- Andrew M. Trauger
Chapter 1: Revelations
The wonders of The Deepening were both legendary and fearsome, captured in the name many sailors gave it: “The Cradle of Storms.” Sheer cliffs of jagged rock framed the higher elevations of the lake’s northern shore, towering hundreds of feet above the crashing waves below. The southern shore, three hundred miles away, featured hull-piercing crags lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to splinter the ship that plied too closely. Along these treacherous coasts, six major cities thrived, each one older than recorded history and free from the political rule of its surrounding nation. These free cities, the Cers, commanded the respect and wonder of all Arelathans, and they anchored all trade, education, and theology to The Deepening. A few sages claimed the Cers anchored more than that—things physical yet intangible, things powerful yet benign.
Beyond the southern shore, across miles of fields, the people of Westmeade slogged through a rainy day brought on by one of the lake’s capricious tempests. Water pelted the multi-paned windows of a wood-and-stucco manor on the grounds of the Lord’s Castle. In the office of Wescott House, behind a plain and rugged desk, Sir Reginald Hunt, Captain of the Guard, puffed on a short-stemmed pipe. He had locked the doors and drawn the blinds so he could sit alone and gaze unblinking into the dim candlelight. His wife had gone to bed an hour ago, and the house was quiet.
He ruminated on his meeting with Vincent Schumann over a month ago, trying to determine whether that conversation had eradicated all his ideas of the Kedethian Decree or whether the Decree itself was so complicated that, as Schumann had sad, he truly knew nothing about it. He wasn’t supposed to be thinking about it anymore. But he couldn’t help it. How could I have gotten it wrong all these years?
The captain drew on his pipe and exhaled slowly, filling the air with swirling white mists. Few things made sense these days. Two weeks ago, the whole city had dissolved into chaos as Burleson, a competent guard, reported a dragon escaping through the front doors of Wilder Tower. To Hunt’s great relief, the news was false; only the dragon’s head had gone through the front doors. And the commotion throughout the city was hardly chaos; it was jubilant praise. Adulation of the Company of Dragon Slayers, freeblades that were supposed to be in jail.
Still, there had been a dragon, which the city now knew about, and which Cora’s freeblades had actually killed. There was no sense denying it, no way to cover it up or silence the witnesses. Not like before. Leftover dragon parts littered the tower’s basement and an amazing trail of blood covered the antechamber and the grand stairs leading down to the lair. Nisser bodies scattered everywhere. And mongrels.
A shudder crawled up Hunt’s spine as he recalled first seeing the mongrels, dragon-bloods in the making. Alituri. Cora’s company may have closed several missing persons cases. Although, between the horrific transformations in progress and the over-zealous “mercy-killing” they had received, it had been impossible to determine who the people once were.
Hunt stared off into the flickering candlelight, his mind a roiling mass of conflict. Justice for the freeblades had been subverted for undisclosed reasons. No one denied they had set fire to the tower, yet they were granted access to the same tower to roam freely and collect the spoils. He suspected Calloway had influenced the Tribunal’s decision—rumor had Cora conducting secret meetings with the merchant. Impartiality could not be achieved with deals struck behind closed doors. The freeblades’ sentence had been entirely too lenient, and now the criminals were hailed as heroes. Hunt growled around his pipe.
Besides all that, the promising young guard, Mason Rutland, had defected, following Elric Reichtoven’s idiotic lead. Right after the dragon head incident, he had stormed into Hunt’s office, set his helm down with a little too much force, and declared that Cora’s trial was a farce and Elric’s team innocent. And he was going to prove it. But “farce” was Hunt’s word; Rutland had actually declared it to be a pile of horse hockey. The captain frowned and cursed under his breath. This is getting out of hand.
In Hunt’s view, the trial was a farce, but not in the way Rutland believed. Rather, the Company of Dragon Slayers had gotten off far too lightly. But Schumann said none of that mattered, or it wasn’t supposed to. He wasn’t supposed to be concerned with dispensing justice; he only needed to play the part. Losing Reichtoven and Rutland was insignificant, inconsequential, and a distraction from the Decree. As was his job as Chief Prosecutor.
Schumann’s unexpected meeting at the captain’s house had included a definite warning: “Get on board or get out of the way.” Hunt knew what was implied in that ultimatum. And ultimatums like that were the currency of the Nephreqin, that hated clandestine organization of spies and assassins. They planned on taking over the world, and so far as Hunt could see it, they were succeeding.
The old alderman was clearly part of the Nephreqin, no matter how much he denied it. He had flung a porcelain saucer past Hunt’s head, through a candlestick, and into the wall… with no discernable movement. Old men simply do not move like that. Arcanists always leave behind a signature—light, sound, odor—and there had been none of that.
Hunt glanced over at the empty cup and saucer resting near the edge of his desk. He scooped them up with a heavy sigh and ran his finger around the edge. It should have at least chipped…or something.
Under the duress of that meeting with Schumann, Hunt had vowed fealty to the Nephreqin. Now, without actually joining that radical group, he too was connected…in painful ways. The Decree he understood flew in the face of the Decree espoused by the Nephreqin. It was the worst of conundrums; to obey was to oppose himself, but to follow his beliefs was to die. He was a traitor either way.
Several long minutes later, Hunt set his pipe aside and leaned back in his chair, exhaling pure exhaustion. Dealing with Schumann would take time. And caution. Right now he had more pressing matters—the Dragon Slayers.
Cora’s rinkin freeblades galled him. They had upended the entire system of justice, but he was the one suffering for it. Their voices gained audiences in every square while his was forced, under threat of death, to remain silent. They ran free while his hands were tied. Everywhere he looked, Hunt saw the Company of the Dragon Slayers standing in the way of true justice.
The solution seemed simple enough. Hunt frustration melted into a whimsical smile, and he shrugged his shoulders. “Cora’s crew has to be taken out,” he said aloud.
“Perhaps that can be arranged,” said a voice from a darkened corner of the room.
* * * * * * * * * *
Cora O’Banion curled up with her blankets after a long, hot bath, trying to work through the barrage of emotions of the day as she penned her thoughts and memories in her escritoire. The soothing waters had done little to restore her exhaustion, physically or mentally. But echoes of her mother’s voice came to her: “Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you’re done.” It’s what got her through endless hours of harp practice, and it certainly applied now.
Thoughts of her mother made her heart ache, and a longing for home swept over her. She had essentially run away to pursue the Sword of the Coast, her grandmother’s weapon and the object of her father’s lifelong search. Her mother was furious that her father had allowed Cora even to inquire about the sword. Pursuing it had been out of the question. Letters from home emphasized their displeasure, but Cora hoped her next correspondence would validate her decision to leave. She had the Sword. Surely, they would forgive her little rebellion.
Going home was impossible, though. She and her freeblade company were stuck in Westmeade, serving out a one-year probation within the city walls. She thought her family might come to visit her, to see the heirloom sword and to return home with it. But asking such a thing would be insulting. She would have to be content with writing letters and to preserve the sword until she was free once more.
And that meant keeping it safely tucked away.
Cora yawned and gazed at the flickering candlelight from the squat hour-candle on the side table. Two stripes gone. She had spent two hours recording in her escritoire all that had recently transpired, and a sudden weariness washed over her. She shook her head and forced her eyes open.
Despite killing a small red dragon, they were no closer to fulfilling their commission—to find out who had been occupying Wilder Tower and whether the rumors of August Blanchard’s return were valid. The past two days were filled with continual searching, but they had found nothing. Cora was losing hope that there was anything more to the mystery of the tower than the fact that some old man had taken up residence and was living under the delusion that he was August Blanchard. It would have been nice to run into him again and have a proper discussion over an ale, but he seemed to have disappeared and taken all their leads with him.
