Authors: James A. West
Tags: #Epic Fantasy Adventure
Most everyone, including his mother and father, refrained from speaking about what Izutar had been like before the Upheaval. There was no reason to mention the past, for it was but a cold burial vault filled with the bones of lost hope. But Adham remembered once when a jug of
had loosened Hazad’s tongue....
“Was always cold along the northern feet of the Ulkion Mountains,” the big man had said, voice grinding like gravel in a bucket. He tugged absently at his wild beard braids, an uncommon sheen of tears in his eyes. “And colder still over those peaks into the Whitehold. Was always cold, lad, but never like it has been since the moons died. Hiphkos cloaked her face in a gray veil, and men—what’s left of us—began calling her the Sleeping Widow. Now she rides the sky alone, her brothers Memokk and Attandaeus destroyed. She’s a ghost moon, a dead goddess ... dead as the world she watches over....”
That one time had been enough for Adham to shun the desire to hear the way things used to be. His life was frost and snow, blood and mud, hunting demon-born and singing laments for friends and family cut down by uncaring steel.
Or it had been, until one night when the Alon’mahk’lar escaped the snowy forest and laid siege round the walls of E’ru. Kian and Adham had believed his family would be safe in Miz’Ratah, a land so far from the stronghold at Cordalia, so far beyond the great Sildar Mountains. They had been wrong....
~ ~ ~
....A long brutal month Adham had helped hold E’ru’s walls before they broke. When the demon-born made their final push, he was shivering in the south tower, wondering if he would ever be able to unwrap his frozen fingers from the spear in his hands, and staring out across a field of frosty white. The moon was high, casting all in her dread light. Such was the reason that fewer watchmen were needed on the wall—Alon’mahk’lar were bold, but not so bold as to make themselves easy targets.
But the men guarding E’ru were wrong. The demon-born, perhaps tired of freezing their backsides off, threw aside caution and came in a howling rush.
Adham fumbled the spear in his haste to sound the warning horn. Before he could finish the first resounding note, the demon-born reached the base of his tower and began spreading out along the wall. Ladders arced up, hard-frozen wood drumming against the ramparts like blows from iron mauls. Fire arrows began whooshing down into the attackers, sporadic orange comets that promised victory, but only brightened a looming defeat. Some few demon-born fell, bellowing until they collided with the icy ground. Most burned but kept climbing, their horned skulls whipping in fury against devouring flames.
A young lad near Adham nocked an arrow and drew the fletching to his cheek. The yew and bone limbs of his bow creaked as he aimed. A demon-born’s blade ended him before he could fire, that unholy plank of steel cleaving his skull like an overripe gourd.
Adham rammed the iron tip of his spear deep into the Alon’mahk’lar’s eye. Tearing at the bloody shaft, the creature fell away, taking the spear with it. By then, dozens of its kindred had swarmed over the walls—not just the south wall, but all of them. Watchmen and soldiers roused from sleep by the growing tumult rushed into the fray. They died as fast as they came.
Adham fought with sword and dagger, stroke and counterstroke, a twisting stab to the bowels here, a wicked slash to a throat there. For every demon-born he cut down, a handful more took its place. More came, and more still, their guttural tongue threatening to freeze his blood.
They drove him back and back, off the wall walk, down into the outer ward. Swirling chaos encircled him. Thick blades whipped the air round his head, slashed gaping tears in his leather armor. A six-fingered fist struck him a blow to the head and sent him toppling.
Rolling to his feet, face slicked with blood, Adham swept his sword backhand, ripping open the beast’s middle. His dagger followed, gouging deep into the open wound, the tip screeching against gristle and bone. In the face of so much scarlet heat, so much blind rage, he had forgotten the cold. Surrounded by death, he felt feverish and alive.
The dead tumbled off the wall, thudded against frosted cobbles around him, their mangled bodies steaming in the night. Alon’mahk’lar leapt after, hobnailed boots striking sparks off frigid stone.
When a splattering shower of entrails fell atop him, Adham bolted. Not in fear or revulsion, but because he knew E’ru was lost. He had to reach Keri. He had to stop his wife before it was too late.
The gates to the inner ward stood wide and unmanned, save for corpses. Adham rushed through, not looking at the men for fear of seeing a friend and forgetting his purpose.
. He had to get to her and his son.
Fighting raged across the ward. Demon-born and men locked together in a struggle with but one end. Adham ducked a flaming arrow, heard it thump into meat, heard the cry of an Alon’mahk’lar that had been on his heels. He never saw the archer, but gave a swift and silent word of thanks.
A moment more found him darting through the keep’s doors. He turned down a passageway, telling himself that it was not too quiet, telling himself that he was not too late.
“Keri!” His voice rang out, neither unhindered by the racket of clashing steel, nor the screams. When his cry came back to him, he answered with another. His only response was the echoing of his own call.
He ran down another passageway and sprang onto a flight of stairs leading up, his entire path lit by guttering candles.
At the top of the first flight, he slammed into a demon-born slathered in blood. The Alon’mahk’lar laughed as Adham tumbled back the way he had come. He grabbed wildly at the wall, his fingers scraping against the stonework.
Somehow he halted his bouncing descent, and clambered to his feet. With a desperate cry, he attacked. His first sword stroke ripped across one of the demon-born’s knees, severing tendons. Before the beast could fall, Adham rammed his dagger into its groin, burying the blade to the hilt. With a brutal kick to the creature’s blunted snout, Adham was away.
Why had the demon-born been on this floor? Why had it been coming back down, unless finished with its monstrous work?
Those dread questions dug like hooks in his mind. Adham screamed, “Keri!”
When he reached their bedchamber, he found the splintered door standing slightly ajar. “Oh, gods, no,” he murmured, easing the door wide with a trembling hand. Keri was sleeping on their bed, bundled in a fur-lined robe, a fall of auburn hair covering half her face.
