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Sword of the North

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Sword of the North

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Author: Luke Scull
Publisher: Head of Zeus, 2014
Series: The Grim Company: Book 2

1. The Grim Company
2. Sword of the North
3. Dead Man's Steel

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Heroic Fantasy
Low Fantasy
Sword and Sorcery
Avg Member Rating:
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It is the Age of Ruin, a time in desperate need of heroes. But heroes are in short supply. The only candidates - a motley company at best - are scattered to the four winds.

Former rebel Sasha has now become an unwilling envoy between the powerful. Eremul the Halfmage languishes in disgrace, his warnings of approaching war falling on deaf ears. Yllandris, sorceress of the High Fangs, servant to a demon lord, has become that which she most despises. Davarus Cole, assassin of the immortal, lies on the brink of death. The legendary champion Brodar Kayne carves a bloody path towards his enemy of old in search of the woman he thought dead...

In this, the second blistering instalment of Luke Scull's critically acclaimed trilogy THE GRIM COMPANY, past and present collide, plunging the Age of Ruin further into darkness...


He could hear them crashing through the trees behind him. He half skidded down the slope, ruined boots finding little purchase on snow frozen solid. His feet were numb with cold, felt as dead as the lamb flopping wildly over his shoulder. Blood still leaked from the slit throat of the beast and soaked the filthy rags that covered his body.

There was a curse from one of the men chasing him, followed by an angry yell. He shifted the carcass on his shoulder and allowed himself a grin. He was losing them, even weighed down as he was. He reckoned a few had given up already. They were old men, most of them. Well past thirty.

He would get some distance on them and find somewhere to hide. Lie low for a bit and get a fire going. His stomach gave a mighty growl, a reminder that this winter had been desperate. Harsher than any he could remember.

He leaped a fallen tree, managing to keep his balance despite the thick patch of ice just beyond. Moments later he heard a thump and a fresh flurry of curses turned the air blue--he guessed one of his pursuers had blundered into the log and landed flat on his face.

He wondered what had become of Leaf and Red Ear--or Dead Ear, as he decided he would take to calling his hapless friend. Red Ear was supposed to be keeping watch while he and Leaf raided the farm. They had just finished slaughtering the first lamb when someone raised the alarm. It turned out Red Ear was about as useless a sentry as he was a cook. How he'd survived in Skarn's gang as long as he had was anyone's guess.

The trees finally parted. He could see the river now. Once he was across the Icemelt's surface the stubborn bastards would surely admit defeat. He ran on, rapid breaths throwing up clouds of mist--but approaching the bank he realized he had things all wrong. The Icemelt had yet to fully freeze over. Massive chunks of ice churned in the surging rapids, grinding together with enough force to crush a man to pulp. There wasn't a chance in hell of swimming across that raging deluge.

Listening for the sounds of the chase, he swerved, intending to head downstream and circle back into the forest.

Two men emerged from the trees, blocking his path.

"You've gone far enough, boy." The nearest of the pair was panting, but there was no mistaking the grim resolve in his voice. Nor the glitter of cold steel at his waist.

He didn't waste time replying. Instead he dashed forward and drove his forehead into the speaker's face. He heard bone crack, felt cartilage break beneath the force of the blow. He spun immediately, shrugged the lamb off his shoulder and raised it as a makeshift shield. The other man's sword thrust forward and wedged into the animal's flank, and his assailant's surprise lasted just long enough for him to get in three quick blows, dropping his opponent to the ground.

He retrieved the lamb and was tugging the sword free when someone barreled into him from behind, knocking him down and sending both the sword and the abused carcass flying from his grasp.

He twisted around to grab the newcomer. This one was a real piece of work, as tall as he was and a good bit heavier. Though he'd always been unusually strong for his age, he couldn't get the bastard pinned down for a solid hit. He took a glancing blow to the mouth and spat out blood. The other man grabbed him in a headlock and forced him down. He pushed back desperately and narrowly avoided getting his skull dashed against a rock.

He lost all sense of time as he struggled with the big Easterman. A minute or an hour might have passed as they battered each other on the bank of the river, neither able to get the upper hand. Finally they broke apart and his opponent stepped back, breathing hard.

Slowly he became aware they were being watched and he turned. A half dozen faces stared back. One he knew well, beneath the bruises that had turned his boyish features into a discolored mess. Leaf.

One of the men held a long dagger to Leaf's throat. Two others had arrows nocked and drawn. The meanest-looking shook his head and spat on the snow. "Where the rest of you hidin'?"

"The rest of us?" He knew to whom the man referred, or reckoned he did. And if that was the case, he was as good as dead.

"Your gang. Been raiding the settlements near the Borderland for the last year. Left a family murdered in their beds, mother and children and all."

The memory made him wince. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and examined the bloody smear it left. He glanced up. The sky had grown dark as an old bruise.

"I'm waiting for an answer, boy."

He narrowed his eyes and stared at the dead lamb lying skewered by the side of the river. "It wasn't me that did that. Nor Leaf nor Red Ear."

"You gonna tell me the three of you split from the group when it started killing folk?"

"It's the truth."

The leader of the Eastermen spat again. "We'll do this the hard way, then." He gestured at the man holding Leaf. "Drown him in the river. Slowly, mind. Give our friend here time to ponder whether there's anything he should be telling us."

Leaf began to struggle as he was dragged to the river. His friend was little more than a child, in truth, and his efforts to wriggle free were hard to watch, but he didn't turn away. Not even as Leaf's head was forced under the churning water.

"How old are you?" the leader asked once Leaf's head was dragged back up again.

"Sixteen," he replied. He could see Leaf's teeth chattering uncontrollably. The wiry youngster was struggling to catch his breath and his skin had turned a nasty shade of blue.

"Huh. Hardly more than a boy and yet you knocked two of my men senseless. Butchering that woman and her kids must've been easy work."

He was growing angry now. "I told you we didn't do it! All we ever did was steal some livestock. We left Skarn and the others before they reached Eastmeet."

Leaf went into the water again. When he came back up his eyes had rolled back in their sockets. He wasn't struggling anymore.

The leader gestured at the limp figure. "He's done. Finish him and throw the body in the river."

Rage surged through him. He liked Leaf, who was smart and had a cheerful nature despite the fact that he'd cut his uncle's throat rather than spend another night in his bed. Leaf had watched out for him when he had joined Skarn's gang; saved him from a bloody confrontation or two when his pride wouldn't let him back down.

"You drown him and I'll kill you."

The men with bows shifted slightly, their arrows nocked and ready to loose. Their leader gave an ugly little chuckle and nodded at the man holding Leaf. "Drown him."

He charged.

The next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground, staring up at the leaden sky. Snowflakes fluttered down to melt on his face. He reached for his knee and felt the arrow protruding there. A face loomed over him.

"That was stupid. Brave, but stupid. Men!"

He felt himself being dragged across the snow toward the sound of rushing water. They turned him roughly and held him out over the river. He stared across the Icemelt, watching as Leaf's body twisted and spun like its namesake before it finally went under. Then someone took hold of his hair and his own head was pushed down, down, toward that freezing maelstrom of ice...


His would-be executioners hesitated and his head came to a halt an inch above the water. He stared into its savage depths.

"What's your name?" asked the voice. It was deep and powerful and sounded like it was directed at him. He turned his head a fraction and saw that the speaker was the big bastard he had fought earlier.

"What does it matter?" The leader was clearly annoyed. "He's a brigand. Kill him and be done with it."

"The boy's got fire in him. Fire and steel. We could forge him into something with purpose. The spirits know we need fighting men at the Keep."

"He's a cold-blooded killer. A child murderer. Besides, he's just taken an arrow in the knee. Few ever recover from a wound like that."

There was a brief silence. He held his breath, the roar of the Icemelt raging below him.

A strong hand pulled him up, almost gently, and turned him around. "I've never met a boy who put up as much fight as you did. Especially not half-starved. I'll ask again: What's your name, lad?"

He stared back at his savior. The man's face carried a few minor injuries from their earlier struggle, but his eyes betrayed no malice or anger. Only a certain curiosity.

"My name..." he said slowly, trying not to pass out from the pain. He blinked snow from his eyes. "My name..." he said again, "is Kayne."


The gruff voice snapped him awake like a bucket of ice-cold water over the head. The Wolf could rasp his name any number of ways fit to freeze the blood. One glance at Jerek's bald, fire-scarred visage was all the confirmation he needed that things were about to turn ugly.

"Bandits?" he mouthed silently. Jerek nodded and scowled into the receding night. The grim warrior's twin axes were already unharnessed, brutal implements of death that had taken more lives than Kayne could count.

The old Highlander pushed himself painfully to his feet, rubbing sleep from his eyes. They hadn't bothered to light a campfire. It was the height of summer and, besides, they'd hoped to avoid drawing attention. Hoped to avoid a situation like this.

He unsheathed his greatsword and squinted into the darkness. Not a damn thing, he thought sourly. His eyesight was getting worse.

