Authors: Tom Lloyd
For Charlotte Lily Wright
Narin is an Investigator of the Imperial City and a man with more secrets than is healthy for anyone. Credited with saving the life of a House Wyvern nobleman, his star is on the rise and he has been assigned as protégé to the most famous son of the Imperial Lawbringers, Rhe, to be readied for promotion to the rank of Lawbringer. Unfortunately, the rescue he’s taken credit for was actually down to his best friend, Enchei, who is a renegade Astaren warrior-mage and wants nothing of the fame such an act might bring. To make matters worse, Narin has fallen in love with the wife of the man he rescued, a man who was castrated during that attack, and as
begins, Narin is told by Lady Kine that she is pregnant with his child.
Before they can make plans, they are disturbed by a sound outside. Narin reacts without thinking and knocks out a man in the street, realising belatedly that he is injured and was likely seeking help. To complicate matters, the Ascendant God, Lord Shield, descends from the heavens and shows an interest in the injured man – a member of the goshe brotherhood that runs both martial arts schools and free hospitals within the city. Lord Shield charges Narin with discovering what the goshe was up to, intending to use Narin to flush out a wider conspiracy, and Narin is forced to drag the man home in secret.
At the boarding house where the goshe had been staying, a young woman called Kesh discovers her sister has been poisoned by a drug in the goshe’s belongings. She takes her stricken sister, Emari, to one of the free hospitals, only to learn that Emari’s mind has been entirely erased and she is as good as dead. She is forced to flee, pursued by another goshe who shows unnatural abilities and only escapes when demon-possessed foxes save her. She goes to the Lawbringers with her story and Narin is summoned. He takes her back to his home where the goshe is recovering, only to discover the man, who Kesh has learned is called Irato, has woken with no memory of himself. His mind has been affected by a smaller dose of the drug that has left Kesh’s sister effectively dead and he can provide no answers for them, but it becomes clear the inner circle of the goshe order are engaged in some sinister conspiracy involving forbidden magics and stolen souls. To complicate matters, an Imperial caste power-broker called Prince Sorote has learned of Narin’s affair.
That night they are attacked by goshe members who would have killed them all except for Enchei’s prodigious combat skills and Irato siding with his rescuers instead of his former comrades. Enchei’s past is revealed to Narin, Kesh and Irato, while Lawbringer Rhe guesses the truth himself. Aware they’re likely still being watched, they devise a plan to escape without being ambushed, but the goshe elites still manage to follow them and Narin is caught during the pursuit through the slum of Cold Cliffs.
Enchei, with the help of an Apkai, an order of demons as powerful as any god, and Lord Shield, manages to rescue Narin, but that rescue panics the goshe elite into thinking the Astaren know about them. They step up their plans, believing they are running out of time, and engineer a fever epidemic throughout the city, while sending out demon-like creatures to spread chaos and distract the Lawbringers. The fever is caused by a variant of the drug, Moon’s Artifice, and does something similar but it leaves the victim incapacitated as though dying of disease. The goshe publicly offer to quarantine the victims, soon numbering in the thousands, on their island sanatorium a few miles offshore, which will enable them to enact their final plan – to clear memories from their minds and so their rulers can live as gods in the heads of their thousands of followers.
Once a critical mass of linked minds is reached they will be able to inhabit every goshe dosed with Moon’s Artifice across the Empire – tens of thousands of people of all castes and races, who will both be divine vessels (potentially disrupting the Empire’s rigid caste system in the process) and so numerous even the brutal Astaren warrior-mages will be unable to stop or catch those disembodied leaders.
Lawbringer Rhe leads a force of Lawbringers to attack the goshe island, assisted by a group of minor Imperials sent by Prince Sorote to bolster the firepower of the mostly low-caste Lawbringers who are not permitted gunpowder weapons. The attack is a diversion to allow Narin, Kesh, Irato and Enchei to infiltrate the sanatorium and disrupt a crucial ceremony before it can be completed, but as the goshe unveil more magical weapons, the fight is joined by a unit of House Dragon’s warrior-mages, the Stone Dragons, who begin to slaughter the goshe defenders.
