Authors: James A. West
Tags: #Epic Fantasy Adventure
Armala’s wall rose dark against the raining sky, and behind it loomed buildings of black stone, all abandoned for long years, save the palace at the center of the city. Adu’lin had ruled the Yatoans from there, but no more. He had died in the Throat, burned to ash, while Leitos made his brief war against the Faceless One.
A crooked fork of lightning slammed into one of the two southern watchtowers within the city. A deafening boom of thunder rattled Leitos’s teeth. With that crash, the belly of the storm opened up, and a pounding deluge misted everything.
Leitos ran harder, sure Nola’s heartbeat had grown fainter still. He hazarded a quick look at the girl. She and Belina were Zera’s younger sisters—rather, half-sisters, as their mother, like most Yatoan women, had been bred to an Alon’mahk’lar for the creation of Na’mihn’teghul, an order of changelings that could masquerade as humans, but were nothing of the sort.
Where Belina favored Damoc, Nola’s resemblance to Zera was close enough that Leitos could imagine he carried the woman he had killed over a year ago. Their two faces melded before his eyes, and he swallowed desperately at the sharp knot lodged in his throat.
“Stay with me,” he whispered, unsure if he was speaking to Nola, or to Zera’s ghost. Rain streamed down his face, diluting his tears. His vision shifted, and then he saw Zera, dying once more in his arms. The throbbing ache of loss and despair spread through him, seemed to wash over Zera—
No! She’s Nola!
The thought brought a brief and staggering weakness, and then he was rushing on again, footfalls once more sure.
Nola murmured, her voice stronger than before, one hand clutching his robes. He spared another glance to her one good eye, set like an emerald in a mask of blood and pain. She stared at him. Her lips moved, but he could not hear her.
“Leitos!” Ulmek’s shout cut through the drumming rain, and Leitos stumbled to a halt. Before he could turn, Sumahn and Daris were at his side, bustling him toward the side of a building. Ulmek, Belina, and Damoc were already there, waiting, scanning the sky behind Leitos and the others.
Just as they ducked around the edge, a hail of arrows streaked out of the storm. A steel broadhead tore a gash in the shoulder of Leitos’s robe. More clattered off the cobbles.
“Fauthian archers,” Damoc hissed. “I thought sure we had killed all those yellow bastards.”
“Snakes never die easy,” Adham panted, sliding in amongst the group as another volley rattled against the roadway. It pleased Leitos to see that he looked like his old self. Resolute, fierce, a true ice-born warrior.
Daris poked his head into the open, then jerked back an instant before an arrowhead shrieked off the corner of the wall. “There’s three, maybe four archers in the watchtower to the west. You’ll have to ask the gods how they survived that lightning strike.”
Leitos didn’t care how they’d survived, but he meant to change their luck. A quick search of the faces around him showed who was the strongest. He forced Nola into Ulmek’s unwilling arms. “Take her to the palace.” To the others, he said, “Keep them safe.”
“What are you doing?” Adham demanded, at the same time Belina said, “You cannot!”
“Go,” Leitos said.
Of them all, Ulmek alone fully understood the necessity. “Take my dagger, little brother.” An iron grin stretched his lips. “Don’t bring it back unless it’s bloody.”
Leitos did as bidden. With his hands filled with short and long steel, he nodded toward the heart of the city. “I’ll draw their attention. The rest of you get to the palace. When I’m finished here, I’ll rejoin you.”
They stared at him as if trying to etch his features into their memories. He spun away before anyone could protest further, and darted into the street.
Instead of running for the closest cover, Leitos sprinted over the cobbled roadway in full sight of the enemy. Only when the shriek of arrows filled the air, did he take shelter.
Before he put a building between himself and the watchtower, another broadhead found him, tearing through his snug robes above one hipbone. He slammed against a shadowed wall, and looked over his shoulder to search for his companions. They had vanished.
He fingered the bloody slice in his robe. Between the wind and pounding rain, he had misjudged the nearness of the falling arrows. A painful lesson, but not his first.
