Book 1 Teaser

 

Chapter 1 – The Third Army

A concussive roar woke Cob from dead sleep. He sat up into a faceful of canvas tenting and barely managed not to claw it down. Beside him, his tentmate Horrum lay tense, listening to the ensuing hush.

“What the—” Cob started.

A shriek rent the air like tearing steel. He clapped hands to his ears and stared up; even through the thick canvas, the sky had gone noxious green. Fear knotted his guts, and he lurched for the entrance flap, but Horrum shouldered him aside to get out first. Cursing, Cob followed, the arrowhead on its cord tapping coldly against his sternum.

The air outside was dry, heat boiling up from the parched earth, and from the sea of tents the slaves emerged like a distressed tribe of burrowing owls. Like all his fellows, Cob looked skyward.

Serpentine green tendrils crawled across the reddish dome of arcane energy that protected the Crimson Army camp, as if seeking entry. A massive crack ran through the dome’s south side, and as more men scrambled from their tents, the crack branched inward with a horrific ripping sound. From the northwest corner of the compound, red lightning lanced up from the spire of the mages’ sanctum, restitching the dome and struggling with the green.

“Pike me, what’s that?” swore a man by the fire-pit. Cob looked around quickly, counting heads; it seemed like all the slave-workers who shared this fire now stood in the circle of the tent walls, most only half-dressed, their nervous faces washed by the murky glow. Beyond them, in the camps that held the rest of the Crimson’s fifteen thousand slaves, the scene was the same.

Another explosion came, thunderous but muffled, and though the radiant dome trembled, the cracks failed to advance. Maevor, Cob’s team leader, pointed his smoking cheroot toward the sanctum and took advantage of the moment’s hush.

“The mages have it,” he said, pitching his voice loud but calm. The weathered lines of his face showed no fear, and neither did his gruff tone, which sent a ripple of relief through the crowd as much as his words. “See, they’re rallying. No need to worry, just get in your teams in case the officers come by.”

A disgruntled rumble went through the men, but they obeyed as had become reflex. Cob moved to Maevor’s side, the rest of their six-man team filling in around them.

“What do you think those blasts were?” said Jas Fendil as he shuffled over as fast as his tentmate would allow. At his shoulder, Erevard of Cantrell just looked grim. They were hip to hip, wrapped in the same blanket in some weak attempt at decency, but no one dared comment. Not for Fendil, who was generally too deep in a pleasant rashi haze to take offense, but because Erevard’s cold-eyed, pox-scarred features had never welcomed jokes, and certainly didn’t now.

“All I see is dust and people’s heads,” said Maevor. “Cob?”

With a nod, Cob overturned an empty bucket and stepped up on it for height. Though the youngest of the team at seventeen, he was the tallest by a hand—not difficult since most of the slaves were of local Illanite stock, short and burly. They threw taunts of ‘ogre-blood’ at him sometimes, but he knew better; he might have been uglied-up by a few fights, but he was a normal Kerrindrixi dusky-brown, not ogrish ruddy or olive or ebon, and if his build was too tall and lanky for Kerrindryr, he blamed it on growing up here. The lowlands had evidently given him room to stretch.

Besides, there weren’t any ogres in Kerrindryr. Just the blood of the Stag and the Songbird, if the pagan spiritists were to be believed.

He squinted to the south, where the palisade wall had disappeared behind a massive plume of dust. Green and red energy dueled erratically within. It made his skin crawl, too much like mist no matter what he told himself, and he looked elsewhere quickly.

“Think the War Gate’s down,” he murmured as he glimpsed debris on the assembly field. At the edge of the plume, the palisade timbers drooped backward in their settings like rotted teeth. “Some wall too. With all the dust, maybe the embankments got blasted?”

“What?” squawked Weshker, the camp’s only Corvishman. A wiry, sunburnt redhead, he was the furthest slave from home and always the twitchiest. Right now, even his rusty little chin-tuft looked ready to leap off and run away. “Yeh can’t be serious. If the gate’s down, what’s stoppin’ them from marchin’ right in?”

Maevor sighed. “Even if the ward went down, Kanrodi’s half a mark’s march away. What do you think they’ll do, fly here?”

“They got dragons, dun they? Everyone says so.”

“That’s a myth. If they did, we’d already be dead.”

“I tell yeh, they jes’ waitin’ fer this kinda—”

“Shut up, Weshker,” said Erevard coldly. “No one wants to hear it.”

Weshker looked indignant but the others nodded. The Crimson Army—formally the Imperial Third Army of the Crimson Claw, in service to the Risen Phoenix Empire—had been camped at this spot for almost half a year due to the siege of Kanrodi, and in that time the siege camp had become a city in itself. Wooden barracks rose in regiments beyond the slave tents, built to house the freesoldiers and support crew; taller whitewashed walls marked the infirmaries, coils of oily smoke the freesoldiers’ mess-halls, coded banners the warehouses that abutted the Losgannon River. Just east of the mages’ sanctum, the General’s cabin stood on the command post hill, watching over everything within the palisade walls like a sentinel.