Jerek's senses, on the other hand, seemed as sharp as ever. His friend did the lion's share of the sentry duty, and though neither man had spoken of it, Kayne was beginning to feel guilty. There was only so much guilt a man could take. And the older you got, the more difficult it became to bear the weight.

A twig snapped somewhere nearby. An arrow hissed through the air and thudded into the grass six feet from where the horses were tethered. They snorted and shifted nervously.

Kayne sighed. He hated archers. They were little better than wizards, in his estimation, though at least most had the decency not to prance around in what was, when it came right down to it, a glorified dress. A sliver of the dream he had just woken from flickered in the dark pits of his mind, and he glanced down at his left knee. The memory of that ancient agony made him wince.

Jerek motioned to his left and stalked off, crouching low and weaving from side to side. Kayne followed his lead, though the effort of bending caused his back to complain something fierce.

He thought he saw the shadows shift ahead. Bandits normally traveled in small groups, the better to strike hard and fast and make a quick escape. There were unlikely to be many of them. If they could take out one or two, the rest would scatter soon enough.

Suddenly, he sensed movement to his right. Careless of his creaking knees, he dived into a roll, coming out of it with his greatsword raised high, prepared to cleave whoever it was in half.

But it was only Jerek, his eyes glittering in the ghostly light. The Wolf spat on the grass and shook his head. "They fled," he said. "Best we get moving. No sense waiting to be picked off in broad daylight."

Kayne nodded. Bandits were always a risk when crossing the Badlands, as the two men knew all too well from recent experience.

They returned to camp to find their packs missing.

"Pricks stole our bags," growled Jerek, never one to mince his words. He reached up and began tugging at his beard, the way he always did when he was on the verge of flying off into a rage.

Kayne closed his eyes and leaned on his greatsword. This was an inauspicious start to their journey. Three weeks had passed since they'd departed Dorminia, and the wounds they'd suffered during the battle for the city had forced them to rest for a time. Jerek's injuries in particular were nasty--at least two broken ribs and a cracked cheekbone. But the Wolf would rather pass out in the saddle than delay another week. Jerek hated crowds. He hated soft, Lowlander comforts. He hated pretty much everything, truth be told.

"At least we still have the horses," Kayne grunted. He walked over to the mounts, shaking his head ruefully. "We could ride back to Ashfall and resupply," he suggested, though he already knew what the answer would be.

Jerek shot him a dark look. "I ain't going back there. Place is a shithole."

Kayne couldn't argue the point. Ashfall was appropriately named. The black dust got everywhere, blown in by swirling winds from the Demonfire Hills to settle on Dorminia's northernmost vassal town. Ashfall wasn't a place either man wanted to return to in a hurry.

"Guess we ride on," Kayne said, sheathing his sword and pulling himself onto his mount. The sky was lightening, midnight blue fading to iron gray as night gave way to morning. He studied the area as Jerek climbed onto his own horse, a black stallion that accepted his scowling burden with an ease that would have surprised the stable master who sold them the beast. Jerek had a way with animals he lacked with people.

The land ran flat for miles in every direction. Wild grasses warred with small copses of oak and elm and beech. The daylight would soon reveal their brilliant shades of gold and green.

Farther north, Kayne knew, these vibrant colors would become muted. The grass would grow dull and sparse, and scrub would replace tree until the Badlands truly began--a vast stretch of barren country once home to the nomadic Yahan horse tribes before the Godswar broke the land. The last time he and Jerek had passed through, the place had been fair crawling with bandits. Given the trail of corpses the two Highlanders had left behind, Kayne figured the Bandit King would be in no mood to welcome them back with open arms.

As they rode, he watched Jerek with concern. The Wolf looked to be in some pain. Likely he was nursing one of his injuries. Kayne's own wounds still hurt, especially the knife slash in his stomach that had threatened to turn rotten. The flesh was clean and had knitted back together, but the scar was still raw. He paid it little mind. There were some wounds that never healed, wounds that festered deep in the soul and ultimately did more to break a man than any bodily hurt. The spirits knew he carried enough of those scars himself, but the news he'd received back at the Grey City lent him hope that the largest of them might not follow him to the grave. For the first time in many months, he had a purpose. Something to live for.

He let go of the reins and squeezed the coin purse hanging at his belt. Forty golden spires and a handful of silver scepters--a large sum of coin by anyone's standards. He and Jerek had been through hell to earn it. It wasn't every day you helped liberate a city from a tyrant. He'd made friends down in the Trine, met some good men and women--and a few some way off good, but interesting nonetheless. In different circumstances he might have been tempted to stay. Instead he and the Wolf had left Dorminia as soon as they had collected their pay. The other treasure nestled inside that pouch had changed everything. It was the reason he was riding back north. Back to the High Fangs. Back to the place he had once called home.


Jerek pointed at the thicket of trees just ahead. Kayne leaned forward on his brown mare and squinted, but saw nothing save an indistinct green blur. He shook his head in frustration. He could remember a time when he had thought thirty was old. By forty, a man was past his prime. By fifty, a man's fighting days should be ancient history, stories to tell the grandchildren. Yet here he was into his sixth decade and still doing the same old shit, except now his body was falling apart and taking a piss was a tougher battle than killing a man.

He pulled back on his reins and fell in behind Jerek. They turned away from the stand of trees and urged the horses to a run. A moment later a group of armed men on horseback burst out from behind the trees. He counted five, and Jerek grunted to draw attention to three more emerging from a thicket ahead.

"We're not getting by those without a fight," Kayne said, eyeing the men warily. The two Highlanders spurred their horses on, wind streaming through Kayne's gray hair and dancing around Jerek's hairless scalp. Kayne risked a glance behind him. The riders giving chase were gaining fast. "Shit," he muttered.

They were never going to outpace the bandits; the Highlanders' mounts were of reasonable stock, but the horses of these steppes were renowned the world over. The sudden disappearance of the vanished Yahan tribes had gifted the Bandit King the finest horses in the land.

Three of the riders pulled alongside them, easily keeping pace. The leader raised a hand with what looked suspiciously like a flourish. "Surrender!" he called out in dramatic fashion. "Flee and your lives shall be forfeit."

Jerek narrowed his eyes and spat over the side of his horse. Surrender was the last thing on his mind, Kayne reckoned. More likely the Wolf intended to cut a bloody path right through them.

He lowered his voice so he hoped only Jerek could hear. "Better we do this on the ground. We're outnumbered four to one, and I'm not much for fighting on horseback."

For a moment he thought his companion would ignore him, but a few seconds later Jerek tugged at his reins and brought his stallion to an abrupt halt. Kayne did the same, hoping he hadn't just made a terrible mistake.

They dismounted as the bandits moved quickly to surround them. The leader slid off his mount with an easy grace, even seeing fit to sketch a quick bow, to Jerek's evident annoyance.

"Well." The bandit leader stroked his thin mustache; his jet-black hair was bound in a ponytail and the hilt of a fancy sword stuck out from the belt at his waist, which was cinched tight around gray leather armor. Kayne swallowed a sneeze as the fragrant scent of the bandit tickled his nose. The man smelled faintly of perfume.

"Well," the dapper outlaw repeated. He flashed a smile, revealing bright white teeth. "I believe we have ourselves a robbery. I would like to say you gave us quite the chase, but that would be a lie."

Kayne watched Jerek out of the corner of his right eye. The Wolf's teeth were grinding together, explosive rage mere seconds away. This dandy was rubbing him the wrong way something fierce.

"I'm gonna make a suggestion," Kayne said carefully. "We pay you a few coin to buy safe passage. Then you bid us a pleasant journey and we part ways, all peaceful-like."

The bandit leader raised a gloved hand to stroke thoughtfully at his chin. "I see you are familiar with our customs. That pouch at your waist will indeed do nicely. As will your weapons--there is always need for good steel in these parts."

"Go fuck yourself."

Every man present immediately turned to stare at Jerek.

"I ain't handing my axes over to some faggot," the Wolf explained unhelpfully.

Kayne tried not to let the despair show on his face as steel whispered from sheaths all around them. To his credit, the bandit leader kept his sword at his belt. "I do not believe," the mustached outlaw said slowly, "that you are in a position to refuse." He pointed at the purse hanging from Kayne's belt. "What's in the bag, old fellow?" he asked amiably.

Kayne's blue eyes narrowed at the insult, but he untied the pouch nonetheless and tugged it open to expose the glittering contents for all the bandits to see. "Forty golden spires," he said, trying his best to keep his tone friendly. He gave the purse a shake to demonstrate, but in his annoyance he misjudged it and the real treasure he kept hidden within spilled out onto the grass.

Shit. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so he settled on a manic grin.

"Forty golden spires--and what else? A collection of precious gems, perhaps?" The bandit chuckled, a rich, throaty sound. He gestured at the small bundle that lay wrapped in cloth. "What are you trying to hide? Hand it over."

