DAWN BROKE across the eastern horizon, seeping into the skies above the ancient city of Denathere, the Jewel of Imphallion. And the ancient city, in its turn, would break beneath the newborn dawn.

Plumes of smoke undulated upward—hypnotic, grey-hued serpents taking great bites from the heavens. Thick and oily, they blackened the air. The clouds themselves grew dark, contaminated, sickly. And the sun did not shine upon Denathere, thwarted by the unending night.

Nor could the sullen and defeated dawn dispel the nightmares of the city’s terrified citizens, for on this morning their nightmares were real.

Fires raged unchecked through district after district, devouring homes, possessions, lives. Corpses—bloodied and broken—lined the streets. Crows swarmed thick as flies. Dogs, driven feral by the inescapable scent of blood, snapped and snarled, killing over pieces of meat that might once have fed them dinner rather than been a part of it.

From Denathere’s walls—cracked, shattered, and breached, but still intimidating—watched the city’s new masters. Most were mercenaries, their faces bereft of pity as they glared over the suffering they left in their wake, fingers idly clenching blood-sated blades. They, at least, were human. Over soldier and citizen alike watched the cyclopean gaze of the one-eyed ogres; from around their feet came the high-pitched giggling of the wild, sadistic gnomes—misshapen creatures delighting in the bloody work they performed.

Across Denathere’s surrounding fields stretched a sea of humanity. Tent peaks formed islands in the rough tides of the assembled horde. Here and there fluttered a brightly colored banner, the standard of a lord or Guild whose soldiers contributed to the gathered army.

The fields swelled with the dull drone of thousands of voices, drowning out any other possible sound. Animals for miles around fled in terror, diving deep into burrows or taking to the skies, squawking loudly as they flew. Even in the heart of the occupied city, the battered populace heard the steady clamor. “Salvation!” they whispered breathlessly to one another. But if salvation it was, it came too late for the thousands who lay dead or dying in the carnage-strewn streets.

On a hillock in the surrounding fields, beyond the reach of even the greatest siege engine, stood the largest tent in the assembled multitudes. An enormous pennant, longer than a tall man, flapped dutifully in the breeze, displaying a great bear—standing rampant beneath a broken crown—embroidered upon a field of royal purple.

A man stood now atop that hill, a spyglass pressed to his right eye. His face was rough, weather-beaten, and his rich brown hair was just lightening at the temples. The tabard he wore over his heavy armor displayed the ensign of a red eagle upon a navy field; the same could be found upon the shield lying at his feet. Slowly, he lowered the glass, shaking his head as though to dislodge the image of the shattered city.

“Does it get easier, Nathan?”

Nathaniel Espa, Knight of Imphallion, bowed perfunctorily. “Good morning, Your Grace.” He turned his head and nodded to the young regent’s companion, a soft-featured, dark-haired woman clad in a leather vest over a rose-red tunic. “Good morning, Rheah.”

Lorum, Duke of Taberness and Regent Proper of Imphallion, smiled faintly. In his midtwenties, Lorum knew just enough of tactics and war to recognize that he couldn’t lead so vast an army. He might give the orders, but every man on the field knew it was Sir Nathaniel who planned the campaign. Self-conscious in polished armor never marred by the sting of an enemy’s blade, the regent brushed light blond hair from a youthful, clean-shaven face. “How you can manage courtesy this early, Nathan, is beyond me. I feel as though I’ve been sleeping on rocks for a week.”

Rheah laughed softly. “You have been sleeping on rocks, Your Grace. That’s the joy of war: the chance to visit places no sane person would wish to go, to meet a great many people who would like nothing better than to kill you in all sorts of revolting and painful ways, and to sleep on rocks sharp enough to hobble an elephant. You should have been told this before you got here.”

“Wonderful,” Lorum muttered.

Nathaniel, however, had seen too much to smile this morning. He merely glared at Rheah, who seemed oblivious to her friend’s foul mood.

When it became clear she wasn’t about to acknowledge his irritation, he spoke instead to the young regent. “I believe you were asking me something, Your Grace?”

The young regent gestured toward the columns of smoke dancing in the air above the city they’d come, gods willing, to save. “I was just wondering about all this. Does seeing this sort of thing ever get any easier?”

Nathaniel turned back toward the city and shook his head. “Gods, I hope not,” he muttered softly. Abruptly he punched his right fist into his left palm, nearly breaking the delicate spyglass. “What’s that bastard up to?”