Thirty thousand souls dwelt here, including cooks, laundry service, medics, messengers, mages, and—most important to the freesoldiers—prostitutes. As slave-workers, Cob and his comrades merited no such services, but neither did they have to leave the camp; non-violent offenders and legacies, they’d been sentenced to physical labor, and so cut wood, built barracks, repaired river berms, maintained the palisade, and mucked latrines. Hard work but better than being slave-soldiers, sent to batter at Kanrodi’s warded walls like moths against lantern-glass.

Framed against a summer of nothing more dangerous than grigs, scorpions, sunstroke and shovel-work, the cracks in the artificial sky were terrifying.

“How much yeh wanna bet it was jes’ a lucky strike?” Weshker prompted, visibly wavering between bravado and fear. He drew a dagger and everyone tensed, but he just fiddled with it, one of his irritating habits—like stealing the blade in the first place, since anything larger than a utility knife was forbidden to slaves. He had lifted over a dozen from freesoldiers in the past few years, most now stashed in the tent he shared with Maevor but a few hidden on his person. “For all we know, they broke the pikin’ siege line and everyone there’s dead.”

Maevor hooked him around the neck in what would have been a friendly headlock if not for the look on his face. Rather than struggle, Weshker winced and hid his dagger away; he knew better. “Keep it low,” Maevor hissed. “Don’t need a panic right now. Maybe later, if we see an opening…”

“What d’you mean?” said Cob, eyeing the suddenly sly faces of his comrades. He was still the new man among them, neither trusted nor particularly liked, and that was fine—he didn’t like them either, these criminals and pagans and heretics. Still, they were better than the brutes he’d worked with before the mist.

“Nothing you want to hear,” said Maevor, pointing at him with his cheroot. He was missing several fingers, plus the tops of both his ears—thief-penalties, gained long before the army. He probably merited worse, since everyone knew he was a Dark cultist. “I like you, but you’re an Imperialist and your friend is a dick.” He indicated Horrum. “Best walk away.”

Cob opened his mouth to object—to ‘your friend’ more than anything—but Horrum cut in with, “Whatever your plans, I hope you choke on them.” Alone among them, Horrum could have been a soldier, if he hadn’t refused Imperial conscription when the army’s advance reached his farm. For his choice, he’d been enslaved along with his wife and sister, and he hated everyone and everything to do with the Army, particularly the criminals he was forced to work alongside. As a legacy slave, Cob was the only one Horrum would tolerate enough to bunk with, and even then he made his distaste clear.

Cob felt the same for him, and for all the others, but tried to keep the animosity controlled. It wasn’t their fault they worshiped false Lights, or the Dark; here in the Heretic Lands, no one knew any better. That was the reason the army had come. And these men weren’t bad, for heretics. They weren’t his friends but he tried to keep them out of trouble, and if they disdained him for his faith, that was fine. They weren’t wrong to think he’d turn them in if they acted against the Imperial Light. He had already tackled Horrum away from one assault on an officer, getting them both whipped for ‘fighting’ but sparing him execution. That and the time he’d punched out his old team leader had given him a bit of a reputation.

Not as much as surviving a gut-shot with a wraith arrow, though.

“If you’re thinkin’ of tryin’ somethin’,” he started, suspecting an escape plot and determined to head it off, “y’know they pay even more attention t’ the walls when—”

“Attention, Work Battalions!”

“Aw crap, it’s the officers,” said Weshker, still stuck under Maevor’s arm. Cob looked back to see a mass of men in bright crimson jackets and piecemeal armor splitting off amongst the tents. Whichever of them had spoken must have done it through a voice-caster, the magic straining his voice tinny. Above, the arcane dome glowed mostly red now, only a few green threads lingering at the dusty edge.

“First Work Battalion proceed to dock warehouses for supply distribution!” came the projected voice again. “Second through Fourth Work Battalions suit up and proceed in companies to the War Gate!”

“Second Bat, that’s us,” said Maevor as the orders continued. Remembering his cheroot, he flicked ash from its tip and set it between his teeth, then looked over the team. “You heard the piking officer. Get your gear on.”

Weshker squirmed free of Maevor’s grip and kicked dirt at him, then dove into their tent. The couple disappeared into theirs. Cob let Horrum go in alone, not relishing an elbow to the face while trying to dress. His nose had been broken enough.

Maevor caught his eye, making him duck his head automatically. “You all right there?” the cultist prodded.

“Yeah.”