"I can't do that," replied Kayne. There was iron in his voice now, a hard edge he couldn't will away, though he knew where it would lead. Jerek met his eyes and in that moment they both understood what was about to happen.

The bandit leader sighed again, clearly savoring the drama of it all. He shook his head in mock regret. "Then we shall take it by force."

"Uncle," a small voice piped up. It was the youngest of the bandits, the lad nearest the leader. Kayne studied him with a frown. He was little more than a boy, a wiry figure with green eyes and bright red hair. Too young to be keeping such company.

"Hush, Brick." The leader waved a dismissive hand.

"But these men..." Brick tried again. The older bandit leaned across and cuffed him around the back of the head.

"I said hush. Where are your manners? I didn't raise you to be a barbarian. Not like these brutes."

"That's a bit harsh, boss," said one of the bandits, a hint of reproach in his voice.

Their leader raised an eyebrow. "I was talking about the Highlanders." He placed a gloved hand on the hilt of his sword. With his other hand he drew his forefinger dramatically across his throat. "Kill them."

Brodar Kayne tossed the coin pouch into the air.

It sailed across the circle of bandits; their hungry eyes were drawn to the gold spilling out of it like flies to a corpse. The distraction lasted only a moment, but in that short time several things happened.

Kayne reached behind him, tugged his sword free of its sheath and beheaded the brigand nearest him. An ax arced through the air, spinning end over end, and thudded into the chest of the bandit opposite Jerek. The impact dropped the bandit like a stone, blood painting the shocked faces of the men on either side. The Wolf was on them in an instant, his remaining ax cleaving through leather and bone.

Only the bandit leader reacted to this surprise turn of events, vaulting quickly onto his horse. He kicked down and sent his mount racing away without so much as a backward glance.

One bandit ran at Kayne with his scimitar raised, yelling in that pointless way that men who'd never been in a real fight often did. Kayne knocked aside his awkward swing, drove a boot into the man's stomach and sent him sprawling. He was still fumbling desperately for his weapon when the old warrior finished him off.

An arrow whistled over Kayne's shoulder. He ducked low, gritting his teeth against the spasm of pain that shot down his back. The youngster, Brick, was reaching for his quiver again, utter terror in his emerald eyes. The other bandit was already sighting down his bow. It was aimed straight at Kayne.

He caught the glint of metal in the corner of his vision and the archer's head suddenly burst like a melon, an explosion of gore and chunks of bone. The body tumbled to the ground, the handle of Jerek's ax sticking out from the broken mess that had been the man's head.

And only one bandit remained.

Kayne met Brick's eyes and held them as the lad's freckled hand fumbled with the bow. There were thirty feet between them. "You any good with that?" Kayne asked conversationally, wiping his greatsword dry on the corpse at his feet. Jerek was inching closer to the ax buried in the chest of the first man he'd killed.

"Good enough," replied Brick with admirable conviction. He got the arrow nocked and drew his bowstring.

"You already missed me once," Kayne replied evenly. "Best make your next shot a good one. Don't reckon you'll get another chance." He nodded pointedly at Jerek, who was bending down slowly to retrieve his weapon, face grim with the promise of death.

He could see the boy's resolve beginning to waver. "I don't want to die," he said, sounding awfully young. He stared around wildly at the bodies of his comrades. At the ruin of a man's head, mangled brain leaking through his shattered skull.

"None of us do. But it's an ugly business, robbing folk."

Brick's eyes jumped from Kayne to Jerek and back again, the bow in his hands twitching one way and then the other as he tried to keep both men in his sights. "I know who you are. You're the Highlanders who killed dozens of Asander's men. The Bandit King has a bounty on your heads."

Kayne sighed. "Aye," he replied. "That's us."

"I'll ride away and won't look back," Brick said, desperation in his voice. "I won't tell anyone you're here. I give you my word!"

Bit late for that now, lad. I let you go free, you'll bring every bandit in the Badlands down on us.

His heart sank at the knowledge of what had to be done. He steeled himself and walked slowly over to the boy, then thrust out a bloodied hand. "Give me the bow and we got ourselves a deal."

Brick hesitated and let the string go slack. Brodar Kayne took the bow with a grateful nod.

With his other hand, he punched Brick hard in the face.

* * *

"We should kill him. Get it done quick."

Kayne rubbed at his bristled chin. He glanced up at the stars overhead, then down at the groaning figure strapped to the saddle on the horse beside him.

"He's just a boy."

"You'd killed a man at his age, Kayne, and you know it."

Jerek had been less than impressed to find Brick still breathing. The Wolf had calmed down now, furious rage replaced by sullen anger. In Kayne's experience the latter tended to linger a fair old while.

"Best not to use me as a yardstick, I reckon."

Jerek spat. They rode on in silence, heading ever northward into the wilds that lay beyond the Trine. Another day or two and they'd be well inside the Badlands.

"The Bandit King ain't forgotten about us," Jerek finally said. "Chances are his cousin Fivebellies ain't either. You heard the kid. There's a bounty on our heads."

"I know. Not much for it now."

"Kid's uncle will come looking for him too. You thought about that?"



"Not much for it now."

Jerek shook his head, the moonlight casting a shine on his bald scalp. "You're turning into a right old pussy and that's a fact."

Kayne sighed. "Age will do that to you."

Jerek snorted in reply.

An hour later they reined in their horses and set up camp. They bundled Brick off his saddle and onto the ground. The boy had a big purple bruise on his cheek, but no permanent damage. Kayne shook his head ruefully. There had been a time when his right hook was guaranteed to break a man's jaw.

"You awake?" He gave the waterskin he was holding a shake, sprinkling a few drops over Brick's face.

"Urgh! Leave me alone."

Jerek jabbed a booted foot none too gently into Brick's ribs. "Shift, you lazy prick."

"Ow! Where... where am I?"

Kayne took a bite out of a chunk of bread and gave it a good hard chew. "I'd like to say among friends," he said, around mouthfuls. "But the truth is that you're our captive and you'd best do what we say or we'll more than likely kill you."

He gave Brick a moment for this to sink in. "Where's my uncle Glaston?" the boy asked.

"First hint of trouble and he fled like a startled deer. A right coward, your uncle."

"He's no coward! He's the smartest man I know."

"He was smart enough to save his own skin, I'll give him that."

"You don't understand," said Brick. "Asander the Bandit King would have killed me if it wasn't for him."

"You're not on good terms with the Bandit King?"

Brick shook his head and touched his bruised cheek. "We were fleeing south to escape him. We only wanted your food and whatever coin we could steal. We're not murderers."

Kayne raised a thick eyebrow but decided to let that pass. He was silent for a moment, trying to see a way forward that didn't involve murdering the lad. "Right, Brick," he said. "Here's how it's going to be. You'll ride with us, act as our guide through this land. Do as you're told and you can have your horse back when we reach the Purple Hills."

"Uncle Glaston won't abandon me."

"Then you'll just have to explain the situation when he shows his face again. I'll untie your legs, but your wrists are staying bound for now."

He cut through the rope around Brick's legs and then handed him a heel of bread and the rest of the waterskin. The boy tore hungrily into the bread, the right side of his mouth doing all the work. Kayne felt a moment of pity for the young bandit. He shook his head sadly, remembering a small body disappearing beneath the Icemelt all those years ago.

Jerek was seeing to the horses. Kayne lowered his aching body to the ground and settled back against the trunk of an oak. Then he reached into the coin purse at his belt and rummaged around inside. It felt lighter than before--they'd lost a handful of spires and scepters during the fight with the bandits. He figured it was coin well spent.

With great care he removed the items wrapped inside the bag. The protective cloth had become stained with blood during the fight, but he was relieved to find none of the contents were soiled.

He stared down at them, cradling them delicately in his palm. His three most precious treasures.

A lock of Mhaira's hair, chocolate brown.

The ring she had presented to him for their joining ceremony: a plain band of silver. It was still bright despite the passing of the years.

The small knife he had fashioned for Magnar: the traditional gift a father presents to his son on his fourteenth naming day, when a boy officially becomes a man. He ran a finger softly down the dull blade.

Jerek walked over, and Kayne noticed that he limped slightly. The Wolf must have taken a wound in the fighting earlier that day. He hadn't mentioned it. He never did.

Kayne felt a fresh wave of guilt, the terrible burden of truths he had kept hidden for so long.

Jerek watched him, his scarred face unreadable. If the Wolf noticed the tears threatening Kayne's eyes he betrayed nothing. "We'll find her," he said simply. He kicked off his boots and was snoring almost as soon as he hit the ground.

Kayne rewrapped the objects in his hand and placed them carefully back inside the pouch. He glanced over at Brick, who was staring out into the night, no doubt wondering when his uncle might return and attempt a rescue.

He got himself as comfortable as he could, and then he too settled back to watch the wilderness. Time and again his failing eyes were drawn to the north.

