Note for new readers: Read this first chapter and, if it piques your interest, go read Snow Speaker, the story which comes before this one. You'll enjoy it.
Note for old readers: These first few chapters are fast-paced compared to the slower pace I took at the beginning of the previous story because, really, I'm just trying to get to the GOOD stuff. So keep that in mind and enjoy.
Dark robes swept through the corridor, following in the cold footsteps of armored heels. Obsidian faces, adorned with fragile, painted masks of brilliant color, turned from quiet conversation to watch her pass. Silk and delicate Wyrm skins rustled with hanging ornaments as their skirts were pulled at the last moment from her arrow-straight path and muddied hem.
Ebony eyes flickered neither left or right, but were fastened intently upon the end of the corridor, where the doors opened up into the massive chamber built of marble and carved in stunning detail and color, the walls paneled with painted reliefs of wars she did not know of, the floor a mosaic of their Terrible Goddess, Vesmos, arrayed in her glorious fury of battle against the Vengeful Sister.
But now, Ar'atheen knew, there was a new enemy.
She stepped into the noble-filled room with a hard step, and her eyes scanned the crowds of feather-light costumes and stacked hair of every hue, searching. Her feet moved forward again, carrying her black robes of a Priestess with hard pride through the garden of centuries-old flowers. They parted, and her target came into sight, armored in the elegant style of modern fashion, the acid-etched steel spiked and fluted into a confusing array of metal. Long, violet-black hair, braided intricately, fell in a silken blanket down his back.
"Des'tyurn. The Divine requires your presence."
He turned at her quiet, alto voice, excusing himself from the conversation with the elegant Lady Ucvora, his eyebrows lifting in his perfectly beautiful face. "Priestess," he said smoothly, giving her a slight bow. She noticed with some anger that he bowed no more than he had to. "I am at the Divine's desires, of course. What does she wish to speak of?" His humbleness was a thin veneer over arrogance groomed over six centuries of being a bureaucrat.
"I do not presume to know the mind of a Goddess," she replied with finely-veiled disgust. "Do not keep her waiting." She turned without hesitation and left again, knowing he would follow if he didn't want to displease Vesmos. A moment later, she heard his feet begin to move, and she shook away a moment of petty satisfaction.
Ar'atheen led him down another hall whose gaudy colors quickly faded to the obsidian stone she preferred. Neither said anything as they went deeper into the Vormeng, the Fortress Palace of Veshe'ldri where, at its heart, Vesmos dwelled away from curious Vesmodian eyes.
Ar'atheen entered the chamber of her Goddess and immediately fell to her knees, her black hair spilling around her form. There was a clank of metal as Des'tyurn did the same beside her.
"Rise, my servants."
They both stood and Ar'atheen lifted her eyes to look upon the Goddess.
Vesmos, ancient being spun from the Cosmos by the Serpent of the World, ignored them. Her Divinity was captured within the mortal form of a woman with pale skin and dark hair. Her silver gaze was narrowed at the fine mist conjured before her in which she searched for her enemy, still in her silk robes that fell as liquid over her throne, shifting as ripples over water. "General. Are the northern fortifications ready?" she asked.
"Yes, Divine," Des'tyurn replied, his eyes glancing over the dimly-lit room. "The last of the soldiers will be at their positions in a fortnight."
"'In a fortnight' is not ready, General," she said icily, turning her pitiless eyes upon him. "You were supposed to attack Karoneth in six days."
He bowed again. "My apologies, Divine."
"You will leave now for Karoneth. I want all of Veshkun in my palm in a year's time."
"Veshkun broke up three or four generations ago," Des'tyurn said delicately. "There is now Karoneth, Ghaine, and the broken tribes of Ardoch."
"What is your point, General? I want them." She waved her hand dismissively. "Now go."
He glanced at Ar'atheen, then left, his footsteps disappearing into silence.
"Lady Divine, you promised me once the fight with Casine was settled, you'd give me what I asked for," Ar'atheen said quickly, trying to keep her anger in check.
Vesmos raised a dangerous eyebrow. "And it's not settled, is it?"