Rheah nodded slowly, ignoring for a moment the puzzled look on Lorum’s face. “You think there’s more to this than just conquering more territory?” she asked, her voice low, suddenly solemn.

“Absolutely,” Nathan answered. “He’s not this stupid.”

“I don’t understand,” the regent admitted, a hand half raised to get their attention. “How do we know he’s not just trying to take Denathere like he did the others?”

“He’s moved the bulk of his armies into the city,” Nathan explained, attention fixed on the distant walls. “Far more than necessary to overrun the defenders.”


The knight sighed. “Your Grace, have you been paying attention to my lessons?”

“Of course,” Lorum insisted, sounding injured.

“All right then. Look around. Tell me about the area.”

“There’s the city, of course. The defensive walls. And, well, just open fields. Farmland, basically. A few hills.”

Nathan nodded. “Good. What does that mean?”

The young regent’s eyes glowed with sudden understanding. “Denathere’s not a particularly defensible city!”

“Very good.” Nathan smiled. “All Denathere has is those walls. Big and imposing, certainly, but breach them and there’s nothing left to stand in your way. If you were taking this city, would you hole up inside?”

“Not a chance!” Lorum insisted. “I’d be vulnerable to counterattack. Like …”

“Like the one we’re about to launch,” the older man confirmed. “Exactly.”

“It’s one hell of a mistake,” the regent muttered.

This time Nathan and Rheah shook their heads in unison. “No,” Rheah told him. “Corvis Rebaine is not a man who makes that sort of mistake.”

“Damn it! I just wish there was some way to learn what he was doing in there!” Nathaniel growled again, waving his spyglass helplessly toward the city.

“Actually,” Rheah said, her expression thoughtful, “there is.”

* * * *

IN THE CENTER of Denathere, coated in ash, blackened with soot, stood a large stone hall. The banners that once fluttered gaily from the great columns and wide arches were gone, burned to cinders or yanked down by inhuman hands. But even without the pennants of the lords and the Guilds, the looming structure radiated importance.

Soldiers, human and otherwise, milled about in the streets surrounding the Hall of Meeting, mired in that frustrating pause between engagements. The surrounding buildings once represented the finest design and architecture the city had ever produced. Elegant sweeps, intricate murals, lofty peaks: all reduced to smoldering heaps of burned wood and uneven piles of jagged stone. The Hall alone remained largely undamaged.

The noble edifice stood mostly empty. The central chamber, home of constant and convoluted negotiations between Guilds and noble houses, was a wreck. Shattered crystal and wooden splinters littered the floor, the oaken table that had served for two hundred years pounded to kindling by overeager soldiers. The private rooms were in no better shape. From the ground floor to the roof, furniture lay smashed, mirrors and crystalware shattered, anything remotely valuable long since plundered.

Only the basement emitted any signs of life. A chamber normally used for storage now produced the oddest combination of sounds: the undertone of frightened whimpers and desperate conversation, but also a series of oddly rhythmic thumps.

Within the walls of the chamber, well illuminated by a surplus of oil lamps, waited the city’s elite. Wives, children, and the aged of noble families huddled against the wall, features pale, many sobbing. Mothers clutched protectively at their children. Sprawled beside them were the eldest of the Council of Guilds, too old for the use to which their younger compatriots had been put. Several of the occupying soldiers milled about, paying only marginal attention to the prisoners.

In the room’s center, the stone floor gaped open as though Daltheos the Maker had taken his great hammer to the earth. It was from this yawning pit that the strange thumping issued.

One suspicious eye trained upon the nearest guard, a fellow of middle years pushed himself from the wall and sidled over toward another man, white-haired and older still. The elder of the pair, his face covered in sweat, scowled at the newcomer. “What do you want, Bennek?”

Bennek, Earl of Prace, scowled right back at him. “I want, Jeddeg, to know how you could let this happen.”

“I beg your pardon?” The old man’s expression changed not a whit, but his eyes grew cold. He rose, swiftly if unsteadily, to meet his accuser’s gaze. Several guards allowed their hands to hover near their weapons, but they made no move to interfere. “How, precisely, is this my fault?”

Bennek shoved a finger at the other’s face. “All of you! The entire council! We knew he was coming. We all knew! We asked the Guilds—we begged you—for the funds to increase our own armies. You refused us!”

