Authors: Ken Scholes
His eyes went to Isaak again and he sighed. “I don’t know how we get them to the moon, but I’m sure their dream will continue to lay a path.” He met first Tertius’s and then Hebda’s eyes. “So will you go with her?”
There was no hesitation in Tertius’s voice, and that didn’t surprise Charles at all. The old scholar had long been fascinated with the Marshers and their mysticism. “Absolutely,” he said. “How could I not?”
hesitate. “I don’t know,” he said. “Renard and I have talked about it. He wants to. But…” The man’s face clouded with sorrow and guilt. “But I’m not sure Neb would appreciate my presence.”
Charles’s eyes went back to Isaak again. “We’ve both had interesting fatherhoods. I’m sure by now, the boy sees why you did what you did.”
Hebda shrugged. “Regardless. For now, I’ll at least see them safely off. What about you?”
The notion of the moon excited the scientist in him. To see a place no one had visited in thousands of years, to experience the wonders he was certain the Moon Wizard’s Tower had to contain—these appealed to him. And he suspected that Isaak and the others would go as well, though some selfish part of him hoped they would stay and work the Forest Library.
Because at the end of it all, I’ve grown tired.
He felt his age now with every step. His bones ached and his body was slowing down. If he was completely honest, what he wanted most now was to return to his workshop in the Ninefold Forest and live out his last handful of years tinkering and helping Rudolfo create something wonderful—something untainted by the Androfrancine’s backward dream and open for the world to experience and learn from.
Finally, he answered Hebda. “I don’t know what I’ll do. But we can’t stay here.” Then, he climbed to his feet, and the others steadied him as he did. He walked slowly toward Winters, letting her and Marta see him approach, giving the young village girl time to wipe her eyes.
He regretted Orius’s words and wished he could have kept Isaak’s involvement in the destruction of Windwir from her. But when had hiding the truth ever gone well for anyone? Rarely, if ever. More commonly, truth eventually brought understanding and with it, healing.
Winters looked up at him. “Are we ready to go?”
He nodded. “We are. I’m certain Orius’s men will be back. He can’t afford to let the dreamstone fall into Y’Zirite hands, and their Blood Guard are quite effective at triangulating in the aether. He’ll want to bury this cave.”
Winters looked out over the silver lake and sighed. “It’s an amazing thing to bury.”
Charles thought about his old workshop in Windwir and about the items he’d seen dug up from there in the Watcher’s cave. Like the plague spider eggs that ultimately led to the eradication of Pylos. “Some amazing things should be buried,” he said.
Winters didn’t answer. Instead, she stood, and Marta stood with her. “Then we should probably—”
Charles felt the wind before he understood it, and even as he opened his mouth, he heard a high-pitched whistle and realized it was one of the metal men sounding the alarm. But even as the mechoservitor warned the others, there was an explosion and it fell backward, smoke pouring from a fist-sized hole in its chest cavity.
Charles cried out and moved toward the fallen metal man only to find invisible hands falling upon him. “Arch-engineer Charles,” a voice rasped, “the light requires your immediate surrender.”
He struggled against the scout who held him and saw Winters and Marta each struggling as well. Another explosion echoed across the cavern, and one of the mechanicals—Enoch, he thought—twisted as the hand cannon’s lead projectile took its metal arm off at the elbow.
“I will not surrender to you,” Charles said, and as he did, he felt the sharp point of a knife pressing at his ribs. He kicked and felt the knife slide into him as something large and silver collided with his attacker, lifting the magicked Gray Guard up into the air. He saw the slightest shimmer on the air as the soldier was tossed against the cave’s wall and fell with a thud onto the floor.
Charles reached for the wound only to discover the knife still lodged in his side, then felt the air going out of him as the pain flooded his body and dropped him to his knees.
Nearby, Winters lashed out with feet and fists, and he heard the solid thud of each blow that landed upon her invisible assailant. The pain was so intense now that his vision was graying around the edges, and he tried to scramble back and away to give Winters more room to fight.
She did not need it. Isaak spun, his hands moving in a blur as he grabbed a magicked arm and wrenched it, sending a knife Charles couldn’t see clattering across the floor. He heard the cracking of bone and the muffled grunt of another Gray Guard tossed brutally against the stone wall.
Enoch, despite missing an arm, was now pulling magicked scouts away from Tertius and Hebda.
They’re not going to let us go.
Charles tried to shout and found himself short of breath. And when Marta ran to him and took his hand, he realized that it was tingling. When the pains in his chest started they were sharper and more intense than the knife in his side, and he groaned.
“He’s been hurt,” Marta shouted.
Isaak spun and approached even as another explosion set Charles’s ears to ringing. Isaak rocked backward and then regained his footing, roaring with something Charles thought must be wrath. The metal man surged across the room to grab hold of another magicked scout, and this time, he did not toss him against the wall but instead, hurled him out and into the lake.
The silver moved around the form that landed in it, and half of a scream reverberated across the cavern until there was a flash of blue and green. Then, the blood of the earth rippled and gurgled before returning to its placid state.
Charles found himself once more mesmerized by it even as the world around him started fading.
“We need to leave now,” Winters said.
Metal hands moved beneath him, gently lifting him as if he were a child, to place him on the barge. He was vaguely aware of the others joining him and of the metal men casting them off and taking up their wooden oars.
As Charles let the dark take him, he wondered where this silver sea would carry them and hoped there would be light for him in that place.
Vlad Li Tam
Concealed by the staff and making no attempt to govern his tears, Vlad Li Tam moved through the empty streets of Ahm’s Glory. Despite the clamor of soldiers at their bucket brigades and the ringing alarms, the only noise that filled his ears and broke open his heart was the memory of his forty-second daughter’s wail of grief.
