The night angel trilogy, p.94
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.94

           Brent Weeks
 

  Like a puppet with its strings cut, Tomman dropped to his knees. The bow fell in the mud, forgotten. His face contorted. He put his arms out, eyes welling with tears. It was a more abject apology than he would ever have found in words.

  Kaldrosa ran to him.

  “I feel like I’ve been here more than some of the people who live here,” Kylar said.

  “Quiet,” Vi said.

  When he’d come to get Logan, Kylar had taken a skiff barely big enough to hold them. Though small, the vessel had been incredibly fast, and he’d been able to evade the single boat that had patrolled Vos Island. Now three boats were on patrol, so they were going to cross to Vos Island the same way he had when he’d come to rescue Elene.

  Following her lead, Kylar looped a knee over the rope and climbed hand over hand across the line as it dangled beneath the bridge. Vi’s shot had been perfect, so they were able to pull the line much tighter than he had on his previous trip. When she passed the remains of his bolt stuck in the wood from his horrible shot four months ago, she stopped. “Legend, my butt,” she mumbled.

  Which brought Kylar’s attention to her butt. Again. While the first word that popped into his mind wasn’t legendary, Vi’s butt was quite pert. Nicely round. Worthy of the stretchy-tight garb she wore. Unlike many athletic women, Vi had curves. Nice hips and awe-inspiring breasts.

  Why am I thinking about Vi’s breasts?

  Kylar kept pulling himself hand over hand, scowling. This was a distraction he didn’t need. He looked at Vi’s butt again. Shook his head. Looked again. Why am I attracted to her butt? How weird is that? Why do men like butts anyway?

  Vi reached the castle wall and let down a rope. She whispered something and shadows obscured her. It wasn’t great, not nearly what Durzo had been capable of, much less Kylar. Her shadows were merely black, and obscured the recognizable humanity of her shape. Still, it was less conspicuous than a half-naked tart whose entire body shouted, “Look at me!”

  Following her, Kylar slid down the rope quickly. They huddled in the shadow of a rock as the patrol boat passed.

  “So, you haven’t said anything about my grays.”

  Kylar raised an eyebrow. “What? Do you want me tell you if your trousers make your butt look big? They do. Happy?”

  “So you have been looking at my butt. What do you think of the rest?”

  “Are we really talking about this? Now?” Kylar glanced at her breasts again—and got caught.

  “The haughty disdain thing will work better for you if you don’t blush,” Vi said.

  “They’re great,” Kylar said. He coughed. “Your grays, that is. Not that your breasts—I mean style is perfect for you. Just over the line between sexy and obscene.”

  She refused to take offense. “First I take their attention, then I take their life.”

  “It looks cold.” This time, he didn’t look at her breasts. Barely—despite the small attention-getters standing at attention on top of her large attention-getters.

  “I’m a woman. I don’t get to pick clothes for comfort.”

  “I can’t believe I’m having a conversation this long about clothes.”

  “You call this a long conversation about clothes?” Vi asked. “Haven’t had many lovers, have you?”

  “Just one. And not for long, thanks to you,” Kylar said.

  That shut her up. Thank the God.

  He got up and started moving. They had to hide every time the patrol boat passed, Vi so she wouldn’t be seen, and Kylar so Vi wouldn’t know he could go invisible. Kylar had worn fairly tight clothes himself, an old pair of grays that Momma K had had fetched for him. The more anyone knew about the extent of his powers, the more vulnerable he was.

  They reached the sunken gate to the Maw an hour after midnight. There was no one guarding it.

  Kylar tried the latch. It wasn’t locked. He looked at Vi. Obviously, he liked that as much as she did. Still, how could the Godking know they were coming? He moved to open the door when Vi touched his arm. She pointed to the rusty hinges, motioning for him to wait.

  She touched each of the hinges in turn, murmuring, then nodded to him.

  He tried the rusty door. It opened silently.

  “Well, I’ll be damned,” Vi said. “So it doesn’t just work on little girls.”

  Kylar eased the door shut and stared at her. “Why don’t you try it on yourself?” he asked.

  “I already did,” she said. “Anyone further than five feet away can’t hear me.”

