The night angel trilogy, p.95
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.95

           Brent Weeks
 

  The meister in charge barked something that sounded like approval, and then motioned for the next prisoner.

  Vi jerked on his sleeve again. Kylar turned and looked into the shadows where her eyes would be.

  “You go ahead,” he whispered. “I’ll catch up.”

  “You’re about to do something stupid, aren’t you?”

  Kylar smiled grimly. She just shook her head.

  62

  Lantano Garuwashi led his bloodied, exultant men out of the caves that had let them pass through the mountains. Two hundred sleeping Khalidorans had filled the last chamber. Their four wytches had slept deepest in the cave, probably thinking it the safest place, and died before the alarm had even gone up. The rest of the Khalidorans, disoriented, managed to kill as many of themselves as Garuwashi’s men had.

  In the predawn light, the sa’ceurai emerged southeast of Pavvil’s Grove. Two armies camped opposite each other on the plain. It surprised Garuwashi that it was the Khalidorans who’d been in the caves. Fighting on their home territory, it should have been the Cenarians who had reserves hidden there. If this cave was a sample, the Godking could easily have another five thousand men tucked out of sight, deployable within ten minutes.

  It was almost enough to make Garuwashi turn back. Unless the Cenarians had better tricks up their sleeves, it looked like Khalidor was going to be Ceura’s northern neighbor permanently.

  Still, this would be the last battle of the season. If he could see the outcome, Garuwashi would know if the rebels would be able to regroup or if they were wiped out. He would see Khalidoran tactics firsthand, which might save him in the future.

  “Have the men fan out,” he told his balding captain, Otaru Tomaki. He stepped to the entrance of the cave, binding in the four forelocks of black hair he’d taken with the quick precision of long practice.

  “You won’t believe our luck, War Master,” Tomaki said.

  Garuwashi cocked an eyebrow.

  “Sir, he’s right there.” Tomaki pointed.

  Barely three hundred paces away, through the trees, Garuwashi saw the giant running up a hill toward the battlefield. He was heading for the Cenarian camp. He looked over his shoulder. For a moment, Garuwashi couldn’t see why because of the trees. Then four Khalidoran cavalrymen burst from the trees up the hill.

  The giant saw that he wasn’t going to make the crest of the hill before they caught up with him. He stopped and drew his sword.

  “The gods have delivered him into my hand,” Garuwashi said. “After he kills the horsemen, we’ll see if this giant’s a match for Lantano Garuwashi.”

  “You secure the tunnel to the castle,” Kylar whispered. “When they come after me, we’ll need to move fast.”

  “What are you going to do?” Vi whispered.

  They were bringing out another prisoner. This one shuffled forward like a lamb.

  “Just go,” Kylar whispered.

  “I’m not your fucking lackey,” Vi said, raising her voice to a dangerous level.

  “Well, then. You do what you have to,” Kylar said.

  Vi glared—and went.

  Kylar waited while the meisters argued briefly and then cut the prisoner’s clothes off him to make him easier to digest. Kylar had an idea of what to do, but everything had to be in place. That meant waiting so Vi could secure the tunnel. It meant letting the prisoner die.

  He hated it. But he waited. Dammit, man, fight. That will give me all I need. But the naked prisoner did nothing. He stared at the writhing mass on the gold altar with horror.

  Why don’t you fight? All they can do is kill you.

  At the last moment, the man let out a strangled sob and tried to stand, but the rope around his neck yanked him forward. He stuck to the creature and screamed. The chanting rose again and meisters who weren’t chanting from the corners of the Lodricari star watched wide-eyed as the prisoner was devoured. This time it was even faster than before.

  Kylar fully cloaked himself, the ka’kari whooshing over his skin like a well-worn tunic. He ran toward the altar, right past a chanting meister.

  As he stepped into the circle circumscribing the Lodricari star, his skin burned with the potency of magic in the air. Khali’s voice shrieked through him, a voice of despair, of suicide, of shame, of corruption.

