The night angel trilogy, p.51
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.51

           Brent Weeks
 

  Kylar was content. This Night Angel had apportioned death—and death was his portion. It wasn’t nice, but it was just. This sentence was deserved. Watching Roth’s eyes finally glaze in restless death, Kylar wished there were something more beautiful to find in death than justice. But he didn’t have the strength to turn away from this life, this death, this terrible justice.

  Then someone turned him over. A woman. She came into focus slowly. It was Elene. She pulled Kylar into her lap, stroked his hair. She was crying. Kylar couldn’t see her scars. He reached a hand up, touched her face. She was angelic.

  Then he saw his hand. It was perfect, whole, and amazingly, unbloodied. For the first time in his life, his hands were clean. Clean!

  Death came. Kylar yielded.

  66

  Terah Graesin had just paid a fortune to one of the prettiest men she’d ever seen. Jarl said he spoke for the Shinga, but he carried himself with such assurance, she wondered if he might not be the Shinga himself. She hadn’t liked handing over so much money to the Sa’kagé, but she hadn’t had any choice. The Godking’s army would arrive with the dawn, and she’d already spent too long in the city.

  The coup had not gone according to the Godking’s plan. The Khalidorans controlled the bridges, the castle, and the city’s gates, but some of them had only skeleton crews. That would change when the rest of the army arrived, and Terah Graesin and her nobles needed to be gone when that happened. If she hadn’t paid half her fortune to Jarl, she would have had to leave behind all of it. A queen made the hard decisions, and with everyone else dead, a queen was what she was, now.

  It was midnight. The wagons were packed. The men were waiting. It was time.

  Terah stood outside her family’s mansion. Like the other ducal families’ homes, theirs was old, a veritable fortress. A looted fortress now. A looted fortress smelling of the barrels and barrels of oil they had poured in every room, over the precious heirlooms too heavy to carry, and into the grooves they’d cut in every centuries-old beam. It was time. Jarl’s wetboys were supposed to slaughter the Khalidorans holding the city’s east gate at midnight. All the other nobles were huddled outside their own houses. From her elevated front porch, she could see some of them up and down Horak Street, waiting to see if she’d really do it.

  She locked the mansion in her mind. After she returned, she would rebuild this for her family, twice as splendid as before.

  Terah Graesin walked to the street and took the torch from Sergeant Gamble. The archers gathered around her. She personally lit every arrow. At her nod, they loosed them.

  The mansion went up in flame. Fire poured from the windows and reached for the heavens. Queen Terah Graesin didn’t look. She mounted her horse and led her column, her pathetic army of three hundred soldiers and twice as many servants and shopkeepers into the street toward the east gate.

  Across the east side, the great houses lit up one by one. They were the funeral pyres of fortunes. Not only were the nobles losing everything, but so too were all those who depended on them for their employment. But the fires of destruction were also beacons of hope. You may have won, Cenaria was saying, but your victory is no triumph. You can force me from my home, but you will not live in it. I will leave you nothing but scorched earth.

  In response to those great fires, across the city, smaller fires rose, too. Shopkeepers set fire to their shops. Blacksmiths stoked their furnaces so hot they would crack. Bakers destroyed their ovens. Millers sank their millstones in the Plith. Warehouse owners set fire to their storehouses. Livestock owners slaughtered their herds. Captains confined to the Plith by wytches’ magic scuttled their own ships.

  Thousands joined the exodus. The trickle of nobles and their servants became a flood. The flood became a host, an army marching out of the city—marching in defeat, but marching. Some drove wagons, some rode, some walked barefoot with empty hands and empty bellies. Some cursed; some prayed; some stared over their shoulders with haunted eyes; some wept. Some left brothers and sisters and parents and children, but every one of Cenaria’s orphaned sons and daughters carried a small, dim hope in their hearts.

  I shall return, it vowed. I shall return.

  Neph stood as far to one side as he could among the meisters, generals, and soldiers waiting to greet Godking Garoth Ursuul as he rode across West Kingsbridge with his retinue. The Godking wore a great ermine cloak that accentuated the paleness of his northern skin. His chest was bare aside from the heavy gold chains of his office. He was robust, thick-bodied but muscular, vigorous for his age. The Godking pulled his stallion to a halt before the courtyard gate. Six heads on pikes greeted him. A seventh pike stood empty.

