The night angel trilogy, p.104
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.104

           Brent Weeks
 

  The lead weight of intuition dropped into Elene’s stomach. That woman outside yesterday had been wearing an earring. It probably wasn’t—it surely wasn’t—

  “Oh my God,” Elene said. She ran for her horse.

  The dream was different every night. Logan stood on the platform, looking at pretty, petty Terah Graesin. She would walk over an army of corpses—or marry a man she despised—to seize her ambition. As it had that day, Logan’s heart failed him. His father had married a woman who poisoned all his happiness. Logan could not.

  As he had that day, Logan asked for her fealty, the round platform reminding him of the Hole where he’d rotted during the Khalidoran occupation. Terah refused. But instead of submitting himself so the armies wouldn’t be split on the eve of battle, in this dream Logan said, “Then I sentence you to death for treason.”

  His sword sang. Terah stumbled back, too slowly. The blade cut halfway through her neck.

  Logan caught her, and abruptly, it was another woman, another place. Jenine’s slashed throat gushed blood over her white nightgown and his bare chest. The Khalidorans who’d broken into their wedding chamber laughed.

  Logan thrashed and woke. He lay in darkness. It took him time to reorient himself. His Jenine was dead. Terah Graesin was queen. Logan had sworn fealty. Logan Gyre had given his troth, a word that meant not just his oath but his truth. So if his queen ordered him to stamp out the last few Khalidorans, he complied. He would always be glad to kill Khalidorans.

  Sitting up in the dark of the camp tent, Logan saw the captain of his bodyguards, Kaldrosa Wyn. During the occupation, Momma K’s brothels had become the safest places in the city for women. Momma K had accepted only the most beautiful and exotic. They had drawn the first Khalidoran blood of the war during a city-wide ambush that had come to be called the Nocta Hemata, the Night of Blood. Logan had honored them publicly and they had become his. Those who could fight had fought and died—and saved him. After the Battle of Pavvil’s Grove, Logan had dismissed the rest of the Order of the Garter except for Kaldrosa Wyn. Her husband was one of the ten wytch hunters, and they’d go nowhere without each other, so she’d said she might as well serve.

  Kaldrosa wore her garter on her left arm. Sewn from enchanted Khalidoran battle flags, it glimmered even in the darkness. She was, of course, pretty, with olive Sethi skin, a throaty laugh, and a hundred stories, some of which she claimed were even true. Her chain mail was ill-fitting, and she wore a tabard with his white gyrfalcon, its wingtips breaking a black circle. “It’s time,” she said.

  General Agon Brant poked his head in the tent, then entered. He still needed two canes to walk. “The scouts have returned. Our elite Khalidorans think they’re setting an ambush. If we come from the north, south, or west, we have to go through dense forest. The only way is through the Hunter’s Wood. If it really exists, it’ll wipe us out. If I were facing fourteen hundred men with only one hundred, I don’t think I could do any better.”

  If the situation had arisen a month ago, Logan wouldn’t have hesitated. He would lead his army through the open spaces of the Hunter’s Wood, legends be damned. But at Pavvil’s Grove they’d seen a legend walk—and devour thousands. The ferali had shaken Logan’s conviction that he knew the difference between superstition and reality. “They’re Khalidoran. Why didn’t they head north for Quorig’s Pass?”

  Agon shrugged. It was a week-old problem. This platoon wasn’t nearly as sloppy as the Khalidorans they knew. Even as they fled from Logan’s army, they’d raided. Cenaria had lost a hundred men. The Khalidorans hadn’t lost one. The best guess Agon could make was that they were an elite unit from some Khalidoran tribe the Cenarians hadn’t encountered before. Logan felt like he was staring at a puzzle. If he didn’t solve it, his people would die. “You still want to hit them from all sides?” Agon asked.

  The problem stared at Logan, mocking him. The answer didn’t come. “Yes.”

  “Are you still insisting on leading the cavalry through the Wood yourself?”

  Logan nodded. If he was going to ask men to brave death from some monster, he would do it himself, too.

  “That’s very… brave,” Agon said. He’d served nobles long enough to make a compliment speak volumes of insult.

  “Enough,” Logan said, accepting his helmet from Kaldrosa. “Let’s go kill some Khalidorans.”