A thousand or more miles away, the wife he had until recently thought dead waited for him. He would find Mhaira; put things right between him and his son if he could. Then he and the Shaman would have their reckoning.

After two long years, the Sword of the North was coming home.

The wharf was crowded with people--a big stinking mass of humanity sweltering in the noon sun. Most appeared to be poor and desperate, though Eremul the Halfmage wondered whether a few of the "volunteers" packed onto the docks weren't in actual fact bored merchants' sons seeking the thrill of adventure.

The city folk who would remain behind watched mournfully as their loved ones shuffled down the gangplanks toward the huge ships floating listlessly in the harbor. They would shortly be sailing west, out over the Broken Sea to the Celestial Isles. The majority looked terrified at the prospect. One or two seemed strangely eager. Eremul's thin lips twisted in contempt.

They believe they are going to return from the Isles rich men. It takes a special kind of moron to place his head in a noose and expect the hangman to make him a prince.

A month had passed since Salazar's assassination. During that time it had become clear to Eremul that Dorminia's new ruler was no savior, no great deliverer compelled by altruistic desires. As far as he could see the city had merely swapped one tyrant for another. The White Lady of Thelassa was every bit as totalitarian as Salazar had been. Only subtler in her methods.

"Are you the Halfmage?" someone drawled behind him. He twisted his neck and frowned into the unctuous grin of a round-faced fellow--a merchant judging by the extravagant purple doublet straining over his corpulent frame. The gold buttons alone must have been worth a small fortune, enough to feed dozens of starving mouths down in the Warrens.

Eremul wheeled his chair around and pointed a slender finger at the robes hanging over the stumps of his legs. "Know any other horrifically maimed wizards?"

The merchant's watery eyes narrowed slightly. "No."

"In that case, you have surmised correctly: I am indeed the Halfmage." He shifted uncomfortably on his chair. The fabric of his robes clung damply to his arse in the sweltering heat. He would need to wash again before his visit to the Obelisk.

"You're a hero," the merchant said, refusing to take the hint and piss off. "I heard they had to scrape the Tyrant off the streets once you were done with him."

Eremul sighed. He was beginning to tire of his new status--not least because it was based on an outrageous lie.

"Look at all those brave pioneers preparing to sail," the merchant continued. "A testament to the indomitable spirit of this great city."

They watched the line of men and women filtering down the gangplank into the carrack currently docked. The ships were all Thelassan vessels, boasting names like Maiden Voyager and Mistress of the Seas. Their flags hung slack in the afternoon sun.

"I almost wish I could go with them," the merchant declared. "They say the Celestial Isles are filled with riches."

"Riches this city will not see a copper of." Eremul couldn't keep the anger from his voice. "The White Lady has already helped herself to a generous slice of Dorminia's wealth, as evidenced by the dispossessed nobles furiously plotting rebellion."

"You are against those privileged parasites having their assets stripped?" The merchant sounded surprised.

Eremul frowned. "On the contrary, I fucking love the idea. But I note that none of the confiscated coin has filtered down to the proverbial man on the street. The poor are worse off than they were under Salazar."

The merchant shrugged and waved a dismissive hand at the scattering crowd. "Then they have only themselves to blame. Some of us are doing rather well under our new Magelord. I've always believed in an honest day's pay for an honest day's work."

"And if there is no 'honest day's work'?" Eremul asked softly. "What do you suppose became of those who served the nobles? The maids and the cooks and the gardeners? The White Lady imposes heavy taxes while food shortages grow worse. One might almost suspect her of intentionally starving the city to force people to take the Pioneer's Deal."

The merchant's bluster was replaced by the anxious look of a man not at all keen on the direction the conversation had taken. "You shouldn't talk like that," he said, glancing around nervously.

Eremul's expression twisted into one of mock confusion. "Whyever not? Are you suggesting we still have reason to fear speaking the truth?"

The merchant wiped sweat from his face and adjusted his collar. "You of all people should be glad the White Lady now rules here. Good has triumphed over evil."

Eremul sneered unpleasantly. "This is the Age of Ruin. There is no good and evil."

There was a sudden commotion north of the harbor. A score of men in chains were shuffling toward the docks, as motley and sinister a bunch as the Halfmage had ever seen. A handful of the White Lady's spectral handmaidens shepherded them along.

Eremul watched the group with interest. He found his eyes drawn to one prisoner in particular: a tall figure wearing a black coat that must have been grand once upon a time but was now a tattered thing, too large for his gaunt frame. The way he carried himself was different from the others; where they slouched, he strode along proudly. For some reason, the sight brought to mind a great bird whose wings had been clipped.

The prisoner turned his head toward Eremul, who flinched and shrank back in his chair. The prisoner wore a red cloth covering his eyes, and his jaw was clenched so ferociously that he looked like he might bite through his tongue. Despite the fact he couldn't possibly see through the cloth, the Halfmage had the unsettling sensation the man was somehow staring straight at him.

The strange prisoner was led into the hold of a ship a little apart from the others, and Eremul remembered to breathe again. He felt suddenly embarrassed. Getting spooked by a blind old jailbird was a troubling reminder of just how badly Isaac's betrayal had shaken him.

"You look like you've seen a ghost," said the merchant next to him.

Eremul had forgotten the blustering idiot was even there. "It's nothing," he replied irritably. "Did you see the prisoner in the black coat? There was something odd about that man."

"Huh." The merchant scratched his head. "Just another criminal who deserves whatever he has coming to him."

"Indeed." Eremul was already pushing his chair past the portly fellow. "Let's hope we all get what's coming to us," he muttered.

The Halfmage wheeled himself through the maze of narrow streets that coiled out from the harbor, deliberately avoiding the broader avenues. His newly found fame ensured that he was no longer the subject of casual mockery. Instead, despite all evidence to the contrary, the people of Dorminia now insisted on treating him as the resident friendly wizard.

Why let the evidence of one's own eyes get in the way of a good narrative?

The stream of folk arriving at the depository seeking some magical boon had almost driven him mad. He had threatened to curse the next idiot who came knocking with the cock-rot. Petty stuff coming from a man celebrated for having slain a Magelord in a wizardly duel, he had to admit, but it seemed to have done the trick.

The sheer absurdity of it all still tickled him. The tyrant Salazar--arguably the most powerful wizard ever to have lived--defeated by him, the Halfmage?

He sniggered and immediately regretted it as the stench of old shit filled his nostrils. The brief conflict with Thelassa had plunged Dorminia's infrastructure into a miserable state. Piles of decaying rubbish blocked a drain in this particular street. Thick black flies and teeming maggots crawled all over the resulting tower of filth. The Halfmage held his breath and cursed silently as he accidentally rode over a stray turd with a squelch.

He was dripping with sweat by the time he reached the depository, a nondescript building that housed the city's largest collection of books outside the Obelisk's great library, which had thankfully escaped unscathed from the recent damage to the tower. Eremul found pleasure in very little. Books were among the few things he still held close to his withered heart--as was the scruffy little creature that wagged his tail happily at him as he pushed open the door.

"You've been waiting for me," Eremul exclaimed, lifting the brown-haired mongrel onto his lap. Tyro proceeded to lick delightedly at his face. The animal had made a miraculous recovery from his near drowning the night Salazar had obliterated Shadowport, taking to his new master like a duck to water.

Though that is perhaps an unfortunate analogy in the circumstances.

He smiled, enjoying the dog's simple affections. It felt good to smile--a brief respite from the ceaseless barrage of misfortune he had endured over the years.

Horribly maimed by the city's former Magelord. Forced to become an informant, ratting for the Crimson Watch. How quickly things can change.

His eyes settled on the broom leaning in the corner of the room, beside a stack of books. His smile twisted into a frown.

Betrayed by my own manservant. Who were you, Isaac? What were you?

Those particular questions were the subject of his latest obsession. He needed something to fill the void Salazar's death had left. The desire for vengeance had kept him going during his lowest moments; he felt strangely empty without it.

The great poets are full of bullshit. Love has nothing on hatred's capacity to give a man purpose.

He had been offered a new manservant, a perk befitting his status as a member of the new Grand Council. After giving it some thought, he had declined. He was bereft of the dual crutches of his hatred and the thing that had been Isaac, and yet to his own surprise, he found himself managing reasonably well. He doubted his optimism would last--but for now, he would attempt to stand on his own two feet. Metaphorically, at least.

Eremul lowered Tyro gently to the floor. The dog yelped twice and darted off to wriggle under a table. The Halfmage wheeled himself through the archives toward his wash chamber, eager to scrub away the stench of the city. He paused when he noticed something awry with the book on his desk. It was an ancient text that detailed the major races of the northern lands during the Age of Legends. When he'd left earlier that morning he had been reading about the elder race known as the Fade. Somehow the book now lay open on a page depicting a brutish green-skinned humanoid.

He summoned his magic and probed the invisible wards guarding the building against intruders. They ought to have alerted him if anyone had attempted to break into the depository. He found the wards undisturbed.