  “Commander Gher.”

  “Yes, my liege—uh, my god, Your Holiness, sire.” The former royal guard cleared his throat. Things were not good. Though Roth’s and Neph’s plans had seemed to go without a problem, somehow the Godking’s armies had sustained far heavier losses than they’d planned. A boatload of highlanders dead. Many of the nobles who ought to be dead escaped. Great swathes of the city aflame. The heart of Cenaria’s industry and economy reduced to ashes.

  There was no resistance yet, but with so many nobles still alive, it would come. The meisters that were supposed to have been a devastating spearhead into the heart of Modai were now dead. More than fifty meisters dead, at a stroke, without any explanation except rumors of some mage with more Talent than anyone since Ezra the Mad and Jorsin Alkestes. The Ceuran invasion ended before it began. The Godking’s son murdered just as he completed his uurdthan.

  The Sa’kagé would have to be brought to heel, fires literal and figurative would have to be put out. Someone would have to answer for it. Neph Dada was trying to figure out how to make sure it wasn’t him.

  “Why is there an empty pike on my bridge?” the God-king asked. “Anyone?”

  Commander Hurin Gher shifted in his saddle, stupidly looking at the empty pike. “We haven’t found prince’s—I mean, the pretender’s—um, Logan Gyre’s body yet, sire. We, we do know that he’s dead. We have three reports confirming his death, but in all the fighting…. We’re, we’re working on it.”

  “Indeed.” Godking Ursuul didn’t look at Hurin Gher. He was studying the faces of the royal family above him. “And this Shadow that killed my son? He’s dead, too?”

  Neph felt a chill at the quiet menace in the Godking’s query. When the Khalidorans had first gone into the throne room, they thought some elite unit must have wiped out all the Khalidorans in the room, but Neph had been able to revive a man who’d had his feet cut off. He swore he’d seen most of the fight before he passed out. It was one man. A shadow. The Night Angel, he called him. The story was already getting out among the men.

  A man who walked unseen, who could kill thirty highlanders and five meisters and one of the Godking’s own aethelings. A man impervious to steel and to magic. It was nonsense, of course. With all the blood they’d found, the man must be dead. But without a body….

  “Someone dragged his body away, sir. We followed the blood trail through the hidden passages. It was a lot of blood, sire. If it really was just one man, he’s dead.”

  “It seems we have a lot of dead people without bodies, Commander. Find them. In the meantime, put up another head. Preferably one that looks like Logan Gyre’s.”

  It wasn’t fair. Ferl Khalius had been among the first highlanders on Cenarian soil. He’d been one of the few to get off the burning, sinking barge, and that only because he’d had the wits to throw off his armor before jumping in, so he didn’t drown like so many others had. He’d joined another unit and fought barehanded until he could arm himself from the highlanders who died in the first assault on the courtyard. He’d personally killed six Cenarian soldiers and two nobles, six nobles if you counted children, which he didn’t.

  And what had he been given to recognize his heroism, his cunning? The shit duty. Certain units were being given looting privileges—the good units on the west side, what the barbarians c
alled the Warrens, and the best units looting the remains of the east side with the officers. Ferl’s unit was all dead, so he got assigned with clearing the rubble on the east bridge.

  It wasn’t only dirty—it was dangerous. The wytches had extinguished the fire, but many of the planks were weak, some of them cracking or breaking if you stood on them. The pilings were fine: sheathed in iron, they were impervious to the fire, but you couldn’t stand on the pilings, so a fat lot of good that did.

  The worst part of the job was the bodies. Some of them were like seared steak, crusted black on the outside, but cracked and oozing inside. And the stench of burnt flesh and burnt hair! He was picking through the bodies, taking whatever looked promising and dumping the bodies over the side of the bridge. Some of the units would be glad to have their dead back for proper burial, but Ferl wasn’t going to carry the damned stinking things across this bridge. To the abyss with them.