“The Guilds did what we could,” Jeddeg insisted, his tone that of a man who’d repeated the same argument a dozen times over already. “How could we know we’d have so many of them to deal with? Besides, I didn’t exactly see the noble families riding at the forefront of the defense, did I?”

“You bastard, I’ll—”

“Would the two of you stop?”


Tyannon, eldest child of the Baron of Braetlyn, blinked in bewilderment, as startled by her outburst as they were. At fifteen years of age, the cusp of adulthood in Imphallion, Tyannon was accustomed to being treated as a child—and normally to keeping her place, as a good child should. Her tongue cleaved to the roof of her mouth at the realization that she had just raised her voice to two of the most important men in Denathere.

“You’ve something to say, girl?” Jeddeg asked.

One hand nervously twisted the hem of her dirt-encrusted tunic. “That is—I—”

Her little brother, Jassion, tentatively stepped forward and gripped her other hand tightly in his tiny fist. “Tyannon angry?” he asked, his quiet voice even smaller than usual.

She took a deep breath, squeezing his hand once. “Yes, Jass. Yes, I’m angry. But not with you, sweetheart.” She glanced up, a sudden fire in her eyes. “At them!”

Bennek frowned darkly. “Now, see here, Tyannon—”

“I am! And I can’t believe what I’m seeing! I can’t believe the two of you are still fighting! People are dying, and you just can’t leave each other alone!”

“Tyannon,” Jeddeg said, “we’re trying to work out a way—”

“You’re doing nothing of the sort!” she screamed, actually stamping her foot in emphasis. “This isn’t about solving anything! This isn’t even about them!” She pointed at the guards, who were now grinning openly at the entertainment. “This is about the price of grain, or trade routes, or whatever damn thing you were discussing the day before last! If you’d put my father in charge, we’d not have lost so quickly.”

Two pairs of eyes went cold, and Tyannon realized she had, perhaps, gone a bit farther than was entirely appropriate.

Before she could stammer out an apology—or the earl or the Guildmaster could let loose with some scathing retort or another—a new voice sounded from behind her. “Do we have a problem here, gentlemen?”

Tyannon heard her brother shriek and felt his grip tighten in hers; she saw Bennek go pale and his lip begin to tremble; saw Jeddeg fall back against the wall, eyes wide. She knew she ought to turn around, to move, to do something, but she found herself frozen stiff. She showed no sign of life at all, save for her accelerated breathing.

To her left, one of the guards reluctantly moved forward. “We—ah, that is, we were just about to step in, my lord,” he hedged.

“Of course you were. How fortunate that I’ve saved you the trouble.”

The guard smirked at the trembling girl, watched her eyes grow wider still. The fight’s over! they all but screamed, even as her voice remained paralyzed. Why won’t you go away?

“What’s your name, child?” asked the voice from behind.

“T-Tyannon, my lord.”

“Tyannon.” The name rolled around in the speaker’s mouth, as though tasting it for imperfections. “And why am I speaking to the back of your head, Tyannon?”

“B-because I’m f-facing the other way, my lord?”

Most of the captives, and indeed several of the guards, gasped in disbelief, and the young woman tensed in expectation of a sudden blow. After a moment of silence, however, a soft chuckle was the only response.

Then, “Turn around, Tyannon.”

Her shoulders slumping, as if she’d consigned herself to whatever fate the gods might hold in store, she obeyed.

The figure looming before her came straight from one of the fairy tales she read to Jass every night—one of the darker ones. Shorter than his ogre minions, he nonetheless loomed over her, filling the entirety of her vision. A demonic suit of armor concealed his body head-to-toe: midnight-black steel, with thick plates of bone that gleamed unnaturally white in the orange glow of the lanterns. From small spines of bone on his shoulders hung a heavy cloak of royal purple, a coincidental match to the regent’s banner on the fields outside. The flickering lanterns sent his shadow dancing across the walls, as though guided by some mad puppeteer. Atop it all, a helm of bone, a skull bound in iron bands. Nothing human showed through the grim façade, no soul peered from the gaping black holes in the mask.

With a desperate surge of will, the young woman pulled her gaze away from the hideous mask, glancing downward instead. Her eyes fixed momentarily on the chain about his neck. It dipped down beneath the bone-covered breastplate, linked perhaps to some pendant or amulet she couldn’t see. Her eyes traveled lower still, to the large axe upon which his gauntlet rested. It stood upright, butt of the handle upon the ground. The blade was adorned with minuscule engravings-abstract shapes that gave the impression, though not the detail, of thousands of figures engaged in the cruelest, most brutal acts of war. Tyannon whimpered quietly as she saw that there were worse things to stare at than the blackened eye sockets of the helm. Things like that axe, and the figures engraved upon it, figures that seemed almost to move on their own, independent from the dancing torch-light …

“Do you know who I am, Tyannon?”