Narin and Irato manage to steal the demon artefact powering the ceremony, thanks to the fox-spirits from whom the artefact was originally stolen. They escape out to sea as Lawbringer Rhe, a nobleman of House Eagle, faces down the Astaren of his homeland’s greatest rival, House Dragon, and forces them to halt their slaughter. Out to sea, Lord Shield and the Apkai prepare to fight over the artefact now that it is linked to so many mortal minds, but before they do Kesh reveals she’s tricked them and already dumped it overboard – the depths of the sea being ruled by beings beyond the power of both demons and gods.
The Moon’s Artifice affair was a conspiracy that violated the natural order of the Empire; that stole souls and scarred an entire generation of the Empire’s children. And yet the audacity and execution of the conspirators’ plan remains a remarkable achievement. The goshe inner circle operated for decades without infiltration or detection by Astaren spies, quite aside from their initial theft of an artefact from the demonic inhabitants of Shadowrain Forest.
One chance slip brought their tower tumbling, but not before it had been raised almost alongside the Gods themselves. Had one of their elite not fallen from a rooftop in a manner that infected him with the infamous poison he carried, a new god might have been raised to the pantheon of Gods. The elite goshe styled themselves after the blood-drinking demons of Kettekast, the Detenii, and poisoned newborns while they slept, readying the next generation of their servants. With his memories stolen, the elite known as Irato was reborn an innocent and, horrified by his involvement in something so monstrous, vowed to put it right as best he could.
Lawbringer Rhe’s role in foiling this plot is already the stuff of legend after his confrontation with a troop of Stone Dragons intent on a massacre, but it was one of his Investigators who first uncovered the mystery of Moon’s Artifice, alongside the turncoat Irato. Charged by Lord Shield himself to uncover the secrets of the poisoned elite, the low-born Investigator named Narin was the primary source of the goshe’s undoing. Given the resolve and disregard for his own safety shown by Investigator Narin, it is undoubted that Lord Shield watched over his instrument as loyally as he once served Lord Lawbringer in life.
In their fear at finally being discovered, the goshe unleashed enslaved demons and an engineered plague on the Imperial City – a last, desperate effort to gather enough souls to sacrifice to their new ‘god’. The impact of this is still felt today and hundreds of those stricken have since died, while more than a thousand remain helpless invalids on Confessor’s Island under the care of Lady Healer’s priesthood. While the Lawbringers heroically drew the attention of the goshe soldiers, incurring terrible casualties in the process, Investigator Narin and the turncoat Irato scaled a cliff and interrupted the goshe’s foul ceremony. The artefact was stolen away before the ritual could be completed and Lord Shield effected their escape before casting the artefact into the deep, to ensure its power could be abused no longer.
Had the goshe not been stopped, thousands of their followers, high and low caste alike, would have carried a fragment of the divine in their mind. How the Great Houses would have reacted can never be known for certain, let alone how the caste system of this nation would have survived. Certainly the fallout proved enough to make the massing armies of Houses Dragon and Eagle pull back from the brewing war. Given the legions that would have been at the goshe’s command and the intractability of the Great Houses, it remains a chilly possibility the Empire might have found itself at war with its own Gods.
‘Nothing that colour was ever healthy.’
Enchei Jen stared into the cloudy glass tumbler resting in the palm of his hand. The tavern lamps cast a flickering light across his table but, dimly-lit or not, the contents of the tumbler remained a dismal murky green.
His fingers closed about the glass and he swept it up to his lips. The liquor slipped down his throat, now half-numb after repeated shots. He scowled and lowered the empty glass.
‘Nothing that colour ever tasted good,’ he added under his breath.
A finger of breeze washed in through the room as the tavern door opened. Enchei’s gaze lifted briefly to inspect the newcomer, old habits dying hard. A man, tall and lean with a thick grey cloak fastened by a black metal clasp. He didn’t push his hood back as he inspected the interior of the tavern, just shook off the snow before approaching the bar. A glimpse of green around the man’s neck announced him as landowner caste – not high-born, but unusual enough in these shabby surroundings. Enchei couldn’t see much of the man’s face, just that his skin was paler than the local stock and his beard dark and neat.
