He didn’t resist as he was moved, too focused on clinging to consciousness as exhaustion tried to sweep him away. Through half-cracked eyelids he saw the portal rise again, unpleasantly shredded at the edges—then Arik heaved him over his shoulder and he saw only fur. A disjunctive spasm passed through him from feet to gut to head, and if not for the emptiness of his stomach he would have puked down Arik’s back. As it was, he choked and kicked once, no longer sure what was happening, just afraid.
The world swung. He landed in a pile of cushions, agony shocking up his entire right arm, and he curled as best he could to protect it.
“Help me through,” he heard Enkhaelen say, then, “Oh shit—throw the sword out the door. Throw it out!”
Claws scuffed on stone. Something flared bright on the other side of his eyelids, accompanied by a crackle and the smell of lightning. A cold, fresh wind swept in, making him realize that for a moment he had been in a tepid environment which had now been punctured.
He cracked his eyes open to see Enkhaelen crawling through the shred-edged portal, cursing fitfully. Arik was at an open doorway, staring into the night; the only light was the necromancer’s little wisp, now hanging at the peak of the low domed ceiling. Crates and furniture and a shrouded hulk that might have been a desk threw sharp shadows across the floor; behind the hulk hung a painting, its face turned to the wall.
Enkhaelen pulled his legs free, then turned and reached through the portal to retrieve the stakes. As he brought them through, it collapsed, nearly snipping off his fingers in its haste.
“Flaming pikes,” the necromancer rasped, tossing the stakes aside with weary negligence. “It would be so much easier to be dead.”
“Firebird!” shouted someone outside.
Cob pushed himself up on his good arm, alarmed. He had no idea where they were, but from the unease on Enkhaelen’s face, being called out had not been part of his plan. The necromancer grabbed the nearest crate and tried to lever himself to his feet, but his legs refused to hold him; with trepidation, Cob rose and caught him under the armpit for support.
Enkhaelen shot him an inscrutable look but didn’t object. “To the door,” he muttered, and Cob nodded.