“Yes.” Her voice never rose above a half-drawn breath. “You’re Corvis Rebaine.”

The iron-banded skull tilted in acknowledgment. “That frightens you.” It was not a question.

“M-my lord,” Tyannon told him, “you frighten people much greater than I.” For some reason, that realization seemed to relax her. Beside her, Jassion cried out softly; she carefully steered him behind her, putting herself between her brother and the monster before her.

“Do I?” For a moment, the man who’d conquered half of Imphallion fell silent. Tyannon’s muscles twinged in protest, so rigidly did she hold herself.

A black-and-bone gauntlet gestured abruptly; despite herself, the young woman jumped, a tiny yelp escaping her lips. But Rebaine merely pointed at the arm she held behind her back, fist clenched with a death grip on Jassion’s wrist. “You do your family credit, Tyannon. But your brother is safe with me. As are you.”

Tyannon’s countenance shifted abruptly, a surge of anger seeming to drown her fears. “Are we?” she asked, her voice gone bitter, her stammer gone. She waved, her gesture indicating not merely the people present in the room, but the entire city suffering beyond the thick stone walls. “You’ll forgive me, my lord, if I have some difficulty taking you at your word.”

Whatever response the warlord intended was aborted by a sudden scuffling within the pit, followed quickly by a raised voice. “My lord! The diggers have found something.”

Rebaine forgot everyone else in the room. He stepped to the rim of the hole, glancing down, past the thick earth, past the mass of nobles and Guildsmen he’d pressed into service as excavators. He peered into the thin, stone-walled hallway they’d uncovered, part of a small complex of rooms buried beneath the Hall of Meeting since before the birth of the city itself.

“It’s really here.” It was barely a whisper, inaudible to anyone else.

Or at least it should have been.

/Did you doubt that it would be?/ The voice, as always, was mocking, sarcastic, even when its words were not.

Ignoring the speaker, Rebaine leapt down into the pit, a cloud of dirt billowing upward at the impact. The diggers drew back fearfully-many quivered visibly at his mere presence, including one man Rebaine recognized as the Baron of Braetlyn.

I wonder, Rebaine thought to himself in passing, where the young woman gets her spark from. I can’t imagine she learned from watching any of these people.

At the bottom of the pit loomed another, smaller hole, leading into the ancient stone tunnel that was Rebaine’s objective. An inky blackness filled the corridor, but Rebaine had never been frightened of the dark.

He knew what was in it.

Fingers twitching within heavy gauntlets, his mouth formed words that did not exist in any human tongue. Behind the horrid mask, his eyes began ever so slightly to glow, and the blackness parted before him.

“Get these men out of the pit,” he ordered his guards. “Make certain they have water and food.”

“At once, my lord. Will you be wanting some of us to …” The soldier swallowed, unable to finish, as he stared nervously into the black.

“No. I will go in alone. Find Valescienn. Inform him that I expect him to hold off Lorum’s armies should they attack before I’ve returned. Tell him that Davro and his ogres are to fall back from the main walls and surround the Hall of Meeting. They’re our last line of defense. The gnomes and the other soldiers should be able to hold the wall for some time without them.”

“Very good, my lord. Best of luck down, um, down there.”

Rebaine nodded, and swung down into the passage.

/We’re being watched, you know,/ the unseen speaker informed him idly.

“What?” Rebaine glanced down in annoyance. “Any particular reason you waited this long to tell me?” His heavy boots landed with a resounding clang on the ancient stones paving the floor. Unhesitating, he set out toward the north.

/You were having such fun conversing with the young lady, I felt it would be inappropriate to intrude./

Rebaine snorted. “Of course you did.” He brushed an enormous cobweb from his path, then chose the leftmost of three identical passages. “Watched how? Seilloah assured me she could block any scrying spells sent our way.”

/Seilloah lacks imagination. It’s not a scrying spell. Someone—it tastes like Rheah, though I won’t swear to that—has sight-linked herself with a fairly large and exceptionally ugly beetle. It was lurking in the corner of the room upstairs, and it is now scurrying along the wall some few feet behind you./

Another pause as he glanced at the relatively unmarked walls around him. Which intersection was this? He’d studied the map for days, but it was impossible to be certain.

