The night angel trilogy, p.107
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.107

           Brent Weeks
 

  Instantly, the pit wyrm lunged again. It had no visible means of propelling so great a mass. It didn’t gather itself to strike like a serpent, but moved instead as if this were but one head or arm attached to a much larger creature crouched on the other side of that hole. Again, it went for Kylar.

  He flipped through the air as the tree the pit wyrm had cut fell, crashing to the ground, throwing up dust in the misty morning light. Kylar grabbed a tree and spun, the ka’kari giving him claws enough to sink into the bark and throw him back over the pit wyrm’s back. His sword flashed as he flew over the pit wyrm, but the blade bounced off the armored skin.

  There was something white in the corner of Kylar’s eye. He dropped to the forest floor and saw it: a tiny white homunculus with wings and the Vürdmeister’s face, grinning at Kylar under an enormous nose. It clawed at Kylar’s face.

  Kylar blocked. The homunculus’s talons sank smoothly into Kylar’s sword.

  The pit wyrm lunged again even as Feir hammered its side, his sword ringing in the mists but doing no damage, not even slowing the wyrm. The pit wyrm couldn’t be distracted, wouldn’t stop until it reached its target.

  Its target wasn’t Kylar. It was the homunculus.

  Kylar dropped the sword and flipped once more. He landed on the side of a tree, thirty feet up, fingers and toes sinking into the wood. The pit wyrm slammed into Kylar’s sword on the ground, the cone of teeth slapping around the homunculus, digging deep into the soil as each ring of teeth slapped forward, devouring the white creature and everything around it. The pit wyrm pulled back, shaking dirt and roots and dead leaves through the air. Satisfied, it began to slide back into whatever hell it had been called from.

  Then it shivered.

  Feir was still striking the creature. For some reason, he wasn’t using magic. The mountainous mage struck again, a mighty hammer blow—with no effect.

  By the time Kylar’s eyes found the real reason the pit wyrm had shivered, Lantano Garuwashi was halfway through its body. He was hacking at it near the hole in reality. But he wasn’t hacking. Wherever Garuwashi cut with Ceur’caelestos, the pit wyrm’s flesh sprang apart, smoking. The look on the sa’ceurai’s face told Kylar that the man was enrapt—he was the world’s best swordsman, wielding the world’s best sword, facing a monster out of legend. Lantano Garuwashi was living his purpose.

  Garuwashi’s sword moved with Garuwashi’s speed. In two seconds, he had cut through the entire pit wyrm. The thirty-foot section of wyrm crashed to the forest floor, thrashed once, and then broke apart in quivering red and black clumps, dissolving in putrid green smoke until nothing was left. The stump writhed bloodlessly until Garuwashi slashed it with six slices in blinding succession and whatever was controlling it yanked it back into hell.

  Kylar sprang off the tree and landed ten paces from Lantano Garuwashi. Having never fought a pit wyrm, the sa’ceurai couldn’t have known that they didn’t just appear; they had to be called. He let down his guard.

  The big-nosed Vürdmeister acted before Kylar could, stepping out from behind a tree and unleashing a ball of green flame. Garuwashi brought Ceur’caelestos up, but he wasn’t prepared for what happened when that sword came into contact with that magic.

  When Ceur’caelestos met the vir, a dull thump shook the gold needles off the tamaracks. The morning mists blew outward in a visible globe, the moss shriveled and smoked on the trees, and the concussion blasted Feir and Garuwashi and the Vürdmeister from their feet.

  Only Kylar was still standing, shielded from the magical explosion by the ka’kari covering his skin. The men fell in all directions, but Ceur’caelestos stayed in the center of its own storm. It spun once in the air and stuck in the forest floor.

  Kylar swept Ceur’caelestos into his hand. The fallen Vürdmeister didn’t try to stand. He gathered power, the vir on his arms wriggling in slow motion, their undulations becoming a movement that Kylar could strangely read—the magic would be a gout of flame three feet wide and fifteen feet long.

  Before the Vürdmeister could release the flame, Kylar ran him through.