  Another step and he jumped, flipping his body into a no-handed cartwheel over the altar and the creature chained to it. It was like jumping through lightning. Needles jabbed every surface of his skin, injecting every vein with power. As he passed over the creature’s misshapen gray head, he grabbed the diamonds.

  They slid out as if the creature’s skin were butter. He landed on the other side of the altar and flung the diamonds away like burning coals. In another second, he was out of the star and leaping for the wall, which was inscribed with runes and designs cut deep enough that he could cling to them. Whatever happened next, he was content to get the hell out of the way and watch invisibly.

  Eyes flicked open around the star. The creature was still devouring the prisoner, but the meisters’ magic hung in the air like the dangling tentacles of a jellyfish. It had nowhere to go.

  The chanting meisters broke off, one by one. Every one turned toward Kylar and stared, mouth agape as if seeing the impossible.

  They can see me! Kylar clung to the wall like a spider, facing out, his hands and feet wedged in cracks behind him, waiting for the first attack.

  The silence was broken by the sound of a snapping chain and a throaty, almost-human roar. The creature, long-backed now like an enormous caterpillar, shook itself and the rest of the chains popped like roasting corn. Kylar was forgotten.

  Standing on six human arms, the creature rushed a meister and trampled him. Six arms and hands tore the meister apart and stuck his limbs to its body. The little mouths worked better than any glue. A fireball caromed off the beast’s hide. It wasn’t so much blocked as redirected. The fireball lost no momentum, did no damage.

  Three more fireballs followed in the next moment, each flying away and bursting against the walls or the floor. The meisters shrieked. One ran up the stairs that spiraled out of the depths. The creature ran after her, but instead of following her up the stairs, it cut across the circular hall. It tried to grab her. She fell back against the wall, as far away from the grasping hand as she could get.

  It was far enough. At that height, the creature’s arm couldn’t reach her. She started scurrying back up the stairs on her hands and feet. Kylar thought she was going to get away, but then the creature slumped. Its arm-legs sagged. Under the surface of its skin, long arm bones slid, one after another, to the arm reaching for the woman. The hand detached and slid forward, each section locking with the sickly sucking sound of a joint being dislocated and relocated. In no time, the arm had added four more arm-lengths. The creature grabbed the woman and pulled her onto itself. Her screams became muffled burbles.

  The creature rounded and crushed three more meisters against the wall. It paused as all its little mouths chewed through their clothing and flesh. A fourth wytch grabbed one of the three by the hand, trying to pull her free. He put a foot on the creature’s hide to get leverage. But even though the creature didn’t seem to notice, it was as if its very skin was possessed of intelligence or at least insatiable hunger. The meister hadn’t pulled for a second when his eyes bulged. He threw himself backward, but his foot stuck to the creature’s hide. He landed on his back, screaming. For a second, it looked like he might pull free, at the cost of all the meat on his foot.

  One flank tremored, the way a horse’s flank twitches to rid itself of flies, and in a wave, the toothy skin lapped up over the meister’s foot up to his ankle. Another twitch and it reached up to mid-calf. Another, and the creature was digesting four meisters.

  It was all the break Kylar needed. He launched himself off the wall and ran up the south tunnel toward the castle. He passed four bloody meisters that Vi had dispatched on the way. He found Vi rifling through the purse of a dead g
uard standing in front of a formidable oak door. He smiled recklessly. She looked at him, wide-eyed.

  “Shit, Kylar, you’re glowing.”

  “I was amazing back there,” he said, forgetting that he should have been invisible.

  “No, I mean, shit, Kylar, you’re glowing.”

  Kylar looked down. He looked like he was on fire, all in purples and green in the magical spectrum and in a dull, forge-fire red in the visible spectrum. No wonder the meisters had been staring. He’d jumped through the heart of all their magic and it had been too much for the ka’kari to devour. It was bleeding excess magic as light.

  Without thinking, he tried to suck the ka’kari back in. It was like taking a bellyful of hot lead into his glore vyrden. “Ow! Ow!”