Right this time, he finally decided. Then, “How can she see anything? It’s rather dark, or hadn’t you noticed?”

/Why, so it is. How foolish of me to have missed that. I surely can’t imagine how the little creature might be able to see us down here./ A sudden gasp sounded in Rebaine’s mind. /You don’t suppose she’s using magic, do you?/

The heavy sigh echoed in the depths of the hideous armor. “I imagine you think you’re funny, don’t you?”

/Well, I’m amused./

“One of us ought to be.”

/Shall we kill it already?/

Left turn, straight ahead twice, left again. “Deal with it, if you wish. I have no concern but your happiness.”

/Of course not./ The crystal pendant hanging beneath Rebaine’s breastplate warmed faintly, and a sudden crunch echoed through the hall behind them.

Rebaine continued, frustration mounting each time he stopped to think about his position on the map. It would have been convenient to have it with him now, but he’d burned it once he’d memorized it to his satisfaction. Despite the chill in the air around him, he lifted his helm now and again to wipe the sweat from his brow.

“Why do I wear this bloody thing?” he snapped finally.

/Something about fear and terror among all who see you,/ the voice replied drily. /Or that was your claim, anyway. Me, I can’t picture any of your kind being all that frightening./

“Fear.” Rebaine shook his head. “This would be so much easier if they’d just cooperate. I wouldn’t have to terrify them all.”

/The girl didn’t seem all that scared, toward the end there./

Rebaine once again saw the girl—Tyannon, he corrected himself—the fear in her eyes burned away by her sudden anger. “She’s got spirit, that one.”

/She does indeed./ A pause. /You should kill her before it spreads./

“I don’t think so, Khanda.”

/I’m serious. This sort of thing is dangerous. Let her stand up to you, and others may decide they, too, can get away with it. You need to put a stop to that immediately./

Another head shake, this one forceful enough to send the helmet clanking against the armor’s shoulder spines. “I don’t kill children, Khanda.” Although Tyannon hardly qualified as a child; she certainly showed more maturity than most of her elders in that chamber.

/Of course not. You just have your armies do it for you./

Rebaine swallowed the enraged comment working its way into his throat, choking it back in a tide of bile. There was nothing to be said, no reply he could make, that wouldn’t play right into Khanda’s hands. Nor was this a topic he enjoyed discussing. He’d decided long ago, when he first set upon this path, that the end results were worth whatever it cost him. Still, he didn’t find it pleasant.

Instead, he directed his attention back to the twisting corridors.

“This is it,” he said finally, examining the enormous, rust-coated metal door impeding any further progress. “We’re here.”

/Congratulations. Can we get on with this already?/

“Not much for savoring the moment, are you? All right, fine. Let’s do it.”

/Shall I? Or would you prefer to batter it down with that oversized shrub trimmer?/

Rebaine glanced down at the wide-bladed axe. It could do the job, certainly. For this was Sunder, one of the last of the Kholben Shiar, the demon-forged blades. It was said that with enough patience, a man could carve apart a mountain with such a weapon.

On the other hand, why take the risk of sending chunks of steel flying through the chamber? He’d pursued this prize too long to risk damaging it now.

“The fancy way, I think,” he said after a moment of contemplation.

/Very well./

The warlord concentrated, focusing his thoughts. His own skills at magic were unremarkable at best. Never formally tested, he imagined he’d qualify as a mere Initiate of the First Circle, or at best an unskilled Second. Pitiful compared with many of his enemies—such as Rheah Vhoune, Initiate of the Seventh Circle. Of all Lorum’s allies, she was the most dangerous: in recorded history, only Selakrian himself, Archmage and Master of the Tenth Circle, had achieved the Seventh at a younger age than Rheah.

On the other hand, Corvis cheated.

So accustomed had he grown to the process that he no longer consciously noticed it. He visualized the effect he desired, thrust forth a gauntleted hand, and drew upon not his own power and skill but those of his inhuman ally. Flakes of rust fell from the door, as though agitated by a mild earthquake, yet the corridor itself held steady. The metal began to glow red, then white, in a very specific pattern of lines, dividing the door into eight sections that met in the middle. The air in the corridor grew acrid, painful to breathe. First one wedge, then a second, pulled back from the center, in rather the same way a man might peel an orange. The metal fragments plastered themselves to the wall, the floor, the ceiling, and slowly cooled back to their normal state, welded permanently with the stone.