  The Vürdmeister’s cool blue eyes widened in pain, and then widened again in sheer terror as every inky rose-thorn tracing of vir in his entire body filled with white light. Light exploded from his skin. The Vürdmeister’s body bucked and thrashed, then went limp. The vir was gone without a trace, leaving the dead man’s skin the normal pasty hue of a northerner. Even the air felt clean.

  In the distance, to the northeast, a Lae’knaught trumpet blasted the command to charge. It was far away—within the Dark Hunter’s Wood.

  “The bloody fools,” Kylar murmured. He’d lured them in, but it was still hard to believe they’d fallen for it. He looked at Curoch. The things I do for my king.

  ~You’re not really going to throw it away, are you?~

  I gave my word.

  ~You have the Talent and the lifetimes it would take to become that sword’s master.~

  I can’t exactly go out in public with a black metal hand, can I?

  ~Wear gloves.~

  “We need to leave—right now,” Feir Cousat said. “Using magic this close to the wood is like begging the Dark Hunter to come. And there’s some kind of magic beacon on the Vürdmeister’s horse. I chased it away, but it’s probably too late.”

  So that was why Feir hadn’t used magic in fighting against the pit wyrm. Smart.

  “You have taken my ceuros,” Lantano Garuwashi said with a moral outrage that Kylar didn’t understand. Then he remembered. A sa’ceurai’s soul was his sword. They believed that literally. What sort of abomination would steal another man’s soul?

  “Did you not take it from someone else?” Kylar asked.

  “The gods gave me the blade,” Lantano Garuwashi said. He was quivering with rage and loathing, despair fighting to the fore in his eyes. “Your theft is not honorable.”

  “No,” Kylar admitted. “Nor, I’m afraid, am I.”

  A plaintive howl unlike anything Kylar had ever heard ripped through the wood. It was high and mournful, inhuman.

  “Too late,” Feir said, his voice strangled. “The Hunter’s coming.”

  The Wolf had told Kylar to stay back forty paces from the Hunter’s Wood, so Kylar gave it fifty. He looked through the lesser trees of the natural forest to the preternatural height and bulk of the sequoys. He felt small, caught up in events vast beyond his comprehension. He heard the whistling of something speeding toward him. He hefted Curoch and threw it as far into the Wood as he could. It flew like an arrow. As it crossed into the air over the wood, it burned like a star falling to earth.

  The entire forest began to glow golden.

  The whistling stopped.

  10

  The three men stood side by side, staring into the wood. Feir thought that he was the only one who was properly terrified. Kylar had distracted the Hunter by throwing Curoch into the wood, but there was nothing to stop it from coming back.

  Kylar calmly folded his legs and sat on the forest floor. The black skin retreated into the young man, leaving him in his underclothes. He studied the stump where his metallic right hand had been, barely noticing as the Wood’s autumnal glow deepened to a bloody red and then began to lighten to green.

  Lantano Garuwashi, now soulless, stared with disbelief. But he wasn’t seeing anything except the disappearance of Ceur’caelestos. The man who would be king was suddenly aceuran—swordless, an outlaw, an exile, not even to be acknowledged. The cruel rain of implications was beating his future to dust.

  In the last week, Feir had seen this man act publicly as if Ceur’caelestos had been destined for his hands. But in private moments, Feir had seen glimpses of the young hedge sa’ceurai with an iron sword, who knew that whatever excellence he attained, he would never be accepted among those born to greater blades. It was an enormous turnaround for a man who’d reconciled himself to hard realities—and now he was staring a new, much harder reality in the face.

  Feir wondered how lo
ng it would be before Garuwashi decided to kill himself. Lantano Garuwashi wasn’t a man who would easily give up his life. He believed in himself too much. But this disgrace would surely overwhelm that.

  The thought left Feir oddly hollow. Why should he mourn Lantano Garuwashi’s death? It would mean Cenaria would escape another brutal occupation and Feir would be released from his service to a hard and difficult man. But Feir didn’t want Garuwashi to die. He respected him.

  Magic flashed so intensely Feir’s vision went white. It lasted only a fraction of a second. Kylar gasped.

  Blinking away tears, Feir looked at him. Kylar appeared unchanged: still half-naked, still staring toward the wood. He stood slowly and stretched his arms.

  “Much better,” Kylar said, grinning.

