Authors: Ken Scholes
Drusilla’s lower lip quivered, and Vlad felt a hand on his leg. This time, when he met the Vessel’s eyes, they were clear and angry and satisfied.
She will not ask for mercy now.
He looked back to the colonel, who watched in horror. “Is it Ahm Y’Zir?”
Now, the man’s eyes were wide with panic. But he had no choice—the staff drained it from him—and Tarviz answered. “It is what remains of him.”
Vlad sat back in the cushions. “Then he truly is the author of his gospels?” He glanced to Drusilla. Her mouth foamed, and the whites of her eyes flickered as they rolled back in her head. She was writhing now, sliding down into the cushions. He tapped the staff, and her body went limp. Then, he looked back to the colonel.
“Yes. Though some of his earlier disciples also contributed their stories and teachings.”
Now the answers come easier.
Vlad picked up a grape, chewed it slowly, then swallowed. “My people have always been taught that he was killed along with his brothers during P’Andro Whym’s night of purging. And that his father’s last spell was in retaliation for the death of his seven sons. I want to know what happened.”
“P’Andro Whym spared his life, and Rudolfo, Y’Zir’s desert thief, smuggled him out of the Homelands,” the colonel said. His own forehead was wet now with sweat, and even Vlad felt his own strength ebbing. He’d used the staff a great deal of late, and he’d learned two important things: First, using it exhilarated him more than any kallaberry smoke ever could. And second, using it left him exhausted.
I need to rest soon.
“These events you speak of,” he said. “They were over two thousand years ago. How can Ahm Y’Zir still live?” He looked to Drusilla, and her mouth worked open easily now. Her eyes held the brokenness that the Vessel’s had when he’d first met her, and it pleased him.
“He is sustained by blood magick, and much of his body is gone now. The magisters preserved him as best they could with what they could scavenge from the Beneath Places.”
Vlad blinked. For two millennia, Xhum Y’Zir’s seventh son had lived and somehow built an empire by fanning the flames of holy zeal. And he’d done it while the Androfrancines and the first settlers built the Named Lands, a society of survivors governed by the careful code of kin-clave.
His head ached now—a jabbing pain behind his right eye. “I am looking for the spellbook of Y’Zir. I was told it was hidden in the Barrens of Espira. Do you know anything of it?”
Vlad watched both faces. The colonel’s was twisted into a grimace. “It was found by the Imperial Archaeology Society over a thousand years ago.”
He looked to Drusilla now. “And where is it?”
Her eyes went wide as her voice betrayed her. “It is kept in trust by the Daughters of Ahm Y’Zir.”
One last question.
He nodded to the Vessel of Grace. “And where is her baby?”
Sister-Mother Drusilla’s face went white. “You can’t—”
“Yes,” Vlad Li Tam said, “I can.” But he felt a hand on his arm and looked.
“I know where she is,” the Vessel said.
Nodding, he glanced to the sun. It was past noon now, and by his best guess, they were two days’ walk from Ahm’s Glory. He leaned forward. “I want you to listen to me very carefully. In a minute, you are going to call the captain over and direct him to stop the barge and put us ashore. You will not remember doing so; neither will you remember this conversation. Do you understand?”
They nodded as one.
Ten minutes later, Vlad watched the barge sail south, and when it was gone, he set out along a well-worn path. He glanced at the girl beside him and pondered which of his daughters she reminded him most of. His brow furrowed.
“What is your name?” Vlad asked.
She stopped walking. “I was called Chandra before I went to the Daughters. But my name was taken away as my first step toward Vesselhood.”
He inclined his head to her. “It is a good name.”
Then, he turned south and chose a measured pace. The weariness rode him hard, but he knew far more than he’d known before his capture. And as powerful as the staff was, he did not want to lean so heavily upon it as he’d needed to with the Y’Zirites.
And yet I feel twenty years younger when I do.
The surge of energy that moved through him was staggering. But so also was the exhaustion. Even now, his muscles and head ached.
But he walked until the sun set, and as it did, they took shelter in an open-faced fruit shed that overlooked the water. And though the day closed in peace, that night his dreams were dark.