Even before the segments fully cooled, Rebaine stepped through the ring of metal into the room beyond. Yes! There it was, lying upon a table, coated with webs and the dust of ages. It had waited for millennia, waited for him. With this, there would be no more bloodshed. There would be no more need. With this, and this alone, he would rule.

Eyes gleaming beneath the nightmarish helm, Corvis Rebaine strode forward, hands outstretched …

* * * *

“RHEAH? Rheah, can you hear me?” A familiar voice. Concerned, worried. Also anxious. More on his mind than just the question.

“Will she be all right?” Another voice, also familiar, though not so much as the first. Younger. Far more worried. Fear. The accompanying clanking is probably his hands—gauntleted—wringing together.

“How would I know? What do I know about magic? I don’t even know what happened to her! I—”

Slowly, mentally bracing herself against the stabbing pain she knew the light must bring, she opened her eyes. “Water,” she croaked. A strong hand slid behind her, helping her to sit, and she felt a glass pressed to her lips. It was lukewarm, made gritty by the ambient dust and dirt, but she drank deeply. With every swallow the burning pain in her throat lessened, and the ogre inside her skull finally ceased the ceremonial dances he was performing up and down her brain.

“Are you all right?” Nathaniel asked. She realized it was he who held her up.

“I will be, given a few moments. Thank you,” she added, directing the comment at Lorum, who’d held the glass for her. The young man stepped back, smiling slightly.

“What happened?” the knight demanded.

Hesitantly, Rheah rose to her feet, leaning only lightly on her friend’s shoulder. “I was detected. My little helper was killed. In a rather excessive display of power, at that.”

“Power?” Lorum asked hesitantly. “Couldn’t they just have stepped on it, or squashed it?”

“I suppose they could have. Rebaine chose not to. The death of a mount is never a pleasant experience.” With a grimace, she rubbed the bridge of her nose with the thumb and index finger of her left hand. Obviously, the ogre wasn’t completely exhausted.

“Your Grace …,” Nathaniel warned quietly. The young man frowned, but nodded.

“Rheah,” he said tentatively, “I hate to press you under the present circumstances, but—”

“But,” she interrupted, “you need to know what I learned.”

Another nod.

She sighed once, forcing herself to straighten up. “Less than I’d hoped, unfortunately. I know Rebaine has discovered a series of tunnels, a complex or catacomb of some sort, beneath the Hall of Meeting.”

“Tunnels?” Nathaniel asked. “Where do they lead? Could he move his troops through them? Is—”

An upraised hand silenced him. “Don’t get ahead of me, Nathan. No, they’re useless for troop movements. They’re small, and they don’t seem to lead much of anywhere. He’s searching for something down there. Something specific.”

The young regent’s eyes grew wide. “Like what?”

“I’m not certain. But it’s something worth trapping his entire army in a nearly indefensible city to find.”

Lorum and Nathan exchanged bleak glances. The regent stepped away, stopping only when he reached the tent’s canvas wall. Absently, his left hand dropped to the table beside him, fingers drumming on the tactical map. His eyes unfocused, as though peering into the city itself. “How close do you think he was to his goal?”

“I can’t say for certain, Your Grace. But he definitely gave the impression he knew where he was going. If I had to guess, I’d say fairly close.”

“That’s what I thought.” Lorum allowed himself one more endless moment to stare into space, to fully ponder the ramifications of what he knew he must do. Then, with a fortifying breath, he turned around.

“Then we can’t give him any more time,” he said firmly. Nathaniel, in the mix of everything else he was feeling, found himself impressed that the young duke was growing into the role required of him. “Gather the generals and tell them to form up the men. We attack as soon as they’re ready. May the gods smile on us all.”

* * * *

MANY OF THE GUARDS and the prisoners, united in their curiosity despite the loathing each felt for the other, peered intently over the edge of the pit into which Corvis Rebaine, the Terror of the East, had vanished an hour before. No sound emerged from the blackened depths; no flicker of movement could penetrate the age-old darkness.

“Maybe the gods are with us,” Jeddeg whispered softly. “Maybe the bastard’s died down there.”

Tyannon kept her mouth clamped firmly shut for a change. She gazed, instead, at the exhausted, despairing faces around her—all but that of her father, who refused to meet her gaze.