The Priestess was silent.
The Goddess sighed, and the mist dissipated. "Casine has cast illusions, I cannot see her. But I know she is in the south. I will handle that. And yet…" Her face darkened. "I sense strength in the north. Blood of the Conqueror still runs strong in the remains of Veshkun, and the Nov Blood has spread its disease." Her thoughtful eyes pulled out of rumination to focus on her Priestess. "You will take the north, Ar'atheen. You will be my arm to make sure the Generals do not get out of hand."
"But who will accompany you in the south?" she protested, aghast at the idea of being surrounded by men such as Des'tyurn.
"Priest Voreich will. He has met my enemy in combat before, and he might be useful." A hard look cut off further words. "You will follow my orders or I will release you from my power. Is that understood?"
With no other choice, Ar'atheen bowed, knowing it was her doom Vesmos sealed. "Perfectly, Lady Divine."
The desert, stretching out to every horizon in undulating waves of cracked turf, was broken only by the jagged upheavals of sharp cliffs, shoved upwards from the Viperrock as great monuments to the shifting of the coils of the Serpent of the World. Stubborn trees, crooked and dying, clung to life in the shadows of eons-old dried glacier beds, their sparse green limbs offering shade and their roots giving sturdy handholds to her grasping fingertips. The sky, arcing above them in a veil of brilliant blue, was unmarked by cloud and untouched by wind. Only the wiggling tendrils of heat, lifting from the surface like hands of the dead, distorted the horizon.
"Not that I don't enjoy this little excursion, but how much farther must we go?"
Vorchay, ex-Guardsman from the tundra north, reached for another root, pulling herself on upwards along the small, creek-carved path that they followed. The path, though not as steep as the plateau it cut through, was still vertical. "Etrayos," she gasped, sweat dripping from her sunburned chin, "I'm enjoying this even less than you are. So shut up." She tipped her wide, flat hat farther over her face to shade her delicate skin from the harsh sun. Every inch of her was covered for protection. "Morgus… how on earth did you serve this bastard for so many centuries and not be driven insane?" she demanded.
"Who ever said he isn't insane?" Schiard Vesmodien, daughter of a Goddess and immortal servant to another, growled.
Morgus, creation and servant to the Mad God Eondine, ignored the other immortal. "There's method to his madness," he assured her. "For whatever reason, we need to be here."
"I hope you're right."
They got to the top of the plateau and Vorchay collapsed, wishing desperately for cool air as the desert heat scorched her lungs. The thin white silk she wore stuck to her soaked skin.
"Here." The Angeughvor and Assassin-King in charge of every unlawful being south of Nyvestein, Etrayos Seveiselde, knelt next to her, offering a flask of water. "Don't get dehydrated or you'll be a goner."
She took the water and tossed back a long drink, the blessed liquid soothing her parched throat. "Great Eoliren, I love water," she said fervently as she lowered it.
"Just don't drink too much," Issas, ex-Angeughvor and guardian of Pehron, the daughter of his mistress, Queen Nysis of Verath, warned. "You'll get sick."
Raedoch Nov, boy-King of Oridhaer, and his uncle Prince Odocorr came up the slope last, the elder Nov pulling up the rear. "I never knew so much desert was possible," the boy said as he gasped for air, staring incredulously with obvious disappointment at the nothingness which surrounded them. "Does it never end?"
"Sort of," Issas answered. "It stops at the ocean."
"Thanks," the boy replied sarcastically, wiping sweat from his deep-tanned face. His hair was bleached white. "How are you planning to find this place, Vorchay?"
She stood, glowering out at the desert. "Well, there's a vague sort of pulling," she said, trying to explain the urge her feet held. "My feet just sort of… know the way. Like the path you've trekked dozens of times home, and you don't even have to think about it anymore."
"That inspires confidence," Odocorr commented cheerfully. His shirt was tied around his waist and he was as tanned as his nephew, his chest gleaming with sweat.
She didn't have the energy to even glare at him. She just sighed and started off, adjusting her hat's chin strap as it chafed against her throat. "This way."