Enchei looked away and refilled the glass in his hand. He left it balanced on his palm and breathed in the liquor’s faintly sour aroma. Memories blossomed in his head, none of them good, and despite his strength the grey-haired man bowed his head under their weight.
He remained still a long while, eyes closed and hand trembling slightly as screams echoed in his ears, weeping voices pleading for help. Enchei opened his eyes and lifted the glass to his face, touching the wet rim to his forehead in bitter salute.
‘My greatest hour,’ he said wearily and downed the contents again. ‘Here’s to the dead I left in my wake. Every last bloody thousand of you.’
The flavour hadn’t improved, but tonight wasn’t one for enjoyment. No, tonight was for maudlin thoughts and drinking enough to send a regular man blind. It was something of a tradition for Enchei since he’d been a resident of the Imperial City, coming here on this night. Trade was slow for the Gull tavern in winter, a grimy little place that relied on harbour business. Few ships came in when the snow fell so Enchei knew he would be left to his own devices.
Just as importantly, he knew the landlord stocked this rotgut called Ivytail because the tavern was frequented by House Raven sailors. Getting drunk wasn’t an easy task for Enchei, inconveniently difficult if truth be told, but on this night the voices of the dead always needed quietening, so Ivytail it was.
He sensed a figure move towards him and old instincts kicked in. The layout of the L-shaped room appeared in his mind. His leg tensed as he shifted his weight – ready to twist and kick the table up at the figure. His fingers trembled slightly, poised to hurl the glass and pull his knife. A flood of strength washed through his body, a familiar sparkle of readiness as the alcohol was flushed from his blood and Enchei readied his savage strength … and then he focused on the face peering towards him.
It was the bartender, an anxious look on the man’s face. Brodin, his name was, a sturdily-built retired sailor like half of the residents hereabouts. Never normally a man to intrude, Brodin knew Enchei’s face to nod at and had not bothered further than that.
‘Ah, a moment, sir?’
Enchei allowed himself to breathe slowly out. ‘Aye?’
‘Don’t want ta bother you, but I got another customer wanting Ivytail and that’s my only bottle.’
Enchei felt a cold sensation run down his spine. ‘He sent you over?’
‘Asked if you might share it – on him, he said.’
‘Sent you over, eh?’
Enchei closed his eyes briefly. In his mind, his right arm traced a path through the folds of his coat to the grip of his knife, the left into a long pocket where a dark baton rested.
‘Polite of him.’
With an effort Enchi breathed out and glanced back over towards the newcomer at the bar. In his forties perhaps, but wearing his middle years well – on the slim side, but Enchei of all people knew that was no real guide – clothes tailored as befitting the highest of the non-noble castes. A strip of wavering gold brocade down the breast of his tunic added a gaudy touch of wealth while a plain-hilted rapier on his hip told its own story.
Not a face I recognise,
he thought as he scrutinised the man,
but one I know anyways. That’s the face of my past sure enough.
The man stood with his back to the bar, at the end furthest from the door. He met Enchei’s gaze a moment, long enough to give him the faintest of nods before turning away. With a slightly exaggerated movement he faced the bar and placed his palms flat down on the top, well wide of his body.
Enchei narrowed his eyes and checked the rest of the room again. No obvious dangers among them, no one paying any attention past their own drinks.
Stars above, is this really a coincidence? Has he just come looking for the same drink as me or is there a snatch squad waiting outside? Is this bastard just playing a little game of his own – inviting me to run, pretending he’s giving me a chance?
Enchei touched his fingers to the battered leather coat he still wore. The interior was a quilt-work he’d sewn himself, several dozen pockets filled with a fine powder. The city outside was gripped in a surly and persistent frost so, despite a fire blazing in the room, it was not warm enough for him to look out of place with a coat on.
‘Good a day as any to die,’ he muttered.
‘I’m sorry, sir?’ the bartender asked, leaning forward to hear Enchei better.
‘Nothing.’ Enchei paused. ‘This bottle’s on me. Send him over with some whisky and we’ll call it even.’
As the bartender turned away, momentarily blocking his view of the man at the bar, Enchei slipped his baton from the coat and wedged it under one leg, handle sticking out. The coat was a last resort – a fallback plan if he was taken or killed.
Determined not to betray his anxiety, Enchei refilled his glass and watched the newcomer approach. He walked silently, hands in plain view, and kept a wary distance even once he’d reached the table. A clear glass bottle and three tumblers was all he carried – lethal in the wrong hands, but those hands could cause enough damage without any assistance.
A tiny sound crept into his ears, the whisper of demons on the edge of hearing. Enchei scowled and ignored the faint chatter, making no indication that he’d even heard it.
‘It appears we share a taste for unusual spirits,’ the man said in a cultured voice. ‘You don’t object to me joining you?’
Enchei didn’t speak at first. His mind went perfectly blank for a moment while his body screamed to move, to strike and kill. Eventually he composed himself and nodded towards the seat.
‘Take a seat,’ he said in a gruff voice.
The man inclined his head and slid into the space opposite Enchei. ‘My thanks.’ He set the whisky and tumblers on the table. ‘A peace offering, for the imposition.’
‘Peace offering?’ Enchei echoed. ‘We at war?’
At that the half-smile on the man’s handsome features wavered. ‘I don’t believe so,’ he said cautiously, ‘but then I don’t know who you are, so I suppose I can’t rule such a thing out. Are you at war with anyone?’
‘I try not to be.’
The man frowned and indicated the bottle of Ivytail. Enchei grunted and the newcomer poured himself a glass, knocking it back in one gulp.
‘My name is Sorpan.’
‘Aye, sounds about right, that.’
‘Straight out of the old country, that name.’
Sorpan inclined his head. ‘And you?’
‘I’ve got a name, aye. Had a few over the years, but I don’t fancy sharing any of ’em.’
That prompted a moment of quiet. ‘Was that bottle full when you started?’ Sorpan asked, picking up the Ivytail again and sloshing the contents around before pouring each of them another shot.
‘Indeed. More to the point, you’re not even halfway drunk, by my reckoning.’
‘The evening’s still young.’
‘You know what I mean.’
Enchei exhaled slowly and stared into Sorpan’s eyes as he considered his answer. ‘You got a point to make?’
Sorpan swallowed his drink and set the glass down. ‘No point,’ he said at last, ‘but it’s an unusual drink. Few have a taste for it.’
‘Probably because it tastes like shit.’
The man’s bark of laughter echoed around the tavern, but was cut short as the keyed-up Enchei twitched. The humour faded in Sorpan’s face as he recognised what had almost happened.
‘Few have a taste for it,’ he continued in a quiet voice, ‘I’m one of the few, as it happens, but I know others who drink it. Men and women with hardier constitutions than any sailor.’
‘It does get a man drunk,’ Enchei acknowledged.
‘I must confess to being curious as to why a man needs to get drunk on something he dislikes.’ Sorpan pushed the tumblers aside and poured a generous measure of whisky into the remaining glasses, pushing one across the table to Enchei.
As the man sipped his new drink, a voice appeared in Enchei’s head.
But enough of being coy – we’re comrades, are we not?
Enchei tightened his fingers around his glass, fighting the urge to touch them to a scar on the back of his skull. Once, speaking that way had been as natural to him as breathing, but no longer. He’d cut out his voice just as he’d cut his ties to his past. Most days he didn’t even miss it.
‘Comrades? Don’t have those no more. My soldiering days are long gone.’
Sorpan shrugged. ‘As you wish. If I’m intruding, I’ll leave.’
‘Think it best I go first.’
That brought the man up short. ‘It appears I’ve misinterpreted matters. My apologies.’
‘No need for that,’ Enchei said, ‘but I don’t know why you’re here and I’d rather not find out.’
I’m here alone. I’m not in the city on a mission of any kind.
‘That’s nice to hear, but I’m not going to take your word for it.’
You’re a renegade?
‘Name-calling ain’t nice.’
‘But no longer one of us. Retired away from the fold or independent?’
Enchei snorted. ‘A fan of fairy tales, are you?’
The derision was shrugged away by Sorpan. ‘Still – I somehow doubt this is a holiday from the home valleys.’ He frowned down at the bottles on the table. ‘Or that this is a celebration. I might have a taste for Ivytail myself, but still I’d just planned on taking the edge off the day before moving on to something else.’
‘That’s what the whisky’s for,’ Enchei said.
Sorpan shook his head. ‘The whisky’s because, now I’m here, you want a drink that won’t cloud your mind. Before I got here you were just working your way down a bottle of the hard stuff.’
‘Sounds like you’re making a point again,’ Enchi growled.
This time the other man nodded. ‘I was looking to celebrate the conclusion of some mundane business. A man who’s attacking a bottle of Ivytail when he doesn’t even like it, that’s no celebration.’
‘So I’m not celebrating. What of it?’
‘Nothing, I suppose, I’m just curious.’
‘No one in the game is just curious.’
‘But you’re out of the game and still drinking to forget. That’s enough to make any man curious.’
‘Mebbe I am, no crime in that. We all got ghosts in our shadows; an old man’s just got more than most.’
‘But he’s not a drunk or he’d have a stock at home,’ Sorpan mused and nodded towards the door where a trail of snow was melting on the muddy tiles. ‘Hardly the weather to be outside by choice however, even with a hardy constitution. An anniversary? You must be two decades older than me and you’ve a hard way about you. That means maudlin and drunk isn’t something you’ll do lightly and the worst of what you’ve gone through was probably before my time.’
‘You know what they say about curiosity?’ Enchei warned.
Sorpan nodded. ‘It’s a cliff – safe up to a point and then there’s no way back.’
‘Loose stones under your feet now. My mood ain’t the finest tonight and from this side o’ the table there’s a knife-edge between curious and theatrics.’
‘You think I’m building to some dramatic reveal before I smugly watch a snatch team come through every window? Was that our style twenty years ago?’
‘I suppose.’ Sorpan hesitated, his face suddenly going tense. Enchei almost rammed a knife into it before he realised the man’s expression wasn’t a prelude but a flash of insight.
‘That’s the face of a man thinking too hard.’
‘Stars of heaven,’ Sorpan whispered, almost not hearing Enchei. ‘Not twenty years ago, thirty.’
Enchei eased his baton clear under the table.
‘You were there, weren’t you? Those are the ghosts you’re drowning?’
Despite his readiness, Enchei felt a cold sickness in his gut and distant screams echoed through the frosty streets of memory.
‘Some ghosts you can’t drown,’ he whispered. ‘I’m here to remember, not forget.’
Sorpan was quiet a long while. He stared down at his drink for a dozen heartbeats before moving at all, finally taking a long swallow of whisky. Even in his surprise he was careful to move slowly, to not startle Enchei’s hair-trigger reactions.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said in a hoarse whisper. He topped both glasses up and raised his in salute. ‘To those who didn’t make it.’
Enchei drank left-handed. ‘To those I left behind,’ he said, finishing the glass with a second mouthful.
Sorpan shook his head. ‘There’s only rumours, you know that? Every file is sealed, the whole account hidden.’
‘And we’re back to curious.’
‘Can you blame me? The greatest horror in past centuries? More dead than the Ten Day War itself?
outside of the Five knows what happened there, except those who survived. Not thirty-year veterans who deal with every nasty secret the Empire has to offer, not the observers who watch the passes into the valley. Avatars of the Gods have patrolled that place for decades and I half-doubt even they know everything.’
‘Some things are best forgotten,’ Enchei said heavily. ‘Nothing for your generation to learn there, nothing in that valley to benefit the Empire or any House in it.’