The darkness beneath them splintered; a burst of flame rolled down the corridor, cracking the stone walls as it passed. A wave of heat flowed from the pit, stinking of smoke and brimstone, making the watchers’ eyes water and blink. And then it passed, replaced by the sound of screaming.

But this, despite the hopes of the gathered prisoners, was not the scream of a man roasting to death in the inferno’s heart. No, these were shrieks of mindless rage, of a fury that couldn’t be expressed by voice alone. Even as they watched, a second burst of fire flowed down the passage, followed by the sound of shattering stone. Immense clouds of dust poured up from the hole at the base of the pit, and the building shuddered. Guards and prisoners alike exchanged horrified glances at the realization that Rebaine was collapsing the tunnels.

Tyannon blinked, her eyes tearing again to clear the dust from beneath her lids. When she could finally see again, he stood before her, an impenetrable shadow emerging from the billowing dust. The hideous axe hung from his right hand, flecks of stone and dirt falling from the blade. In his other he held something, boxy, wrapped in mold-covered and moth-eaten red velvet. Rage radiated from him in palpable waves; prisoners and guards alike fell back in fear.

All save one: a large man, tall and broad of shoulder. His hair was a light blond, almost white, and cut close to his scalp save for a single long lock at the back. He wore a hauberk of chain, topped by a black cuirass similar in design to those worn by the rest of Rebaine’s men. His square features were marred by a jagged scar running from his left ear to just beneath his nose. He, and he alone, stood his ground, undaunted by his master’s fury.

“My lord?” he asked, his voice gruff, tinted slightly by an accent Tyannon could not place. “Things did not go well?”

“Well? Well?” Rebaine spun viciously to face his lieutenant. “Does it look like things have gone ‘well,’ Valescienn?”

“Not as such, my lord, but—”

“A godsdamn key!” He shook the cloth-covered object in Valescienn’s face, neither noticing nor caring that he would surely have broken the man’s nose had he not flinched away. “All the writings in which he spoke about this, his ‘greatest accomplishment’! You’d think that just once, he’d have bothered to mention it needs a bloody key!”

Valescienn paled. “You mean—”

“Useless.” Rebaine stepped back, arms falling limply to his sides. “It’s completely useless.”

The blond man’s eyes widened, then narrowed in sudden anger. “And without it? Are you suggesting we’ll not be continuing on toward Mecepheum?”

“Mecepheum? Valescienn, we’ll be lucky if a third of the army survives to escape the damn city! We—”

“My lord!” Another soldier dashed into the room, his face coated in sweat, skidding slightly on the rubble and detritus near the pit. “My lord, Lorum is attacking! There are tens of thousands of them! Nobles, Guild soldiers …” He croaked to a stop, gasping for breath.

A mutter passed through the soldiers, each thinking the same thing. But it was Valescienn, as usual, who possessed courage to voice it. “We can’t win, my lord,” he said quietly to the back of Rebaine’s helm. “This city is a death trap. It won’t hold for us any better than it did when we took it.”

Rebaine’s shoulders slumped, an invisible gesture in the confines of his nightmarish armor. He’d failed. He’d gambled everything on the knowledge that victory lay hidden here, in the ancient tunnels beneath Denathere. And he’d lost.

He would, at least, deal with it properly.

“Valescienn, tell the men to fall back. Escape by any means possible. I free them from my service. Let them go home, or find employment elsewhere.”

“My lord?” The question was incredulous, almost plaintive. “You don’t wish us to regroup elsewhere?”

“There’s no place to regroup, my friend, nor any purpose. Even with luck on our side, we’ll not have enough men left once we’ve escaped to make a proper army. And I’m tired, Valescienn. I’m tired.”


“Do it! And tell Davro his people may return to their homes as well.”

Valescienn nodded, steeling himself for his final question. “And my lord? What of you?” For they both knew the approaching army would happily have let every last man, ogre, and gnome escape unharmed, if they could get their hands on Corvis Rebaine.

“Seilloah’s protections will hold for some time. That should shield me from conventional scrying techniques. Nor am I without power of my own, when those fail.”

/Hmm. Not exactly “your” power, is it?/

Rebaine ignored that, and Valescienn remained ignorant of the conversation’s third participant. “I should be able to avoid them for quite a while,” Rebaine added.

“And if Vhoune should send a hunter after you?”