Her feet took step by step ahead, carrying the rest of her along for the ride as the others followed. It was quite a compliment to her character, she mused, that they would follow her with so little complaint.
She frowned and rethought that. No… It's not me they're following, but Eondine, and the significance of what Casine has pushed upon me. She had yet to inspire that kind of confidence in anyone, even herself. But she kept those doubts close to her heart, afraid they would be proven if she let them out into the open. Could she raise armies of desert-dwelling strangers into a war with hordes of elite immortals and defeat a vengeful Goddess in battle?
Her throat went dry again at the very thought.
Her eyes, beneath the netted shadows of her wide hat, shut, then opened again. Don't think about it, she scolded herself. She musn't think about it for now. She had to focus on reaching… wherever she was going.
She stepped into the shadow of a huge, oval boulder, momentarily cooled, when her feet suddenly lost their pull and her steps faltered.
Just in time.
A darker shadow leapt off from the top of the boulder, steel flashing. Vorchay's hat fell back onto her shoulders as she looked up, groping for the blade she hadn't thought to bring. She cursed herself.
The form landed on her shoulders, grabbing a fistful of her hair to yank back her head and reveal her throat. She pivoted, slamming the being into the boulder to shake it loose, but its grip only tightened as a blade searched for her throat, slashing at her chest and finding ribs beneath. Agony burst into her head, awakening her from the hot daze.
She reached up and slammed her fist into what she thought was its head and it finally slid off, landing and tumbling, coming up on two feet.
"Vorchay!" Etrayos shouted, and threw her his sword. She caught it, whipping off the sheath to reveal the long blade.
The being (child? It was no taller than her breastbone) lunged forward, attacking with surprising speed and skill. But Vorchay had a sword now, and she defended herself, easily matching his speed as blood dribbled down her chest from the wounds. She found the form's height difficult, however. Usually she was the one shorter than her opponent, not the other way around. She found some of her own tricks being used against her.
Finally, anger surged up in her and she tossed aside her reservations of fighting a child. Lunging forward, the point of her blade flipped and flickered faster than the eyes could trace through his defenses, and stabbed into its arm. A small cry of pain came muffled behind the black cloth and it faltered. Moving in, she smacked the flat side her blade against his wrists, making his daggers skitter away.
Unarmed now, the being turned to bolt when Issas' hand closed around its throat, lifting it off the ground. "Seveis, come pin his arms before-"
But the child was already moving. A thin poniard was pulled from its black sash, but instead of stabbing Issas as Vorchay expected, it put the weapon to its own gut, small arms steeling to push the blade in.
Etrayos grabbed its hands, pinching the tendons to make him let go of the poniard, and they wrestled the struggling assassin onto the desert floor. "Who are you working for?" the Angeughvor demanded, yanking off its head mask. A thatch of black hair was revealed, along with a young, coughing face sporting a large, spreading black eye. The face was tattooed.
"Oh Casine," Issas swore softly as he saw the tattoos. "Which sect, Etrayos? I haven't been keeping them up to date."
"Triheart," Etrayos replied somberly, showing him the red embroidered emblem on the facemask. He threw it away. "Damn it! Who found out this fast?"
Vorchay passed her blade to Raedoch, her eyes stuck on the small boy. "Etrayos, you're going to break his arm," she said, distracted. "Let me deal with him."
"No, you need to get your wounds looked at," he said with a shake of his head. "And this kid is in our jurisdiction."
She gave him an icy glare that, despite the harsh sun, made his skin prickle. The assassin sighed. "Fine." He straightened, still holding the child's wrists.
Vorchay stepped forward, taking his wrists as Issas stepped back. Flipping him onto his back and pushing him into sitting up, she ignored Odocorr's warning hiss as she knelt next to him, his wrists still in her firm grip. Her gray eyes were steady as the boy looked down, refusing to meet her gaze.
"Look at me, boy." She watched as his eyes flickered upwards to her eyes, instinctively obeying any orders. Only one side of his face was tattooed, the intricate black and red designs twirling like a demon's mask over his pouting features. He shivered as he met her eyes, as if he could feel the snow spirits within her but didn't know what they were. "What's your name?"