  4

  Vürdmeister Neph Dada hacked a deep, rasping, unhealthy cough. He cleared his throat noisily and spat the results into his hand. Then he tilted his hand and watched the phlegm drip to the dirt before turning his eyes to the other Vürdmeisters around his low fire. Aside from the young Borsini, who blinked incessantly, they gave no sign that he disgusted them. A man didn’t survive long enough to become a Vürdmeister on magical strength alone.

  Glowing faintly, figures were laid out in military formations on the ground. “This is only an estimation of the armies’ positions,” Neph said. “Logan Gyre’s forces are in red, roughly fourteen hundred men, west of the Dark Hunter’s Wood, in Cenarian lands. Maybe two hundred Ceurans pretending to be Khalidoran are the blue, right at the edge of the Wood. Further south, in white, are five thousand of our beloved enemies the Lae’knaught. We Khalidorans haven’t fought the Lae’knaught directly since you were all still at the tit, so let me remind you that though they hate all magic, we are what they were created to destroy. Five thousand of them is more than enough to complete the job the Cenarians began at the Battle of Pavvil’s Grove, so we must tread carefully.”

  In quick detail, Neph outlined what he knew of the deployment of all the forces, inventing details where it seemed appropriate, and always speaking over the Vürdmeisters’ heads, as if expecting them to understand intricacies of generalship that they had never learned. Whenever a Godking died, the massacres began. First the heirs turned on each other. Then the survivors rallied meisters and Vürdmeisters around them and began anew until only one Ursuul remained. If no one established dominance quickly, the bloodletting would spread to the meisters. Neph didn’t intend for that to happen.

  So as soon as he was certain that Godking Garoth Ursuul was dead, Neph had found Tenser Ursuul, one of the Godking’s heirs, and convinced the boy to carry Khali. Tenser thought carrying the goddess would mean power. It would—for Neph. For Tenser, it meant catatonia and insanity. Then Neph had sent a simple message to Vürdmeisters at every corner of the Khalidoran empire: “Help me bring Khali home.”

  By answering a religious call, every Vürdmeister who didn’t want to throw away his life backing some vicious Ursuul child had a legitimate escape. And if Neph tamed these first Vürdmeisters who’d arrived from their postings in nearby lands, when Vürdmeisters arrived from the rest of the empire, they too would fall in line. If there was one thing Godkings were good at, it was inculcating submission.

  “The Dark Hunter’s Wood is between us,” Neph motioned to encompass the Vürdmeisters, himself, and Khali’s bodyguard, a bare fifty men in all, “and all these armies. I personally have seen over a hundred men—meisters and not—ordered into the Wood. None has emerged. Ever. If this were merely a matter of Khali’s security, I would not bring this to your attention.” Neph coughed again, his lungs afire, but the coughing was calculated, too. Those who wouldn’t bend the knee to a young man might be content to bide their time serving a failing old one. He spat. “The Ceurans have the sword of power, Curoch. Right there,” Neph gestured to where his phlegm had fallen, at the very edge of the Dark Hunter’s Wood.

  “Has the sword taken the form of Ceur’caelestos, the Ceurans’ Blade of Heaven?” Vürdmeister Borsini asked. He was the young blinking one with a grotesquely large nose and big ears to match. He was staring into the distance. Neph didn’t like it. Had Borsini been eavesdropping when the scout reported?

  Borsini’s vir, the measure of the goddess’s favor and his magical power, filled his arms like a hundred thorny black rose stems. Only Neph’s vir filled more of his skin, undulating like living tattoos in Lodr
icari whorls, blackening him from forehead to fingernails. But despite his intelligence and power, Borsini was only in the eleventh shu’ra. Neph, Tarus, Orad, and Raalst were all twelfth shu’ra, the highest rank anyone aside from the Godking could attain.

  “Curoch takes any shape it pleases,” Neph said. “The point is, if Curoch goes into the Hunter’s Wood, it will never come out. We have a slim chance to seize a prize we’ve sought for ages.”

  “But there are three armies here,” Vürdmeister Tarus pointed out. “All outnumber us, and each would happily kill us.”

  “Attempting to claim the sword will most likely end in death, but may I remind you,” Neph said, “if we don’t try, we will answer for it. Therefore, I will go. I am old. I have few years remaining to me, so my death will cost the empire less.” Of course, if he had Curoch in hand, magnifying his magical power a hundredfold, everything would change, and all of them knew it.