He inspected the room, finding no sign of any interloper. Tyro poked his head out of his hiding place and yawned. Eremul raised an eyebrow. "It would appear you've developed a taste for ancient history. My thanks for not covering the book in drool."

Tyro watched him stupidly. Then he bolted out from under the desk and attempted to crawl up onto Eremul's lap again, eyes bright with excitement, head bobbing up and down, desperate to have his ears rubbed.

"I trust you won't defecate on anything valuable while I'm at the Obelisk," the Halfmage said. He tried to sound disapproving--but he was smiling as he spoke.

* * *

The Grand Council Chamber was uncomfortably warm despite the late hour. Between the stifling heat, the waffle spilling from the mouths of the magistrates to either side of him, and the incessant banging of the hammers from far above, Eremul's head was beginning to ache. To add to his annoyance, the city's Grand Regent had decided to keep them all waiting.

He frowned down the length of the great darkwood table that dominated the chamber, running his gaze over the robed figures seated there. Chancellor Ardling was one of the few magistrates to have survived the previous regime; the gray steward of the city's finances met his eyes briefly and then glanced away. To his left, Remy argued with a magistrate whose purpose Eremul struggled to recall. Whatever dark deed the new Master of Information had performed to earn his place on the Council, it evidently gnawed at him. He could smell the drink on Remy's breath. It wasn't the first time the ratty spymaster had attended a council meeting half drunk.

Of all the qualities for a city magistrate to possess, a conscience is perhaps the least desirable. It will undo a man faster than any nefarious plot from a rival.

Eremul was well aware of the farcical nature of his own elevation to the Council. Someone had to take the credit for Salazar's death following the mysterious disappearance of his true killer. It fell on Eremul's shoulders to play the part of the hero--a role it was tacitly understood he must accept if he didn't want to vanish without explanation, or be found floating facedown in the harbor. As Master of Magic he had no real say in the running of the city. But then, in truth, neither did anyone else around the table.

We're all actors in a mummer's farce. Puppets dancing to the strings of the White Lady of Thelassa.

There was a bustle of activity near the great iron doors and Dorminia's new Grand Regent finally sauntered into the chamber. At his side was one of the White Lady's handmaidens--the Magelord's eyes and ears in the city. Like the rest of her kind, she was pale of skin, onyx-dark pupils at the center of otherwise colorless eyes. She drifted along in her spotless white robes, casting no shadow despite the lurid orange flames that lit the room.

The Grand Regent's shadow on the other hand was as conspicuous as the insufferable look on his thin face. The man who had until recently served as Salazar's right hand had swapped his black robes for those of a flashy golden hue. Much to Eremul's disgust, he had also donned a circlet of silver in the manner of the Ishari princes of his homeland to the east. It looked ridiculous perched atop his balding head.

Grand Regent Timerus paused briefly beside the obsidian throne at the head of the table, favoring the assembled with a regal smile. Then he lowered himself slowly into the chair with the assurance of one whose bony arse was born to fill its cushioned seat. Eremul felt a flash of annoyance; it was one thing to endure the whims of a Magelord capable of drowning an entire city, quite another to be treated with utter contempt by this treacherous lizard of a man.

"I trust you are all comfortable," Timerus began, knowing full well the magistrates he had kept waiting were sweating like pigs in their thick ceremonial robes. He steepled his fingers in front of his face in that infuriating manner of his. "I understand the Thelassan vessels departed harbor without incident."

"Almost without incident," corrected Marshal Bracka. The newly promoted commander of the Crimson Watch, such as it was, glanced nervously at the White Lady's handmaiden. An outsider might have found the notion that the big marshal was intimidated by a woman half his size ridiculous, but all present had heard the stories of the massacre that had occurred at the western gate during the taking of the city. The handmaidens had scaled sheer walls and snapped the necks of the city's defenders like dry twigs. Bracka himself was still nursing a broken arm from that encounter.

"Do continue," Timerus drawled. He smiled, no doubt relishing the other man's discomfort.

"Rioters set fire to a warehouse on Kraken Street. They were chanting for the leader of the rebels, the woman calling herself Melissan. I had the Watch execute a few and arrest the others."

Timerus arched an eyebrow. "I trust you will discover this Melissan's whereabouts soon."

Bracka frowned and rubbed at his bushy red beard. "Ain't easy in a city this size. Especially not with all these new arrivals."

Chancellor Ardling cleared his throat. Eremul found him to be among the less odious of those present, partly because he was at least competent in his role as Master of Coin, and partly because he simply lacked the imagination for genuine cruelty.

Before Ardling could speak, there was a loud crash from above followed by a piercing scream that grew louder and was then abruptly cut off. "One of the construction workers," said Remy with a small hiccup. "Maybe working them through the night wasn't the wisest idea."

Timerus smiled that humorless smile of his. "This isn't a tyranny, gentlemen. They agreed to the terms. These are difficult times for us all."

Eremul frowned. You smug bastard, he wanted to say. You wouldn't know hardship if it buggered you up the arse with a rusty spear. How much of the city's wealth have you already embezzled?

Ardling cleared his throat again in order to get their attention. "Speaking of difficult times, I am sorry to say our finances are in a precarious state. The damage wrought by the siege weapons was quite extensive."

There was a chorus of nods around the table. Eremul had spent much of his adult life near the harbor and was therefore used to less-than-sparkling streets. For the other magistrates, the sight of rancid sewage and fallen masonry near their homes in the wealthier parts of the city was a new and wholly unwelcome experience.

Lorganna raised a hand. Timerus had made her Civic Relations Minister following the fatal poisoning of half the Council months past. Timerus himself had been one of the participants in that particular plot, an act of treason that had come to light only after Salazar's assassination. The elevation of a woman to the Council had provoked a few disgruntled voices of dissent. As far as Eremul was concerned she was unlikely to prove any worse than the men, and in any case he had always considered himself an equal-opportunity misanthrope.

"The city's liberation cost the lives of many conscripts from the farming towns," Lorganna said. The new Lord Justice stifled a yawn, and Bracka raised his eyes toward the heavens as she continued. "The hinterland settlements are at risk of starvation. The villagers flock here, yet with rising food shortages our own poor can barely afford to eat."

Timerus shrugged a narrow shoulder. "They have been offered the Pioneer's Deal, have they not? Those who volunteer to explore the Isles will be fed and provided clothes and other amenities. Their husbands and wives will be paid a silver scepter each week in their absence."

"A silver hardly stretches to a loaf of bread, my lord. Prices are rising day by day."

The Grand Regent sighed. "The poor shall have to abide. The White Lady has invested much in Dorminia already."

The simmering resentment that had been festering inside Eremul for weeks suddenly bubbled over. "To hell with her investment! What of the sacrifices we've already made? Thousands dead. Hundreds more packed off to the Celestial Isles. This Council will soon rule over a dying city. And famine is not the worst of it," he added, immediately regretting those last words.

Timerus sat back in his throne. He had an angry glint in his eyes, but his interest was piqued. "To what do you refer?"

Eremul took a deep breath. He had been waiting for the right moment to broach this subject. Now was decidedly not the right moment. Still, he would gain nothing by delaying any longer. "I believe we are in great danger," he said carefully. "On the night of Salazar's assassination, I returned home to find my servant waiting for me. At least, I had thought him my servant. He spoke of judgment. Of returning to his homeland to prepare for a crusade. I assure you, this man, Isaac--he was not human." He glanced around the great table. Polite interest warred with incredulity on the faces of the magistrates. "I have spent the past month studying every text in the city that even fleetingly refers to the race we call the Fade. It is my belief they will shortly return to these lands, sailing east across the Endless Ocean."

Timerus raised an eyebrow again. "For what purpose?"

Eremul leaned forward and fixed the Grand Regent with his most foreboding stare. "They intend to destroy us all."

Silence greeted his pronouncement. He had expected laughter or at least a snigger or two. Timerus shook his head. "I do not believe you a stupid man," he said slowly.

That took Eremul by surprise. "I appreciate your generous assessment of my intellect."

"No... you are not stupid. You are broken. Delusional."

"Hang on a gods-damned minute--"

"It all makes sense," Timerus cut in smoothly. "You have lived in fear for so long that you are simply unable to accept your sudden change in fortunes. You cling to your paranoia like a babe to its mother's teats."

Timerus's words poked something raw inside him. Something raw and ugly. "Don't you patronize me, you son of a bitch."

The White Lady's handmaiden twitched. "Watch your tongue," she said in a voice as passionless as stone. "Or be forever silenced."

He knew discretion was the better part of valor, but at that moment he couldn't help himself. "I've heard similar before," he sneered. "You should take care when threatening a wizard. Even a mad fuck like me."

"Enough," ordered Timerus. The hint of concern in that arrogant voice was strangely satisfying.

So he fears I am not bluffing. If I take nothing else from this disaster of an evening, I shall forever treasure that at least.