  “Did you kill it?” Vi asked.

  Kylar looked at her like she was crazy. “Didn’t you see what that—that thing did?”

  “No. I obeyed my orders and secured the tunnel.” Vi, Kylar realized, could be a real snot. “Not that it does a whole helluvalotta good, because there’s no key. They must have been afraid of that—that thing,” she mimicked. “Now we’re going to have to go back. I’d recommend sneaking, but you seem to be on fire.”

  Kylar pushed past Vi and put his hands on the near edge of the oak door, one above the other.

  “What are you doing?” she asked.

  Gods, the door was thick. Still, if he couldn’t take the magic in, why couldn’t he channel it out? He felt the whoosh of magic leaving him. He looked down and saw tunnels the exact size and shape of his hands bored through the foot-thick oak and iron hinges.

  Swallowing—how the hell did I do that?—Kylar pushed on the door. It didn’t budge until he used Talent-strength, then it yawned open, twisting on its locks, then crashing to the floor.

  Kylar stepped through. When Vi didn’t follow, he turned. She had an expression on her face so stunned and puzzled and eloquent, he knew exactly what she was going to say.

  “What the hell are you?” Vi asked. “Hu never taught me anything like that. Hu doesn’t know anything like that.”

  “I’m just a wetboy.”

  “No, Kylar. I don’t know what you are, but you’re not just anything.”

  63

  Why have you denied me my royal garments?” the girl demanded. The princess was wearing a drab dress several sizes too big and had pulled her hair back in a simple ponytail. The Godking had denied her even combs.

  “Do you believe in evil, Jenine?” Garoth sat on the edge of Jenine’s bed in the north tower. It was before dawn on the day that he would finally massacre the Cenarian resistance. It would be a good day. He was in high spirits.

  “How could I sit in your presence and not?” she spat. “Where are my things?”

  “A beautiful woman does things to a man, young lady. It would not do for you to be ravished. It would displease me to have you broken so soon.”

  “Do you not have control of your men? Some god you are. Some king.”

  “I do not speak of my men,” Garoth said quietly.

  She blinked.

  “You stir me. You have what we call yushai. It is life and fire and steel and joy-of-living. I have extinguished it in my wives before; that is why you’re cloistered and forbidden comely clothes. It’s why I sated myself with one of your ladies-in-waiting: to protect you. You will be my queen, and you will share my bed, but not yet.”

  “Not ever!”

  “See? Yushai.”

  “Go to hell,” Jenine said.

  “You are a woman cursed, aren’t you? Mine is the third royal family you’ve belonged to—and the first two didn’t fare so well, did they? Your husband lasted—what?—an hour?”

  “By the One and the Hundred,” she said, “may your soul be cast in the pit. May every fruit within your grasp turn to worms and rot. May your children betray you—”

  He slapped her. For a moment, she worked her jaw, blinking the tears out of her eyes.

  Then she continued. “May—”

  He slapped her again, harder, and felt a dangerous surge of pleasure down to his loins. Damn Khali.

  She was about to spit on him when he gagged her with the vir.

  “Never tempt a man beyond what he can endure. Do you understand?” he asked.

  She nodded, eyes wide at the black vir raking his skin.

  The vir released her. Garoth Ursuul sighed with disappointment, denying the Strangers. Jenine looked terrified.

  Good. Perhaps it will teach her caution. After Neph had produced the princess as a gift and apology for what a mess Cenaria had become, Garoth had been instantly smitten. He had first sent Princess Gunder to Khaliras with the baggage train carrying all the best plunder, but he hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind. He’d ordered her brought back. It was a crazy risk. If the Cenarians learned she was alive and saved her, they would have a legitimate ruler. And this girl would rule, given the chance and a little luck. She was fearless.

