The night angel trilogy, p.98
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       The Night Angel Trilogy, p.98
 

           Brent Weeks

  Jaedan couldn’t believe it. “We aren’t just going to sit here, are we? By the Light! The Cenarians will be destroyed. Twenty meisters. We can take them. I’m good for three or four, and I know the rest of you are as good or better.”

  “You forget our mission, Childe Jaedan,” Lord Lucius said. “We haven’t been sent to fight in anyone’s war. The Khalidorans aren’t a threat to us—”

  “The Khalidorans are a threat to everyone!” Jaedan protested.

  “SILENCE!”

  Jaedan cut off, but the defiance on his face didn’t alter a whit. The Cenarian line began moving at a slow jog, allowing the army, like an enormous beast, to gain momentum.

  Caedan twitched. “Did—did any of you feel that?” he asked.

  “What?” Wervel asked.

  “I don’t know. Just—I don’t know. Like an explosion? May I go see what the Ceurans are doing, Lord Lucius?”

  “We need your eyes on the battle. Watch and learn, childe. We have a rare opportunity to see how the Khalidorans fight. You, too, Jaedan.”

  The Khalidoran army was formed in loose ranks, with space beside every warrior for an archer. The archers readied themselves now, each putting arrows in the ground where they could be grabbed quickly. In the front of everyone, the two-man teams of meisters sat on horseback. To the Seers, they glowed.

  “What will they do, Caedan?” Lord Lucius asked.

  “Fire, sir? And lightning second?”

  “And why?”

  “Because it will scare the shit of the Cenarians? I mean, uh, the effects on morale, sir,” Caedan said.

  The Cenarian line was still jogging forward. They were four hundred paces away now. The group under General Agon had advanced to the fore and split. But they didn’t just split into one or two or even three groups. His few horsemen, and his foot soldiers, formed a fragmented line as long as the Cenarian front.

  “What the hell is he doing?” one of the Alitaerans asked.

  For a long moment, no one answered. He couldn’t hope to break the Khalidoran line with such a ragged line of his own. His move also left a gap in the Cenarian center. But even as the men watched, another of the Cenarian generals, Duke Wesseros, ordered his men into the gap.

  “It’s genius. He’s minimizing his losses,” Wervel said.

  For a moment no one asked. If there was one thing magi hated more than not understanding something, it was not understanding something after someone had understood it first and had given them a hint.

  “What?” Jaedan asked.

  “Think like a meister, childe. You’d have enough vir for what, five? ten? fireballs before you’re spent. Usually, you’ll kill two to five men with each fireball. With the line this thin, you’ll kill one. You might even miss completely. Agon knows he’s gambling. If the main line comes to support his line too late, his first line will be slaughtered, but if they hit within five or ten seconds, he’ll have saved hundreds and nullified the, uh, effects on morale. It looks like we’ve found a general who knows how to fight meisters. There might be hope for Cenaria after all.”

  At two hundred paces, the line picked up speed.

  The archers in the Khalidoran lines loosed their first volley, and a flock of two thousand black-feathered arrows took flight. For a long second, they darkened an already bleak sky, casting the shadow of death across the dawn. When they dove back to earth, they buried their barbed beaks in earth and armor and the flesh of men and horses.

  Again, the dispersed ranks saved hundreds, but up and down the Cenarian line, men flopped over onto the stubbly fields, going from a full sprint to the rest of death in an instant. Others fell, injured, legs or arms pierced, and were trampled by their friends and countrymen a moment later. Horses lost riders and continued the charge merely because the horses to their right and left still charged. Riders lost horses and pitched to the earth at great speed, sometimes flying free of the saddle and rising to run with their earthbound comrades, sometimes getting caught in the saddle and crushed beneath their horse’s body.

  The Khalidoran army performed as only veterans can. The archers loosed as many arrows as they could in a few seconds, then, as a flag went up, each grabbed his remaining arrows and retreated. There were perfect lines in the ranks to allow each archer to get to the back behind the spearmen and swordsmen who would protect them from the melee. As they retreated, without even a separate order being given, the rear lines filled in the gaps the archers had left. The maneuver was nothing special, but the speed at which the army carried it out with thousands of enemies sprinting toward it was.