Once more, he ran into the open, drawing the eyes of the archers from his friends. More arrows flashed out of the storm, and again he found himself hunkered behind a wall. Twice more he broke cover, each time running full out to the next building.
At the last wall, he peeked around a corner. The watchtower clawed at the sky like a black spike, but he saw no Fauthians in the arrow loops dotting its walls. Doubtless they were situated well back from the openings in an effort to keep their bows dry.
Overhead, the worst of the storm was already blowing itself out. He had hoped it would last longer, but his short time on the island had taught him that most afternoon storms died as fast as they were born.
Delaying no longer, he skipped into a dark alley and trotted down its length, boots splashing through puddles. Keeping the last image of the tower in his mind, he judged distances and angles, and made his way from one narrow path to another, until he felt confident that he was far from where the Fauthians expected him to be.
At the mouth of an alley that let out onto a broad boulevard, he lay down on his belly and inched forward. He had moved far from where he had started, putting the tower behind him, and dappled bands of sunlight burst through the breaking clouds to shine on the tower’s walls. If he waited too long, the archers would creep out of their stronghold and give chase.
Keeping to the shadows were he could, Leitos rapidly made his way to the tower. When he reached the closed door, he pressed his ear against it. Nothing stirred within. He tried the latch, found it unlocked. Fauthians had ruled uncontended for so long, that they had developed many bad habits.
He quickly eased the door open, eyes stabbing round the interior for any movement. The way was clear. He slipped in, eased the door closed, and made for the closest pool of darkness to get his bearings.
A profusion of footprints showed in the dust layering the floor, and also on the wooden stairs leading up through the tower’s hollow center. Bars of golden sunlight slanted through arrow loops on the west side of the tower. Everywhere else, shadows lay thick. If his enemies could use them, so could he.
It was in this tower that he had heard the screams of a Yatoan woman, and saw for the first time the strange blue light of the Throat of Balaam. Past knowledge told him the ancient wooden treads were sound, if creaky. Leitos began to climb, each footfall more cautious than the previous.
He froze as a Fauthian’s lean, golden-skinned back came into view. A few aberrant smears of dirt marred his ankle-length white kilt. The man stood looking out of an arrow loop, feathered shaft nocked to bowstring.
Leitos craned his neck, searching higher up, but saw no one else. They were there, somewhere. Likely each one of those snaky bastards was poised to lob arrows at anyone they saw. They should have been scouring the city by now, but their authority over the Yatoans had relied more on an overawed reverence, than an execution of force.
, Leitos thought again, smiling as he crept closer on his toes. One step, two, and three. His calves quivered from the strain of the measured pace. One hand tightened around the hilt of his sword, and the other around Ulmek’s dagger.
I need to get another for myself
, Leitos thought absently. He had hurled his dagger at the Faceless One, before passing through the portal and finding himself in the howling white storm of Izutar.
Another step ... slow ... slow ... another....
Leitos hefted his sword, mind calm. Where the Brothers of the Crimson Shield took swords of their choosing upon admittance into the Order, they all carried common daggers, with blades shaped like spikes. Such a weapon was made for puncturing deep into flesh and allowing for very little blood flow. An assassin’s blade, without question.
Easing his sword into the scabbard, sweat began to replace drying rainwater on his brow. Try as he might, it became harder to remain detached. Fear did not trouble him, but the desire to slaughter those in league with Peropis raced his heart and quickened his breath.
Closer ... another step ... another....
The Fauthian shifted, his profile coming into view. His pulse, steady and slow, showed in a vein running up his slender neck.
Leitos froze, breath caught in his throat, his own heart thumping hard despite his best efforts to remain at ease. It suddenly seemed as if the colors of the world had been stripped to ugly grays and dull silvers. He closed his eyes, confused. When he opened them, all was as it should be, save that he had a sense of
... an aura of vitality, extending out from the Fauthian’s skin ... reaching out ... seeking Leitos. It took every last ounce of resistance not to rush headlong at his foe.
The archer shifted back, scanning.