“You sure? You’re a bit pale around the eyes.”

“It’s nothin’.”

“Ah. Not mist?” Maevor glanced significantly to Cob’s bare side, and Cob put his hand over the scar, hating how it had come to define him. It stood out bluntly on his dusky skin, a silver circle situated midway between navel and right hip that matched the exit wound on his lower back: the marks of the crystalline arrowhead that had nearly killed him five months ago.

Just touching it brought the ambush back. The wraith-woods looming around him, the logging axe in his hands, the calls of his old teammates and the harsher orders of their soldier escort—then the mist, curling out in slow tendrils from the dark forest depths.

Then the arrows, falling like silent stars.

He remembered thinking, Run. Run. But his legs had refused to work, his whole body paralyzed in fear, and when the arrow struck and filled his innards with ice, he’d collapsed. The mist had closed over the conflict, full of radiant inhuman shapes, and he’d prayed as they converged on him. As their burning eyes stared down.

And then they’d gone. Turned away, leaving him alone among the dead.

He wore the arrowhead as a luck-charm now, for surely it was luck—and the Light—that had pulled him through his two months in the infirmary, pissing ice and blood as the hostile magic washed out of his system.

No remnant lingered now. He’d been healthy for the last three months. The only remaining problem was the dream.

“No mist,” he lied. “Jus’ shaken like everyone else.”

“Understandable,” said Maevor, giving him a companionable clap on the shoulder. Cob grimaced but didn’t shrug it off; preserving group harmony was more important than his own aversion to fatherly gestures. “You tell me if it comes back, though. I can get you something for it.”

“Sure.”

“He seein’ wraiths again?” piped Weshker as he scuttled from his tent. “Smack in the middle of the pikin’ desert and still scared of the woods, yeh big bab— Ack!”

The bucket missed the ducking Corvishman by a hair. Cob scowled and looked around for something else to throw, even more incensed when the next thing out of Weshker’s mouth was, “Goat-humpin’ Imperialist ass-kisser!” A sharp look from Maevor dissuaded him, and he had to be satisfied with the fantasy of pounding Weshker bloody.

That was the idiot’s curse: an inability to keep his mouth shut or his hands to himself. A week never passed without someone trying to wring his neck, and though half the time it was a Wynd going after him because the Wynds and the Corvish had a grudge as old as dirt, the rest was because he could not shut up. Cob had stuck up for him before—he was just a little guy, if mouthy—but had just as often been the one to give him a bruising. They were frequently assigned together because the officers liked to bust them for their inevitable fights.

For his part, Cob knew he had a temper and a certain lack of humor. Back in Kerrindryr, you took no shit from your equals because otherwise you were not equal, even if their words were meant as jests. Here, the social rules were more lax, but his previous team had taken shameless advantage of him when he’d tried to loosen up. Those dead men colored his view of his new comrades, making it difficult for him to accept jokes or concern at face value.

It didn’t help that they called him ‘Imperialist’ like an insult. He hated that. He’d been a convert to the Imperial Light since childhood—away from the Dark spiritism that had claimed his parents—and that devotion was why his time as a legacy slave would end when he turned eighteen in a few months. With no priests in the army, it was sometimes difficult for him to stay focused on his faith, but he knew the tenets of the Light and tried to live by them.

Redemption through service; purification through sacrifice.

An elbow to the shin snapped him from his brooding, and he ducked into the tent once Horrum was free. Dressing was quick—the slaves’ uniform just a faded red tunic and battered boots in addition to his breeches. He made sure the arrowhead was tucked in, hidden, then slithered back out to join his team.

The fire-pit had been doused with sand, and the ready men stood around yawning or smoking, waiting for their fellows. Everyone in this area was on the evening shift—the so-called ‘shit shift’ since that was when they handled the latrines—and so had mostly been asleep at the time of the explosions. On the footpaths, the officers paced restlessly.

“Hoi, Cob,” said Weshker.

Cob looked over just in time to get a wad of cloth to the face. He snatched it away and scowled, but the Corvishman had already ducked behind Maevor, snickering, and Maevor had that stern look that said he’d allow no roughhousing. Cob shook the cloth out instead. It was a plain, thin square; at his questioning look, Weshker indicated the one tied around his neck. “Bandana, yeh brick-head. It’s dusty out there. Plus then we can be bandits together!”

Rolling his eyes, Cob grudgingly knotted the bandana at his neck. Sometimes it was hard to dislike the playful idiot.

“Bridge Company, form up!” shouted their officer from somewhere ahead.

“Come on, boys,” said Maevor, dropping the remains of his cheroot and crushing it. Cob followed him, their team blending in with the other slaves as they poured onto the gravel path. Above, the green snakes of enemy magic had been fully expelled from the protective dome, and as they quick-marched through the depopulated expanse of the eastern tents, the dome itself finished mending and faded from strong red to translucent to its usual invisible state, allowing the badlands sun to shine through unimpeded.