  He had both arms. He was whole. Kylar shook himself and his skin was cloaked in black again. He didn’t cover his face with the grim mask of judgment; this time, he carried a slim black sword in his hand.

  Lantano Garuwashi dropped to his knees and spoke to Feir, “ ‘This path lies before you. Fight Khalidor and become a great king.’ This you told me, and I heard only my heart’s desire: that I would show those effete nobles in Aenu what their mocking was good for, that I would be Ceura’s king. I did not fight Khalidor, and now my ceuros is lost. Thus has Lantano Garuwashi reaped death for faithlessness.” He turned. “Night Angel, will you be my second?”

  A brief look of confusion passed over Kylar, then his eyes showed recognition. After Garuwashi made a lateral cut through his own stomach with a short sword, his second would strike his head from his shoulders to finish the suicide. It was an honor, if a grisly one, and Feir couldn’t help but feel slighted.

  “Feir, nephilim, messenger from the gods whom I ignored, I would have you serve another way,” Garuwashi said. “Please, carry my story to my warriors and to my family.”

  A chill went down Feir’s spine. Not only would every sa’ceurai in the world know that Lantano Garuwashi had died here, but they would know Ceur’caelestos had been thrown into the Wood. No matter how Feir told the story, it would be retold until it fit Ceuran beliefs. The best swordsman, the best sword, and the deadliest place would be tied together forever in Ceuran myth. Every new sixteen-year-old sa’ceurai who thought he was invincible—in other words, most of them—would head for the Dark Hunter’s Wood, determined to recover Ceur’caelestos and be Lantano Garuwashi reborn.

  It would mean the death of generations.

  Kylar’s face changed. It started as black tears pouring from his eyes. Then his eyes themselves were covered in black oil. Then in a whoosh, the mask of judgment was back. Black eyes leaked incandescent blue flame. Studying Lantano Garuwashi, he cocked his head to the side. Feir felt a chill at the sight of that visage. Any shred of childhood that had been left in the young man Feir had met six months ago was gone. Feir didn’t know what had replaced it.

  “No,” the Night Angel pronounced. “There is no taint in you that demands death. Another ceuros will come to you, Lantano Garuwashi. In five years, I will meet you at dawn on Midsummer’s Day in the High Hall of the Aenu. We shall show the world a duel such as it has never seen. This I swear.”

  The Night Angel slapped the thin blade to his back, where it dissolved into his skin. He bowed to Garuwashi and then to Feir, and then he disappeared.

  “You don’t understand,” Garuwashi said, still on his knees, but the Night Angel was gone. Garuwashi turned wretched eyes to Feir. “Will you be my second?”

  “No,” Feir said.

  “Very well, faithless servant. I don’t need you.”

  Garuwashi drew his short sword, but for once in his life, Feir was quicker than the sa’ceurai. His sword smacked the blade from Garuwashi’s hand and he scooped it up.

  “Give me a few hours,” Feir said. “The Hunter is distracted. With five thousand flies in its web, one more may go unnoticed.”

  “What are you going to do?” Garuwashi asked.

  I’m going to save you. I’m going to save all your damned stiff-necked, infuriating, magnificent people. I’m probably going to get my damn fool self killed. “I’m going to get your sword back,” Feir said, and then he walked into the Wood.

  11

  A high, tortured howl woke Vi Sovari from a dream of Kylar fighting gods and monsters. She sat up instantly, ignoring the aches from another night on rocky ground. The howl was miles away. She shouldn’t have been able to hear it through the giant sequoys and the deadening morning mists, but it continued, filled with madness and rage, changing pitch as it flew with incredible speed from the Wood’s center.

  Only then did Vi become aware of Kylar through the ancient mistarille-and-gold earring. She’d bonded Kylar as he lay unconscious at the Godking’s mercy. It had saved Cenaria and Kylar’s life, and now Vi and Kylar could sense each other. Kylar was two miles distant, and Vi could feel that he held something of incredible power. She could feel him reaching a decision. The power departed from him, and he felt an odd sense of victory.

  Suddenly, it was as if the sun were rising in the south. Vi stood on shaky knees. A hundred paces away, at the enormous sequoys of the Dark Hunter’s Wood, the air itself turned a brilliant gold, radiating magic. Even to Vi, untrained as she was, it felt like the kiss of a midsummer’s sunset on her skin.