"You are hereby stripped of your position on the Council," the Grand Regent proclaimed. He pointed one slender finger toward the double doors. "Get out."

Eremul looked around. The assembled magistrates refused to meet his gaze, save for Lorganna, who gave him a tiny nod.

"Good evening, my lady," he said. Then he wheeled himself from the chamber.

Her hands shook. She stared at the man strapped to the chair in the middle of the room. He slumped there, head covered by an old sack pulled tight around his neck. The blood crusting the top of the sack was a dark stain against the filthy canvas. The man's breathing was slow and labored, every inhalation a painful struggle for air. She glanced at the knife in her hand and swallowed hard. Ambryl would be back soon. She was running out of time.

She walked over to the prisoner. The sheer stench of the man almost stopped her in her tracks. He had been here for more than a month and had soiled his breeches countless times. The whole building stank, a foul odor of piss, shit and death.

The room seemed to rock around her, the early-evening bustle from outside growing louder. A woman's laugh mocked her. A beggar's cry carried an edge of concealed menace. A dog barked, once, twice, and then a third time, wilder with every yowl, and suddenly her heart was beating fast and the knife felt slippery in her sweating palms.

She squeezed her eyes shut and blocked out the sounds, taking a few deep breaths to calm herself. She gripped the sack that covered the man's head and dragged it upward. The dried blood and filth caused it to stick against the side of his face. She pulled harder, feeling the coarse material scrape his cheek raw. Ignoring his grunts of pain, she yanked the sack free and tossed it aside in disgust.

"You're an ugly bastard," Sasha said after a moment. Three-Finger's head wound had healed to form a scabby mess. Beneath a brutish brow, piggish eyes blinked away crust accumulated over days spent in perpetual darkness. He had a month's worth of beard on his face, but it was erratic, growing only in the spots where the disease that ravaged his skin failed to reach. Tufts of coarse, graying hair sprouted between patches of purple flesh layered with dirt.

Three-Finger tried to utter something but succeeded only in spraying saliva over his chin. She narrowed her eyes at him. "What did you say?"

This time he managed to spit the words out. "Go fuck yourself, whore." The look he gave her set her heart to hammering again.

Sasha raised the knife and held it in front of his face. "Remember when you told me I had a dirty mouth? You won't hurt anyone ever again."

"Untie my wrists and we'll see about that." He strained against the rope that secured his hands to the back of the chair and unleashed a torrent of curses. She watched him, waiting calmly until he ceased struggling. Eventually he went limp and sagged forward until his head rested on his chest. The wound Ambryl had given him had almost split his skull in half. It was a miracle he was still alive.

"We made it through the chaos at the gates," she said softly. "We were the lucky ones. Creator knows you didn't deserve it, but you had the opportunity to make something of your life. Better men than you died that day. Better women too." She remembered the wizard Brianna, torn apart by Salazar's magic. "You deserve this," she said. He does deserve it, she told herself. He does.

"Do it, then. Get it over with and run back to that preening cock you're so hot for. Does the kid even know I'm here?"

It took Sasha a moment to understand what Three-Finger meant. Then the blackness surged up, threatening to overwhelm her. "Cole hasn't been seen since the night the city was taken," she said numbly.

The prisoner gave an ugly little chuckle. "So he's dead, that it? Kid wanted to be famous and instead he's lying in an unmarked grave somewhere. Life rewards the good guys, don't it just?"

"He was a better man than you'll ever be, Three-Finger." She placed the edge of the knife against his scabrous neck.

"Moryk," the prisoner replied. "My name's Moryk. If you're gonna slit me open like a hog at least call me by the name my ma gave me."

Sasha stared down into the man's beady little eyes. He didn't look dangerous or predatory or even particularly sinister. He just looked pathetic. Her hand wavered, anger replaced by sudden despair.

"To hell with you," she spat. She jerked the knife away from Three-Finger's throat and stumbled over to the desk in the corner of the room. She fumbled around for the drawer pull, struggling to see through eyes blurring with tears. She found the handle, pulled open the drawer and removed the tiny pouch within, then slammed it down on the desk. Ignoring the cord, she jabbed the end of the knife into the pouch and slit it wide open, watching anxiously as the contents spilled out.

Sasha bent over the desk and let the silvery powder carry her away to sweet oblivion.

* * *

She couldn't say what the hour was when Ambryl returned. She thought she heard the door open, but it hardly seemed important enough to demand her attention. Not until she was dragged up from the floor by her hair and slammed back against the side of the warehouse.

Her older sister stared at her, hazel eyes betraying nothing. Sasha grinned stupidly in response.

Ambryl slapped her across the face.

". . . That hurt..." she mumbled, raising a hand to rub at her stinging mouth. She stared at her palm in confusion. It looked whiter than she remembered. "Am I a ghost?" she wondered aloud. The absurdity of the question made her giggle.

Her sister slapped her again, harder. "You are a fool. Gather your senses."

It dawned on Sasha that her hand was covered in hashka. So was her face. She could taste it in her mouth, along with the bitter metallic tang of blood. "I'm sorry," she said. She didn't know why she was sorry. Only that it seemed the right thing to say.

"The rapist is still alive." Her sister gestured at the figure slouched in the chair. "You promised me you would kill him."

Sasha rubbed her nose. It was beginning to burn. Ambryl had lit candles near the door, but the illumination failed to reach Three-Finger, who was a dark silhouette in the middle of the room. Sasha was glad she couldn't see his face. "Murdering him won't change anything," she said slowly. "It won't bring back Cole. Or Garrett. Or the rest of my family."

She had discovered the remains of her foster father inside the temple of the Mother. She had fallen to her knees and sobbed until her eyes were a red ruin. Then she had hurried to Cole's apartment, and from there to Garrett's home, and then to the address of anyone connected with her old rebel group whose name she still recalled. Most wanted nothing to do with her. None knew what had become of Cole.

"I'm your family now," said Ambryl. Her older sister took her chin gently in one hand. "Your true family."

Tears dampened Sasha's eyes. "How could I not know you were alive all these years?"

"Forget that now. It is in the past."

Sasha sniffed and wiped at her tingling nose. "Ambryl--"

"Hush." Her sister's grip tightened slightly. "I asked you not to call me that. Ambryl was a different woman."

"It's who you are. My sister. Not... not Cyreena, or whatever you call yourself now."

"That which is weak must be purged! Purged so that men like this one cannot hurt us as they did all those years ago." Her hand closed around the knife resting on the desk. "Ambryl was weak. Cyreena is not."

Sasha stared numbly at her sister. "What are you doing?"

Ambryl walked across to their prisoner. "Fixing what is broken," she said.

Three-Finger must have seen the look in her eyes, as he renewed his struggles with greater effort than before. There was real fear in his voice now. "Get away from me, you crazy--"

His words became an agonized scream as Ambryl thrust the knife into his thigh, right up to the hilt. She pulled it free and stabbed him again in the shoulder. This time she gave the blade a cruel twist.

Sasha winced. The hashka's effects were wearing off. She watched with dull horror as her sister slowly butchered their captive, one thrust at a time.

Suddenly there was an almighty roar from outside. The warehouse shook, raining down dust. "What was that?" Ambryl demanded, blinking grit from her eyes. A woman screamed somewhere out in the night. The smell of sulfur was heavy in the air.

Sasha felt as if she were going to faint. She knew that evil stench. Dark memories of the massacre at the Wailing Rift wormed their way into her mind. "Someone's using alchemy," she whispered. "Explosive powder. We should go."

Ambryl stared down at the wretched figure of Three-Finger. Spreading pools of blood gleamed in the glow of the flames from outside. "First I will dispose of this animal," she said coldly. She raised the knife.

Something small and round smashed through the window. Sasha watched with growing dread as it rolled a few times before coming to a halt near the door. "Get down!" she screamed. Ambryl only gave her a puzzled look, so Sasha charged across the room and shouldered her to the floor.

An instant later the firebomb shattered.

The heat was extreme, enough to singe the hair on Sasha's head. She struggled to her knees, dragging her dazed sister up beside her. Half the room had become a raging inferno. Flames licked at the rafters high above, threatening to bring the whole building crashing down on them.

"Come on," Sasha gasped, pulling Ambryl toward the door. They staggered out of the warehouse and into the night. Sasha coughed wildly, gagging so hard she vomited up her lunch.

"Are you hurt, sister?" Ambryl still clutched the bloody knife in her hand. Sasha wiped her mouth and shook her head.

"What about me?" rasped Three-Finger's despairing voice. Sasha squinted through the haze of gray smoke now billowing from the doorway and spat the last of the bile from her mouth. "To hell with you," she whispered.

They hurried away from the burning building. The storehouse opposite was ablaze--fire was spreading down the entire row of warehouses east of the Hook. The world seemed to spin around Sasha as they ran, the glow of hungry flames blurring with the random flares of imaginary light that still sizzled through her drug-addled brain.