  “That’s not what I meant. Anyway, how can you be sure it works?”

  “You didn’t hear what I just called you.”

  “Which was?”

  “True, but not clever enough to repeat.”

  He hesitated. “Vi, before we go in, I need to ask you something.”

  “Shoot.”

  “I got into wet work because of a child named Rat. He was Garoth Ursuul’s son, and it was to please Garoth that Rat cut up Elene’s face and raped Jarl and tried to rape me.”

  “I didn’t know,” Vi said. “I’m sorry.”

  “It’s not important,” Kylar said gruffly. “I got away.”

  “I didn’t,” Vi said quietly. She sank into herself, into those years of nightmare. “For me it was my mother’s lovers. She knew what they did, but she never stopped them. She always hated me for what I cost her. As if I was the one who fucked some stranger and got pregnant and made her run away. I don’t know if she wanted me at first or if she was just too much of a coward to take ergot or tansy tea.”

  Vi knew it was a reasonable fear. A sufficient dose to induce an abortion was a hairsbreadth from a lethal dose. Every year, Hu claimed, thousands of girls who “took sick and died” had actually taken too much poison. Others took too little and bore maimed children.

  “After she ran away, my mother had nothing to survive on but her looks. She was too proud to be a whore outright, so she attached herself to one bastard after another. She could never do what had to be done.”

  “And that’s how you’re different from her?”

  “Yes,” she said softly. Then she came to herself. Why had she been talking so much? She’d never told anyone about that shit. She’d never had anyone who would have cared. “Sorry, you didn’t need to hear that. You had a question?”

  Kylar didn’t answer. He was looking at her in a way no one had ever looked at her before. It was the look a mother gave her child when she fell and bloodied her knees. It was compassion, and it went right through her, past her sarcasm and her bravado. It knifed through the ice and dead flesh that were all she thought she had inside and found something small and alive and bathed it in warm light. He was seeing all the putrefying yuck that she’d walled up, and he wasn’t recoiling from her the way he should have.

  “Hu Gibbet made you kill her, didn’t he?”

  She looked down, unable to face the open warmth any more. She didn’t trust her voice.

  “Second kill? One of the boyfriends first?”

  She nodded.

  This was ridiculous. They were having this conversation outside the Maw? “What was your question?” she asked.

  “When I quit wet work, I couldn’t let it go, and it’s only now that I know why. When Jarl showed up at my door, part of me was relieved. I had what I’d wanted for my whole life, but I still wasn’t happy. Have you ever had someone look at you and understand you and totally accept you? And for some reason, you just couldn’t accept that acceptance?”

  Vi swallowed. Her heart filled with longing.

  “That’s what Elene was for me. I mean, is for me. I promised her that I’d never kill again, but I can’t be happy if I don’t finish this. When I left, I left her a pair of wedding rings so that she’d know I still love her and want to be with her forever, but I’m sure she’s furious with me.”

  The weight in Vi’s pocket burned. She told her tongue to move, to tell him, but it was lead in her mouth.

  “If it were any hit but this, she’d neve
r forgive me. If I do this, the Khalidorans will lose, Logan will be king, the Warrens will be different forever, and Jarl won’t have died in vain. If there is a One God, like Elene always says there is, he made me for this kill.”

  Jarl? How can he talk so calmly about Jarl to me? “So what was your question?” She sounded a bit militant, even to her own ears—Jarl! Gods! Her emotions were so out of control she couldn’t even identify them—but Kylar answered gently.

  “I needed to know if you were in this with me. All the way to the Godking. All the way to death, if it takes that. But I think you’ve already answered me.”

  “I’m with you,” Vi said. Her whole heart swore it.

  “I know. I trust you.” Looking in his eyes, Vi knew he was telling the truth. But the words made no sense. Trust? After what she’d done?

  He turned back to the door.

  “Kylar,” she said. Her heart was pounding. She’d tell him about Jarl first, then the note and the earrings, everything. She’d throw herself at his feet and dare him to accept all of it. “I’m sorry. About Jarl. I never meant—”

  “I know,” he said. “I don’t see his murder in you.”

  “Huh?”