  Then the color deepened to reddish gold. Every dust mote floating in the air, every water droplet in the mists was a flaming autumnal glory.

  When Vi was fifteen, her master, the wetboy Hu Gibbet, had taken her to a country estate for a job. The deader was some lord’s bastard who’d made himself a successful spice merchant and decided not to repay his underworld Sa’kagé investors. The estate was covered with maples. That autumn morning Vi moved through a world of gold, carpeted with red-gold leaves, the very air awash in color. As she stood over the corpse, she had mentally retreated to a place where glorious crimson leaves weren’t paired with pulsing arterial blood. Hu beat her for it, of course, and to those beatings Vi had mentally acquiesced. A distracted wetboy is a dead wetboy. A wetboy knows no beauty.

  The howl ripped through the wood again, freezing her bones. Moving fast, terribly fast, it changed pitch higher and then lower and then higher, all in the space of two seconds, as if it were flying to and fro faster than anything could possibly move. Everywhere it went, it was followed by the faint, tinny sound of rending metal. Then came a man’s scream. More followed.

  There was a battle in the wood. No, a massacre.

  All the while, the wood pulsed with magic. The flaming red was fading to yellow green and then to the deep green of vitality, the scent of new grass, fresh flowers.

  “Kylar has given it new life,” Vi said aloud. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew Kylar had put something into the Wood—and that something was rejuvenating the entire forest. Kylar himself felt invigorated, well in a way he hadn’t felt in the week she’d shared the bond with him. Whole.

  Vi felt something wrong behind her. Her hands flashed to the daggers at her belt. Then she was on her back. Even as air whooshed from her lungs, a crackling ball of blue energy hissed and spat through the air where she’d been standing a moment before.

  The most Vi could do was gasp, trying to catch her wind. It was several blind seconds before she could sit up.

  Before her, a man wrapped in dark brown leather put his foot on a corpse’s face and wrenched a dagger from its eye. The corpse was wearing the robes of a Khalidoran Vürdmeister, and black, tattoo-like vir were still twitching under the surface of his skin. Vi’s savior cleaned his dagger and turned. His feet made no sound. A multitude of cloaks, vests, pocketed shirts, and pouches of all sizes covered the man, all of them horsehide, all tanned the same deep brown and worn soft from long use. Twin forward-curving gurkas were tucked into the back of his belt, an unstrung scrimshawed short bow was slung over his back, and Vi could see numerous hilts protruding from his garments. He unlaced a brown mask that concealed all but his eyes and pulled it back around his
shoulders. He had an affable face; wry, almond-shaped brown eyes; loose black hair; and broad, flat features with high cheekbones. He could only be a Ymmuri stalker.

  Stalkers were reputed to be the greatest hunters of all the Ymmuri horse lords. They were said to be invisible in the forests or on the grassy steppes in the east where the Ymmuri lived. They never shot prey that wasn’t running or on the wing. And they were all Talented. In other words, they were grassland wetboys. Unlike wetboys, they didn’t kill for pay but for honor.

  And fuck me if there isn’t more truth to the stories about them than there is to the ones about us.

  The stalker folded his hands behind his back and bowed. “I am Dehvirahaman ko Bruhmaeziwakazari,” he said with an odd cadence that came from growing up speaking a tonal language. “You may… hearken?… call, yes, call me Dehvi.” He smiled. “You are Vi, yes?”

  Vi rose, swallowing. This man had snuck up on her—a wetboy—and thrown her to the ground easily, and now he stood smiling and friendly. It was as unnerving as having a blue ball of death pass inches from her face.

  “Come,” Dehvi said. “This place is safe no more. I will escort you.”

  “What are you talking about?” Vi asked.

  “Magic… calls to? asks to? hearkens to? the demon of the Wood.” Dehvi wrinkled his nose. Vi knew what he meant, but she wasn’t sure what word he was looking for.

  “Beckons!” he said, finding it. “That beckon means death.”

  “That call,” Vi said, putting his words together slowly. Magic called the Hunter. The Vürdmeister had used magic, and Vi was Talented. The Hunter might be coming.

  The stalker frowned. “These word give me difficults. Too many meanings.”

 
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