A detective, of sorts. Just not what he had expected.
Waves crashed against the boat. Llarimar, looking about five years younger, yelled for help at the front of the ship. Deckhands rushed to his aid. It wasn’t Llarimar’s ship, or even Lightsong’s. This had been intended as a simple pleasure cruise. Sailing was a hobby of Llarimar’s.
The storm had come suddenly. Lightsong lurched back to his feet, barely staying up as he made his way along the railing. Waves crashed across the deck, and sailors struggled to keep them from being capsized. The sails were gone, tattered. Wood creaked and cracked around him. Dark, black water churned in the ocean to his right.
A young woman ran to her father’s aid, helping him grab a slick rope.
“Tatara!” a woman called from the cabin, reaching a hand toward her.
The next wave tossed her into the ocean. Lightsong saw her get taken by the terrible darkness, engulfed, swallowed. He’d always been a little afraid of it, and now he was terrified.
It was the great, horrible unknown. He felt useless, standing on the deck, watching the young woman get swept into the current. The ship would quickly pass her, and he saw remnants of her golden hair twisting in the water. Going past his side of the ship.
Men screamed. A woman wept. And, Lightsong saw himself, without thought, grab a rope at his feet and leap into the dark water. He grabbed the hair, bubbling and churning in the tempest. He barely knew how to swim, but that didn’t matter to him.
He found an arm. He tied the rope around it. Then, felt himself get yanked away. Into the darkness.
Claimed by the void.
He blinked, waves and thunder fading. He sat on the cool stones of his cell.
The void had tried to take him, but something had sent him back. He’d Returned.
The man beside him was yelling in fear. Lightsong looked over as the fake priests grabbed him, and he could see into the God King’s mouth.
No tongue, Lightsong though. Of course. To keep him from using all that BioChroma. It makes sense.
He turned to the side. Blushweaver’s body lay red and bloodied. He’d seen that. Seen it in a vision. He’d thought she was wearing red, when he dreamed, but now he understood. He looked back.
The God King in prison. He’d seen that too.
By the Colors. . . . he thought, standing as the priests forced the God King to his knees. I really am a God.
He stepped forward, up to the bars of his cage. He saw pain and tears in the God King’s face, and somehow understood them. He did love her. Lightsong had seen the same thing in Siri’s eyes. She had somehow come to care for the man who was to oppress her.
“You are my emperor,” Lightsong whispered. “And Lord of the Gods.”
They forced the God King face down on the stones. One of the priests raised his sword. The God King’s legs jutted out, his feet toward Lightsong.
He reached through the bars and touched the God King’s legs. One of the fake priests looked up with alarm.
Lightsong met the man’s eyes, then smiled broadly.
Denth struck again, wounding Vasher in the leg.
Vasher stumbled, going down on one knee. Denth struck again, and Vasher barely managed to keep the sword away.
Denth backed off a bit, shaking his head. “You are pathetic, Vasher. There you kneel, about to die. And you still think you’re better than the rest of us. You judge me for becoming a mercenary? What else was I to do? Take over kingdoms? Rule and start wars, as you did?”
Vasher bowed his head. Denth growled and ran forward, lashing out with his sword. Vasher tried to defend himself, but he was just too weak. Denth’s weapon knocked his aside, then Denth kicked him in the stomach, sending him backward against the wall.
Vasher slumped down, sword lost. He reached for a knife on the belt of a fallen soldier, but Denth stepped up and put his booted foot on Vasher’s hand. He looked down with distain.
“You think I should just go back to the way I was before,” Denth said. “The happy, friendly man that everyone loved?”
“You were a good man,” Vasher whispered.
“That man saw and did terrible things,” Denth said, shaking his head. “I’ve tried, Vasher. I’ve tried going back. But the darkness I know. . .it’s inside. I can’t escape it. My laughter has an edge to it. I can’t forget.”
“I can make you,” Vasher said. “I know the Commands.”
“I promise,” Vasher said. “I will take it all from you, if you wish.”
Denth stood for a long moment, foot on Vasher’s arm, sword pointed down. Then, finally, he shook his head. “No. I don’t deserve that. Neither of us do. Goodbye, Vasher.”
He raised his blade to strike. And, Vasher moved his arm up, touching Denth’s leg.
“My life to yours, my Breath become yours.”
Denth froze, then stumbled. Fifty Breaths came into his body. They would be unwelcome, true, but he couldn’t turn them away. Fifty Breaths weren’t many, but they were enough.
Enough to make him begin to shake in pleasure. Enough to make his senses lose control for just a second. And, in that time, Vasher stood--ripping the dagger free from the body--then slashed it through Denth’s throat.
The mercenary stumbled back, eyes wide, bleeding. He shook amidst the pleasure of gaining new Breaths even as his life flowed from him.
“Nobody ever expects it,” Vasher said. Stepping forward. “Breath is worth a fortune. To put it into someone, then kill them, is to lose more money than most men will probably ever know. They never expect it.”
Denth fell over, life fading away, new breaths vanishing.
“You wanted to know how I killed Arsteel,” Vasher said, spitting blood to the side. “Well, now you know.”
Bluefingers picked up a knife. “The least honor I can do,” he decided, “is to kill you myself, rather than letting the Lifeless do it. I promise it will be quick. We will make it look like a pagan ritual afterward, sparing you the need to die in a painful way.”
Siri struggled, tied to the altar, feeling numb. It seemed like such a strange situation to be in. Like one of the frightening stories she’d heard as a child.
It was ridiculous. Nobody was actually killed on altars like this. It was a myth. An exaggeration. And yet, because of that very exaggeration, it would become truth. The Idrians would get what they expected.
And the war would start.
“Please,” she whispered.
Bluefingers shook his head, raising the knife. “I’m sorry.”
The building began to shake. Bluefingers looked to the side in alarm, glancing toward several of his scribe friends. They shook their heads in confusion.
“Earthquake?” one asked.
The floor began to turn white. It moved like a wave of sunlight covering the land as the sun rose above the mountains. The walls, the ceiling, the floor--all of the black stone faded in color. The priests stepped away from it, looking frightened, one hopping onto a rug to keep from touching the strange white stones.
Bluefingers looked at her, confused. He held the knife still, held it in fingers that had been stained repeatedly by the inks he often used. The ground continued to tremble, but he raised his blade anyway. And, strangely, Siri saw the whites of his eyes bend and release a rainbow of colors.
The doors to the room burst open. A twisting mass of colorful cloth shot through it, like the hundred tentacles of an enraged sea leviathan. They churned and curled, and Siri recognized tapestries, carpets, and long lengths of silk from the palace decorations.
Awakened arms slapped aside Lifeless, curling around them, tossing them aside. Priests cried out as they were snatched up, and a long, thin length of violent cloth snapped forward and wrapped around Bluefinger’s arm.
The mass of cloth continued forward, undulating, churning, and Siri could finally see a figure walking in the midst of it.
A man of epic proportions. Black of hair, white of face, youthful in appearance, but of great age. Bluefingers struggled to lower his knife, and the Returned raised a hand.
“You will stop!” Susebron said in a clear voice.
Bluefingers froze, looking toward the God King in amazement. The dagger slipped from his stunned fingers as an Awakened carpet twisted around him, pulling him away from the altar.
Siri strained against her bonds, trying to get a better view. She needn’t have worried. Susebron’s cloth lifted him up and over beside her, and a pair of small silken handkerchiefs reached forward, twisting around her ropes, untying them with ease.
Freed, she grabbed him, letting him lift her into his arms, weeping.
The closet door opened, letting in lanternlight. Vivenna looked up, gagged and bound, at Vasher’s silhouette. He drug Nightblood behind him, sheathed--as always--in his silver sheath.
Looking very tired, Vasher knelt, undoing her gag.
“About time,” she noted.
He smiled wanly. “I don’t have any Breath remaining,” he said quietly. “It was very hard to locate you.”
“Where did it all go?” she asked as he undid the ropes on her hands.
“Nightblood devoured most of it.”
I don’t believe him, Nightblood said happily. I. . .can’t really remember what happened. But, we did slay a lot of evil!
“You drew him?” Vivenna asked as Vasher turned to untie her feet.
Vivenna rubbed her hands. “Denth?”
“Dead,” Vasher said. “No sign of Tonk Fah or the woman, Jewels. I think they may have taken their money and fled.”
“So, it’s over.”
Vasher nodded, sliding down to seat himself, resting his head back against the wall. “And we lost.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Vasher was being employed by some of the Pahn Kahl scribes in the palace,” Vasher said. “They wanted to start a war between Idris and Hallandren in the hopes that it would weaken both and let Pahn Kahl gain independence.”
“So? Denth is dead now.”
“So are the scribes who had the Command Phrases for the Hallandren Lifeless armies,” Vasher said. “And they already sent the troops marching. They left the city over an hour ago, charging for Idris.”
Vivenna felt a numbness.
“All of this fighting, everything with Denth, that was secondary,” Vasher said, knocking his head back against the wall. “It distracted us. I couldn’t get to the Lifeless in time. The war is going to happen. There’s no way to stop it.”
Susebron led her down into the depths of the palace. Siri walked beside her husband, carefully cradled in his arm, a hundred twisting lengths of cloth spinning around him.
Even with that many things Awakened, he still had enough BioChroma to make every color they passed glow brightly. Of course, that didn’t work for many of the stones they passed. Though large chucks of the building were still black, a good half of it had been turned white.
And, not just the grey of normal Awakening. They had been made a bone white, the color drained completely from them. And, becoming that white, they now reacted to Susebron’s incredible BioChroma, splitting back into colors.
Like a circle, somehow, she thought. Colorful, then white, then back to color.
He led her into a particular chamber, and she saw what he’d told her to expect. Scribes crushed by the carpet he’d awakened, bars ripped from their mountings, walls broken down. A ribbon shot from Susebron, turning over a body so that she wouldn’t have to see its wound.
She wasn’t paying much attention. In the midst of the rubble were a pair of bodies. One was Blushweaver, bloody and red, face down. The other was Lightsong, his entire body drained of color. Like he was a Lifeless.
He didn’t move though. His eyes were closed, and he slept, as if at peace. A man sat next to him--Lightsong’s high priest, holding the God’s head in his lap.
The priest looked up. He smiled, though she could see grief in his eyes.
“I don’t understand,” she said, looking at Susebron.
“Lightsong gave his life to heal me,” the God King said. “The scribes were about to kill me. Somehow, he knew that my tongue had been removed.”
“The Returned can heal one person,” the priest said, looking down at his god. “It’s their duty to decide who and when. They come back for this purpose, some say. To give life to one person who needs it.”
“I never knew him,” Susebron said.
“He was a very good person,” Siri said.
“I realize that. Though I never spoke to him, somehow he was noble enough to die so that I might live.”
The priest smiled down. “The amazing thing is,” he said, “Lightsong did that twice.”
“Come,” Susebron said. “We must gather what is left of my priests. We have to find a way to stop those armies from destroying your people.”
“There has to be a way, Vasher,” Vivenna said. She knelt next to him.
He tried to push down his rage, his anger at himself. He’d come to the city to stop a war. Once again, he’d been too late.
“Forty thousand Lifeless,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t stop that many. Not even with Nightblood and the Breaths of every person in the city. Not only would it be hard to keep up with their marching, but one would get in a strike eventually and stop me.”
“There has to be a way,” Vivenna said.
Has to be a way.
“I thought the same thing before,” he said, putting his head in his hands. “I wanted to stop it. But, by the time I realized that, it had gone to far. It had taken a life of its own.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Manywar,” Vasher said, sighing, closing his eyes.
“Who are you?”
He kept his eyes closed.
They used to call him Talaxin, Nightblood said.
“Talaxin,” Vivenna said, sounding amused. “Nightblood, that’s one of the Five Scholars. He. . . .”
She trailed off for a moment.
“. . .he lived over three hundred years ago,” she finally said.
“BioChroma can keep a man alive a long time,” Vasher said, sighing and opening his eyes. He met her eyes, and she didn’t argue.
They used to call him other things, too, Nightblood said.
“If you’re really one of them,” Vivenna said, “then you’ll know how to stop the Lifeless.”
“Easy,” Vasher said wryly. “With other Lifeless.”
“The easiest. You can grab them and Break them one at a time, but even if you had the God King’s BioChroma, that would take far too long. You can have an army fight them, but they are the army. The Hallandren forces aren’t large enough to fight them on their own, and they wouldn’t be able to get to Idris with any semblance of speed. The Lifeless will beat them by days. Lifeless don’t sleep, don’t eat, and can march tirelessly.”
“Ichor-alcohol,” Vivenna said. “They’ll run out.”
“It’s not like food, Vivenna. It’s like blood. They need a new supply if they get cut and drained, or if it gets corrupted--but that takes a long time. A few will probably stop working without maintenance, but only a small number.”
She fell silent. “Well then, we Awaken an army of our own to fight them.”
He smiled wanly. He felt so light headed. He’d bound his wounds--the bad ones, anyway--but he wouldn’t be doing any more fighting anytime soon. Vivenna didn’t look much better, with that bloody stain on her arm.
“Awaken our own army,” he said, sighing. “First, where would we get the Breath? I used all of yours. Even if we find my clothing that still has some in it, we’ll only have a few hundred Breaths. One per Lifeless, assuming we can get some Ichor-Alcohol to keep them going. We’re severely overmatched.”
“The God King,” she said.
“Can’t use his Breath,” Vasher said. “The man’s tongue was removed when he was a child to keep that from happening.”
“And the Lifeless? You going to find forty-thousand bodies for us?”
She paused, then sighed, resting back against the wall.
Vasher? Nightblood asked in his mind. Didn’t you leave an army behind here last time you left?
He didn’t reply. Vivenna opened her eyes, however. Apparently Nightblood had decided to include her in all of his thoughts now.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Vasher said.
No, no it’s not. I remember. You talked to that priest, told him to take care of your Breath for you, should you need it again. And, you gave him your army. It stopped moving. You called it a gift for the city. Don’t you remember? It was just yesterday.
“Yesterday?” Vivenna asked.
When the Manywar stopped, Nightblood said. When was that?
“He doesn’t understand time,” Vasher said. “Don’t listen to him.”
He eyed her, then sighed. “You ask me to give Hallandren a tool, Vivenna. A terrible tool. Something worse than the Lifeless.”
“And if those Lifeless slaughter my people?” Vivenna asked. “Could what you’re talking about give them more power than that?”
She fell silent.
“Do it anyway,” she said.
He glanced at her.
He closed his eyes again, remembering the destruction he had caused. The wars that had started. All because of the things he’d learned to create.
He stood. “Let’s find the God King. We shall see.”
“My lord and lady,” said the priest, bowing with his face down before them. “We heard rumors of a plot to attack the palace. That’s why we locked you away. We wanted to protect you!”
Siri looked at the man, then glanced at Susebron. He rubbed his chin in thought. They both recognized this man as actually one of his priests, rather than an imposter. They’d only been able to determine that for certain with three men.
They locked the others away, sending for the city guard to come in and start cleaning up the wreckage of the palace. The breeze blew Siri’s hair--red, to show her displeasure--as they stood atop the palace.
“There, my lord!” a guard said, pointing.
Susebron turned, walking over to the edge of the palace, his twisting cloths still Awakened and alive. In the distance, Siri could make out a smudge and what looked like smoke.
“The Lifeless army,” the guard said. “Our scouts have confirmed that it’s marching toward Idris. Almost everyone in the city saw it pass through and out the gates.”
“That smoke?” Siri asked.
“Dust of its passing, my lady,” the guard said. “That’s a lot of soldiers.”
She looked up at Susebron. He frowned. “I could stop them.”
“My lord?” the guard asked.
“With this much Breath,” Susebron said. “I could charge them, use these cloths to tie them up.”
“My lord,” the guard said hesitantly. “There are forty thousand of them. They would cut at the cloth, overwhelm you.”
Susebron frowned. “I have to try.”
“No,” Siri said, laying a hand on his chest.
“Your people. . . .”
“We’ll send messengers,” she said. “Promising that Hallandren won’t support the attack. My people can withdraw before them, ambush them. We can send troops to help.”
“We don’t have many,” he said. “And they won’t get there very quickly. Could your people really get away?”
No, she thought. But, you don’t know that. You’re innocent enough to believe it.
Her people would probably survive as a whole, but many would die. Still, Susebron getting himself killed fighting the creatures wouldn’t be of much use.
He saw the look in her face, and surprisingly, he read it well. “You don’t believe that they can get away,” he said. “You’re just trying to protect me.”
Surprising how well he understands me already, she thought.
“My lord!” a voice said from behind.
Susebron turned, looking across the top of the palace. They’d come atop it partially to get a look at the Lifeless, but also because both Siri and Susebron were tired of being closed in tight quarters. They wanted to be in the open, where it would be harder to surprise or sneak up on them.
A guard came out of the stairwell, then walked over, hand on sword. He bowed. “My lord. There’s someone here to see you.”
“I don’t want to see anyone,” Susebron said. “Who are they?”
Amazing how well he can speak, she thought. Never having had a tongue. What did Lightsong’s Breath do? It healed more than his body. It gave him the capacity to use the regrown tongue, somehow.
“My lord,” the guard said. “The visitor. . .she has the royal locks!”
“What?” Siri asked with surprise.
The guard turned, and--shockingly--Vivenna stepped up onto the roof of the palace. Or, Siri thought it was Vivenna. She wore trousers and a tunic, with a sword tied at her waist, and she appeared to have a bloody wound on one arm. She saw Siri, and smiled, her hair turning yellow with joy.
Vivenna’s hair changing? Siri thought. It can’t be her.
But, the woman laughed, walking across the top of the roof. Some guards stopped her, but Siri waved for them to let the woman pass. She ran over, embracing Siri.
The woman smiled. “Yes, mostly,” she said. She glanced at Susebron. “I’m sorry,” Vivenna said quietly. “I came to the city to try rescuing you.”
“Ah,” Susebron said, bowing his head cordially. “Siri has told me much about you, princess Vivenna. I wish we could have met under better circumstances.”
Vivenna stared at the man with shock.
“He’s not really as bad as they say,” Siri said, smiling. “Most of the time.”
“That is sarcasm,” Susebron said. “She’s quite fond of it.”
Vivenna turned from the God King. “Our homeland is under attack.”
“I know,” Siri said. “We’re working on that. I’m preparing messengers to send to Father.”
“I have a better way,” Vivenna said. “But you’ll need to trust me.”
“Of course,” Siri said.
“I have a friend who needs to speak with the God King,” Vivenna said. “Alone.”
Siri frowned hesitantly.
Silly, she thought. This is Vivenna. I can trust her.
She’d thought she could trust Bluefingers too. Vivenna regarded her with a curious expression.
“If this can save Idris,” Susebron said, “then I will do it. Who is this person?”
Moments later, Vivenna stood quietly on the roof of the palace, the God King of Hallandren beside her. A couple of soldiers searched Vasher for weapons a short distance away. He had wisely left Nightblood behind, and didn’t have anything else on him. He didn’t even have any Breath.
“Your sister is an amazing woman,” the God King said.
Vivenna glanced at him. This was the man she was supposed to have married. The terrible creature she was taught to give herself to, yet hate at the same time. She’d never expected to end up like this, pleasantly chatting with him, considering all that had happened.
She’d also never expected that she’d like him.
It was a quick judgment. She had gotten over chastising herself for making those. She saw kindness in his eyes, and a desire to what was right. How had a man like this ended up in his position?