  The meisters loosed fire. Their original plan in shambles, some of the meisters hurled balls of fire at the charging horses while others, still hoping for the effect of running into a firestorm, swept gouts of fire across the stubbly fields. What would have ordinarily broken up and disoriented an entire line in the crucial seconds before impact didn’t even slow the Cenarians.

  The crash of the lines was distinctly audible to the magi, even as far away as they were. Men and horses impaled themselves on spears and their momentum carried them into the Khalidoran ranks. Others crashed full force into Khalidoran shields and sent men sprawling, but the Cenarians in that first rank must have been veterans. In most armies, no matter what their commanders told them, many of the men would slow before that last impact. The idea of crashing full force into a line bristling with swords and spears was too viscerally paralyzing for most men. These had no such doubts. They burst into the Khalidoran line with all their might. It was an awesome and fearful sight.

  But they were almost swallowed up before the main body of the Cenarian line hit the Khalidorans. The shock of it rippled through the entire Khalidoran line, pushing them back a good ten feet.

  On their horses, the meisters laid about themselves with fire and lightning, but far behind the Cenarian front lines, archers on horseback were hunting them, riding back and forth, stopping, shooting arrows from short bows and moving on. The shots seemed impossible—a short bow killing from two or three hundred paces? Caedan checked the archers again, but they weren’t Talented, he was sure of it. To Caedan, it was like watching candles being snuffed one at a time as meisters toppled from their saddles.

  The lines heaved back and forth and disintegrated into a thousand clumps of individual combat. Horses wheeled and stamped and kicked and bit. Meisters burned holes in men, set fire to others, laid about themselves with cudgels or swords of pure magic, and sometimes fell dead, pierced by arrows.

  In five minutes, seventeen of the twenty meisters were riddled with arrows and the Khalidoran line was stretching at the middle. The giant Cenarian who’d led the first charge seemed to be a beacon of hope. Wherever he went, the Cenarians pushed to go there, too. And now, he was pushing to cut all the way through the Khalidoran line.

  Caedan muttered an oath. “Where did they come from?” he asked. The magi followed his eyes. Rank upon rank of Khalidoran highlanders were forming up to each side of the battlefield.

  “The caves,” Wervel said. “What are they doing?”

  The highlanders spread out and jogged toward the flanks and back of the battle. There were at least five hundred of them, but they didn’t charge into the battle. They didn’t seem at all disturbed that they were losing the advantage of surprise. They spread their line thinner and thinner, as if to cup the entire rear of the battle.

  “Sir,” Caedan said. “I thought you only tried to surround an enemy if you outnumbered him.”

  Lord Lucius looked disturbed. He was looking to the back of the Khalidoran line where the Vürdmeisters were gathered. “What is that chained between the Vürdmeisters?”

  “That isn’t a—” one magus said.

  “Surely not. They’re just legend and superstition.”

  “May the God have mercy,” Wervel said. “It is.”

  67

  No,” Vi said. “I can’t.”

  Kylar turned the face of judgment on her.

  “You—you don’t know
what he’s like. You’ve never looked into his eyes. When you see yourself in his eyes, you look in the face of your own wretchedness. Please, Kylar.”

  Kylar gnashed his teeth. He looked away. It seemed like it took conscious effort, but slowly that terrifying mask melted away and his own face emerged—his eyes still icy cold.

  “You know, my master was wrong about you. He was there when Hu Gibbet presented you to the Sa’kagé. He told me how you trashed those other wetboys. He told me that if I didn’t watch out, you’d be the best wetboy of our generation. He called you a prodigy. He said that there wouldn’t be five men in the kingdom who could beat you. But they don’t have to. You’ve beaten yourself. Durzo was wrong. You aren’t even in the same class as me.”

  “Fuck you! You don’t know—”

  “Vi, this is what matters. If you’re not with me now, it’s all horseshit.”

  As his eyes bored into her, she felt herself changing. She was angry at herself, and at him, and at herself again. She couldn’t let Kylar down. She had never let anything be more important than herself. And now, in the blind stupidity of infatuation, it was more important that she have this man’s respect than that she live.

