Authors: Ken Scholes
“You can’t have him,” the young woman shouted.
There was a loud thump and the sound of a body falling. Then, her father’s breath was on the back of her neck. “Face me, Daughter.”
Now she resisted turning, but his words compelled her and she did as he commanded.
Vlad Li Tam stood before her, though he was nothing like the man she’d last seen boarding a ship on the edge of the Desolation of Windwir. His hair and beard had grown long, and he’d lost weight, becoming a shriveled, haggard man with hollow, deep-set eyes. He wore simple robes, and in his hands, a silver staff blazed and hummed.
“Give him to me.” She saw something on her father’s face that was unfamiliar to her, and she thought for a moment it must be pity or love. Still, she banished that notion quickly.
“I will not,” she said.
He sighed. “Who bid you bear Rudolfo an heir?”
She remembered the note from her father, tucked beneath her pillow at a time when she trusted him above all others and took pleasure in serving his purposes. He’d bid it, but for the first time in her life, she’d not done it for him. She’d done it for Rudolfo.
No, she realized. More than that. She’d done it for herself. “Who bid me is irrelevant. He is my son.”
She heard the sound of boots upon the stairs behind her and smelled the smoke as it rose up from the fires in the palace below. Jin clung to her son and willed the Y’Zirites to hurry, though she knew that if they could stop her father, they would’ve done so before he’d gotten this far.
“Give him to me,” Vlad said again, and she felt her arms and hands complying.
Jakob stirred as he moved from her arms to her father’s, and when his eyes opened and took in his grandfather, Jin saw a look of adoration and love on the old man’s face that was in direct contrast to what her heart told her came next.
“Sleep,” he whispered to the boy. Jakob’s eyes closed, and Jin felt a sob rising up in her that threatened to become a scream.
Her voice was a whisper. “Don’t do this, Father.”
She saw agony upon his face now and heard the sorrow in his words. “I’m sorry.”
When he turned to flee, she tried to follow and couldn’t. Powerlessness and rage caused her body to tremble violently, and when the Y’Zirites overtook her, she felt the power of his staff release her and she dropped to her knees from the suddenness of it. They raced the corridor, knives drawn as they magicked themselves and vanished.
She gave it no thought whatsoever. Gripping her knife, she followed and let her fear become a rage that gave strength to her legs. Jin ran, leaping over the wounded and the dead as she pursued her father. She climbed another set of stairs and followed the sounds of combat until she came to yet another staircase—this one narrow and leading to the roof.
It had to be for maintenance—it opened upon a wide, tile roof that sloped down to meet the upward rise of another. Her father now climbed the other side, moving quickly. She could not see any evidence of his escort now, and she did not know if they’d fallen or if they’d been diverted.
Or if they lie in wait for me
. She moved onto the roof with the knife extended before her, and when no hands or blades fell on her, she picked up her pace and leaped for the other roof. Her father climbed for the highest point, moving north. From this height, she could see the fires scattered out across the city, and the night air grew hotter from the palace that burned beneath her feet.
“Stop,” she cried out.
Her father paused and looked to her. Jin braced herself for the staff to once more stop her feet and hold her. But it didn’t. Instead, Vlad turned away and continued his run.
She saw the large sack he carried now, slung haphazardly over his shoulder. It was still, but she knew what it contained, and until he reached the highest point of the roof and paused, she had no idea what he intended.
But when he braced himself with the staff and began to swing the sack, she understood. With unnatural strength, he swung the sack in the air like a sling, and she pushed her feet to carry her faster, measuring the distance between them.
The sack built speed as he swung it round and round, and when he released it, he pointed with his staff at a burning building across the courtyard, and the sack arched up and away like something discarded by a giant.
She fell to her knees even as the sack crashed down through the burning roof at least a half-league away, and she felt the knife of despair twisting in her, gutting and coring her.
I have lost everything.
She heard a long and mournful wail rise up into the night and knew that it was her own voice bearing witness to a loss she could not sustain. She tried to climb back to her feet, to stagger toward the man who’d murdered her son, and she fell again as tears and trembling overtook her.