  Vürdmeister Tarus was the first to object. “Who’s put you in charge—”

  “Khali has,” young Borsini interrupted before Neph could. Dammit! “Khali has sent me a vision,” he said. “That’s why I asked what the Ceurans call the sword. Khali told me that I am to fetch Ceur’caelestos. I am the youngest of us, the most dispensable, and the fastest. Vürdmeister Dada, she said she will speak to you this morning. You are to await her word by the prince’s bedside. Alone.”

  The boy was a genius. Borsini wanted a chance at the sword, and he was buying off Neph in front of all of them. Neph would stay with Khali and the catatonic prince and when he emerged, it would be with “a word from the goddess.” In truth, Neph hadn’t wanted to go after the sword at all. But the only way he was certain the others would make him stay was if he’d tried to go. Borsini’s eyes met Neph’s. His look said, “If I get the sword, you serve me. Understood?”

  “Blessed be her name,” Neph said. The others echoed. They didn’t fully understand what had just happened. They would, in time. Neph said, “You should take my horse; it’s faster than yours.” And he had woven a small cantrip into its mane. When the sun rose—at about the time a rider would get to the south side of the wood—the cantrip would begin pulsing with magic that would draw the Dark Hunter. Borsini wouldn’t live to see noon.

  “Thank you, but I’m an awkward hand at new horses. I’ll take my own,” Borsini said, his voice carefully neutral. His enormous ears wiggled, and he tugged at his enormous nose nervously. He suspected a trap and knew he’d avoided it, but he wanted Neph to think it was luck.

  Neph blinked as if disappointed and then shrugged as if to cover and say it didn’t matter.

  It didn’t. He’d tied that cantrip into the mane of every horse in the camp.

  5

  Kylar had never started a war.

  Approaching the Lae’knaught camp required none of the stealth he’d used to approach the Ceurans. Invisible, he simply walked past the sentries in their black tabards emblazoned with a golden sun: the pure light of reason beating back the darkness of superstition. Kylar grinned. The Lae’knaught were going to love the Night Angel.

  The camp was huge. It held an entire legion, five thousand soldiers, including a thousand of the famed Lae’knaught Lancers. As a purely ideological society, the Lae’knaught claimed they held no land. In practice, they’d occupied eastern Cenaria for eighteen years. Kylar suspected this legion had been sent here as a show of force to deter Khalidor from trying to push further east. Maybe they just happened to be here.

  In truth, he didn’t care. The Lae’knaught were bullies. If there had been a shred of integrity in their claim of fighting black magic, they would have come to Cenaria’s defense when Khalidor invaded. Instead, they’d bided their time, burning local “wytches” and recruiting among the Cenarian refugees. They’d probably been hoping to come to the rescue after Cenaria’s power was obliterated and take even better lands for their pains.

  Without provoking anyone, Cenaria had been invaded from the east by the Lae’knaught, from the north by Khalidor, and now from the south by Ceura. It was about time some of those hungry swords met each other.

  A smoking black blade slid from Kylar’s left hand. He made it glow, wreathed in blue flames, but kept himself invisible. Two soldiers chatting instead of walking their patrol routes froze at the sight. The first one was a relative innocent. In the other’s eyes, Kylar could see that the man had accused a miller of witchcraft because he wanted the man’s wife.

  “Murderer,” Kylar said. He slashed with the ka’kari-sword. The blade didn’t so much cut as devour. There was barely any resistance as the blade passed through noseguard, nose, chin, tabard, gambeson, and stomach. The man looked down, then touched his split face, where blood gushed. He screamed and his entrails spurted out.

  The other sentry bolted, shrieking.

  Kylar ran, pulling his illusions around him. As if through smoke, there were glimpses of gleaming iridescent black metal skin, the crescents of exaggerated muscles, a face like Judgment, with brows pronounced and frowning, high angular cheekbones, a tiny mouth, and glossy black eyes without pupils that leaked blue flames. He ran past a knot of gaunt Cenarian recruits, wide-eyed at the sight of him, weapons in hand but forgotten. There were no crimes in their eyes. These men had joined because they had no other way to feed themselves.