Soon the assembly yard spread before them, sprinkled with charred timber fragments. Cob tugged the bandana up to cover his nose as well as his mouth, even though he couldn’t breathe through his nose anyway—too plugged with scar-tissue.

Through the settling dust, the remains of the palisade wall leaned at odd angles or lay shattered around the crater that had once been the gatehouse. Three watchposts lay broken like kindling. Slaves with carts of tools and buckets made a long line around the periphery, and outside the shattered gates Cob spotted the cuirassed and skullcapped men of the slave-soldier Combat Battalions receiving further orders.

With the palisade fallen, Kanrodi stood visible in the distance, broken siege engines scattered around it like children’s toys. Its outermost wall was scarred from months of Imperial assault, but beyond it the sand-colored buildings rose in pristine tiers, topped by spires of blue and white and sea-green. The aqueduct that had once run from the city to the Rift had been riven in many places, a lip of stone remaining like the snapped handle of a cup.

More slaves and a swath of freesoldiers marched upon it now, already small in the distance. As Cob watched, arcane lightning flashed from the Imperial ranks to strike at the city, only to be repelled by an emerald barrier.

Under orders to salvage what they could, Cob and his team grabbed buckets and crowbars and advanced on the closest watchpost. A cluster of women in the red-and-white striped surcoats of the infirmary staff picked among the ruins there, occasionally tossing objects onto a stretcher. Cob didn’t care to consider why the objects were so small.

They fanned out at their destination, one team among many. Weshker clambered up onto the wooden beams with fearless agility and Cob took note of where the infirmary-workers were so he could call them when the Corvishman inevitably fell to his death. Fendil and Erevard went off one way, Horrum the other, and Maevor commandeered a handcart and flipped over a bucket for a seat, suddenly turning into a hub of black market trade as slaves from every company surreptitiously converged.

Cob shook his head and struck out toward a spar less swarmed by human termites, closer to the broken wall. Had they been anywhere but the badlands, his fellow slaves would be pouring out through the gap in droves; there were not enough freesoldiers around to control them, and no mages in sight. With briar and cacti and scorpions in two directions and Kanrodi in the third, though, no one was stupid enough to chance it.

The fourth direction was Varaku. The very thought sent chills down his spine.

He could just see it over the eastern palisade: a panorama of red cliffs and ragged rock spires on the far side of the Losgannon River, rising in tumult to the high wall of the Rift. It was supposedly full of Dark spirits and wraiths, and Cob believed it; remnants of the Mist Forest peppered Varaku’s red rocks and guarded its crumpled northern edge, and where the trees were, so might be the wraiths.

Almost alone by the gate, Cob tried not to think about it. He didn’t want to let the past or his nightmares rule him. Instead, he focused on the spar, prying away broken boards to salvage the nails and good wood. Both were a precious commodity here, and a decent haul might be rewarded.

He had just begun to make headway, sweat threading through his short dark hair under the sun’s glare, when he heard a deliberate scuff in the dust nearby. Tensing, he glanced over his shoulder, then blinked at the black-uniformed man.

“Drink?” said Scout Darilan Trevere, holding up a flask.

Relieved, Cob nodded and pulled down his bandana. The scout stepped close: a small man, compactly muscular under his dark attire, with Daecian-fair hair bleached even lighter by the sun and a blush of burn on his round cheeks. He might have looked boyish if he smiled, but he rarely did. Right now his green-grey eyes were as hard as agates and kept flicking past Cob to the men and ruins around them, gloved fingers tapping an unconscious cadence on the hilt of one of his long daggers.

“Somethin’ wrong?” Cob said as he accepted the flask. He took a swig; as always, it was cooler and sweeter than the rest of the camp water, which had been boiled flat for safety. He wondered where Darilan got it.

“You, sticking yourself in the middle of nowhere,” said Darilan. “You’re supposed to stay with your team.”

“Team went in all different directions. What’s it matter? We’ll just reassemble when we’re called.”

Darilan leveled a sour look at him. They were friends, inasmuch as a slave and a freesoldier could be; Darilan had looked out for him since their time in Kerrindryr as quarry-slave and guard. What he got out of it, Cob didn’t know, but for him it had been not so much the protection but the company that mattered. At twelve, having someone around who was neither a criminal nor indifferently brutal—someone who seemed to care that he existed—had filled a hole in his orphaned life. That Darilan reminded him of his childhood best friend didn’t hurt.

Yet since he’d been shot, it felt like the scout had begun treating him like a pet—something to be protected and commanded without backtalk. Darilan had never exactly been a pleasant person, and he was still the one constant in Cob’s life, but they were drifting apart.