  The infuriating thing was that it wasn’t even a contest. And yet her weakness for Kylar was propelling her toward strength against the one she really should fear—Nysos! This was all too confusing.

  “Fine!” she practically spat. “Turn your back!”

  “Got a dagger?” Kylar asked as he turned.

  “Shut up, you smug sonuvabitch.” Oh, brilliant, Vi. You realize you like him, so you insult him—for helping you find your guts. She pulled off the dress and pulled on her wetboy tunic. She was being a real wench. AAAHHH! She’d just had eight emotions in the space of three seconds.

  “Fine,” she said. “You can turn back around. I’m sorry for… before. I was hoping to—” What had she been hoping? To impress him? Entice him? To see the heat of desire in those cool eyes? “—to shock you,” she said.

  “You, uh, succeeded.”

  “I know.” She couldn’t help but smile. “You’re not like any man I’ve ever known, Kylar. You’ve got this, this, innocence about you.”

  He scowled.

  “When you’ve been where I’ve been, it’s really… cute. I mean, I didn’t know guys could be like you.” Why was she running off at the mouth all of the sudden?

  “You barely know me,” Kylar said.

  “I… shit, it’s not just like it’s a list of facts that prove you’re different, Kylar. You feel different.” She was flustered. Was he being deliberately dense?

  “Ah, fuck it,” she said. “Do you think we could ever work out?”

  “What?” Kylar asked. The tone of his voice should have shut her up.

  “You know. You and me. Together.”

  Incredulity spread across his face, and the expression confirmed every damning thought she’d ever had about herself.

  “No,” Kylar said. “No, I don’t think so.”

  No, she could tell he meant, you’re damaged goods.

  She shut down. “Right,” she said. Once a whore, forever a whore. “Right. Well, we’ve got work to do. I’ve got a plan.”

  Kylar looked poised on the verge of saying something. She’d caught him totally off guard. Shit, what did she expect?

  Nysos, so he looked at your tits. So he’s nice to you. You’re still the one who killed his best friend, kidnapped his daughter, and split up his family. Shit, Vi, what were you thinking?

  “All right,” she said before he could say anything. “If we go in the side here, they’ll know it’s an attack. We have no idea what their strength is or how many of them there are. But if I walk right in to report on your, well, your death, they won’t suspect a thing. If you go in the side door, you can decide when to strike. As soon as I see palies go down—preferably starting with the king—I’ll fight too, all right?”

  “Sounds pretty weak,” Kylar said. “But it also sounds better than anything I’ve got. But one thing…” He trailed off.

  “What?” She was eager to go now, to stop talking, stop messing up.

  “If he kills me, Vi… Get my body out of there. You can’t let them have it.”

  “What do you care?”

  “Just do it.”

  “Why!” Now she was taking her frustration out on him. Beautiful.

  “Because I come back. I don’t stay dead.”

  “You’re mad.”

  He held up a black shiny ball. It melted and wrapped around his hand like a glove. His hand disappeared. A moment later, it was a ball again. “If Ursuul takes this, he takes my powers. All of them.”

  She scowled. “If we make it through this, you have a lot of questions to answer.”

  “Fair enough.” Kylar paused. “Vi? It’s been good working with you.” Not waiting for her response, he squeezed the ball and disappeared.

  Vi turned down the hall and started walking. Ironically, she ran into no patrols at all until she came to the four soldiers guarding the main doors of the throne room. The men eyed her with disbelief. They seemed to forget their weapons as their eyes lingered exactly where they were supposed to.

  “Tell the Godking that Vi Sovari has come to receive her reward.”

  “The Godking isn’t to be disturbed except in the case of—”

  “This counts,” Vi hissed at the man, first leaning forward until his eyes were pegged to her cleavage and then pushing his chin back up with the knife that had materialized in her hand. He swallowed.

  “Yes, ma’am.”

  The guard eased the great double doors open. “God, our God of the High Realms, Your Holiness, Vi Sovari begs admittance.”

  The guard stepped aside and motioned to her. “Good luck,” he whispered, smiling apologetically. The bastard. How dare he be human?