I have lost … everything.
Overpowered and broken, Jin Li Tam closed her eyes and let the abyss of loss have its way with her.
The black stone was cold upon her cheek when Winteria bat Mardic awakened. For a moment, she lay there and let her body remember what had happened: the tree and the field and the multitude of people and the wind.
And my words.
Traces of the euphoria she’d experienced with her hands outstretched beneath those falling seeds were still with her, and she sensed at the core of her that something unexpected had happened. The Final Dream had been meant for Neb, and as far as she could tell, he was the only one who hadn’t experienced it. But the others had—a vast sea of people. And by their faces, they’d felt the euphoria of that gathering as well. Somehow the stone—and Isaak—had amplified the dream to the point of reaching the moon. And everyone else in between, it seemed.
Winters opened her eyes and let them adjust to the gloom of the cavern.
Beside her, Isaak’s eyes flashed open, and the mechoservitor sat up quickly. “Lord Tam has the staff of Y’Zir,” he said. “I must retrieve it.”
The others stirred now. Charles, Hebda, and Tertius were all sitting up and rubbing their faces. Tears flowed down Tertius’s cheeks, and he made no attempt to wipe them.
“It was beautiful,” he whispered.
The old Androfrancine had studied her people and their dream most of his life; her own tutelage had been part of that study. And now, it took seeing him moved for her to fully feel what had just happened.
Winters released held breath and felt her own tears rise. “The time of dreaming has passed,” she said in a quiet voice.
Hebda nodded. “It has.”
Charles looked to the shore across the silver pool and raised his eyebrows. “But what new time is upon us?”
She followed his eyes and saw the gathered soldiers and their general at the center. It was a fair question, and for her she knew it was now the time of gathering. The mechoservitors in the north would bring her people south—the few who had followed her and her dreaming now—and she would lead them home from there.
The soldiers who had accompanied them to the large black island stood by the barge now and waited. When she looked to Hebda, she saw the beginnings of fear on his face. She watched his glance move from Isaak to the shore, and then she looked at Charles.
The old man’s face was stone now, and his eyes never left the general and the men who waited for them. She moved closer to him and lowered her voice. “What is happening?”
His own voice was barely a whisper. “They’re not going to let Isaak leave.”
She blinked. “What about the rest of us?”
Charles sighed but said nothing. Still, the look on his face answered her question.
“Can we get away?”
The arch-engineer looked away from the shore and met her eyes. “Yes. With help.”
Then, he moved away toward the barge. They boarded in silence and let the soldiers pull them back to the other side. Winters was the first to leap ashore. She approached Orius and watched as his men fell back around him.
She inclined her head to the officer. “Thank you, General Orius, for your hospitality. Now that my people’s dreaming is at an end, I must go to them and make preparations for our journey.”
The firm line of the man’s jaw told her all she needed to know before he opened his mouth. His single eye narrowed. “I’m sure you can appreciate why that won’t be possible at this time, Lady Winteria.”
She met his stare and let the anger creep into her own eyes. “No,” she said. “I cannot. I am not your prisoner; I am your guest. I came here for a specific purpose, and that purpose is concluded. I intend to leave.”
Orius looked to Hebda and Tertius, but she did not allow herself to look away from the man and see their response.
Hebda spoke first. “She is correct, General. The Office has no further need of her; she should be permitted to return to her people.”
Orius growled. “The Office’s work is now concluded as far as I’m concerned. The dream is dreamed. What remains is a war. And war is
office.” He looked back at Winters. “You are indeed a guest here until you prove yourself otherwise. But leaving now is not an option.” He lowered his voice. “The advantage in this war is about to turn. I do not think you’ll be forced to suffer our hospitality for long, Lady Winteria.”
Charles cleared his voice. “Of all people, General, she needs to leave now.”
Something in his tone caused her to look, and when she did, she saw Hebda’s face as well and saw somber agreement there. She looked back to Orius. “What does he mean?”
The general shook his head. “These are not matters to discuss openly, Charles. I will—”
The arch-engineer interrupted. “She’s been exposed to blood magicks her entire life, as have many of her people. Tertius maintains that the dream itself is likely some form of generational blood magick inherited through Mardic and his line going back to Shadrus.”
She looked at Tertius and saw understanding dawn on his face. Even as it dawned, he went pale. “Orius, what have you done?” The old man looked to Hebda. “Did you know about this?”
“I did. But I did not know she was staying.”
Winters felt anger tickling at her spine and scalp. She turned on Charles. “What is happening?”
He kept his eyes upon the general. “Orius is introducing a pathogen into the water tables. It targets those exposed to blood magick.”
She wasn’t sure of the word, and she wasn’t sure exactly how it could be put into the water, but the somber tone Charles used and Tertius’s obvious horror told her it couldn’t be good. “What does it do?”
Orius answered, his anger with Charles clearly written on his face. “It kills them. We can discuss it further on the march. The others are ready by now, I’m sure.” He looked around, taking in the wires and sacks of blast powder, turning to one of his engineers. “We’ll want at least a day between us and the explosion when you collapse the cavern.”
The man saluted. “Yes, General.”
Isaak had remained silent until now, but the slightest hum from the mechoservitor brought Winters’s attention to him. He stepped forward, his red eyes bathing the Androfrancine general’s face the color of blood. “The light requires service of us elsewhere, General Orius. I advise you to let us pass.”
Orius did not acknowledge the metal man. Instead, he looked at Charles. “I want the mechoservitors rescripted, Arch-engineer, and I want the spell disseminated to the others.”
She remembered the day she’d seen the spell’s handiwork for the first time in the Named Lands—the pillar of smoke and fire on her southern horizon. And she remembered what she’d seen when she and Hanric had ridden to the Desolation that was Windwir’s grave. Isaak had borne that spell—guided by Y’Zirite hands using Sethbert as their puppet.
Charles’s voice was husky with rage. “I will not do it, Orius.”
Orius snorted. Then, he leaned in closer to Isaak. “Tell your
that it is in his best interests to keep in mind just what you were made for. I’m sure your friend Marta would concur.”
Winters was completely unprepared for the speed with which Isaak moved. His right hand shot out to grip the Androfrancine general’s throat, lifting the man easily from the ground. And as he lifted, the metal man’s left hand shot out to knock aside the two soldiers who lunged forward. He limped forward with Orius’s feet kicking at air until he could press the general into the wall of the cave. “Where is Marta?”
The general’s face moved from pale to purple as the other soldiers drew their swords and advanced. One of them took a swing, and the blade rang out as it struck Isaak’s back, turned easily away by the silver steel.
Orius gurgled, and the metal man relaxed his grip. “She’s safe.” His eyes bulged. “Charles, call your machine off.”
Now Charles leaned in, and when he spoke, his voice was low and menacing. “As you can see, Orius, he’s not mine. And he’s not yours either.”
Isaak started squeezing again. “Where is Marta?”
Orius’s eyes rolled back into his head, and his body twitched and jerked violently.
“I will bring her to you,” one of the other officers said, his face pale with fear.
Isaak regarded the man for a moment, then nodded. “If you do not, I will kill your general.” Eyes widening, the man fled on foot. Then, Isaak relaxed his grip on Orius and lowered him to the ground. “I do not wish to harm anyone,” the metal man said. “But you should know that I am capable of doing so if it is required of me.”
Orius fell to his knees, gasping and coughing, as the metal man released him. Winters watched him, and when he looked up to meet her eyes, she saw wrath in the general’s single eye and knew in that moment that harm was something he also was quite capable of.
She shuddered at the hatred, so contrary to the dream they’d all just shared. Then Winters turned away from that to wait quietly with Isaak and the others for Marta’s return and wondered exactly what harm Orius had arranged for her and for her people in the midst of making his war.