“I don’t like it when you wander off,” said Darilan. “Especially not now. The Inquisition is here.”

Cob stiffened. The Inquisition meant mentalists, the worst type of Imperial mage. It was their duty to pry into minds, to root out conspiracies and detect Dark taint, to condition the slaves so they couldn’t rise up against the soldiers and to mindwash those who had seen what they should not. They came every year to sift through the thoughts of the Army and eradicate resistance.

“So what?” he said defensively. “If there was somethin’ to find, they woulda found it last year.”

“That was before your dream.”

“It’s nothin’. Really.”

Darilan narrowed his eyes, and Cob struggled not to look away. He knew quite well that his dream—his one endlessly repeating dream—was nothing to brush off. In the months since the wraith-arrow, he had dreamt incessantly of himself as a child, climbing the cliffs above his boyhood home in mountainous High Country Kerrindryr, alongside his best friend Lerien. They were searching for something—a light, a bird, he was never sure—but each time their journey was interrupted by black hands reaching out from the stone. Reaching for him.

Sometimes he fled. Sometimes he fell backward into the ravine. Sometimes the hands caught him and pulled him through the rock into blackness, and then—

The priest in the quarry had said that the Dark seeped in through cracks in the mind, like water from some deep, stagnant reservoir. It eroded away the soul of its host until it filled the body, spoke with the mouth, saw with the eyes—mimicking humanity to perfection. Some nights, when he woke sweating and shaking, with Horrum a somnolent lump beside him and the moons shining pale through the canvas, he thought he had been eaten: the bedroll a flat tongue, the tent-stakes teeth, the wind that fluttered the fabric the very breath of the Dark. He didn’t know how to tell if he was still himself or just a Dark fragment that thought it was a man.

The Inquisitors would know.

That was their job.

“You’re sure you’re all right?” Darilan prompted quietly.

Cob nodded. There was nothing else he could do.

The scout exhaled, then looked past him and grimaced. “Crowbar down, stand up straight. Here comes the General.”

Cob glanced that way, surprised. Midway along the road, striding purposefully toward the ruined gate, was the unmistakable form of the Crimson General—Crown Prince Kelturin Aradysson, only child of Risen Phoenix Emperor Aradys IV and heir to the Throne of Light. Long hair in war-braids streamed back from his tawny brow, his jaw set with determination. He carried the iconic phoenix-visored helm under one arm, its bright tassel nearly reaching the dirt, and in the late afternoon light his scarlet and gold armor gleamed as if molten, dampened only by the black cloak that flapped beneath the great sword at his back. Officers broke away from the salvage-work as he passed, pacing him to give reports, and he nodded but never slowed. In his wake, a stream of colorfully-robed mages and advisors struggled to keep up.

Cob had seen him before, but only as a blond speck at the far end of the assembly field. There were rumors about him—womanizing, faithless, spendthrift—but up close he cut a figure worthy of the old Knights of Law, and under his command the slaves had not suffered. Cob pressed his thumb-knuckle to his forehead in the claw salute like all the others, and though the General paused for nothing, his gaze still swept the crowd with a sense of acknowledgment, of awareness and possession. They were his and he was theirs.

“Where’s his horse?” Cob mused as he passed beyond the gate.

“They like magic about as much as we do,” said Darilan, nabbing the flask from his hand. “Probably kicking the stables apart.”

“D’you think he’s goin’ for Kanrodi?”

“He can’t break the barrier himself, Cob, and he’s not allowed to parley. And don’t change the s—”

Pain flashed up Cob’s leg. The world spun. The next thing he knew, he was on his side in the dirt, with Darilan’s knee rammed into his ribs as the scout hunched low behind the toppled spar. Cob coughed and Darilan yanked the bandana up to cover his mouth.

“What—” he tried to say, but Darilan clamped his hand atop it.

Nose useless, mouth covered, Cob grappled at Darilan’s arm but the scout’s grip was iron, his weight expertly positioned to nail Cob to the earth. His attention was on something beyond the spar, though, and after a moment of hammering his shoulder with a fist, Cob tried to lie still, tried to quell his startled panic.

Through the veil of splintered wood, he glimpsed a shape moving up the road where the General had passed, black-robed.

His lungs burned. Raised in the heights, he could hold his breath better than most, but that was when he had forewarning. He smacked Darilan’s shoulder again and this time the scout looked down, then blanched and let go.

“Throne, sorry, I forgot,” he hissed.

“You’re sorry? Why are—”

As the hand clamped over his mouth again, Cob thought, Now I know why Weshker always bites me.

When he didn’t struggle, Darilan relaxed. “No hollering,” he murmured. “He’s not far gone.”

“Who?”

“The Inquisitor Archmagus.”