Something large and eight-legged snuffled for him in the Beneath Places like a hound on the hunt while Vlad Li Tam struggled to lift a heavy staff that he was too tired to wield.
The pounding in his head kept time with the song that flooded his senses, and Neb struggled to orient himself as he sat up.
He sat upon a bed of soft moss that smelled vaguely of mint. It was dark, and his first thought was that he was alone. He struggled to his feet, hearing his muscles crack and his joints creak as he did.
The song played all around him now, and in those first moments of wakefulness, he thought somehow it was the crescent, but it wasn’t—the song vibrated through the floor and hung upon the air.
“It’s deafening, isn’t it?”
Neb looked in the direction of the voice and squinted into the dark. “Amylé?”
“Light,” she whispered, and a dull glow above drew his eyes to the ceiling of the cavern as light spread across the lichen.
It was a small cavern compared to the one he last remembered, but it was still easily a quarter-league in circumference, with its bargaining pool set in the center. But this pool was different from the others he’d seen. A dark sheen covered its surface, and he could smell something besides the blood of the earth there. A briny smell. And unlike the other pools he’d seen, this one had a series of pipes that disappeared into it and stretched away across the room to climb the wall and disappear into the ceiling.
The girl sat on the floor, not far from him, her arms curled around her knees as she rocked back and forth.
A wave of vertigo moved over him, and he sat down heavily.
He tried to find his memory but couldn’t. He remembered Aver-Tal-Ka’s shout of surprise and warning. He remembered leaping behind the girl, drunk on her smell and sound and taste, to plunge deep into the thick quicksilver beside her. Then, her arms and legs had intertwined with his and they’d been translated into light to race along the veins of blood that ran through the moon. He remembered laughter and a longing so strong that it became a need that ached. “Where are we?”
“We are where you wished to go,” she said. She still rocked back and forth, and Neb climbed back to his feet, despite the dizziness, to walk to her and crouch by her side. He put a tentative hand on her shoulder.
She shrugged it away violently, her head coming up. Rage and madness filled her eyes, and she snarled. “Do not touch me. You will not
Neb blinked and sat down again, dropping his hand into his lap. “I’m sorry.”
“You reek of them, you know,” she said. “It disgusts me. Not even the pool could wash the stink of Downunder off of you.”
The vehemence in her words brought his eyes down with a feeling of shame that quickly bloomed into an anger of his own. But he swallowed it and forced his eyes back to the girl. He remembered the spider’s words.
She is not well.
He could see that now, especially juxtaposed against the girl he’d kissed awake inside the tree. The girl who’d kissed him back and bid him swim the light with her. There was nothing of that girl here. He watched her for a moment, head down and rocking, her lips murmuring words he could not understand. Finally, he stood again, and this time, the room spun less.
He left her seated by the bed and walked to the edge of the pool. The smell there turned his stomach, and he knew something had been done to the pool. “Clothe me,” he whispered to it.
“It will not serve you here,” she said. “Not with the temple sealed.”
He looked around them. “We’re beneath the tower?”
“We are.” She nodded to an opening in the far wall. “There are stairs there that lead up into it.”
“We can access it?”
She laughed, but there was something cold and bitter in her laughter. “Of course. And now that you’re awake, I fully intend to.”
“But if the tower is sealed, then—”
“Then it will not serve us. But I do not need it to serve me.”
She started for the opening, and Neb paused, looking at the pool again. “I have friends who should know where I am,” he said.
She passed through the opening now, her voice echoing behind her. “I’m sure your spider will tell them. But it doesn’t matter. With the tower sealed, there is no other entrance but the pool, and she salted it behind her when she fled.”
Neb hurried after her. “I don’t understand,” he said.
The opening led to a circular staircase that she’d already started climbing quickly. Her voice was exasperated. “You do not need to understand.”
Neb’s confusion blurred into a sharp anger, and Aver-Tal-Ka’s words came back to him. “You beguiled me and brought me here,” he said as he followed her up the stairs. “I
need to understand.”