The sisters lurched into the plaza, almost barging into an elderly man who had his hands pressed over his face. Blood dribbled between his fingers. Other city folk gathered nearby, some terribly burned, a few sobbing or wailing uncontrollably. A woman cradled a small body in her arms. Sasha saw the blackened thing that was all that remained of the woman's son or daughter--it was hard to say which--and almost vomited again.

Ambryl grabbed one man by the shoulder and spun him around. He noted the knife she held and flinched back. "What's going on?" Ambryl demanded.

"Rebels," he spluttered. "Melissan's fanatics."

Sasha was about to ask how the fanatics had got hold of alchemical powder when a commotion broke out. Two men and a woman sprinted into the plaza. The nearest man hurled something at the Watchmen chasing them. There was a flash, and then one of the guards was rolling over and over on the ground, smoke rising from his smoldering tabard. The remaining Watchmen quickly backed away.

"Tell your Magelord this," shouted the female rebel. "The sons and daughters of Melissan will not rest until the White Lady withdraws her claim to the city!" She reached under her cloak, grasping for something--

And then suddenly froze, eyes wide in confusion. Her comrades were similarly paralyzed, bodies held in contorted postures.

Sasha recognized the heavy tingle of magic in the air. Her eyes swept the plaza. There he was--the Halfmage. He was focused on the rebels, his thin lips working silently. Without thinking she turned to Ambryl. "Give me that knife."

He didn't notice her until she was right beside him. Sweat beaded on his olive skin to run down a surprisingly youthful face. He was barely into his thirties and yet the wizard's green eyes held more cynicism than the death gaze of the bitterest spinster.

"I want answers," she said, looming over him, the point of the knife angled threateningly toward his head.

"Not now," he hissed. His eyes flickered to her, widened when they saw Ambryl beside her. "You!" he exclaimed.

Whatever spell he was working faltered in his surprise, and the female rebel lurched back into motion. Before she could toss her firebomb, one of the White Lady's handmaidens crossed the plaza in a blur and casually snapped her neck.

Suddenly free of the magic that held them in place, the two men made a break for it. There was another streak of movement and then one was flying backward through the air, his killer clutching his beating heart in one porcelain hand. The lone survivor stared around wildly and changed direction, heading straight toward Sasha.

Lightning crackled from the Halfmage's extended digit, striking the rebel dead in the chest. He jerked for a few seconds and flopped to the ground just in front of them.

"Are you trying to get us killed?" the Halfmage spat, voice thick with anger.

Sasha looked down at the rebel's sizzling body and swallowed when she saw the ceramic ball he clutched in his death grip. It's the moon dust, she realized. I'm not thinking clearly.

Ambryl was staring at the Halfmage with a queer expression. "I'm not surprised to find you here. You seem to show up whenever some disaster befalls the city. Like a maggot drawn to death."

The wizard sneered. "I could say the same for you. This night could hardly get any worse. I need only return home to find Isaac pleasuring himself in my bed and my evening would be complete."

"Isaac?" Despite the anger she felt, Sasha was intrigued at the mention of the strange manservant.

"Better you don't ask." The Halfmage frowned at the body of the rebel. "What's that?" He leaned forward in his chair and pointed at the corpse. The man's shirt had burned away, leaving his ruined chest exposed.

Sasha knelt down and examined the corpse, grateful that her drug-abused nose was deadened to the stench of charred flesh. "There's a tattoo on his neck. Some kind of script."

"What does it say?"

"I don't know the language," she snapped. "And you're mistaken if you think I'm doing you any favors. I came to you asking for help. You slammed your door in my face."

The Halfmage glanced around. Sasha followed his gaze. More Watchmen were arriving, clutching buckets of water drawn from cisterns beneath the city. Small groups were banding together to put out the fires that still raged to the east. A physician tended to the wounded, implements neatly arranged beside him.

"Fine," the Halfmage said wearily. "Come with me to the depository and I'll answer your questions. I have some of my own." He frowned down at the smoking body. "First I must ask you to do something for me."

She narrowed her eyes. "What?"

"I need that tattoo." His eyes went to the knife and lingered there.

Sasha looked down at the corpse, and then at the blade in her hand. "You don't mean..."

"Yes. Try not to make a mess."

With a heavy sigh, she bent to her task.

He drifted on a river of stars; stared at a vast blackness stretching for infinity.

Who was he? He thought he might remember if he concentrated hard enough, yet something about that idea struck him as dangerous. Better to forget. To embrace dissolution.

He closed his eyes--or at least stopped seeing. It didn't matter who he was or might have been. He was at peace now, a weightless vessel pulled along by the cosmic torrent below, surrounded by an endless sea of perfect tranquility.

And yet...

There was something. Discordance--a ripple in the absolute calm. He tried to ignore it. To let awareness slip away, become one with the emptiness.

But it was persistent.

* * *

"Bastard's alive."


"He's alive. I just saw him twitch."

"You sure? I've never seen a man that pale still drawing breath."

"Me neither, mate. But his chest is moving. See?"

"Well, bugger me."

"Come again?"

"Bugger me, I said."

A heavy pause.

"Did you mean that literally or... what's the word... figuratively? It's just... we've been stuck on this ship for days now. A man has needs."

"The fuck you talking about?"

"Forget it. We gonna take his boots or what?"

"Yeah. You grab the left foot. I'll take the right."

"Hang on. There's something leaking from his stomach."

Another pause.

"Kid's bleeding pretty bad."

"Yeah. Someone shanked him good. Nothing worse than a gut wound."

"Let's grab his boots and get the hell away. Before those ghost women discover we're down here..."

And then only silence.

* * *

"You came," Tyrannus rumbled in a voice seething with spite. The Black Lord had been staring down at the world below, his divine gaze piercing the vast divide between the celestial plane and the mortal realm with an ease that only the gods could ever comprehend.

The newcomer was unmoved by the hatred in that divine voice. The Black Lord Tyrannus was one of the oldest Primes, birthed when the earliest of men first walked the earth.

But he was the Reaver, and he was older still.

"I came," he agreed, his own voice as cold as the grave, deeper than the hidden abysses at the bottom of the greatest oceans.

They stood together in silence and watched the circle of the world far below. Armies clashed; magic flared; men died.

"We are winning," the Black Lord growled eventually. Such was the bitterness in his voice that his words might well have elicited confused laughter from another god.

The Reaver did not laugh. There was little in all the cosmos in which he found amusement. "The wizards of the Alliance retreat before the Congregation's armies, that much is true. The gholam has left a trail of devastation in its wake. But the Mother's treacherous high priestess may yet swing the balance again."

Tyrannus snarled. The black leathery skin of his hideous face wept venom that dribbled from his chin and plummeted from the heavens. Moments later a dark storm gathered on the battlefield far below. The skies opened, unleashed a torrent of acidic rain so caustic it stripped flesh from bone, killing hundreds on both sides.

The Reaver shook his head, yet his skull-visage remained impassive. "You let your emotions rule you. Your fury will not aid our cause. No god may sway events in the world below through direct intervention. It is the one rule that binds us all."

Tyrannus turned away, clenching ebony claws into boulder-sized fists capable of prodigious acts of violence. "I know well the rules that bind us, Bone Lord. It is why I summoned you here."

The Reaver raised one rotting arm and rubbed absently at his fleshless cheek. "I am intrigued. I would never have acquiesced to your outrageous request otherwise."

The Black Lord met his gaze, eyes of furious black fire meeting those worm-eaten and rheumy with age. "I am considering freeing the Nameless."

He had thought emotion something long lost to him, but at the other god's words the Reaver felt a flicker of something close to the memory of fear. "You speak of madness. The Nameless is a thing without purpose in the Pattern of Creation."

Tyrannus smashed a huge fist down into his palm, creating an explosion of sound that would have shattered the eardrums of any mortal within a hundred miles. "Humanity has grown arrogant!" he hissed. "They abandon us as their forebears once did. Even in the brief passage of their short lives, they believe themselves elevated above the need for worship."

"And so, in response, you would unleash the Nameless upon them?"

"I would restore humanity to its rightful place! Trembling in the shadows! Praying to us for their salvation! The mightiest among the gifted are a threat even to the Pantheon. That was never a part of the Creator's design."

The Reaver stared down at the battle raging below. Every death was an affirmation of his efficacy, in its own way a silent prayer. True, freeing the Nameless and its kin would serve him well--they would bring death to the world in catastrophic numbers. Yet the Reaver was ancient, the oldest of the Primes save for the Mother. Millions had already passed through his gates. Patience was ever his greatest virtue.

"I will not help in this," the Reaver declared, with the finality of a heart beating its last. "The Nameless would wreak devastation on an unknown scale. We may not be able to imprison it again once its purpose was fulfilled."

"Then you doom us all!" Tyrannus snarled. He took a step toward the Reaver. The heavens shuddered beneath the weight of his divine fury.

"Not all," the Reaver replied. His skull face twisted into a humorless grin. "I have made plans should the impossible come to pass."