Cob tried to peek up and Darilan immediately shoved his head back down. “Stop that!” Cob hissed. “Like he didn’t pikin’ see you take me down!”

“He didn’t. If he did, he’d be over here already.”

“The Archmagus? Why? One pikin’ dream isn’t enough to require the Inquisitor pikin’ Archmagus.”

But Darilan wasn’t listening, just peering over the spar, murkwater eyes tracking the mage to the gate and beyond. Finally he exhaled through his teeth and unpinned his knee from Cob’s side.

Cob sat up slowly, rubbing at his new bruise. “What’s wrong with you?” he growled, glaring.

Darilan didn’t answer, so Cob kept up the stare. Casual violence wasn’t abnormal for the scout, but never had Cob seen him so distracted. He opened his mouth, trying to think of another question, but Darilan spoke first: “The usual guards are at the siege line, so you’re on guard duty tonight. River Gate.”

“River—” That was too much. Not only was it rare for slaves to work a guard-shift, but River Gate was the one by the command post hill, near all the warehouses and the dock and of course the Losgannon River. Putting slaves near the warehouses was like setting up a robbery. “Is that wise?”

“Orders are orders. Just thought I’d let you know.”

“Darilan, seriously, what’s goin’ on?”

The scout looked at him, and for a moment there was a pain in his eyes that Cob could not fathom.

Then a rusty-haired head popped over the edge of the spar and said, “Heh! I knew yeh were—”

In a blur of black and red, Darilan hauled Weshker over the spar and slammed him face-down on the ground, nailing a knee into his back. The Corvishman gave a cough of pain, too surprised to struggle. The scout drew his fist back to bludgeon, and Cob caught at it, alarmed.

“Don’t,” he said. “Don’t. I know he’s an idiot, but he’s harmless.”

Darilan looked at him sidelong, expression flat, but when he twisted from Cob’s grip, it wasn’t to resume the assault. He stood instead, hauling Weshker up by the tunic. “If you insist.”

“Yeah.”

Released, the Corvishman sneezed mightily, then grinned at both of them. Taking a skittering step away, he said, “Pikin’ stars, Cob, yeh girlfriend plays r— Agh!”

Cob closed his eyes. Weshker really did need to watch his mouth.

The sounds of scuffle subsided quickly. He looked up to see Darilan straightening his uniform and Weshker wobbling to his feet, face bloody, shoulders slumped. “Neither of yeh got any sense of humor,” he muttered.

“Twelve lashes for disrespect of a freesoldier,” Darilan snapped. Weshker nodded glumly. Together they started the walk toward the whipping post, a place Cob knew all too well.

“Hoi,” called Cob, and both glanced back, Weshker bedraggled but hopeful, Darilan cool. Their expressions bothered him equally and he faltered, not sure what to say. He owed Weshker nothing but still felt responsible, and as for Darilan…

He had no idea what was wrong with Darilan.

“Go easy on him. I’ll tell the watch-captain he’s out for punishment,” he said at last.

Darilan regarded him flatly. Weshker tried to crack a smile but his lower lip had already puffed up, making him wince instead. “We’ll see,” said the scout, then pulled Weshker away, leaving Cob in the dust.

He looked to the blasted War Gate, then toward the River Gate beyond the barracks, and wondered what was going on.

 

*****

 

By the time the official word came down about guard duty, it was dusk. Called in from salvaging, they stood in dusty ranks to listen to an officer read the duty roster, and the ripple of intrigue at Bridge Company’s assignment put Cob’s hackles up. These reprobates might find it thrilling but for him it would be a night of tension, of vigilance, just waiting for one of his comrades to try something stupid that would ruin them all.

The officer sounded unsure of what he was reading, but it must have had all the proper signatures and seals, for soon they were hustling across camp, following another officer with a lantern. Already the mother moon was up, her face a thin sliver that threw weak shadows across the path. From the northeast came the howls of hounds being set loose for night patrol, and as their eerie cries swelled, some of the slaves broke from the column to dash for the gate. The officer shouted after them halfheartedly then took the rest of the company up to a run; no one, not even freesoldiers, wanted to be off their post while the hounds were out.

Finally the River Gate loomed up, with anxious soldiers and supply-men waiting there to be relieved. The officer called for assembly and started assigning posts briskly, running down the list while the suppliers passed out secondhand swords and pikes and cheese biscuits.

Weshker will be sorry he missed this, Cob thought as he strapped on his shabby sword-belt. The one time we get to have weapons and he’s gotten himself whipped.

“Slaves Maevor and Weshker, post twenty-one,” said the officer, pointing. “Slaves—”

“Sir?” said Cob. Everyone glared at him. “Sir, Weshker’s out for punishment.”