"He doesn't have one," Issas said as he and Etrayos stood by, their bodies tense to leap forward. "He's an Ordered Ange, an assassin born and raised into one of the fanatical religious orders. If you pay their Order enough, they'll send out an assassin to your target and, success or failure, they commit suicide afterwards. The older they are, the better and more expensive they are. This one must have cost a small fortune."
"Hm." She reached forward without thinking and shook the dust from the boy's hair. He winced as she touched him, as if expecting a blade. "Does anyone have any rope?"
"You're not seriously planning on bringing him with us, are you?" Odocorr said, scowling. "He'll just turn around and kill you."
"Odocorr's right," Schiard commented. "It'd be safer just to kill him."
Vorchay looked over her shoulder as she noticed one voice noticeably absent. Morgus was looking at her, his face thoughtful and his smile pitying. He knew what the others didn't. "Give me the rope, Odocorr. He's my responsibility."
The Prince sighed and dug the coarse rope from his bag. Vorchay took it and wrapped it around the boy's wrists, tying it tightly. She paused, frowning, as she noticed a dark, sticky patch of black cloth on his arm, then remembered she had stabbed him there. After a moment of thought, she tore a strip from her white shirt and fastened the white silk around his arm securely. The boy watched her face from under dirty, dark eyebrows as she did so. She pretended not to notice. "Can you stand, kid?"
Reluctantly, he got to his feet, his mouth still in a thin line.
The vague tugging came back to her feet, and she stood, brushing off her pants. "Let's go."
"What about your wounds?" Raedoch asked worriedly.
Vorchay looked down at her chest, where the blood, in the brilliant sun, had hardened. "They're shallow. I'll bandage them when we stop for the night. But let's continue for now." She pulled her flat hat back onto her head, adjusted its strap, then started out again, the boy following closely at her side after casting fearful looks back at Issas and Etrayos.
As she started forward again over the desert's cracked surface, she knew their search for Eondine was almost over. This boy, somehow she was sure, was the reason for him dragging them out to Lyeirt.
Morgus, far back in the line of travelers, chuckled wearily.
They stopped as the sun dipped under the horizon and the pull disappeared from Vorchay's feet. By the time the moon cast its soft light over the cooling desert, they had rolled out their sleeping blankets and made a fire for cooking.
"I'm surprised we haven't had any scorpions in camp," Issas remarked thoughtfully. "Usually you can't camp in the desert without them."
Raedoch frowned. "What are scorpions?"
"Nasty things like spiders with a stinging tail. The venom of some can kill," Etrayos answered as he dug his spices out from his bag. He had the largest bag of the group, all of it packed with what he needed to cook with. "I used them once in a job." He looked over his shoulder at Schiard. "Are you keeping them away?"
"Of course," the immortal said loftily as she shook out her blankets. "I don't like scorpions and they know it. So they stay away from me."
Odocorr sat down next to Etrayos and began passing the cook what supplies he needed to make the meal go faster. "Vorchay, do you need any help?" he called over the fire.
Vorchay, who sat with her bare back to the rest of them just a bit farther out of camp, didn't rise to the bait. "Only if I can use your shirt to scrub off the blood with," she replied smoothly as she brushed away the hardened blood, hissing with pain as a few wounds reopened. She wrapped the bandaging around her chest, under her arms, then over her shoulders diagonally, tightening it. Once she was finished, she shook her white blouse back on and rejoined them. "Damn, days like that are days I wish I brought Avin with me."
"She couldn't have gotten up that cliff," Schiard pointed out logically. "Now how much farther do we have to go?"
"Just another morning's travel," Vorchay assured her. "It's nearby. I just can't tell when it's night."
"Naturally," Morgus said. "Eondine and Eoliren are brothers- the sun and the moon. He can't guide you when he can't see you."
She looked up at the moon, feeling her patron God's soothing presence. "True."
"When are you going to interrogate the boy?" Issas asked, jutting his chin at the silent presence which sat, wrists still bound, on a blanket Vorchay had given him. His face was lowered, his black bangs falling and obscuring his face.
