FIERCE BLUE EYES studied the ancient castle. Although the instincts of a wolf had served her for nearly fifty years, they couldn’t take the measure of the man protected by those stone towers. Who was this king commanding Darklaw’s legions? Who sat in judgment of an empire’s crimes? Or hers?
Avestine tucked a strand of blonde hair under her fur-trimmed hood. She dropped from her snowy perch. Rook was staring at her. In the silence between them intruded a solemn acknowledgement. She didn’t like it one bit.
“Don’t underestimate what I’ll do,” she said.
Rook laughed, white teeth flashing from the shadows of his hood. His amusement was fleeting. “I haven’t done that since you were ten.”
She turned away, back to the view across the frozen gulf. “Who is he?”
Avestine’s jaw tightened. “Just a man.”
Through the web of skeletal trees, the castle’s marble gleamed. She didn’t need to count the strips of color to know how many flags hung from the ramparts. Her own hands had accepted twenty-one of them from defeated kings. Every one of those lands belonged to her. Every castle, village, farm, road, river, and person in them belonged to her.
All that remained of the Architect’s relentless ambition was a relentless daughter. The family that had once claimed that sprawling castle and commanded the world from these volcanic shores was nearly extinct.
“Call him what you will,” she said. “It’s a man in those walls, a man giving orders to generals, a man screwing every night and shitting every morning. I’ll kill him like I’ve killed the rest.”
She shoved Rook aside and climbed on her horse. They rode in silence for a time, Rook’s horse padding steadily behind hers. Fourteen soldiers rode behind him.
The Wild Ice belonged to her, but it wasn’t home. It wasn’t enough.
Rook said, “Let me find out more.”
“Your ghosts won’t help the daughter of the Architect. Am I not the one who made them ghosts to begin with?”
“They’re beyond vengeance now.”
She turned atop her mount with bared teeth. “Do you think I need their forgiveness? Ghostwalk with one who owes me!” She clenched her jaw. One ghost visited Rook often and owed her a great deal. “You should be chasing down demons in the Trade Quarter. You should leave. Why don’t you leave, Essanti?” She spoke his title like the scourge it was.
“I can’t let you risk it.”
“’Let me’?” She searched his thoughts, but he was skilled at keeping her out when he chose.
“Your Grace,” he said with customary patience. “She won’t let you.”
“You’re as predictable as the fog.” She returned her horse to the trail. “How will she stop me? How will she stop the Avatar of Arujan?”
“The way she stopped you at Fivefold Woke.”
“This land belongs to Darklaw. It belongs to Arujan. It belongs to me.”
“Everything wild belongs to her.”
Avestine’s horse whinnied. She alerted even as her horse did. She wrapped the leather reins around one gloved hand and slid her sword from the scabbard on her saddle. Her soldiers drew their weapons, too.
The churlish breeze blowing iceward off the sea was changing direction. When the wind began to whip darkward down the Arscid Mountains and ice crackled on swinging branches, the genvri would soon follow.
Magic as old as the world brought to life the misshapen children of Bala. The genvri glimmered into existence, their glee crackling like the ice that bore them. These fanged beasts once claimed the mountainous regions as their exclusive domain, but like all magic, they had lost much when the great empires brought steel to the land.
Avestine swung her short, heavy sword.
Two genvri leapt for her legs, but when her blade touched the scaly creatures, they vanished in curls of black vapor. She had turned three to smoke before she kicked her horse a few steps forward and turned on her attackers.
Claws pierced her tough leather breeches, even as a net of arms pinned her sword arm to her side. The genvri were surprisingly nimble despite their fat bellies and lanky arms.
She turned and saw a creature larger than any she had ever seen. The genvri was the size of a man, and it leapt from the branches of a tree.
She rolled from her horse, falling so heavily against the ground that she lost her air, but she kept moving. She released her sword and rolled, dislodging a creature from her leg. Scooping the sword into her right hand, she shaved genvri from her left arm in slices of smoke.
Before she caught her breath, five more were crawling up her legs. She swung and kicked. Two climbed up to her face. Instead of resisting their progress, she embraced them and let her strong jaw and teeth stop the creatures. They squealed and fell bleeding to the ground.
Three more leapt at her from a boulder. She dove and sliced. One managed to survive, coming to rest on her chest. It grinned with yellow rat-like teeth. With a sneer of contempt she crushed its head between her fists.
She rolled to her knees, sword braced.
Rook was working to keep his horse from running. The reins wrapped tightly about his forearms. For a man with no hands, he managed the steed well. Several creatures lay dead beneath his horse. Nearby, the soldiers were dispatching a small but ravenous pack.
More genvri crawled into view on the boulders nearest her. Avestine hadn’t seen beasts act this way since the Trade Quarter. Genvri usually appeared in family groups, but they were swarming as wild things did when Bala was near.
The memory of an attack from years earlier chilled Avestine. She glanced about wondering if insects would follow. Then she let loose her rage and charged the piling horde, swearing aloud to Bala that she would butcher every last living thing she saw.
Genvri pressed toward her, their front line vanishing in smoke with each swing. For each line she dispatched, another formed, but she knew her rage could outlast their hunger. That’s why Bala would one day serve Arujan again.