The officer gave him a piercing look, then made a mark on the roster and said, “Slaves Maevor and Erevard, post twenty-one. Slaves Fendil and Dernyelson, River Gate door. Slaves Horrum and Orstant…”

Cob grimaced, annoyed as always that they had pinned ‘Dernyelson’ to him as a surname. He didn’t want to be reminded of his traitor father, but he supposed that was why they did it.

Once the slaves had dispersed to their positions, the soldiers and supply-men beat their retreat. Down the span of the palisade wall, lanterns were refilled and crossbows pulled down from hooks, the watch officers drifting from post to post as the slaves settled in for the night.

Cob and Fendil bracketed the access door beside the River Gate. As soon as the officer passed from view, Fendil reached under his tunic and withdrew his pipe, packed it from his rashi pouch and lit it off the lantern. He took a pull, the ember-flare uplighting his long face, then exhaled a coil of smoke. “You want?” he said, tipping the pipe toward Cob.

Cob waved it off. He’d tried the stuff before, back when the army had rationed it out for its calming properties, but it had done nothing for him and then had been banned after the camp wards went up. Apparently its interaction with arcane emanations made users hallucinate. The black market trade in it was fierce.

“Your loss. Got more if you want later.” Fendil shook the pouch, then tucked it away; Cob nodded and tried to breathe through the far side of his mouth.

Of all the team, he found Fendil the easiest to get along with. A northern Illanite, he was leaner and lighter-toned than Maevor or Horrum. and existed in a constant state of rashi-born geniality. That wasn’t always helpful; deep in his mellow haze, he could still take some direction, but in a crisis he was muddled and useless. Putting him on guard-duty meant that he would spend the whole night watching the butterflies in his mind.

That was fine. They weren’t on the wall; they were at the inner door, condemned to stare at the warehouses until morning.

Maybe since he’s with me and Wes is getting punished, the others won’t try anything. He couldn’t imagine Erevard running off without Fendil, and though he suspected that Maevor could escape at any time, the cultist had never shown an inclination toward it. Gate watch might not be their doom after all.

The horn for the Barrow Gate sounded, signaling official curfew and the start of night. Cob listened as shouts came down the wall, closer and closer until it was his comrades calling “Post twenty-one set!” and him raising his voice to declare, “River Gate door set!”

“River Gate overlook set,” boomed Horrum from above. “Signaling.”

A breath, then the long steady note of the River Gate horn rolled over the darkened camp. As its echoes faded, the calls resumed, moving southward into silence.

Biting into his biscuit, Cob made ready for the onslaught of boredom. Most would like this better than shoveling nightsoil by lantern-light, but Cob preferred the physical work; it made the time go by faster, and he had lost his sense of smell ages ago. Here, it would be difficult not to nod off. His scalp itched from sunburn and dried sweat, his shoulders ached, and his thoughts were already drifting. Hopefully Fendil’s smoke wouldn’t get to him. He could do without seeing the mist tonight.

He slid the spy-panel open as he chewed. Outside, the night sky glittered with stars, the forest just vague stubble on Varaku’s rocky chin; further east, the Rift rose ponderously to meet the emerging face of the child moon. Not for the first time, Cob wished he had been born on the other side of that great wall. Inside the Empire, not in the heretic west.

Closer, the river was a platinum ribbon winding slowly by, broad yet shallow enough to show the rocks in its belly. The dock was just out of sight to the north, not currently in use. In the rainy season, the river would spill up to the wall, but this summer had been long and dry and the barges had stopped arriving two months ago. Supplies came in overland now, raising the prices.

Somewhere to the south, the horn of the broken War Gate sounded. He wondered how they’d arranged that watch.

Time passed quietly, Fendil perfuming the air with his bittersweet herb, Cob watching the moons creep slowly up the sky. As the ground cooled, a breeze began to sing down from Varaku’s distant pillars and crags. It raised the hairs on Cob’s neck, but soon became background music to the skitter and call of small animals in the desert scrub.

He was watching a night-bird hop among the exposed rocks when something poked him in the spine.

Lurching away from the door, he snapped his spear up only to have it swept aside by a black-clad arm. Next to him, Fendil cursed and fumbled for his own weapon, spilling pipe-embers everywhere.

“You’re dead,” said the shadowed figure, making snipping motions with two fingers. “Severed spine. More attention, less daydreaming.”

Cob lowered his spear and scowled, heart thundering even as he recognized Darilan’s voice. “Sir,” he said, trying to remember protocol. “Do you need to go out?”

The scout emerged from the shadows, gaze flicking to Fendil as he hid his pipe guiltily then returning to Cob. He nodded at the door. “Step outside, I need to speak with you.”