As Leitos eased forward, the tread under his back foot groaned, ever so softly. The Fauthian began to spin, the pulse in his neck jumping, his thin lips parting to loose a cry of warning.
Leitos sprang, silent and swift. His free hand clapped over the man’s mouth, wrenched his head back and to one side. A sharp thrust buried the dagger in the hollow under the Fauthian’s ear. The blade screamed softly as it passed through bone and into his brain. The man grunted, went stiff, then hung limp in Leitos’s arms. He eased the corpse to the floor, and after yanking his blade free, he wiped it on the man’s kilt.
As he straightened, an arrow thumped into the boards between his feet. Leitos dove for cover. A panicky shout from above filled the tower. Foregoing caution, Leitos hauled out his sword and charged up the stairs.
Four turns up, he met the yelling archer. The man fumbled an arrow, then lurched back and swung his bow like a club. Leitos swatted aside the attack with his sword, and slammed his foot into the man’s groin. The Fauthian’s scream cut off when Leitos’s dagger filled his mouth. Before his enemy could crumple, Leitos had tugged his blade free, and was rushing up and up. Every step he took seemed to fill him with more strength, more confidence.
The next Fauthian launched himself at Leitos with a wicked sword as long as Leitos was tall, its thin curving edge glinting. Leitos feinted. The Fauthian made a clumsy chopping motion, stumbled forward, and Leitos brought his sword down on the back of the Fauthian’s neck. The steel bit deep, cutting into the bone and through. Head and body separated, and blood sprayed across Leitos’s face. Laughter bubbled from his own throat, as he kicked the twitching corpse aside.
Not wasting a moment, he charged the rest of the way up, but met no one else. The stairway ended at a trapdoor set in the floor of the tower’s crown. Caution suggested he should go slow, but a sense of wellbeing flooded his veins, filled his mind with unbreakable confidence.
Leitos battered his shoulder against the door, expecting a bar to hold it shut. Instead it flew upward. Halfway open, it thudded against something and rebounded. Leitos, now partway through the opening, rammed the small door wide again. It crashed once more into a stunned Fauthian, driving him backward. Leitos’s sword sang as it split the air between them.
The Fauthian lurched away, bloody nose squashed flat from meeting the trapdoor. “Mercy!” he squealed nasally, dropping his sword.
Leitos did not slow, did not hesitate. There were too few of humankind left in the world, and here before him stood one reason for that.
“Please!” the Fauthian wailed, waving his hands in surrender. He backed up until his skinny arse pressed hard against the sill of an arched opening. “Your reward will be great, if you spare me!”
A pitiless smile twitched Leitos’s lips. “I believe we’re past mercy and rewards.”
A brutal slash of Leitos’s sword replaced one of the man’s waving hands with a gushing stump. A less than gentle poke to the belly sent the squalling Fauthian into a plunge out of the tower. A slow pair of heartbeats later, Leitos heard the grisly splat of meat impacting cobblestones.
Leitos barely noticed.
Coming out of the tower soon afterward, Leitos spared a quick glance at the crushed Fauthian, and wondered,
How many more of them are about?
There could also be Alon’mahk’lar in the city, maybe a sea-wolf or two.
Instead of returning to the palace, he went on the hunt.
Another crash of furniture, punctuated by Ulmek’s curses, drifted out of the adjoining room. As that had been going on for a while, Adham ignored the racket.
His gaze skipped uneasily over the chamber’s vulgar stone monuments situated around a ring of tapered pillars. The statues were fashioned after creatures born in the Thousand Hells—Mahk’lar, creatures of shadow and hate, the first children of the Three.
In this place, under the watchful stares of those unpleasant figures, Adham had been forced to watch the Fauthian leader Adu’lin destroy the order of the Brothers of the Crimson Shield. One by one, he led them away and allowed Mahk’lar to possess them. Some had screamed, others had not. But in the end only Ulmek, Sumahn, and Daris had avoided that terrible fate. And Leitos, of course, who had been with Belina at the time, and facing his own troubles with Damoc.