"And if I choose to end you now?" Tyrannus roared. He raised his brutal hands and suddenly clutched a great flail forged of utter darkness.

The Reaver laughed then, a grating sound like a thousand tombstones grinding into place. "You threaten to kill death itself? I will still be here when you finally pass through my gates, Black Lord. Until there is nothing left to die and my purpose is fulfilled. It was written in the Creator's Pattern..."

". . . in the Creator's Pattern..."

". . . Pattern..."

* * *

"He's twitching again."

"Shit! I was sure he was done for. He's a stubborn one."

"What's that in his hand?"

"Looks like a dagger. Is that a ruby in the hilt? Quick, grab it."

"I can't. He won't let go."

"What do you mean he won't let go? He's near dead! Cut off his fingers if you have to."

"Wait--who's that?"

The sound of clanking chains growing closer.

"Hey, you! What are you doing down here?"

No answer.

"Ha--he's blind! Probably went looking for a piss and wandered in here by mistake."

The other voice. Louder now, and slightly amused. "Best turn around, old fellow. This place isn't safe."

No answer. The footsteps did not slow.

"I said turn around, you deaf old--"

A brief flash of light and the beginning of a scream abruptly cut off.

Then silence once more.

* * *

He was floating again. Back on the river of stars. The pain was still there, but it was beginning to fade.

The incandescent stream that carried him along seemed to gather speed. He was moving faster now. He smiled faintly. His journey was almost done. Soon the suffering would end. He could finally sink into oblivion.

A voice called out a name somewhere in the endless depths of space. There was something familiar about that name, but he closed his mind to it. Recognition would only invite more pain.

He was racing along now, the stars beneath him a blur. The voice repeated that word again, louder this time.

A colossal shadow seemed to envelop him.

It was a skull, so massive it filled the emptiness like a small planet. A yellow orb the size of a moon shifted slightly to regard him, and he realized with utter horror that it was an eye, rotten and filled with malevolence. The river of stars had turned a sickly color now, a festering effluvium bleeding into the skull's cavernous maw.

Sudden terror. He tried to scream but no sound emerged. He struggled desperately to resist the stream's pull, to no effect. The skull would claim him at any moment.

And then he heard that voice a third time. It was quieter now, distant, but he willed himself to understand, to turn the sound into meaning.

Caw. It sounded like caw. The sound a bird makes? No, that wasn't it. It had to be something else. It had--

The sound of beating wings; the unexpected feeling of air buffeting his face. Enormous talons closing around him. He caught sight of a great bird above, lifting him up and away from the skull-planet. That terrible, luminous eye swiveled upward, watched his escape with deathly fury.

The giant bird squawked again. "Caw," it seemed to say.

Except that it wasn't "caw."

At last he remembered who he was.

* * *

He opened his eyes, whimpering in pain. He could see only darkness. Someone was holding him up. He felt a hard object being pressed against his lips. Cool liquid rushed into his parched mouth, and he almost choked before swallowing it down.

He became aware of the quiet whisper of water lapping against the side of a hull, the gentle swaying motion of a ship at sea. He had been on another voyage not long past, though it seemed a lifetime ago now.

"Lie still," commanded a voice with an edge of steel.

"Who--" he began, but a rough finger pressed against his lips, silencing him.

"You will live. But the next time you awaken, you must be prepared to fend for yourself. Do you understand?"

"Yes," he croaked.

"Good. Rest now."

He listened to the sounds of slow, steady footsteps and metal shackles scraping against wood fading into the distance.

This time, when sleep finally came for him, he did not dream.

The oxen had stopped moving again.

Kayne stared up at the iron sky and watched his breath mist. Any moment now the open-top wagon would resume its rickety journey west, sending fresh eruptions of agony stabbing through his injured leg. His captors had snapped off most of the shaft, but the head remained wedged deep in his knee. The furs beneath him were soaked through with blood.

He had lost consciousness on three separate occasions. Each time he had awoken to a world of fresh misery. He figured a fortnight had passed since the disaster on the banks of the Icemelt, but it was hard to be sure, what with the pain clouding his brain. His stomach growled and he reached down, felt his ribs poking out through the woolen tunic he'd been given. His captors fed him meat and bread in the evening, but it wasn't enough. He had been hungry before his capture; now he was damned near starving.

Footsteps crunched on snow nearby and a familiar face stared down at him. It was the big bastard who had saved his life back at the river.

"We're here," the burly Easterman grunted. His beard had grown bushier and was flecked with ice. Kayne felt embarrassed by his own wispy growth. He was a man grown, or close enough. Past time he wore the truth of it on his face, as a Highlander ought to.

"Here?" he repeated, trying to hide the pain in his voice.

"Heartstone." The warrior reached down and placed one meaty hand on his shoulder. "You'll meet the King soon enough. Best keep that temper in check."

Two Eastermen hauled him out of the wagon and lowered him to the ground. One moved to support him. As Kayne threw an arm around the man's broad shoulders, the boot of his wounded leg accidentally scuffed the snow and he almost howled. The Easterman grinned nastily.

He half hopped and was half dragged along a dirt track that was barely visible beneath the blanket of white. Desperate to take his mind off the raging fire in his knee, Kayne focused on Heartstone. The capital dwarfed the small village he had once called home. The sprawl of huts and smaller homesteads around the walled perimeter quickly gave way to larger structures of two, even three floors. Painted signs announced taverns and smithies, fletchers and whorehouses. There was even a shop dedicated to witchcraft. He had only ever known one sorceress, his aunt Namara, who'd kept an eye out for him following the tragic accident that had claimed his mother.

Curious faces watched the Eastermen and their young captive as they made their way toward the center of town. Grim warriors in hides and furs and bristling with steel looked up from sharpening their weapons or patrolling to scowl at the newcomers. Womenfolk bustled around performing errands, a few giving Kayne sympathetic glances when they thought no one was watching.

Sweat stung Kayne's eyes despite the frigid morning air. He was burning; his skin felt hotter than a furnace. He gritted his teeth and clutched the shoulder of the warrior beside him until his knuckles turned white.

After what seemed like an eternity a great clearing opened up ahead of them. Just beyond the clearing, looming out of the mist, was the grandest building Kayne had ever seen. He craned his neck, staring up at the summit far above. Whether by fate or chance the sun chose that moment to peek through the clouds and reveal a majestic figure staring down at them, arms folded across his chest. He quickly faded from view as the sun disappeared again.

There was a large crowd gathered in the clearing. It parted as they approached, and a half dozen warriors stepped forward. Each wore identical armor and carried steel of the finest quality. All moved with the ease of veterans.

Even near delirious with pain, Kayne felt a thrill at the sight of the Six. As a boy he had dreamed of growing up to become one of the King's champions. He had passed many a summer day practice-fighting with his father and old Renek the Lame, who knew how to wield a sword even though everyone made fun of his club foot.

One hard winter the village of Uthreft had launched a raid. His father had decided that if he was old enough to swing a blade, he was old enough to kill a man. The sight of the thief lying there, the haft of the spear Kayne had just plunged through his neck quivering like an accusation dying on his tongue, had soured him against the warrior's life for a good while after.

"King Jagar approaches," boomed one of the Six from behind his great helm. The Kingsman moved to one side and went to stand by two of his colleagues. The other three did the same, forming a small guard of honor.

The warrior supporting Kayne went down on one knee along with the rest of the Eastermen. "Get down, boy," he whispered harshly.

Kayne swallowed and, summoning his courage, tried to lower himself onto his good knee. He was halfway to the snowy ground when his wounded leg buckled and he almost pitched forward, crimson agony exploding in his brain. There was a ripple of laughter from the onlookers, who quickly fell silent as a shadow descended on Kayne.

He blinked tears from his eyes and stared into the thoughtful gaze of Jagar the Wise.

The King of the High Fangs was every inch the man Kayne had imagined him to be. A mantle of red velvet covered his broad shoulders, parting slightly at the front to reveal an iron cuirass underneath. Jagar's thick head of hair and impressive beard were peppered with hints of gray, but he remained a robust man, still at his physical peak.

The King inspected the Eastermen with a considered expression, his eyes eventually settling on Kayne and lingering on his wounded knee. "Remain as you are, boy. Who leads here?"

"I do, my king. Orgrim, named Foehammer by my peers among the Wardens." The warrior who had spared Kayne's life at the Icemelt bowed and brought his left fist up toward his chest.

"You are a Warden?"

"Yes, my king."

"Tell me, Foehammer. How do we fare in the Borderland?"

"The East Reaching is besieged by giants and wild creatures down from the Spine. They are a menace but nothing we can't deal with. The demons are a different matter. We've lost twenty Wardens this last year alone."

"Their sacrifice will not be forgotten." The King nodded gravely at Kayne. "This one is too young to be a Warden. What is your purpose in bringing him here?"

"The boy is Brodar Kayne, formerly of Skarn's band. We caught him near the Icemelt."

Copyright © 2014 by Luke Scull


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