  Standing in the last hall, Kylar brought the ka’kari to his eyes. He didn’t see any magical alarms. Invisible, he moved to the door. The hinges were well-oiled.

  “Come in, come in, Viridiana,” he heard the Godking say. “It’s been too long. I was afraid I was going to have to enjoy the death of ten thousand rebels all by myself.”

  Kylar cracked the door open as the Godking spoke, and as the man took in the admittedly impressive sight of Vi in her version of wetboy grays, Kylar stole into the throne room. He slipped behind one of the enormous pillars supporting the ceiling. The servants’ entrance he’d used opened near the base of the fourteen steps to the dais. Ursuul sat at the top of the steps in his black fireglass throne.

  In the center of the vast room was a rolling plain at the base of the mountains. There were tiny figures on each side of the plain, moving in concert. Kylar realized they were miniature armies, lining up in the dawn light. It wasn’t a painting or embroidery of a battle; it was a battle. Fifteen thousand tiny, tiny figures strode across the plain. Kylar could even pick out flags of the noble houses. The Cenarian lines were forming up, following… Logan? Logan was leading the charge? Madness! How could Agon let the king lead a charge?

  The great doors closed behind Vi as the Godking waved her in. Kylar had never seen the man, or even heard him described. He’d expected someone old and decrepit, swollen or sagging from a life of evil, but Garoth Ursuul was in excellent health. He was perhaps fifty, looked at least ten years younger, and though he had the thick body and cool skin of a Khalidoran highlander, he had a fighting man’s arms, a lean face with an oiled black beard, and a head shaved bald and gleaming. He looked like the kind of man who not only would shake your hand but when he did, you’d find calluses and a firm grip.

  “Don’t mind the battle,” the Godking said. “You can walk through it; it won’t harm the magic, but be quick. The rebels are about to charge. It’s my favorite part.”

  Through the ka’kari, however, Garoth Ursuul was a miasma. Twisted, screaming faces streamed behind him like a cloud. Murder lay so thick on him it blotted out his features. Betrayals and rapes and casual tortures wr
eathed his limbs. Threaded through it all, like noxious green smoke, was the vir. It somehow fed off and deepened all that darkness, and it was so powerful it seemed to fill the room.

  As he stood behind the pillar, Kylar noticed a small group of the tiny men fighting three feet away from him. Off the battlefield proper, a big man was about to be ridden down by four Khalidoran lancers.

  Except the man wasn’t ridden down. In seconds, he killed three lancers. There was something familiar about him. Feir Cousat!

  Kylar knew he should be trying to figure out a way to move without being seen, but he was rapt in the drama unfolding silently, inches away. The Ceurans’ parted leader came forward. Feir drew a sword that looked like a bar of fire. It stunned the Ceurans. Feir and the leader fought for about half a second: the first time their swords crossed, there was a flash of light. The Ceuran came away with the sword.

  “What was that?” the Godking said.

  “What?” Vi asked.

  “Out of the way, girl.”

  As Feir knelt before the Ceuran (knelt? Feir?), the image of the battle suddenly spun around, putting the Khalidoran lines at the base of the steps and the Cenarian lines close to the great doors.

  Garoth hmmphed. “Just some raiders.”

  Kylar brought some of the ka’kari to his fingertips, sharpened it into a claw, and tested it against the pillar. His fingers sank in like it was butter. He eased back on the magic and tried again until he was able to sink his fingers in and get a grip. This is going to be fun.

  He shook his head. It seemed the ka’kari had no limitations, and that was just making Kylar more aware of his own.

  Kylar sent some of the ka’kari to his feet and climbed the pillar. There was a tiny hiss and a tinge of smoke at every step, but it was as effortless as climbing a ladder. Kylar reached the fifty-foot ceiling in seconds.

  Figuring out how to adjust the claws to work on the ceiling took a few seconds, but then he was clinging to the throne room’s high, vaulted ceiling like a spider. His heart was in his throat. He crept across the ceiling until he was directly above the throne, his body shielded from view by one of the arches, only his invisible head exposed.

 
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