  “Back to my question, Jenine. Do you believe in evil?” the Godking asked. Best to engage his mind, if this interview weren’t to end in tears for her and sated disgust for himself. “Some people call it evil when my soldiers knock on a door in the night and ask a man where his brother is and the terrified man tells them. Or when a woman sees a full purse lying in the road and takes it. I’m not asking if you believe in weakness or in ignorance that harms others. I’m asking if you believe in an evil that glories in destruction, in perversion. An evil that would look on the face of goodness and spit on it.

  “You see, when I kill one of my seed, it’s not an act of evil. I know when I rip the beating heart from that young boy’s chest that I’m not just killing him. I’m inspiring such fear in all the others that it makes me more than a man. It makes me unquestionable, unfathomable, a god. That secures my reign and my kingdom. When I want to take a city, I herd the inhabitants of nearby villages in front of my army. If the city wants to use war engines against my men, they have to kill their friends and neighbors first. Brutal, yes. But evil? One might say it saves lives because the cities usually surrender. Or they do when I start catapulting the living into the city. You’d be amazed at what the simple sound of a scream changing in pitch and ending with a thump will do to soldiers when it’s repeated every thirteen minutes. They can’t help but wait, can’t help but wonder—do I recognize this voice? But I digress. You see, I don’t call any of that evil. Our society rests on the foundation of the Godking’s power. If the Godking doesn’t have absolute power, everything crumbles. Then comes chaos, war, starvation, plagues that don’t discriminate between the innocent and the guilty. Everything I do staves that off. A little brutality preserves us like a surgeon’s knife preserves life. My question is, do you believe in an evil possessed of its own purity? Or does every act intend some good?”

  “Why are you asking me?” Jenine asked. She had gone pasty pale. It would have made her look Khalidoran if it weren’t tinged with green.

  “I always talk to my wives,” the Godking said. “First, because only madmen regularly speak to themselves. Second, there is the off chance a woman might have an insight.”

  He was baiting her, and was rewarded as she recovered some of her yushai. She reminded him of Dorian’s mother, and Moburu’s.

  “I think evil has agents,” Jenine said. “I think we allow evil to use us. It doesn’t care if we know what we’re doing is evil or not. After we’ve done its will, if we feel guilty, it can use that to condemn us in our own eyes. If we feel good, it can immediately use us for its next objective.”

  “You are an intriguing child,” Garoth said. “I’ve never heard such an idea.” Garoth didn’t like it. It made less of him: a mere tool, ignorant or knowing, but always complicit. “You know, I almost left this throne. I almost rejected everything it is to be in the lineage of gods.”

  “Really?”

  “Yes, twice. First when I was an aetheling, and then when I was a father. Strength brought me back, both times. Non takuulam
. ‘I shall not serve.’ You see, I had a son named Dorian. He reminded me of me. I saw him turning away from the path of godhood, as I almost had.” He paused. “Have you ever stood on a height and thought, I could jump?”

  “Yes,” Jenine said.

  “Everyone does,” Garoth said. “Have you stood with someone else and thought, I could push him?”

  She shook her head, horrified.

  “I don’t believe you. Regardless, that is how it was with Dorian. I thought, I could push him. So I did. Not because it helped me, just because I could. I brought him into my confidence and he almost turned me away from godhood—so I betrayed him in the most profound way I could imagine. It was the moment closest to a purity of evil I have come.

  “You see, to my eyes, the world holds only two mysteries. Evil is the first, and love is the second. I have seen love used, exaggerated into a mockery of itself, perverted, faked, betrayed. Love is a fragile, corruptible thing. And yet I have seen it evince a curious strength. It is beyond my comprehension. Love is weakness that once in a great while triumphs over strength. Baffling. What do you think, Jenine?”

  Her face was stony. “I know nothing of love.”

  He snorted. “Don’t feel bad. One interesting thought is more than I get out of most of my wives. Power is a whore. Once you finally hold her, you realize that she is courting every man in sight.”

  “What’s the purpose of all your power?” Jenine said.

  He furrowed his brow. “Whatever do you mean?”

  “I’d say that’s your problem, right there.”

  “Now you speak with the insight I’d expect from a woman. Which is to say none.”

 
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