“Keri, we must leave,” he said, relief flooding him. “E’ru has fallen.”
His wife did not stir. His heart raced, but his legs moved stiffly. Closer he came, eyes drawn to the way she had fallen asleep with her hands clasped near her heart. She often slept that way, so like a young girl.
“Keri?” Her name burned like acid in his throat. In the dim light, a dark wetness glimmered on her fingers, spread in a small blot upon the linens.
When she did not answer, he tried again. Instead of words, he choked on a sob. His sword and dagger clattered to the floor. He collapsed to his knees, reaching for his dead wife, even as he heard the drumming sounds of approaching boots. The dagger she had used to end her life before any Alon’mahk’lar could ravish her jutted from her breast.
As an inhuman fist circled round the back of Adham’s neck, a baby’s weak cry drifted from the sturdy crib set off in the darkest corner of the room.
Adham blinked, momentarily unsure how the world had become so damnably hot and green. He stumbled over a root and dropped to one knee. He groaned, one hand held to his head. It was as if all those old hurts had fallen on him, fresh as the night he had taken them.
Leitos caught his arm, held him steady. “What’s the matter? Are you hiding a wound?”
“They took us,” Adham stammered. He swiped the back of his hand over his eyes. More tears sprang free. He let them fall, salty and hot, over his lips. “Keri, your mother, she was dead already. I give thanks that she did not fail to still her own heart before they overran us ... but I so long to see her again, full of life.”
“We can speak of that later,” Leitos said.
It was then Adham understood what had changed about his son. The last threads of gentleness his mother had given him, the innocence he had retained even after a life spent in the Faceless One’s mines, had been cut. Adham sensed that only a thin shell of concern masked the underlying rigidness of his son. And within that unbending resolve, he also sensed a mercilessness. It pained him to know that he had helped make Leitos into the man who stood before him.
He had once told Leitos, “You must grow strong and cruel.” And while that still held true, he hated ever having to speak those words, and hated more that Leitos had so perfectly succeeded. What he hated most, what heated his blood, was the terrible world the Faceless One had created.
Why do we fight for it? Why not accept the cold peace of the grave, by our own hands, or another’s? Why not let it all pass?
With some effort, Adham regained his composure, and for the time being shook off his regret and the memories that would never fully diminish. “Tell me what you can of my father,” he said.
After a prolonged study to confirm that Adham wasn’t lying about any injuries, Leitos helped his father to his feet, and began walking after Belina and Daris. “Kian was captured.”
“How?” Adham stumbled again, but he quickly righted himself. Of course his father had been captured. That possibility had always existed.
“I don’t know ... not for sure,” Leitos answered, gripping the hilt of his sword. Now that Adham thought about it, Leitos had not released the weapon since coming out of the Throat of Balaam. “Zera told me the ‘shade of his soul’ had been trapped by Peropis. In part, that is what I saw.”
“Zera? His soul?”
Adham knew he should not feel any surprise, but he did. If Mahk’lar could wander the world, why not other spirits?
Leitos nodded absently. “She also told me Kian was
Peropis to hold him, because he had learned what she was really after, and that he needed to wait for someone to find him—me, as it turned out.”
“You spoke with Zera, the woman you...?” Adham didn’t have the heart to finish.
With that same air of vague indifference, Leitos went on. “She said there have always been places where the veil between the Thousand Hells, this world, and Paradise, all come together. Places where the living and the dead can speak with one another. The tower where I found myself was one such place. Zera said the ground it stood upon was Izutar.”
Adham’s head reeled. “Tell me what happened to you, from the beginning.”
“In time, I will,” Leitos promised. “Most is not important, except as a curiosity.”
“The reason Kian was waiting for someone to come, and what Peropis has been after since the Well of Creation was destroyed.”
“Well,” Adham said after a long pause, “are you going to tell me?”
“Not yet. Everyone needs to learn the truth, all of us at once. It will save precious time.”
“Are we in short supply?”
“Yes,” Leitos said. “Very soon, Peropis will begin executing her plans.”
“Speaking of executing,” Adham said, “she will consider it vital to kill anyone who stands in her way.”
Leitos nodded grimly. “Doubtless.”
By now they had moved within sight of Armala, laid out like a dark blade over a high plateau surrounded by green-forested hills and peaks. Even from afar, Adham saw nothing beautiful in its design.
Up ahead, Ulmek, Belina, and Daris walked beside Sumahn and his burden, Nola. With the way clearer, they had picked up their pace. The dark city waited for them, a silent, festering growth upon the land.
Adham did not want to go any farther. He had no reason to. All he knew was lost, and the will to fight abruptly fled his heart. He and Leitos could salvage wreckage from the Kelren slave ships, the
. They could cobble together a raft, and let tide and wind take them far away, maybe to lands in which Peropis had no interest. Maybe they could find a tiny isle, a speck in the sea that would never draw her attention.
“I must tell you something,” Leitos said, slowing to a standstill.
The skies had grown darker with the approaching storm. Lighting stroked the mountains across the plateau, and thunder rumbled.
Adham halted, the desire to explain his plan to Leitos locked behind his teeth. He let that fool’s desire slowly perish. There would be no running, at least not toward freedom and safety. Guessing he would not like anything Leitos had to say, he waited in silence.
“I told you I saw the shade of Kian’s soul ... but I also saw
, just as I see you here beside me. He was real, and so was the place he had created, but it was not this world.”
“I do not understand,” Adham said, unable to disguise his weariness. All this talk about souls, Peropis’s wrath, and the like, exhausted him. In one way or another, such had been his entire life’s experience. Now his son was going on about different worlds. It was simply too much, and he wanted no more of it.