It wasn’t all loss, though. Cora pulled the old man’s spellbook out from under her bed and set the heavy tome in her lap. She assumed it was a spellbook, at any rate. In her hands, the tome seemed to radiate energy, warming her thighs and tingling her scalp like a hundred ants crawling through her hair. They had sold most of the spoils to pay for the healing they all required, especially Cuauhtérroc. Images of that explosion and Cuauhtérroc’s body flying outward in a cloud of fiery smoke still haunted Cora’s dreams. But they had not sold everything. Elric kept the purple sack, an unassuming longsword stood in the corner, and she had this spellbook.
She traced her finger across the old leather, embossed by multiple arcane symbols and runes from an ancient form of Dragon-speak. But she could not read any of it. They could be decorative or dangerous, ensorcelled glyphs or harmless illustrations. She desperately wanted to know what the book contained. Perhaps it held clues regarding the old man who might be August Blanchard returned to life. Or perhaps it would literally kill her to open it.
It would require a trained arcanist to decipher the markings and safely open the book. And that cost money they no longer had. With a heavy sigh, Cora set the tome on the floor between her feet and shoved it once again beneath her bed. She turned her attention to a tattered parchment they discovered in the bottom of a treasure chest in the dragon’s lair—an ancient floor plan and elevation of Wilder Tower. It was a professional rendering filled with markings, the meanings of which eluded Cora. According to the print, there was even more beneath the tower than the passages they had discovered.
But much had changed with the tower since this plan had been drawn. Cora wondered if might be the original construction plan, for the dragon’s cave and the nisser rooms were nowhere on the parchment. Instead, other subterranean areas filled the lower corners of the sheet, a ballista occupied the tower’s roof, and a storage building jutted from the side.
Cora yawned again as she spread the parchment across her bed and held it down with weighted objects. She knelt beside the bed and pored over the drawings. The level of detail and precision impressed Cora, but she had no training in construction diagrams. Her eyelids drooped, and she shook her head vigorously to stave off sleep. If only there were a legend…
“Good night.” Velma Kotting’s voice echoed up the stairs to Cora’s rented room, waking her from an uncomfortable nap slumped over the side of her bed.
Cora glanced out her gable window to a dark sky that flashed with sporadic lightning. Occasional gusts of wind blew rain against the panes of glass and made the old rafters creak and groan. The hour-candle was now four stripes shorter than when she had lit it, and it was nearly spent. I’ve wasted so much time.
“Good night,” she hollered in return, and then turned back to the drawings.
After several fruitless minutes, she growled in frustration, stretched her arms, and rose to her feet. Her stomach rumbled. With an annoyed sigh, she turned and marched downstairs to the kitchen.
Taking care not to make much noise, Cora set a small pot of water on the wood stove in the kitchen and added wood to the belly. She winced at the cast iron door creaking as she closed it, and she paused, fully expecting Mrs. Kotting to round the corner and scold her.
Silence blanketed the house except for the patter of rain and the low reverberation of Mr. Kotting snoring. Thunder rolled in the distance.
Hearing nothing else, she began slicing turnips, carrots, and celery into the water, adding a dash of mixed spices and a spoonful of thickener. As the water slowly heated, her mind wandered, her eyes focusing on a spot somewhere well beyond the stove.
What are we supposed to do? We’ve been everywhere in that tower, and it’s empty. No nisser and no old man. No other passages or rooms and no secret doors…
The water started to boil, and Cora sat in a nearby chair to refocus her vision while the soup cooked.
The scroll shows other areas beneath the tower…maybe that’s where the old man went. But how do we get there? Why can’t we find the entrance? How do I read that drawing? What does it mean? Why did Hunt send his men away? Why did Cuauhtérroc have to burn everything? Why did Ordin have to break in?
She frowned as her mind cycled through the questions. Always questions; never answers. The Bones had been rolled for most of it, and she had no choice but to play it out. But why so many crossed bones?
With a tired sigh, Cora returned to her soup, stirring until it was ready. She ladled some into a small bowl and inhaled of the aroma. After placing a spoon in the bowl, she trudged wearily up the stairs, her mind grinding once more through the details.
Back in her room, Cora went to the other side of her bed near the gable window. Maybe if I look at it from this side… She stared at the foreign markings, slowly sipping the steaming broth from her spoon. It wasn’t as good as her mother made, but—
Cora cocked her head slightly and squinted at the drawing. I wonder…would a spellsong of translation work on this? It was an elementary trick of songsages, intended to grant them brief understanding of a foreign tongue. Since most people spoke a common language, it was a seldom needed trick. Closing her eyes, Cora sang the soft notes of interpretation.
When she opened her eyes, she felt like she had a fresh look. Lines suddenly seemed connected where they had been completely disjointed before; marks that made no sense before now spoke volumes. She nearly dropped her spoon. For the love of Beauty…
Quickly setting the soup on the side table, Cora grabbed her escritoire and transcribed far into the night.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sir Reginald Hunt trembled. He was not prepared for an assailant in his house, and he unarmed and clothed in little but a robe. His scanned the room for the nearest weapon, but found nothing useful.
“Wh-who’s there?” His voice quaked. Get a grip, Hunt. And a sword…
The owner of the voice stepped from shadow into the light of the lantern. He was slender and sinewy but completely devoid of hair. Even his eyebrows were gone and his arms were smooth. He was barefoot and dressed in lightweight, beige linens, with a cloth sash that held the folds of the garment tightly around his thin waist. Both ear lobes were pierced and stretched wide by gold rings. They dangled when he moved, tossed about by the weight of the gold. I think I can take him.
“My name is unimportant, Captain,” the man said calmly. “You need only know why I am here.”
Hunt regained a bit of his composure, relieved that he was not dealing with Schumann again. Still, he’d rather not be dealing with anyone. He crept around his chair to close the distance between them, preparing himself for a bare-knuckle fight. “And why is that?” he asked, trying to sound in full control of the situation.
“You seem to be wandering off course. I can help you see straight.”
The captain studied his visitor’s hairless face as he drew closer. Small wrinkles suggested he was middle-aged, but the lack of hair confused his age or heritage. His words held no trace of accent. There was nothing Hunt could use to assess this man’s potential in combat. He was likely an assassin, and unaccustomed to open, face-to-face fights, so there was that. Not much to go on.
“Can you now?” With the space between them closed, Hunt balled his fist and swung hard. It was an unprovoked move designed to catch any unsuspecting foe off-guard, and this man had his hands behind his back—an easy target.
The bald man calmly leaned back, and Hunt’s fist just missed striking his nose. Instantly, the man righted, captured Hunt’s arm in one hand and pressed in against his elbow, threatening to hyper-extend the joint. He kicked the side of Hunt’s knee, buckling it, and pressed his arm backwards until the captain was kneeling and face down on the floor.
Hunt rolled and twisted out of the hold. He jumped up with arms outstretched to grab the intruder and take him down.
Again, the bald man side-stepped the maneuver, grabbed the captain’s arm and redirected his motion onto the floor near the couch. He knelt on Hunt’s elbow, pulling back on the wrist. “Make another move, and I promise you’ll never use this arm again.”
“Did Schumann send you?” Hunt asked through teeth clenched with pain.
The bald man paused. “Did I need to be sent?”
“Then why are you here? Do you intend to rob or murder me?”
“Be assured that if I had intended that, you would now be both destitute and dead.” He released Hunt’s arm and stood.
The captain sat up and groaned, flexing his arm. “Why then?”
“I am here to help you see clearly.” The bald man strolled about the room as he spoke. “I have it on good authority that you struggle with your place in the Decree. You need some…perspective. You believe the Audric savage is a walking subversion of justice. You think the redhead wheedled a sweetheart deal from your Council. Reichtoven holds your secret on the tip of his wagging tongue, but you can’t strike down the town’s hero. And the mystic—well, we both know the mystic is insane. So here you sit, alone and staring into the candlelight, sipping your pekoe blend from your mother’s porcelain, concluding that they need to be taken out.”
Captain Hunt crawled back to his chair and nursed his aching elbow. He knew not whether he was more taken aback by this stranger’s intimate knowledge of his tea preferences or the strong implication that he was dealing with the Nephreqin again. There were echoes of Schumann’s visit in those words. Clearly the two were working together.
“How do you know these things?” His frown strengthened, but his resolve was cracking. “How can you know these things?”
“I won’t deny what you already suspect me to be. A Nephreqin agent, which I am, is well-connected. Our infiltrators are quite literally everywhere, forming a network—a web, if you will—with strands touching all that moves. I have eyes and ears scattered all over this homely town. But you’ll never be able to pick one out of a crowd. They are the crowd. So, of course, I know everything about you.”
Hunt stared into his lap for a time, trying to recall a suspicious glimpse, a whispered word, a secret handshake—anything to prove this bald intruder wrong, to show the captain of Westmeade’s guard was in full control. But there was nothing. The Nephreqin agent was right.
The agent continued. “I am here to show you place, to identify the obstacles that seem so often to cloud your vision, and to…eliminate…these distractions.”
Hunt looked up met the man’s blue eyes. He startled slightly; there was something familiar in those eyes. “You’re going to kill them.”
“That is what you want.”
The captain paused, contemplating the whole affair.
The agent smirked. “But that’s not what I meant.”
Hunt startled. “What?”
“You are distracted by what you believe about things, not by the things themselves. Cora O’Banion is not the problem. You thinking about her is the problem.”
“Now, just a minute,” Hunt began, wondering if a third attack would be the lucky break he needed. “The Nephreqin have no jurisdiction over my mind.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Ideas have consequences, Hunt. You are distracted by your false notions of the Kedethian Decree. I am here to eliminate those distractions. But if you don’t change the way you think about things, I’ll simply eliminate you.”
Hunt felt a chill crawl up his spine. Someone was surveilling him, that much was obvious. Probably the Nephreqin and perhaps also his fellow alderman, Vincent Schumann.
“But I could start with the Company of the Dragon Slayers.”
Something in the bald man’s voice sounded eager, and it piqued Hunt’s curiosity. For some reason, the Nephreqin also has their sights set on Cora’s freeblades. Did she uncover some damning evidence on them? Is she about to? Assassinations were clear subversions of justice, a place no upholder of justice should ever enter. Hunt could not stomach the thought, but his idle words spoken into the presumed solitude of his empty home were now being used as a declaration of intent.
“I did say they need to be taken out,” Hunt began carefully, “but I will not tolerate assassination.”
“You would prefer they died ‘accidentally,’ then?”
The captain’s eyes narrowed. He did not like where this was headed at all. Having the same goals as his hated cousins to the south unfortunately put him into the position of having to work with them. The coercive strings were pulling him, forcing him to follow the Decree according to their interpretation.
“If you’re able to kill them, why haven’t you done it already?”
The bald man raised one of what used to be eyebrows; the result was less effective. “I could not care less whether they live or die. You, Captain Hunt, are the one who wishes them dead.”
Hunt shifted in his chair. “I don’t know.”
“That is your problem. You were given a specific directive: obey without question. Were you given orders to desire the removal of these freeblades?”
“Then it is obvious you have no business desiring such a thing.”
Hunt glowered. They determine a man’s desires? Is there no liberty at all?
The bald man resumed his measured pacing. “If you had received orders to slit Elric’s throat in the town square, would you do it?”
Hunt looked up at him, hatred seeping out every pore. He knew the right answer, but he also knew the “right” answer. He felt like a sheet of paper ripped in two—thin, and fragile, and torn. Neither answer was right, yet only one saved his skin. “Yes, I would do it.”
“Good.” The bald man reached into the folds of his sash and retrieved a small card. “The offer of taking out the freeblades still stands. And the demand for your obedience has not changed.” He placed the card on the mantel over the fireplace and flashed Hunt an evil grin. “Call upon me when you have reached a decision.” He then quietly strode to the front door and let himself out.
Captain Hunt ran a hand through his hair. He hated being manipulated and he hated the Nephreqin, so he couldn’t imagine a more loathsome situation. Resignedly, he picked up the card. It was inscribed with a thrice-pointed black ring. Beneath the dreaded symbol of the Nephreqin was a title and name: Master Bray.
* * * * * * * * * *
Later that evening, the brass knocker rattled the front door of Tussex House. Vincent Schumann looked up from his reading and regarded the door with an inquisitive frown beneath bushy gray eyebrows. After a second knock, he pushed up from his chair with some effort and, picking up a lighted lantern, shuffled toward the entry. A third knock pounded, louder with impatience.
“Ah’m comin’ fast as I can,” Schumann said with a genteel chuckle. “These ol’ legs ain’t what they used t’be.” He slid back a bolt and pulled the door open.
A slender woman of small stature, her chestnut hair pulled back in a ponytail, stood alone on the porch, her face stern in the glowing lantern light. She wore unadorned clothing of solid black with a red scarf tied loosely around her neck. Rain continued to fall onto a saturated world, yet the woman was completely dry, from boots to cowl, as if she had been sitting under the shelter of his porch all day. But he knew that wasn’t true, for he had crossed that porch not an hour ago.
Schumann said nothing for a moment, staring unblinkingly into the woman’s brown eyes. “Katrina Vatterly?” he said at last.
“The same,” the woman answered with the slightest nod.
Katrina hesitated, then dipped a quick curtsey. “My apologies.”
“The message said ye would be heah an hour ago, an’ I huhrried back from my wuhk to make certain shuh I didn’ miss ye. Dignitahries from the Chehsonese ain’t known fer bein’ late.”
The woman remained unfazed. “We are also not known for apologizing twice.”
With a knowing grin, Schumann stepped back and ushered her inside. He peered across his yard, illumined by intermittent flashes of lightning. Seeing no one, he closed the door and slid the bolt back into place.
“Should I sign the guest book?” Katrina asked, pointing to a side table.
“Of cauhse not. We ah on unofficial business, an’ ye were nevah heah.”
The woman nodded.
“Have ye a seat, missy,” he said, gesturing to an arrangement of chairs in a semi-circle facing the fireplace. “Lemme put some watah on fer tea. Ye do puhfer green teas, I puhsume?”
Katrina strolled to the fireplace and studied an oil painting of Schumann and his late wife hanging above the mantel. She traced a finger along the bottom frame. “She was pretty.”
“My late Amelia, a truly lovely lady.”
“Yes,” Katrina answered, turning around, “I’ll have some green tea.”
Schumann returned a few minutes later to find Katrina perusing the book he had been reading. “Are ye familiah with Thurston’s theories on concordant hahmonies? I find the readin’ dull an’ lifeless myself, but his ideas ah fascinatin’.”
Katrina set the book aside. “I have never read Thurston. My studies are more…practical.”
The elderly man handed her a cup and saucer, and poured the yellowish-green brew. He poured a cup for himself and slowly eased into his chair. “So, ye ah spoken of highly in the circles. I only heah of yer gifts, but mebbe ye can tell me a little about yerself. Wheah was ye raised? Who was yer…fahthah?”
Katrina placed the cup to her red lips and sipped of her tea before answering. “I was born in Arvoria, near the Pineywoods. I was a refugee of the Wars and captured by the Pirate Barons. They sold me across the Expanse to the Janwyn Chersonese, where I was bought, abused, and broken. But I was also restored and trained according to my gifts. Now I have but one Father, whom I obey without question.”
Schumann knew he would get nothing more. “Well, puhaps this is all about yer gifts. What ah they?” He recalled that she had arrived at his house untouched by the rain. Surely there was more than that.
Katrina set her drink on top of the book of Thurston’s theories, and stood. Schumann watched her over the brim of his tea, his eyes narrowed in cautious curiosity as she strode away to a far corner of the room shaded from the orange glow of the lantern.
And there she vanished.
Immediately, a knife flashed in Schumann’s vision as the blade pressed against his neck. He dropped his teacup, shattering it on the floor.
Katrina stood behind him, her arm wrapped around his head, pulling back to expose the jugular. “This is a sample.”
Schumann swallowed. “So, it is true. The Sistahs have arrived.”