Her soldiers joined her, and they pressed the creatures back toward the trees. The giant creature resisted several slices before a stab to its belly smoked it. She regretted the easy kill, wishing she could have smashed its skull or emptied its belly.
She lost one soldier to the beasts. The genvri dragged the body away. The rest of the creatures, greedy for a share, lost interest in her and followed the meat. With the last of the creatures gone, the horses settled down.
She flexed her arm. Blood made her sleeve stick to her skin. Blood from cuts stained her breeches. A gash oozed blood into her mouth.
Rook probed her thoughts. When she sneered, his concern eased.
She knew this was merely a welcome. This was the kind of welcome she had come to expect from Bala, the God of Chaos.
THE RECONNAISSANCE PARTY headed up the mountain and found a plateau. Below the Eyes of Coth, they made camp. The twin volcanoes had not erupted in living memory, but their vapor poisoned the air, making the higher elevations passable for only brief journeys.
After a dinner of smoked fish, Rook wandered into the forest, while Avestine thought of Kami, whose own habit had been to leave her for the companionship she found among the trees.
Avestine hated forests.
She rarely slept, but when she did, the past filled her dreams. That night, she was back in the Trade Quarter on the run from her brother. Kami was with her, not yet having acquired all the pieces of the spirit that would make her a god.
Even before power had settled on her, Kami was a creature bred from chaos. It was what Avestine loved about her. It was what she hated. It was what she had tried to prevent and allowed to happen. In the dream, Kami was leaving. She was always leaving.
Avestine woke herself. No dream could hold her against her will.
She dressed and put on her heavy cape and gloves. She buckled her riding boots, slid a dagger into her belt, and waved off the soldier at the entrance to her tent as she walked into the fog-laden night.
The sky was a dull blue-gray with a thin layer of clouds. Insects and small foragers kept the land alive with sound and movement after the wind stilled.
Night under the Blue Sun was much like the day. The wintry land maintained a dim glow even at sunset. Some said the eerie light was what remained of the first magic—a magic that would one day return with the Unsetting Sun to this dark part of the world.
Avestine entered the tree line some distance above camp, her mind searching for Rook. When she found him, she headed in his direction.
As she picked her way through the snowy underbrush, she thought she heard a wolf howl but knew she was mistaken. Her father had butchered the wolves of the Dark Quarter decades ago, when he had been searching for the Darklord.
You’re vicious and magnificent, said a voice in her thoughts.
Incapable of any lasting repose. Arujan.
The voice made her heart pound. Her eyes kept searching.
The night had stilled. No creature moved or breeze touched the trees. The leather of her glove creaked as her hand curled around the dagger in her belt. She finally saw a silhouette separate from the clutter of trees. A four-legged shadow slid into the dim light and emerged on two legs as a lithe young woman.
Avestine’s hand tightened. “Kami.”
“Coth told me what you plan.”
“His name is ‘Rook’.”
“He hasn’t been Rook for a long time. Just as Avestine died on that pier at Fivefold Woke. And Kami…” Kami smiled. “You have Bala before you now.” Kami was naked, having traveled the long journey in one of her preferred animal forms, probably the wolf Avestine had heard earlier.
Avestine tried to see the girl before her as a god, as Bala, enemy of man, her enemy. She stepped close, and Kami met her with jaw firm and chin raised. The familiar affect softened Avestine’s mood. “Go back to the Demonforest and leave the Dark Quarter to me.”
“Forget your plan and I will.”
“My strategy is not your concern.”
“I won’t let you.”
Avestine bent forward to be eye-to-eye with Kami. “I need permission from neither friend—.”
“Nor enemy,” finished Kami. “We’ve been here before.”
“Don’t underestimate what I’ll do.”
“Never.” Kami lifted her arms and set her handless wrists on Avestine’s chest.
Avestine’s brother had taken those small hands. It was a bitter memory for Avestine. Those hands belonged to her. She should have taken them, as she had taken them from every Essanti who served her in the days before the end of the world.
Avestine took hold of the thin wrists. She had not touched Kami in two years. She wasn’t sure she was touching her now. She peered into eyes nearly black. “Beastwalker, you smell like a wet dog.”
“You have the stink of a man on you.”
Avestine laughed. “I take pleasure where I find it.”
“That’s all you do is take.”
“I take what is mine.”
“None of this is yours.”
“How will you stop me? Will Bala send a thousand beasts? Then Arujan will slit ten-thousand throats, and your mindless hordes will fill their bellies and leave me to my work. You stir your beasts’ hunger. Only I command.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Of course it does. It always has to be this way, until the world again belongs to Arujan. Serve Arujan and you’ll avoid everything that follows.”
“Serve Arujan? Not ‘Avestine of the Hunt’, daughter of the Architect?”
“They are the same.”
“It’s been difficult to rebuild a truth mutilated by your father, but I’ve learned how he recast the world. You’re trying to do the same. The Avatars have come to set things right, to take back the world from Arujan. You won’t finish your father’s work. You won’t command this world under one flag, one law, one god.”
“There will be peace. I’m all that can assure it.”
“There will be freedom.”
A smile crept across Avestine’s face. “I’ve missed you.”
Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |