The night angel trilogy, p.78
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.78

           Brent Weeks
 

  “My love,” Solon said. “You have it, Kaede. I love you. I always have.”

  She lit up, exactly like she had when she was little and he’d given her a special present. “I’ve missed you,” she said.

  “I’ve missed you,” he said, a lump rising in his throat. “I’m afraid I was never able to explain why I had to leave—”

  She stepped close to him and put a finger on his lips. Her touch sent shockwaves through him. His heart thundered against his ribs. Her very scent suffused him. His eyes couldn’t find a place to rest as he looked at her. Every beautiful line and curve and color and tone led to another and another.

  Smiling, she put a hand on his cheek.

  Oh gods. I’m lost. She had that same uncertain, wavering look that she’d had that last day, when she kissed him and he’d nearly torn her clothes off. She kissed him and her lips were all the world. She started tentatively, just touching that exquisite softness against his lips, and then drawing him out. She was suddenly aggressive, just as she had been that day, as though her passion had only been building for all the time he was gone. Her body pressed up against him and he moaned.

  She broke away from him, breathing hard, her eyes fiery. “Come to my chambers,” she said. “This time, I swear my mother won’t break in on us.”

  She climbed up a tall step and looked at him over her shoulder as she took a few steps away, her hips swaying. She grinned devilishly and brushed the nagika strap off her shoulder. He tried to step up after her, but he slipped back to his place on the floor.

  Kaede slipped the gold belt off her waist and dropped it carelessly. Solon strained to climb up that damned step. Something was cutting off his breath.

  “I’m coming,” he said, wheezing.

  She shimmied and the nagika dropped to the floor in a silk puddle. Her body was all bronze curves and shining waterfalls of black hair.

  He coughed. He couldn’t breathe. He’d thrown this away once, and he wasn’t going to give it up now. He coughed again and again and dropped to his knees.

  Kaede was just down the hall, smiling, the light playing over her lean body, her long long legs, her slim ankles. He climbed back to his feet and strained against the ropes again.

  Why is she smiling? Kaede wouldn’t smile when he was choking to death.

  Kaede wouldn’t be like this at all. Her mannerisms weren’t similar to the girl he had known, they were exactly the same, fitted to an older face.

  A woman who’d been a queen for ten years wouldn’t let down all the barriers that fast. She was everything he’d hoped or imagined—the real Kaede would be furious with him.

  The vision disappeared all at once, and Solon was back on the wall. He was staring over the edge, only the ropes keeping him from falling to his death.

  Around him, men were dying horribly. One’s stomach had swollen to three times its normal size and he was still reaching into the air, as if shoving food down his throat. Another was purple, screaming at someone who wasn’t there, but he was no longer screaming words. His voice was a wreck and every once in a while, he coughed and blood flew out of his mouth, but he never stopped screaming. Another was shrieking, “Mine! It’s mine!” and beating the stone wall with his hands as if they were attacking him. His hands were bloody stumps, ruined, but he never stopped. Others were lying down, dead, with no indication of what had killed them.

  Many had killed themselves by one means or another, but some had been scorched with magic or exploded. The wall ran red with their already freezing blood. The gate had been blown apart while he’d been in his trance and dark figures were marching toward them now, driving the team of aurochs pulling the enormous wagon.

  It was Khali. Solon had no doubt of that.

  “Has Dorian gone mad yet?” a woman’s voice asked. “That was my little gift, you know.”

  Solon looked, but couldn’t see the source of the voice. He wasn’t sure it wasn’t coming from inside his own head. “He’s completely cured, actually.”

  She laughed; it was a deep, throaty sound. “So he is alive.”

  Solon wanted to crumple. They’d thought Dorian was dead. Or at least they didn’t know. “Let’s get this over with,” Solon said.

  She chuckled. “You’ve been told many lies in your life, Solonariwan. They lied to you when you were growing up. They lied to you at Sho’cendi. They stole from you. I’m not going to offer you power, because the truth is, I can’t give you power. The vir doesn’t come from me. That’s just another lie. I wish it did. The truth is, the vir is natural, and it’s vastly more powerful than your pitiable Talent. The truth is, Dorian’s Talent was weak before he used the vir, and you know how powerful his Talent is now.”

  “It’s enslaving. Meisters are like drunks looking for their next glass of wine.”

  “Some of them, yes. The fact is, some people can’t handle drink. But most people can. Maybe you’d be one of the people who can’t, like Dorian, but I wouldn’t bet on that. The truth is, Dorian always liked his special place in the sun, didn’t he? He liked having you look up to him. Having everyone look up to him. And what would he be without his power, without his extra gifts? He’d be so much less than you, Solon. Without the vir, he’d have no gifts, and his Talent would be minuscule compared to yours. So where would that put you if you used the vir? Even if you just used it once, just to unlock the hidden Talents you don’t even know you have? What could you do with that kind of power? Could you go back to Seth and make things right? Take your place with Kaede on the throne? Take your place in history?” She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t really care. But you’re pathetic, you magi. You can’t even use magic in the dark. Really.”

  “Lies. It’s all lies.”

  “Is it? Well, then, you hold on to your weakness, your humility. But if you ever change your mind, Solonariwan, this is all you have to do. The power is there, and it’s waiting for you.” And then she showed him. It was simple. Instead of reaching toward a source of light, the sun or a fire, or instead of reaching into his glore vyrden, he just had to reach toward Khali. A little twist and it was there. An ocean of power, being constantly fed from tens of thousands of sources. Solon couldn’t understand it all, but he could see the outlines. Every Khalidoran prayed morning and night. The prayer wasn’t empty words: it was a spell. It emptied a portion of everyone’s glore vyrden into this ocean. Then Khali gave it back to those she willed, when and as much as she wanted. At heart, it was simple: a magical tax.

  Because so many people were born with a glore vyrden but lacked the capability or the teaching to express it, Khali’s favorites would always have ample power—and the people would never even know they were being robbed of their very vitality. That didn’t explain the vir, but it did explain why the Khalidorans had always used pain and torture in their worship. Khali didn’t need the suffering, she needed her worshippers to feel intense emotions. Intense emotions were what allowed marginally Talented people to use their glore vyrden. Torture was simply the most reliable way to spark emotions of the right intensity. Whether the torturer and tortured and spectators felt disgust, loathing, fear, hatred, lust, or delight made no difference. Khali could use them all.

  “My Soulsworn will find you now, and you’ll die,” Khali said. “You emptied your glore vyrden already, didn’t you?”

  “Begone,” he said.

  She laughed. “Oh, you’re a good one. I think I’ll keep you.” Then her voice was gone, and Solon crumpled to the stones. Khali was in Cenaria. The Ursuuls would make ferali and the rebels would be massacred. All his service here had been for nothing. All he had just learned was for nothing. He should have gone home to Seth twelve years ago. He’d failed.

  He opened his eyes and saw one of the Soulsworn, draped in heavy sable cloaks, their faces obscured behind blank black masks, picking through the dead along the wall. Now and then one would stop, draw a sword and dispatch someone. They wiped their swords afterward, so the blood wouldn’t freeze their blades to the inside of th
eir scabbards.

  They were coming toward him. There was nothing he could do. He was bound and the horizon was barely gray. No weapons. No magic. The vir was his only way out. Even if it was suicide, at least he could take a lot of them with him.

  Maybe he could outsmart her. If he could just survive—and how stupid to be killed by some thug in a costume—he could fight Khali. She wasn’t invincible. She wasn’t a goddess. He’d talked to her. He’d understood her. He could fight her. He just needed the power to do it.

  Solon’s heart thudded in his chest. It was exactly what Dorian had said he himself would be tempted to do. Solon had thought the temptations had stopped, but this was the last one. The hardest one. Dorian was right. He’d been right about everything.

  O God… Sir, if you are there… I despise myself for praying now when I’ve got nothing to lose, but shit, if you just help me to live through—

  Solon’s prayer was interrupted as a heavy corpse fell on him. Solon opened his mouth and took a deep breath. He was just exhaling when warm blood from the corpse poured into his mouth. It was metallic and already thickening.

  He almost threw up as the blood spilled over his chin, down his neck, through his beard, but he froze as he heard a foot scuff on stone nearby.

  The Soulsworn pulled the body off him, but didn’t walk away.

  “Look at this one, Kaav,” he said with a thick Khalidoran accent.

  “Another screamer. Love it when they do that,” a second voice said. “Must have pissed off the men, huh? Must have been one of the first to go if they tied him up like that.”

  The first Soulsworn stepped close and bent over Solon. Solon could hear the man’s breath hissing through the mask over his face. The man stood and kicked Solon in the kidney.

  Pain lanced through him, but he didn’t make a sound. The man kicked him again and again. The third time, Solon’s body betrayed him, and he tensed his muscles. It was just too hard to lie limp.

  “He’s still alive,” the man said. “Kill him.”

  Solon’s heart leapt into this throat. It was over. He had to grab the vir and die.

  Wait. The thought was so calm, so simple and clear that it seemed to come from outside of him.

  Solon held still.

  The second I hear steel, I’ll… He didn’t know. He’d take the vir? Then Khali would have him.

  The other man grunted. “Shit, my blade’s froze. Coulda swore I got it cleaned off.”

  “Ah, forget it. Between the cold and the bleeding he’ll be dead in five minutes. If he coulda gotten out of the ropes he would have when She came through.”

  And they walked away.

  40

  When Vi woke, bound tightly at wrists, ankles, elbows, and knees, the first thing she saw was a middle-aged woman with thin, graying brown hair, a thick slab of body, the stance of a woman who had never worn anything but practical shoes, a round, lined face, and piercing eyes. The maja was staring at her. A fire was burning behind Vi, and a small bundle near her that was probably Uly, bound and trussed like she was.

  “Fock eww,” Vi said. She was gagged. Not just some little gag of a handkerchief tied around her mouth, a serious gag. It felt like a rock had been wrapped in a handkerchief and stuffed in her mouth, then thin leather ties wrapped every which way around her face, guaranteeing she couldn’t speak.

  “Before we start, Vi,” the woman said. “I want to tell you something very important. If you do escape from me—which you won’t—do not run into the forest. Have you ever heard of the Dark Hunter?”

  Vi scowled as well as she could with her mouth stuck partially open, then decided she had nothing to lose by letting the old woman talk. She shook her head.

  “That would explain why you were rushing headlong into death, I suppose,” the woman said. “I’m Sister Ariel Wyant Sa’fastae. The Dark Hunter was created some six hundred and maybe fifty years ago by a magus named Ezra, perhaps the most Talented magus who ever lived. Ezra was on the losing side of the War of Darkness. He was one of Jorsin Alkestes’ most trusted generals, the kind of man who seemed to be able to do everything, and everything he did he did superlatively. I’m sorry, superlatively means he did everything excellently.”

  “I oh wha ih eenz, idj,” Vi said, though it was a lie.

  “What? Never mind. Ezra created a creature that sensed magic and certain kinds of creatures that are now extinct—krul, ferozi, ferali, blaemir, and what have you—for which you may thank whatever gods your superstitions support. He created his perfect hunter too well, and he couldn’t control it. It began killing anyone with the Talent, escaping while Ezra slept. Finally, they battled—of course no one knows what happened because no one was there. But the Talented children of Torras Bend stopped dying and no one ever saw the Dark Hunter again, nor Ezra. However, whatever Ezra did, it didn’t kill the Dark Hunter. He only walled it in. Here. About ten paces north of where I regrettably had to kill your horse is the first ward. That ward marks you for death.

  “Every magus or maja or meister to attempt Ezra’s Wood in six hundred years has died. Powerful mages carrying potent artifacts died, those artifacts in turn lured other mages, and so forth. Whatever happens in the wood—even if the Dark Hunter is a myth—whatever happens there, no one comes back.” Sister Ariel paused and then her voice became bright and cheery, “So, if you escape, don’t go north.” Ariel scowled. “You’ll pardon me if I’m not doing this right. I’ve never kidnapped anyone before—unlike you.”

  Shit.

  “Oh yes, Ulyssandra was rather eager to tell me all about you, wetboy.”

  Double shit.

  “But about that. You’re not a wetboy, Vi. You’re not even a wetgirl. Oh, there have been such things, but what you are is a maja uxtra kurrukulas, a bush mage, a wild mage—”

  “Ock ew! Ock ew!” Vi thrashed against her bonds. It was no use.

  “Oh, you don’t believe me? A wetboy, Vi, even of the female variety, can use her Talent without speaking. So if you are a wetboy, why don’t you escape?”

  There was nothing, nothing in all the world that Vi couldn’t stand as much as feeling helpless. She’d rather have Hu paw her hair. She’d rather have the Godking mount her. She bucked on the ground, tearing her skin against the ropes. She tried to scream. It made part of the handkerchief go down her throat. She gagged and coughed and for a moment, she thought she was going to die. Then she regained her breath and lay limp.

  Ariel scowled. “I really don’t like this. I hope you’ll realize that someday. I’m going to take off your gag, understand? You can’t get away from me, even with your Talent, and you’ll have to learn that sooner or later, so we might as well make it clear now to spare you as much pain as possible. But before you fight me, I do expect your first words to be curses or lies or an attempt to use magic, so before you do that, I’d like to ask you a question.”

  Vi’s eyes burned holes in the woman. The bitch. Just let her take out that gag.

  “Who is the extremely talented Vürdmeister that put this spell on you?”

  Thoughts of escape evaporated. It was a bluff. It had to be a bluff. But how?

  Nysos. What did the bastard do to me? It was just what the Godking would do, put some fucking spell on her. Hadn’t she imagined something of the sort when she was in the throne room? What if it hadn’t been her imagination?

  “Because that spell is really something,” Sister Ariel said. “I’ve been studying it for the past six hours while you’ve been unconscious, and I still can’t tell what it does. One thing I do know is that it’s trapped. And he’s—it definitely bears the marks of being a man’s magic—he’s anchored it in some interesting ways. I’m considered strong among my sisters. One of the stronger magae to attain the colors in the last fifty years. And it’s too strong for me to break, that’s clear immediately. You see, there are weaves you can unravel and there are weaves you have to burst—Fordaean knots if you will—are you familiar with Fordaean knots? Never mind. This spell has both. Th
e traps might be unraveled. But the core weave will have to be broken most carefully. Even if I could do it myself, it would probably leave you with some permanent mental damage.”

  “Nnn ga.”

  “What? Oh.” Sister Ariel stayed seated cross-legged and murmured. The bonds fell from Vi’s face. She spat out the handkerchief—it had been wrapped around a rock, the bitch!—and breathed. She didn’t grab her Talent. Not yet.

  “The rest?” she asked, gesturing to her other bonds.

  “Mm. Sorry.”

  “It’s a little hard to talk to you lying on my side.”

  “Fair enough. Loovaeos.”

  Vi’s body was pulled upright and scooted backward to a tree.

  “So that’s your bait? A bluff about some spell on me that we won’t be able to take off until we get to the Chantry—where it just so happens it will be impossible for me to escape?”

  “That’s it.”

  Vi pursed her lips. Was it her imagination, or was there a slight glow around Ariel? “That’s pretty good bait,” she admitted.

  “Better than we offer most girls.”

  “You always kidnap girls?”

  “Like I already said, this is my first time. It doesn’t usually come down to kidnapping. The sisters who do the recruiting have lots of ways to be persuasive. I was deemed too tactless for such work.”

  Big surprise. “What’s the usual bait?” Vi asked.

  “Just to be like the recruiters, who tend to be beautiful, charming, respected, and—not least—always get their own way.”

  “And the hook is?” Vi asked.

  “Oh, we’re continuing the fishing metaphor?”

  “What?” Vi asked.

  “Never mind. The hook is servitude and tutelage. It’s like an apprenticeship, seven to ten years of service before you become a full Sister. Then you’re free.”

 
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