  “Vi…” he said softly. As he put a hand on her shoulder, tingles shot through her whole body. She looked at his lips and he was stepping close and her head was tilting of its own accord, her lips parting slightly, and he was so close she could feel his presence like a caress on her exposed skin, and her eyes closed, and his lips touched her—forehead.

  Vi blinked.

  Kylar dropped his hand as if her shoulder was on fire. Something black flitted across the surface of his eyes.

  “What the fuck was that?” Vi demanded.

  “Sorry. I almost—you mean my eyes? I was checking if you were using a glamour. I mean, I’m sorry. I was just—Uh, let’s get this done, huh?”

  Now she was totally confused. He’d thought she’d used her glamour? Did that mean he’d wanted to—he almost what?—no, surely not.

  What were you thinking, Vi? “Sorry I killed your best friend, Kylar, wanna fuck?”

  Kylar opened the door and Vi saw the gaping mouth for which the Maw was named for the first time. The Maw looked like a dragon opening its mouth to swallow her. Red glass eyes with torches behind them glowed with evil intent. Everything else was carved from black fireglass: the black tongue they walked on, the black fangs poised overhead. Once they stepped into the mouth, there was no light.

  “This is wrong,” Kylar said. He stopped. “This is totally different.”

  When Kylar had saved Elene and Uly, the ramp into the Maw had led down a short tunnel and then forked. The nobles’ cells had been to the right, and the rest to the left. The ceilings had been about seven feet high everywhere, giving a claustrophobic feeling to the Maw.

  “I thought you were in here a couple months ago,” Vi said.

  “Looks like the wytches have been busy.”

  They entered a vast subterranean chamber. The ramp that had once descended thirty feet now plunged more than a hundred. The nobles’ cells and the cells from the first and second levels of the Maw were gone. The ramp was wide enough for four horses abreast and it spiraled around a great central pit. At the bottom, they could see a gold altar with a man tied to it and meisters around him.

  “Shit,” Vi breathed. “We have to go down there.”

  Kylar followed her eyes. She wasn’t looking at the man on the gold table. She was looking at the south end of the pit, where a small tunnel led toward the castle.

  The place felt wrong. It wasn’t the altar or the darkness. The smell of the Hole was thick here now. Sulphuric smoke crawled along the floor. It reminded Kylar of his fight with Durzo.

  Beneath the smoke, there were other smells. Old blood and the cloying stench of decaying flesh. Beneath the darkness and the queer chanting of the wytches and the reedy cries of pain from deep in the tunnel—mercifully toward the Hole, not the way he and Vi would go—there was something else.

  It was a heaviness. Oppression. Kylar had made the night his home for too many years to be afraid of the dark—he thought. But here, in the very air he breathed, was something deeper, darker, more ancient and more vile than he could imagine. Just smelling the reek made him remember killing. He recalled the shameful glee he felt as the noose slipped around Rat’s ankle. He remembered when he’d poisoned a saddlemaker’s stew and the man hadn’t been hungry and had let his son have it. He remembered the exact shade of purple the boy’s face had turned as his throat had swollen shut and he’d suffocated. He remembered a hundred deeds he was ashamed of, a hundred other things he should have done and hadn’t. He stood paralyzed, breathing the foul air.

  “Come on,” Vi said. Her eyes looked haunted, enormous, but she was moving. “Breathe through your mouth. Don’t think, just do.”

  Kylar blinked stupidly and came back to himself and followed Vi. The presence was Khali. Just like Logan had warned.

  They made their way down into the pit. Kylar walked near the edge, looking down. As he got nearer, he could see that the meisters weren’t sacrificing the man, at least not in any conventional sense. Their victim was a Lodricari with tattoos covering his entire body. His skin hung thin and loose on his big, withered frame. He was bound with thick chains face down on the gold table and he was stripped to the waist.

  Six meisters were seated at the points of the gold Lodricari star inlaid in the floor, cross-legged, their eyes closed, chanting. Two more stood on either side of the altar. One was holding a hammer and the other…

  Kylar couldn’t believe it until he moved to the very last spiral and the level of the floor. The first meister was holding a carpenter’s hammer and gold nails while the second was holding a horse’s spine in his hands, positioning it above the tattooed man’s tailbone.

