This is a direct sequel to my previous novel, Imprint. That one should be read before this, to avoid...er, additional confusion.
Forged in Blood and Iron: Butcher Era
The ground was rough beneath her tender bare feet; it was what told Arna this was real, that she wasn't still asleep in her bed. Her father's hand was clamped iron tight around her wrist, pulling her along behind him, while Addar watched from over his shoulder, wide eyed and frightened.
Through the trees, a bright orange light was growing, piercing the darkness. And the screams, the screaming...
Down the narrow path they went, toward where the temple was situated at the village edge.
"No time. Move!"
The temple's heavy door swung inward; Arna went through first, pushed forward forcefully enough her sore feet stumbled on the smooth stone floor. Addar was put on the ground, prodded, "Go to your sister."
Father dragged the door closed behind them, all but a thin crack barely wide enough to see through. Addar had not moved; Arna fumbled in the dark until she gripped his shoulder, pulling him closer, feeling his small hand tangle in her nightshirt.
"Dad, what's going on?"
"Get back," he barked, "All the way back, under the table."
Arna found herself obeying automatically, blindly backing up and taking Addar with her, "Dad, what happened?"
"Just get down, be quiet." he stayed in the doorway, what little light came through highlighting his thinning hair; she could hear him muttering to himself, "What do I do? What the fuck do I do?"
Her fingers found the altar cloth, votive candles knocking together as she tugged on it. One of those was hers, two days ago she'd lit it when her chores were done, that Sam would dance with her at the spring festival. "Don't go. Dad, don't leave us here."
"I won't," he swore though it seemed to pain him to say, "I promise, I won't. Just...just stay back there, watch your brother."
"What's going on?"
"I don't know. I don't – just grabbed you kids and ran."
Arna's fingers gripped the altar's edge, with her foot she urged Addar underneath. Even through the walls she could hear the yelling, the screaming, so much noise where all should be silent.
Suddenly he moved, pulling the door open, sticking his head out, his arm gesturing sharply, "Come on!"
She counted three people slipping in before the doors were closed again. It was easy enough to recognize the blacksmith by his size, the hammer at his shoulder; it was not until the meager light revealed the outline of a heavily pregnant stomach that Arna realized they were her neighbors, the woman, Ciara, who taught her to read five years back.
"Is there anyone else?" she asked.
"I got the kids back there."
"No one else?" the voice was small, horrified.
"...no," Father cleared his throat, "Did anyone see anything? Who are these people?"
Ciara had made her way to the other end of the temple, finding Arna there and wrapping her arms around her, "You okay, sweetie?"
Arna nodded; Ciara was trembling, holding her too tight for comfort.
It was the blacksmith who answered, his voice a low rumble, "I managed to take out two of them. They looked like Roamers." A pause, "They had black and red tattoos."
"...that's not possible," her father's voice shook.
"I know what I saw."
"But – they've been inactive an age!"
"Enough time to pick and train a new knight," the other man said.
Arna had no idea what any of it meant; she didn't dare ask, not with Ciara's fingers tight around her, not with everyone's fear like a vibration in the air.
"But why would – thirty families at best, we have nothing."
"Who says they need a reason, anymore."
No one else spoke, there didn't seem to be anything else to say. Outside, the muffled sounds of clashing and yelling went on.
Father was pulling at the door again, quicker this time with the blacksmith to help, leaning out again, gesturing, "Come on! Com-"
"Oh shit," movement, all at once; the three of them, pushing frantically on the door, throwing it closed again, bracing themselves against it. Ciara released her, running as quick as she could back up the isle.
Alone now, Arna stood, torn, indecisive. She took a step forward, "Dad-"
Another step, "But-"
Forward again, she wasn't a child anymore, she should be able to help, whatever it is-
-a weight slammed into the door from the outside, for an instant nearly a foot of fire light shone through, half blinding, before everyone's collective weight pushed it shut again.
Arna froze, breath and heartbeat held in horrified suspension.
"Go, go!" her father shouted, and the door began to thump again.
She was moving before she could think, legs tangling together as she raced, then crawled, palms and feet shuffling backward to the altar, and her brother a tightly wound ball underneath. There was hardly room below for them both, unless she tucked his stiff unresisting body right against hers, trying to press her hands to his ears. Pity no one could do the same for her; the banging kept going, louder and louder, echoing off the stone walls.
"Hold it, hold it!"