Cob blinked. This was already a Darilan-heavy day; normally the scout would pop by for a few words or a short diatribe then vanish for a week. And his request was against regulations; gate guards might duck out now and then to avoid the trek to a latrine, but it was a whipping offense if caught. “Can’t leave my post, sir,” he hedged.

“The other side is still your post. This won’t take long.”

Cob glanced to Fendil for support, but the lanky slave just gave him a knowing look and pulled the bar off the door, then jerked back the three bolts. Nudging the door open, he gestured out to the night beyond.

“No eavesdropping,” said Darilan as he slipped through. “We’ll knock. Come on, Cob.”

Setting his spear beside the door, Cob gave Fendil a last glower, then followed. The door shut firmly behind them, bolts snicking into place.

The moons cast a two-toned light over the rough landscape, silver and gold. Darilan had already taken up a position beneath the watchpost’s overhang, out of view from the spy-panel, the angle setting half his face in shadow. Gloved fingers ticked time on the hilts of his blades. Cob suppressed a sudden chill.

“So…everythin’ all right?” he hazarded.

The scout just watched him. The moonlit half of his face looked like a mask, leached of color and expression, the one eye glittering oddly. Cob had never seen him so blank.

“How’s Wes?” he tried again.

“Dead.”

“Wh—”

“I slit his throat and left him in your tent.”

Cob stared, trying to squeeze sense from this. Darilan wasn’t the type to joke, but he forced a laugh just in case. “That’s… That’s not so funny.”

“No.”

“Because really, you wouldn’t…”

Darilan smiled, an unnerving one-sided motion. “Run, Cob. Go.”

For a moment he wondered if Fendil’s smoke had gotten to him—if this was some horrible rashi-dream. It didn’t feel real. He’d never been afraid of Darilan before. Wary of his mood, yes, especially when he started tapping his blades, but the scout had never hurt him or threatened him, not even when they argued. They’d been friends for five years; before his injury, Cob had almost considered them brothers.

Now he was scared.

“No. You’re—” He shook his head slightly, unable to look away. “There’s somethin’ wrong with you today. Maybe you’re the one who needs the Inquisitors.”

The smile faded. Darilan stepped forward and Cob tensed, ready for some kind of assault, but the scout only reached past him to rap on the door. The spy-panel snicked open. “We’re not coming in,” he said before Fendil could speak. “You’re coming out.”

“Sure, yessir,” came the hazy reply.

Cob wanted to protest, but his tongue wouldn’t unstick from the roof of his mouth. A little voice insisted that this was just a prank, that if he made a scene he would look like a fool. The bolts clacked back and the door eased open just enough for Fendil to slip through, and for a moment Darilan broke their stare. In its absence, Cob reeled, feeling like he’d just been released from something.

“Stand there,” Darilan told the lanky slave, pointing to the wall. “Cob, give me your sword.”

Oblivious to the tension, Fendil leaned agreeably against the bark-coated timbers, pipe smoldering between his fingers. After all, there’s nothing to fear, yammered that little voice. Darilan is a friend. He wouldn’t get us in trouble.

But as the scout locked his hypnotic stare on Cob again, he found his hand moving on its own to draw the sword. Like most of the common-use blades, it was scratched and pitted by negligence, but in the eerie moonlight it looked sharp as a razor.

Darilan lifted it from his nerveless grip, tested its heft, and said, “This will do.”

Then he struck sideways, never looking away. Transfixed, Cob heard the muffled sound of metal biting through flesh and into wood, then the low gurgle that followed. Fendil’s spear toppled forward to beat a puff of dust from the dry earth. A moment later, a spill of embers lit the ground around his feet.

Darilan released the blade and it stayed horizontal, quivering faintly. A certain satisfaction curved the lit corner of his mouth. “Now will you go?” he said gently.

Cob’s world contracted to a pinspot. It had to be a nightmare—and yet he felt the rocks digging into his heels through the old leather of his boots, the sweat ticking down his neck, the throat-thickening thunder of his heart. Everything real, too real, like the way Fendil’s hands fluttered like weak moths at his sides.

Still paralyzed, he could only watch as the scout’s hand moved to the dagger in the sheath at the small of his back. As it slid free, crimson fire kindled up the blade, limning sigils etched deep in the black surface. Briefly, his gaze flickered askance, as if something within the weapon distracted him.

That was enough. Cob shot into motion the instant the stare broke, bolting for the river like a frightened hare. From behind came the quick, professional steps of his best friend in pursuit.

Someone shouted from the wall. A crossbow bolt hissed into the dirt at his heels, and he leapt forward, clearing the embankment to come down in a graceless tumble through pebbles and sand and then shallow, sluggish water. Wrenching to his feet, already soaked, he glanced back to see Darilan at the verge. The dagger made a bloody gash in the night.

Turning, Cob splashed out toward the far shore and Varaku, a black hole opening in his heart.

 

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