  The next group had participated in a hundred burnings, and worse. “Raper!” Kylar yelled. He slid the ka’kari-sword through the man’s loins. It would be a bad death. Three more died before anyone attacked him. He danced past a spear and lopped off its head, then kept running for the command tents at the center of the camp.

  A trumpet shrilled an alarm, finally. Kylar continued down the lines of tents, sometimes slipping back into invisibility, always reappearing before he killed. He cut loose some of the horses to create confusion, but not many. He wanted this army to be able to react quickly.

  In minutes, the entire camp was in pandemonium. A team of horses dragging their hitching post bolted, the post whipping back and forth, tangling in tents and dragging them away. Men screamed, shouting obscenities, gibbering about a ghost, a demon, a phantasm. Some attacked each other in the darkness and confusion. A tent went up in flames. Whenever an officer emerged, shouting, trying to bring order, Kylar killed. Finally, he found what he was looking for.

  An older man burst out of the largest tent in the camp. He threw a great helm on his head, the symbol of a Lae’knaught underlord, a general. “Form up! Hedgehog!” he shouted. “You fools, you’re being beguiled! Hedgehog formation, damn you!”

  Between their terror and his voice being muted by the great helm, few men listened at first, but a trumpeter blew the signal again and again. Kylar saw men starting to form loose circles of ten with their backs to each other, spears out.

  “You’re only fighting yourselves. It’s a delusion. Remember your armor!” The underlord meant the armor of unbelief. The Lae’knaught thought superstitions only had power if you believed in them.

  Kylar leapt high into the air, and let himself become visible as he dropped in front of the underlord. He landed on one knee, his left hand to the ground, holding the sword, his head bowed. Though the cacophony continued in the distance, the men nearby were stunned to silence. “Underlord,” the Night Angel said. “For you I bear a message.” He stood.

  “It is nothing but an apparition,” the underlord announced. “Gather! Eagle three!” The trumpeter blew the orders and soldiers began jogging to take up positions.

  Over a hundred men crowded the clearing in front of the underlord’s tent, forming a huge circle around him, spears pointing in. The Night Angel roared, blue flames leaping from his mouth and eyes. Flames trickled back down the sword. He whipped the sword in circles so fast it blurred into long ribbons of light. Then he slapped it back into its sheath with a pulse of light, leaving the soldiers blinking away after-images.

  “You Lae’knaught fools,” the Night Angel said. “This land is Khalidoran now. Flee or be slaughtered. Flee or face judgmen
t.” By claiming to be Khalidoran, Kylar hoped to draw any backlash onto the Ceurans-disguised-as-Khalidorans who were trying to kill Logan and all his men.

  The underlord blinked. Then he shouted, “Delusions have no power over us! Remember your armor, men!”

  Kylar let the flames dim, as if the Night Angel were unable to sustain itself without the Lae’knaught’s belief. He faded until the only thing visible was his sword, moving in slow forms: Morning Shadows to Haden’s Glory, Dripping Water to Kevan’s Blunder.

  “It cannot touch us,” the underlord announced to the hundreds of soldiers now crowding the edges of the clearing. “The Light is ours! We do not fear the darkness.”

  “I judge you!” the Night Angel said. “I find you wanting!” He faded completely and saw relief in every eye around the circle, some men and women openly grinning and shaking their heads, amazed but victorious.

  The underlord’s aide-de-camp led his horse to him and handed him the reins and his lance. He mounted, looking like he knew he needed to start giving orders, reasserting control, getting the men to act so they wouldn’t think, so they wouldn’t panic. Kylar waited until he opened his mouth, then bellowed so loudly he drowned out the man’s voice.

  “Murderer!” Crescents of biceps and knotted shoulder muscles and glowing eyes were all that appeared, followed by a whoosh of flame as the spinning sword came alight. A soldier toppled to the ground. By the time his head rolled free of his body, the Night Angel was gone.

  No one moved. It wasn’t possible. An apparition was the product of mass hysteria. It had no body.

  “Slaver!” This time, the sword appeared only as it jutted out of the soldier’s back. The man was lifted on the sword and flung headlong into the side of the iron cauldron. He jerked, his flesh sizzling on the coals, but he didn’t roll away.

  “Torturer!” The legion’s gentler’s stomach opened.

  “Unclean! Unclean!” The Night Angel screamed, its whole figure glowing, burning blue. It killed left and right.

 
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