The altar cloth could be tugged down maybe half an inch from the floor and not a single candle tipped over. She hoped, from the outside, it would look like nothing was amiss; she hoped it would not be needed.
Bang pushing open; slam pushing closed.
A scream, raw agony.
"Fuck! Open the door, open the door!"
"We can't, we can't!"
"Get it off me!"
Bang, and a sob of almost relief.
"Wait! Wait, wait, wait, don't. You got to stand up, we need you to-"
Bang, a final time, ominously louder than all that came before and the temple flooded with light.
When she had been younger than Addar was now, a toddler had wandered out of the village, into the woods and was attacked by a wild animal; the wail the boy's mother let out when what remained of her son was returned to her haunted had Arna's nightmares. That, she'd always thought, was the sound of true horror.
Screaming; screaming and metal, sharp metal hitting stone, hitting flesh, hitting bone. Tearing, wet ripping, splattering, gurgling and screaming, screaming.
She pressed her face to the smooth stone floor, trying to escape the sounds, unable to do so; she was holding Addar so tight it must've been painful but he made no complaint. The ground seemed to rock beneath her, a sharp sickening lurch and she had to struggle not to vomit, not to cry out, to be very, very quiet.
And then there was silence, sudden and unwelcome; silence had never felt so loud, so final.
Her heartbeat thundered between her ears, she half feared it could be heard. Her head turned, reluctant, so reluctant but needing to see, needing to know, peering beneath the altar cloth.
The light from the fires outside was not as bright as it had seemed first coming in, it obscured some things but not enough. Blood, a dark red on the walls and the floor; the crumpled bodies were in shadow, an arm cut in half fingers still curled around a hammer; a rolled head, a very familiar shade of dirt brown hair.
The fighting had ripped the stone floor apart, split in a line down the middle she could follow with her eye, from the door to an arm's reach away. So close, too close.
A pair of black boots straddled the crack in the floor, upright and still.
They started forward. Footsteps, slow and sure, echoing in the now quiet room.
There was five seconds in which to make a decision; Arna was still trying to rationalize it even as she released her iron grip on Addar, sliding out with her shaking hands in the air. Please don't look, please don't notice...
Another second to think, she may not have been so quick to sacrifice herself.
She felt him coming closer, felt the heat of his body prickle her skin; she tried to keep her eyes low, don't look up, don't look at him.
"I'm not – I don't – don't have, anything..."
Black leather armor, wet with-
"I don't...please – just, please-"
A flash of metal caught her eye, stopping her words in her throat: a knife, buried in the man's chest to the hilt, just below his shoulder. She knew the hilt, but it took a moment to place it. That was Ull's, his skinning knife, she'd see it on his belt always, if not in his hand doing its bloody work. She wondered what happened to Ull.
The man's head lowered, seeking and capturing her gaze in his own; brown and blue, pale and powerful.
"Please don't," it was a movement of lips alone, her voice was gone.
He understood, "I can't do that." He lifted a hand, newly missing two and a half fingers, drawing her eyes to it, then drawing her eyes down, urging her to turn, look down, look back.
Fear numbed, she was helpless to follow his direction. A window shattered on one side, the dark stained glass had cracked but held together; the opposite wall, like a tree, trunk and branches and leaves reaching up to the ceiling. A spider's web of destruction, with the altar at its center.
"Its what I've been looking for," he said, "Sorry."
He found him on path outside, standing at patient attention, hands behind his back and head cocked to the side. Every bit the blood stained battle raven he was poetically referred to be.
Red eyes tracked his knight's approach, "Well?"
"The temple. Its one of them, don't know which."
A smile, flash of metal in the moonlight, "Very good. You can go, I'll catch up to you."
"Yeah, sure," the splintered ends of three broken ribs ground together as he moved, that smithing hammer had hurt like fuck. Not a sensation he enjoyed, however long it lasted, making it the worst of the bunch. Fingers, of course, he always lost those; several new holes, and a woman had managed to cut off part of his ear right before she died. Nothing serious, nothing he'd need time for.
A warm hand cupped his cheek, nails like knife points lightly pricking his skin, "No problems, yes?"
A disgusted sound came from his throat, "Of course not," bumping into the other's shoulder before continuing on his way.
No problems. It needled at Canaan on the walk back to camp, digging at his already paper thin patience. Even taking the long way didn't help to dissipate, just gave it longer to fester.