The Maelurian frowned. "I suppose I should do that, huh?" She stood with a grunt. "Etrayos, how long until you'll be done?"
He flipped the flat dough on the wide, thin stone he used as a stove. "Ten minutes, maybe."
"All right." She hauled the child to his feet when he didn't move, and prodded him out from the ring of light from the fire. She kept him moving until they were out of earshot, then motioned for him to sit on a short, round boulder. He did reluctantly, his shoulders hunched around his neck.
Vorchay stood in front of him, wondering how on earth she was to proceed. There was no one with a Sight to prompt words, and she wasn't about to use torture on a child. Besides, with his background, he probably wouldn't respond well to pain.
He expects me to beat him, she realized as she watched him pull inwards. Well then, she would have to take another route.
"How old are you?" she asked.
As she expected, he didn't reply.
She sighed, crossing her arms over her chest and shifting her weight to one hip. "Kid, you can't go back to your Order, or wherever you come from. We both know that. You're supposed to be dead, your guts rotting under the very moon that lights you now."
The way he shivered made her sure that he had seen the grim image in reality. "I won't tell you anything!" he yelled angrily, his eyes smoldering.
Vorchay reached forward without thinking and grabbed his chin, staring at the eye encased by tattoos. It was red as blood. Her face darkened. "What magic have they wrought upon you?" she demanded.
He jerked his chin from her hand as if her touch disgusted him. "You're a heretic," he spat. "You don't believe in the One Way."
She straightened. "And what is this way?"
He glared at her defiantly. "To follow That Who Has Three Hearts and follow the bidding of the Believers."
"Three hearts?" She frowned thoughtfully. "I think I know of a myth of a Wyrm with three hearts. Would this creature be the focus of your Order?"
"He's not a creature, he's the One God!" the boy screamed, as if he could drown out her words.
"No," she said with brutal truth. "He's offspring of the Serpent of the World, like every other Wyrm. Besides, why are you calling me a heretic? You were the one who didn't kill yourself when you failed," she pointed out. "Calling me a heretic won't change you."
The boy was stunned into silence at that, fear and vulnerability flashing over his face. He drew back again into himself.
Vorchay felt pity for him, remembering the state she had been in after her similar experience. She knelt next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. He winced away. "I won't hurt you, boy. Now did you ever see who paid the Order for your service?"
He shook his head numbly.
"I thought so." She sat back on her heels, regarding him for a moment. "You're a good warrior. Did you know that?" She smiled. "You caught me off guard, and that's hard for anyone to do."
He didn't say anything. It didn't seem he knew what to say to that.
"Kid, I don't want to be looking over my shoulder every step of the way to see if you're trying to kill me. Also, if you wear those ropes for too long, they'll start rubbing away the skin. What if we make a pact: you don't kill me, and I'll make sure the others don't kill you," she offered. Something, whether it was the moon or her instincts, told her that he didn't want to kill her.
He glowered at her skeptically. "How's a woman going to stop a whole group of big men if they want me dead?" he demanded bluntly.
She smiled. "I could whip them all in a swordfight if I had to, for one. Also, you know that old man? He's Morgus, an extremely powerful man. He also doesn't want you dead."
"Why?" the boy asked quickly, fear shooting across his face. Did he have reason to fear older men? It made her blood run cold.
"He's the servant of a real God, Eondine," she assured him. "He won't do anything to you. So do we have a deal?"
The child scowled at her for a moment, trying to see the trickery he thought had to be there. "Fine," he said grudgingly, unable to find fault in her face.
Vorchay untied his wrists, and he rubbed the life back into his palms. "All right, let's go get some food," she said, and started off for the camp. After a moment of hesitation, the boy followed.
Issas stood as he saw the boy untied. "Vorchay, what is this?" he demanded.
"We made a deal. He won't try to kill me and you guys won't try to kill him," she replied firmly.
"That's not the wisest move," Odocorr cautioned.
"By whose wisdom? He'll help carry his share tomorrow. Now let's eat before dinner gets cold."