  Then he saw a sword. It must have been under one of the bodies when the fire had started, because it was untouched. There wasn’t even smoke damage on the hilt. It was a beautiful blade, the hilt carved with dragons. It was the kind of sword that befitted the leader of a warband. Or a warlord. With such a sword, Ferl’s clan would hold him in awe. Awe he deserved. He was supposed to bring anything unusual he found to one of the Vürdmeisters. Sure, after how well they’ve treated me.

  Looking at the other men working on the bridge and seeing that none were watching, he drew his sword, set it aside, and slid his prize into its sheath. Not a perfect fit, but good enough for the moment. The hilt was a problem, what with those dragons, but he’d wrap leather bindings around it soon enough. He was good with his hands. Give him a few hours, and this sword would look like any other.

  The sword brightened his outlook considerably. It wasn’t really enough to repay his valor, but it was a start.

  The meister walked down the last corridor to what the Southron barbarians called Hell’s Asshole. The nauseating-intoxicating wash of torment engulfed her. She missed a step and stumbled against the wall. The soldier accompanying her turned. He looked scared.

  “It’s nothing,” she said. She walked to the grate covering the hole. A few words and red light burned in front of her.

  The creatures in the Hole squinted and shrank back. She spoke again and the light descended into the Hole. She examined each prisoner. Ten men, one woman, and one simpleton with filed teeth. None of them could be the usurper.

  She turned, slightly dizzy, and walked out, trying not to flee.

  A minute later, a big man rolled out from an overhang carved in the stone.

  The woman looked at him and shook her head. “You’re a fool. Nothing they could do to you would be as bad as staying here. Look at you. You’re soft. The Hole will break you, Thirteen.”

  Logan stared at her flatly, a grimy woman with gaping holes in her dress, short a few teeth. The look on her face was the only thing approaching human kindness that was to be found in this hole. “Though all the detritus of humanity pass through this hole and all the fires of perdition rise from it, I will not be broken,” Logan said.

  “He use a lotta big words, don’t he?” the big man named Fin said. He smiled a smile full of bloody gums, one of the first symptoms of scurvy, and wrapped his sinew rope back around his body. “Lotta meat on that big fucker. We’ll eat real good.”

  Scurvy meant food deficiencies. Food deficiencies meant Fin had lived long enough to get sick from food deficiencies. Fin was a survivor. Logan turned his eyes to him and pulled out his knife—literally his only edge against these animals. “Let me make this real simple,” he said, having to stifle the impulse to say “really” instead of “real.” “You will not break me. The hole will not break me. I will not break. I. Will. Not. Be. Broken.”

  “What’s your name, love?” the woman asked.

  Logan found himself grinning. Something fierce and primal was rising inside him. Something inside him said, where others have failed, have faltered, have fallen, I will be triumphant; I am different; I am cut of a new cloth; I will rise. “Call me King,” he said, and he smiled a fuck-you through the angst and the sorrow, and he was potent.

  That was it. That was survival. That was the secret. That was the living flame hidden in the ashes of his burned-out heart. If only he could hold it.

  EPILOGUE

  Elene knocked on the door of the cooper’s shop, her hair covered, back bent, and foot twisted sideways in the dust. The Khalidoran army had arrived yesterday and King Garoth Ursuul was rewarding his troops for their valor by allowing selected soldiers to take what they desired. It wasn’t a good day to be a pretty woman on the streets of Cenaria.

  It had taken her two harrowing days to find this place. The cooper unbolted the door and signaled her in, gesturing to the back of the shop. Jarl was at a table covered with papers, fat sacks of money at his feet. “I’ve found your way out,” he said. “A Khalidoran caravan master has agreed to take you. You’ll have to lie in a compartment used to smuggle barush tea and worse things until you get outside the gates, but it’s big enough to hold you and the girl. You leave at nightfall.”

  “You can trust this smuggler?” Elene asked.

  “I can’t trust anyone,” Jarl said, exhausted. “He’s Khalidoran and you’re beautiful. But because he’s Khalidoran, he has the best chance of getting through the gates. And he’s worked with us for twenty years. I’ve made it in his best interest to take you safely.”

  “You must have paid him a fortune,” Elene said.

  “Only half of one,” Jarl said, the shadow of a smile coming to his lips. “The other half he gets when you send me word that you’ve made it safely.”