Ever since the Whitecapp Problem turned into an insurmountable obstacle, Drogan's once unstoppable campaign ground to a halt and crumpled into chaos; no longer a proud war sword, Canaan was more of a gopher for the god's increasingly random requests: go here, fetch that, get me that artifact, get me that book, dig me that shit out of the ground, kill anyone who gets in your way. He had always done his duty, never complaining even when it made no sense; he knew Drogan, trusted there was some greater purpose. Trust came easy, the rest of the world may dismiss him as a madman barely kept in check by natural law, Drogan was smart and calculating, his every action serving a multitude of schemes.
Up until now, this was the first that had felt utterly pointless.
Other soldiers started returning by the time he arrived, blood stained and loot free but still getting ready to celebrate their supposed victory in the traditional way. Canaan looked at no one, and they in turn ignored him with caution; the days of his fraternizing with Drogan's savage crew of interchangeable faces was long since past, had there ever been any real charm in it he couldn't remember. He was going to pick his wounds clean and go to bed.
His tent was the biggest of the lot, outfitted with near every luxury, Drogan was nothing if not indulgent. He pushed through the flap and made his way right to the weapon rack, while letting his relaxed gaze subtly sweep the room in a long ingrained habit, on alert for anything out of place, any small detail...
...like a book sitting open on a bench.
It would be tonight, wouldn't it? Everything was shit, what's one more thing?
His stride didn't break and his head didn't turn, reaching his destination and putting the bench to his back. He removed the halberd, considering, and put it aside; removed the battle ax, considering, put it on the rack; peeled one of the throwing knives off his thigh, weighted it in his hand, and sent it flying.
The sound was only of surprise, but better than nothing. The knife had frozen midair, misty blue cracks starring out from it before the illusion broke altogether, peeling back like a mirrored skin.
"Rude," the blade embedded in that porcelain skull, bloodless and undamaged; a blue eye watched from behind the hilt, glittering with malevolent amusement. "There's that piercing insight."
Canaan wasn't in the mood, "Get out."
Long fingers wrapped around the hilt, blue nails short but very sharp, pulling the knife free with a long, low moan. "Here," held it out by the blade, "Hope it was good for you."
Canaan unfolded the halberd, taking advantage of the reach to trying herding the pest out the door.
No satisfying wound when the blade touched his shoulder, not even a proper fall; the man glided off the bench still in a lounging position, coat tails unfolding to trail along the ground, "Oh come now, piglet! I haven't seen you at all this lifetime, you could at least say hello."
"Goodbye, Drake. Find your own tent."
"All right, that's quite enough of that," and he came to a stop at the tent flap, a sudden immovable wall. His legs stretched, fancy silk shoes touching the ground, "I don't have a tent. I'm not staying, merely picking something up. Speaking of, have you seen my brother?"
"I'm sure you'll spot him easier from outside."
"Why," a dramatic flourish of innocence, "when we both know he'll come here, eventually."
Brushing imaginary lint off his sleeve, Drake was as usual overdressed and ill suited to a battle camp, in layers of expensive fabric in various shades of blue; covered neck to toe, not a wrinkle to be seen, not one long blue hair out of place. He'd give the impression of a man that never got his hands dirty and it would be a mistake to think so; he was a compliment to his brother that way, Drogan the war hammer, Drake the dagger in your back.
Done straightening his coat, Drake's eyes narrowed on him, "My goodness, piglet, aren't we in a mood? I thought a run always brightened your day?"
Drake knew him, better than he ever would've wanted; days like these he least liked to be reminded of it, "Maybe it was your smiling face."
"Not the way you stormed in here," he smiled, unlike his twin Drake's teeth gleamed white, aggressively so, Canaan would bet they glowed in the dark, "Are you unsatisfied, piglet? My brother not giving you what you need?"
Of course. Drake had several standard areas of attack, but this was by far his favorite; Canaan folded his arms, kept his face blank and waited for it to be over.
"Well, what else can you expect, picking the lame horse. Use small words and hand gestures, perhaps you'll get him trained up proper one day."
He imagined plucking out those condescending eyes, squishing them between his fingers. He kept every muscle still, lest the slightest twitch be mistaken for a reply. Gods, did he resent that implication.
Drake frowned, "You're not as fun as you used to be."
"But I missed you," he was standing much closer now, Canaan wasn't sure when that happened, "Don't you want to ask how I've been?"
He couldn't leave, it would be an admission of weakness, and Drake would just follow him all night if he so chose. All he could do was grind his teeth through whatever embellished account was coming.