She snorted. “Your body beguiled you, Nebios. I just helped it along.”
No, he realized, she’d used it. She’d separated him from the others and brought him here. And though ultimately this was his intended destination, something told him that this was not the way it was supposed to happen. Of course, with the staff and the Final Dream absent, this might be the only way. “Why have you brought me here?”
“We are the last of the People of Firsthome,” she said. “It is in our blood to return here.”
But even as she said it, he sensed falseness in her answer, though the words themselves were true. “You’re not telling me everything.”
She chuckled again. “No, Nebios. I’m not.”
“Because none of it matters. I do not need you to understand, and I have no interest in explaining it to you.”
“Then why did you bring me here?”
“Because,” she said, “I cannot let you unseal the temple.”
Neb stopped on the stairs. “How will you stop me?”
She kept climbing. “I already have, Nebios.”
Sudden fear struck him, and he turned back, taking the stairs three at a time as he descended back to the cavern and the pool. When he reached the quicksilver, he waded out into it.
It will not serve you,
her voice whispered into his mind. And the emotions that rode upon her voice were a mix of rage and despair and conviction that had been twisted and sharpened by an incomprehensible amount of time trapped in sleep yet awake in the aether. The force of those feelings sent a shiver through him.
He stood still, listening to the distant sound of her footfalls upon the stairs as he pondered the pool. “I do not believe you,” he whispered. “There has to be a way.”
Her laughter drifted down from far above now. There were no words or emotions that came with it, but Neb didn’t need either. The madness in it was as clear as the song that thundered through this place.
Swallowing the fear, Nebios Whym turned back to the stairs and began his ascent into the Moon Wizard’s Tower.
They rode through the night with horses and scouts magicked, and the metal man kept pace beside them, its eyes glowing like twin pools of blood smeared occasionally by the banks of fog they encountered. Renard led them, low in his saddle, and Winters took up the rear. Charles took the middle with the girl, Marta, clinging to his back.
Now they stopped for nothing, pushing on for the farmhouse with the scouts spread out on all sides by a half-league in any direction. And as they rode, Winters thought about the mechoservitor that ran with them and about the dream he carried.
How will I dream it?
And how would it reach Neb? She had no understanding of how the Final Dream worked. All she knew was that the seeds of it had been coded into the Book of Dreaming Kings—one segment from each king—and she would somehow find within those pages one last dream to unlock whatever it was Neb needed for his work. The culmination of over two millennia of the Homeseeking Dream—something that would carry her people to the moon.
That was the part, she suspected, where faith came into play.
The softest of whistles reached her ears from behind, and she turned in the saddle as a ghost moved past. The voice was muffled—nearly a whisper—but she heard it clearly. “We are pursued,” the Gray Guard said. “Blood Scouts, I’ll wager, by their speed.”
She turned back to the front and reached for one of her long, curved scout knives.
Renard’s voice was clear as well. “Bring in the running watch.”
She heard the tinny ruffle of metal wings on the wind, and something small and silver flashed by her face. She’d seen them using the moon sparrows on the run by daylight—the tiny mechanicals were four times faster than a magicked messenger bird and could be directed to multiple destinations.
The Waste guide looked over his shoulder, his face grim in the moonlight. “Forewarn the house,” he said. Then, he spurred his horse faster.
She did the same, and they broke from the forest into a snowy meadow. They crossed it quickly, and as they slipped back under cover, she heard a storm behind them as magicked scouts collided, knives clashing, at the far edge of the meadow.
Winters fought the urge to look back. Instead, she kept her eyes on Renard’s back.
But he looked back, and shouted when he did. “We keep going,” he said, “no matter what.”
Gritting her teeth, she leaned down and felt again for the hilt of her knife.
When it happened, it was fast and there was nothing she could do. The mechoservitor pitched suddenly to the left, falling into Charles’s horse. The horse stumbled even as unseen assailants pulled the metal man away from it. She saw Marta tumble off, striking a tree before she hit the ground and rolled away. And even as she watched, she tugged her own horse to the left.