  The meister set the spine in place and the other meister, gritting his teeth, set the six-inch-long golden nail above it. He slammed the hammer down. The tattooed man screamed and bucked. In two more heavy whacks, the nail sank all the way in. Then both meisters backed up and Kylar saw their victim well for the first time.

  There was something wrong with his skin. At first, because of all the tattoos, Kylar couldn’t tell what it was, but between the tattoos he could see that the man was flushed. His veins pressed against the surface of his skin as if he were lifting a great weight. That would have been understandable, given what he was enduring, but the veins weren’t in the right places. Thick veins and arteries, blue and red, pushed up against his skin everywhere. And the skin itself seemed oddly dimpled, as if he had pockmarks over his entire body.

  The meisters stepped back and called out an order. A prisoner was brought out of the north tunnel, where Kylar could see a holding cell with a dozen men in it. The man was shackled hand and foot and a rope was tied around his neck. A young, pretty meister took the rope and unstrung it, taking care not to let any part of her body enter the circle of magic. She stood on the far side of the circle from the prisoner, who was bleating with fear. Cold sweat poured from the man’s face and urine coursed down his leg. His eyes were locked to the man on the altar.

  The young meister began pulling on the rope around the man’s neck, drawing him toward the circle. He took one hobbled step before he started fighting, and then it was too late. He lost his balance and came shambling forward to keep himself from falling. When he saw that his path would bring him straight to the tattooed man, he threw himself to the side.

  With his hands shackled behind him, the victim had no way to catch himself. His face cracked against the fireglass floor.

  The meisters who weren’t seated or chanting cursed. The woman repositioned herself, flinging the rope over the altar. A meister joined her and they began pulling the semiconscious man toward the altar again.

  Why don’t they just use magic? But then Kylar looked through the ka’kari and thought he knew why.

  This entire chamber was full of magic. It billowed from the meisters t
he way sulphuric smoke billowed up from the Hole. It seeped along the ground. The very air was thick with it—everywhere but around the altar. There, the air was dead. The meisters were creating something that would resist magic—even theirs. But as Kylar looked closely, he saw that the man wasn’t untouched by their magic. All the meisters who were chanting were weaving something together in the air above the altar, and they were sinking it into him at two points. In the back of the man’s neck, on either side of his spine, sat two diamonds, each the size of a man’s thumb, nailed in. In the visible spectrum they were invisible, covered with blood and grime and the man’s hair. In the magical spectrum, they blazed. Only through them could the meisters touch the man’s body.

  The meisters finally pulled the prisoner up, gagging and choking. Kylar felt Vi tug on his tunic, an urgent let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-here, but he ignored her. The prisoner lurched forward and fell on top of the altar, across the tattooed man.

  Though he landed at an angle and should have rolled off, he stuck. The meisters dropped the rope and stepped back fast, almost fleeing. The pitch of the chanting rose. The prisoner screamed, but Kylar couldn’t see why. The tattooed man’s muscles were bunched, his skin flushing even redder—and then blood washed over his back.

  The prisoner was yanked off his feet and sucked onto the tattooed man’s back. Then the prisoner’s tunic was ripped away and Kylar saw the tattooed skin writhing. Each of those thousands of pockmarks was opening as a fanged little mouth. Everywhere, tattooed skin was chewing into the prisoner.

  As the prisoner was consumed straight into that tattooed back, the man on the altar screamed in agony equal to his victim’s. Through the ka’kari, Kylar saw whole ribs ripped from the prisoner and pulled through the undulating back and attached to the new spine. Skin swelled and grew over the spine as well. The meister chanted and Kylar saw that they were directing the growth. Whatever this tattooed beast was, they weren’t making it. It had already been made. They were just growing it into a shape fit for war.

  In another ten seconds, the prisoner was gone. Sort of. Parts of him had been incorporated into the new creature. The monstrosity on the altar had gained perhaps half of the prisoner’s mass. The prisoner’s spine had reinforced its spine. Ribs had given the torso more length. Skin had been stretched over the new growth, though now it too was pockmarked with those little mouths. The prisoner’s bones had been ground down and transported to the creature’s skull, which had doubled in thickness.

 
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