"Oh, there you are," a familiar, oh so welcome voice, "What are you doing here?"
"Being social," not breaking his stride, Drake turned to look over his shoulder, "Piglet here looked like he could use some stimulation."
"You know, you really should polish your sword more often. Otherwise things get dull," the bastard actually had the nerve to wink; a needle, long and sharp, right through that pupil.
"I shall bear it in mind. Care to step outside?"
"Certainly," Drake made a formal bow, "We'll continue this later, piglet. Farewell."
Just breathe, its over. For now.
Canaan finished removing his weapons, and was leaning over the bathtub when he sensed Drogan's return. Water had been collected ahead of time, as usual, and he dropped several heat stones inside; he wanted it scorching, like his mood. And still, Drogan stayed quiet and distant.
"Stop listening to him."
"And yet he is right. You are unhappy." A pause, "It is not the usual on a night like this."
"I wouldn't know. I don't usually spend my nights aether bombing insects." he hadn't meant to say that, or anything else, but Drake had taken up what was left of his patience and he had none left for this.
"What do you mean?" Drogan's voice was all confusion.
Well, it was started now. "This, tonight, was a human problem. It could've been settled with humans. There was no point in sending me in. That sort of overkill is beneath you, and its beneath me."
He watched steam rising from the water; he sensed it when Drogan came near, felt the warm touch on his cheek, heated skin and piercing claws, "It wasn't meant as an insult."
Of course it wasn't, he knew that; Drogan didn't understand, people were all the same to him.
The god sat himself on the rim of the tub, "And here I was, guilty, thinking you were growing bored on your shelf. Thought you might want a change of pace."
"Is that what this was?"
"I suppose not."
"And I guess there's no point in asking," That was at the heart of why he hadn't wanted to speak; not reprimand, just wasted words.
The silence stretched on long enough to answer; Canaan took a breath, "At least it wasn't a clever evasion," seriousness counted for something at times, "I'm sure its all for a good cause." And he set about starting to unbutton his first layer, slow going but he did still have his thumbs and that made the difference.
There was another long silence, "I'm not playing games here."
"I know. Neither am-"
"Would you look at me, Canaan." And he did, automatically, finding garnet eyes, "I am trying to be conciliatory, how often does this occur?"
"As often as your insecurity overrides your commonsense?"
"Did you just call me insecure?"
"Maybe. Or you imagined it."
Blue tinted lips parted, metal teeth flashing in a feral grin, "Cheeky little shit, I can feel my good will just vanishing away. How many fingers do you have?"
"Six. And a half."
"More than enough to manage your own clothing. Make it quick, would you?"
Canaan returned to his task, "I'd assumed you were waiting for the perfect dramatic moment to let me in." Though insecurity had seemed more likely, Drogan had been bothered by his inability to deal with Whitecapp, he didn't always take failure well.
"No, it is just...complicated to discuss," a pause, "What I am attempting here, its never been done before. It should be possible, in theory, but right now theory is all it is, I won't know until its finished, one way or another."
He frowned, that had not been what he expected to hear, and lacking drama, too. "Attempted here?"
"All along, darling, every little thing you've gotten me has lead us to this point. Surely you didn't think me merely spinning my wheels, wasting your time?"
No, but if there was a common thread to those post Whitecapp errands he hadn't seen it. "I didn't find anything here."
"Didn't you?" Red eyes laughing, Drogan shrugged, "As well as to serve a distraction. Who will have time for careful observation with an insane butcher roaming the countryside."
The first layer dropped heavily to the ground; a pulse of irritation started behind his eye, "Fuck. Is that why – that's why you said to make it messy?"
"Well, you wouldn't have done it if I told you why." He was grinning, too, the bastard.
Canaan looked down, lest he be tempted out of this conversation; his remaining fingers set to work on the second layer. "Butcher, that's just lazy. You must be running out of ideas."
"Some reason I shouldn't pop necks the rest of this cycle, just to spite you?"
"It would be too much trouble for you, but by all means. Perhaps it will provide inspiration for the next cycle."
He winced, that was a potent threat, "At least tell me I'm sacrificing my dignity for a noble purpose."
Drogan leaned forward, beckoning him closer with a claw tipped finger. Closer, until all he saw were smoldering red eyes, pale skin.
A whisper, "I'm raising the dead."
"...is that a joke?"
Drogan sat back again, blinking innocently, "Of course it is."
He frowned, "You're not joking?"