“Hunting spells require someone who has seen the target, closely, within a few months or so, Valescienn. Neither Vhoune, nor anyone else in Lorum’s employ, has.”

“No,” the other man said softly, “but there are those who have.” His eyes, cold as gnome’s blood, swept the room. “Say the word, my lord, and they’re all dead.”

Only the enclosure of the hideous helm stifled Rebaine’s faint sigh. “No, Valescienn. There’s been enough death today.”

“Then how do you plan to protect yourself?”

“Better, I think, to risk one than to slay them all. I know Rheah Vhoune. She’s skilled, she’s determined, but she is not near as ruthless as she pretends. I don’t think she’ll risk a hunter if she knows I’ve someone who would suffer the consequences alongside me.”

“A hostage, my lord?”

“I see no other alternative.” He examined the hostages, surveying his options—a sham, for Valescienn’s benefit. He’d already made his choice.

/You have no idea the trouble you’re courting,/ Khanda snapped inside his mind.

“Tyannon!” Rebaine barked, ignoring his unseen companion. “Come here.”

The young woman stepped forward, her face whiter than the bone on Rebaine’s armor. He reached out and pulled her near, so near she choked on the scent of smoke and oiled steel.

“Tyannon, listen to me.” He spoke softly. “Whether you believe me or not, I mean you no harm. Your blood serves no purpose; you do. When that purpose is served, you will be free to leave. You have my vow.”

“You—you could just force me, my lord.”

“I could. But I cannot afford to have you fighting me right now. If you will not come willingly, I will have to choose …” The mask inclined, ever so slightly, toward little Jassion, huddled behind his sister’s legs. “Someone who cannot fight me.”

Tyannon shut her eyes tight, fighting back sudden tears. “I will go with you, my lord.”

“Good.” Rebaine, suddenly aware of how close she was, stepped back abruptly; now was not the time for such distractions. Instead, he grabbed her wrist, pulling her along after him, ignoring the sudden wailing from her baby brother.

“Valescienn, farewell.”

“Until we meet again, my lord.” The clashing and the cries of battle in the streets began to seep into the room through cracks in the stone. “You’d better go.”

The skull-mask nodded once. Then, too quietly for anyone else to hear, “Khanda?”

/Yes, foolish one?/

“I believe it’s time for us to depart.”

/You realize I could probably protect you from any hunters they sent after you. You don’t need the girl./

‘Probably’ isn’t good enough right now.”

A sudden flash of blinding red light, and they were gone.

* * * *

VALESCIENN WATCHED as his lord disappeared, ignoring the growing sounds of battle. Rebaine, for all his skill and power, had his blind spots. It was a flaw Valescienn himself did not share. Catching the eyes of the soldiers who clustered around the pit, he waved a casual hand toward the captives.

“Kill them.”

The chamber erupted in screams then, desperate people trying to flee despite the lack of any possible sanctuary. The sounds of splitting and splintering filled the room, a ghastly symphony played with swords and axes, conducted by a blond man with empty, soulless eyes. The floor grew wet and sticky with blood, and one by one, the screams fell silent.

At the back of the crowd, an old man moved. He sought no escape, for he knew that was quite impossible. And though no less terrified than all those around him, no less frantic to cling to whatever years of life might have remained to him, he knew there was something more important he must do. Heart hammering in his chest, he ducked behind the panicked crowd and lifted a sobbing young boy off the floor. As swiftly as he could, he stepped to the edge of the pit in which dozens of bodies, some still twitching, already sprawled.

“I wish there was a less unpleasant way, my boy,” he said to Jassion, his voice hushed and obscured by the clamor around him. “But you’ll live.”

Jeddeg smiled, then, despite the sudden tears cutting through the dust on his face to vanish into the prickly depths of his beard. “If—when you see your sister again, tell her I wasn’t a completely selfish bastard, yes?”

The old man let go. Jassion fell from his hands, to land with a painful thump on the uppermost corpses in the pit. He lay for a moment, stunned, until he was covered and almost crushed by the body of Jeddeg himself, the man’s head shattered from behind. He wanted to cry, to scream. Mostly he wanted his sister back. But he knew that any sound would let the bad men find him, too. And so he kept quiet, even when the blood of the men above began to coat his arms, his head, and his face, even when their weight threatened to squeeze the breath from him.

And finally the room went silent. The last sounds of the slaughter faded from the farthest corners, but not from the depths of a young child’s mind, where they echoed unending, and would until his dying day.