  “Thank you.”

  “It’s the least I could do for Kylar.” Jarl looked down, ashamed. “It’s also the most I can do.”

  Elene hugged him. “It’s more than enough. Thank you.”

  “The girl’s downstairs. She won’t leave his bo—she won’t leave him.”

  He recognized this place. The white-gold warmth suffused him; his flesh gloried in the light. He moved through the tunnel with sure and easy steps. Eagerness without hurry.

  Gentle fingers closed his eyes.

  A child shrieked. Regrets. Sorrow. Darkness. Cold.

  He blinked away the nightmare. Breathed. Let the white-gold light hold him again.

  “Grab his arm, Uly. Help me.”

  Cold stones slid under his back. Discomfort. Pain. Hopelessness.

  Then even the cold and the jostling faded.

  He walked forward unsteadily in the tunnel. Broke into a jog. This was where he belonged now. Here, without pain.

  A tear splashed on his face. A woman spoke, but he couldn’t make out the words.

  He stumbled and fell. He lay there, terrified, but the nightmare didn’t come back. He got up to his knees, stood. At the next step he smacked up against… nothing.

  He put his hands out and felt the invisible barrier. It was as cool as iron and as smooth as glass. Beyond it, the warmth increased, the white-gold light beckoned him. Were those people up ahead?

  Something was pulling him aside, away. He felt twisted, and slowly a chamber came into focus—not the chamber, for the chamber itself remained indistinct, it seemed full of people intensely curious to see him, but he couldn’t make them out. All that was truly in focus was a man seated before him on a low throne, and two doors. The door at his right hand was of beaten gold. Light leaked around every edge, the same warm white-gold light Kylar had just been in. The door to his left hand was plain wood with a simple iron latch. The man’s face was dominated by lambent, lupine yellow eyes. He wasn’t tall, but he exuded authority, potency.

  “What is this place?” Kylar asked.

  A toothy smile. “Neither heaven nor hell. This, if you will, is the Antechamber of the Mystery. This is my realm.”

  “Who are you?”

  “It pleased Acaelus to call me The Wolf.”

  “Acaelus? You mean Durzo?
” Kylar asked.

  “Before you, there is a choice. You may proceed through one door or the other. Choose the gold, and I will release you back to where you just were, and you will have my apology for interrupting your journey.”

  “My journey?”

  “Your journey to heaven or hell or oblivion or reincarnation or whatever it is that death holds.”

  “Do you know?” Kylar asked.

  “This is the Antechamber of the Mystery, Azoth. You will find no answers here, just choices.” The Wolf grinned, and it was a joyless grin, a predatory grin. “Through the wood door, you will go back to your life, your body, your time—or nearly so. It will take a few days for your body to heal. You will be the Night Angel in truth, as Acaelus was before you. Your body will be immune to the scourge of time as Acaelus’ was—something that perhaps one must become old to appreciate. You will also heal at a rate beyond that of mortal men. What you call your Talent will grow. You can still be killed; the difference is, you will come back. You will be a living legend.”

  It sounded wonderful. Too good, even. I’d be like Acaelus Thorne. I’d be like Durzo. The latter thought gave him pause. The burden of immortality—however it worked—or the power of it or sheer press of so much time was what had turned Acaelus Thorne, the prince, the hero, into Durzo Blint, the hopeless, bitter murderer. He remembered his snide remark to Durzo:

  “Here I thought the Night Angels were invincible.”

  “They’re immortal. It’s not the same.”

  “Why would you do this for me?” Kylar asked.

  “Perhaps I don’t do anything at all. Perhaps it is the ka’kari’s work.”

  “What’s the price?”

  “Ah, Durzo has taught you well, hasn’t he?” The Wolf looked almost mournful. “The truth is, I don’t know. I can only tell you what I have heard from those more enlightened than I. They believed that coming back from death as you would was such a violation of the natural order of things that this unnatural life cost the afterlife. That for his seven centuries of life, Acaelus traded all eternity. But they might be wrong. It might have no influence on eternity whatsoever—or there may be no eternity to influence. I’m the wrong… man… to ask, for I have chosen this life myself.”

 
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