"Maybe. I suppose we shall see."
The second layer dropped, the final one Canaan could just pull over his head. "Are you talking about another imprint?"
"No," a red claw caressed his cheek, catching on the edge of his lip, "I have already achieved perfection, what need to experiment further?"
He smiled at this old jest, "Your perfection?"
"You are my perfection."
"All yours alone?"
"Well, where would you be without me?"
"And what could you do without me?"
Drogan's hummed a low rumbling note, a sound he never tired of hearing. Red eyes cut down, a bemused smile appearing, "Dear gods, what on earth is that?"
Canaan could feel it better now there was nothing to stop the airflow. Eight shallow punctures in a diagonal line in the middle of his torso; he remembered well what had caused it.
"A rake," shaking his head, "Fucking farmers."
Drogan laid a hand over the center of the line, a pleasant heat against raw, open skin. A red claw traced the edge of a wound, slipping within; a light stretch, and Canaan's hand gripped the rim of the bath, breathing through his nose. The nail emerged again, a long piece of hay wound around it.
Drogan still laughed like it surprised him, this sound that won't stop coming; he covers his mouth and turns his head as though to hide, it remained a strange and strangely amusing sight.
"Oh, get in the water already, before you take seed. I'll not be trimming your hedges."
"Won't you?" hard to tell from expression how it had been meant, Drogan was better at understanding innuendo than he had once been, but it was never where his mind went first, he had to plan them out ahead of time. It was understood now at any rate, he watched carefully as Canaan slipped with a hiss into the steaming tub.
"So is that what I was doing then? Creating dead for you to raise?"
Drogan handed him soap, head turned to the side to see him, "Whatever would I want with peasant farmers?"
"So what was I doing there?"
"I told you to look for something particular, did I not?"
He might've made the connection sooner, but it was so hard to believe, "The child?"
"As it turned out, yes," Drogan said, "All the better then it went as it did. If I had sent you in after one child, someone would want to know why. You take out the whole village, well, that's just me being me, and none will be the wiser."
"You want a reanimated child?"
"The child is nothing. An unfortunate vessel, that is all."
"A vessel?' Canaan asked, "Of what?"
Drogan turned, still balanced on the edge, leaning forward to explain, excited, eager, "There are many things, pieces of things, floating in the aether. And sometimes those pieces get tangled up together, trapped where they do not belong, in places, in people. The only way to untangle them is just after death." A shrug, "Unfortunate for the person involved, I suppose. Better luck next time."
Canaan recalled the small quake that had cracked the temple; unusual natural phenomena. "A piece of what?"
"Of what I need."
Nodding in acceptance of the limit, he moved on, "Where is it now? Or is that what Drake picked up?"
"Yes. Drake had crafted the perfect tool to untangle that mess. And you earlier located something that can hold it in stasis until a proper vessel is found." A pause, "Its delicate work. Should keep my brother mighty busy."
That was one of the few bonuses about the change in pace, they worked separately most times and Canaan saw less and less of Drake.
"How many more pieces are you going to need?"
"That I don't know. Can't say for certain until it either works or I know that it will not." he looked regretful, "I fear to tell you there will be more nights like this coming."
"Great," Canaan slipped below the water, laying for a moment at the bottom of the tub, feeling the burn in his chest. This would not kill him, it had been tried and tested; water would be forced from his lungs, the aether would produce enough oxygen for life if not consciousness. None of it would be pleasant, sometimes that sting of discomfort was just what he wanted.
Drogan's distorted reflection looked down at him, waiting for him to surface. "I get no more enjoyment out of this than you."
"I promise you that isn't true."
"It is though. But if it works," hands wound through wet black hair, fire warm hands, claws that dug into his scalp, "If it works..."
That energy, that excitement was infectious, it was almost hard to remember what had bothered him before. Canaan's hands found his shoulders, rough black leather, gripping tight and pulling him into the tub.
Ridding Drogan of clothing was easier than himself, however elaborate it looked. His mouth, that fucking mouth: blood, metal, pure adrenaline, that thick blue black tongue just as nimble and talented as the mind it was attached to. Within minutes his own lips were bitten, bruised and torn, but they healed; they always healed.
"And here I thought you cross with me," dagger tip teeth scraped down his neck, over scar tissue and throbbing veins.
"I am," it was a pity that corpse white skin couldn't bruise, "I pick the fucking name next time."
"Not a chance, darling. Not a chance."