How many children have I broken?
There was a time when he knew the number, just as he’d known the number of how many members of his family he’d sacrificed to bend the river in the direction required. But something had happened to him on Ria’s island, beneath her knife, while most of House Li Tam was surgically removed as he watched. She’d called it kin-healing, and the experience had changed him profoundly. More than that, it had prepared him for what came next: The ghost in the water. Amal Y’Zir.
The sight of her and the sound of her song in his ears had changed him even further, introducing a kind of love to his inner landscape the likes of which he’d never known.
And somehow, that confluence of deep loss and deep love had brought him to a new place. He’d always grieved the loss of his children. He’d also always celebrated their sacrifices, and they had done the same, their last words celebrating a father who loved them so much that he would allow them to participate in the betterment of the world.
It was different now.
Because I feel shame now,
And yet he’d known he had to do what he’d done. He had considered confiding in his daughter. Even there on the roof, after he’d done what he’d needed to do, he’d wanted to gather her into his arms and assure her that all was not what it seemed, that what he did was for their salvation. But he couldn’t. He needed her to believe in order for her hosts to do the same. They were already suspicious—that she would arrive in Y’Zir at the same time as he had was already a coincidence that jeopardized her credibility with the Y’Zirites. If he’d brought her into his confidence, he would’ve needed to remove her along with the children, and that would have assured their disbelief. Because he knew she could never have fabricated the grief of that kind of loss.
They needed to believe that their Crimson Empress and Child of Promise were dead. And for that to happen, his daughter had to believe it, too.
But his guilt did not stop there. Because to engineer this latest misdirection, he’d needed children. When the Y’Zirites finally made their way into the charred ruins of the building, they had to find the remains of two small children, a boy and a girl, burnt beyond recognition. And his Knives had found those corpses for him in the makeshift morgues that his plague had created. There was a time when he certainly could’ve killed a child with his own hands to serve the greater purpose he believed in. And he knew there was no real distinction between what he did himself or had others do for him. Because he’d sent the plague, he knew beyond any doubt that he had murdered the two children that he’d later tossed without effort into the fire. Two children out of likely hundreds now and perhaps thousands before he finished. But he would not stop. He could not stop.
And so he sobbed as he made his way to the agreed-upon rendezvous.
Twice he paused, and magicked Blood Guard swept past him, and at least once he stopped to rest though he knew there would be no real respite until he reached someplace safe enough to lay aside the staff. He knew that once he did, the pain would be unbearable. And the bleeding would start again.
We all die for our sins.
Vlad Li Tam knew that he was dying. The only thing he didn’t know was exactly how long he had. But if he had his way, it would be after he’d finished his work here. Today, he’d taken the most important step. If the illusion held.
He pushed himself to take the last league quickly, and when he reached the docks he skirted them for the row of warehouses that stood above the canal. The sky moved toward gray now as morning approached, and Vlad moved to the warehouse where they’d hidden the wagon. Aedric and the others would’ve arrived at least an hour ahead of him, and with everything ready to go, he knew they could be outside of the city before the sun rose completely. They would slip out under the guise of refugees and make their way along the canal until Behemoth found them.
If all went according to plan, Behemoth would bring him the tool he needed to complete his work and then bear his grandchild and his betrothed to safety. He knew exactly which island to hide them on and hoped the kin-clave he had helped to forge there would make them welcome for a season, until there was a home that might be safe to return to in the Named Lands.
He eased the door open and slipped inside, surprised that they’d kept the large open area darkened. The silence that met his ears was his second clue that something was amiss.
Tapping the staff lightly on the floor, he summoned light and felt the world sway when he saw the wagon standing alone in the center of the empty warehouse.
He heard his gasp of surprise echoing through the open space and broke into a run. He reached the wagon and found it also empty. Their supplies, carefully gathered, were nowhere to be found, and there was no sign of his Knives, of Aedric, or of the children. The once-dusty floor had been recently swept, and he suspected that he could spend an entire day looking and find no evidence whatsoever of their presence here.
He climbed up into the wagon and searched more carefully, pausing when he reached the driver’s bench. There, beneath a single white stone the size of a fig, was a small scrap of paper. He picked up the stone first and squinted at it. It had been worn smooth and was almost round. It was not a type of stone he’d seen before, and it certainly looked out of place here.
He slipped it into the pocket of his robe and picked up the scrap of paper. He recognized it instantly as one of the tracts he’d seen, taken by one of his Knives from one of the warehouses they’d burned. It was to his advantage that the Y’Zirites credited his own reign of terror in their city as a part of the same movement, but for Vlad, it was a happy coincidence. The idea that there might be an opposing faith that struggled in subversion in this place was not so out of reach for him, and he’d even found joy in fulfilling some of their prophecies.
But now, he found no joy. Instead he found anger, though he knew that there was the slightest moment of fear preceding the rage that fell upon him.
Someone had interfered in his work and divided his focus, and whoever it was knew well enough that even this event could not deter him from what he’d set out to accomplish. This net was in the water and nearly full; he could not leave off hauling it into his boat to cast another net.
Which meant he had until Behemoth arrived to find his missing grandson and the others. He suspected strongly that they lived; whoever had orchestrated this had been privy to his plans, and if they had meant the children harm, he would have found their bodies—and the bodies of his Knives—instead of an empty warehouse. It was the same intuition that told him those who’d written the tracts were the very same who’d taken the children, though he did not know why. And they’d been able to overpower his Knives, Aedric, and an angry mother who’d been separated from her daughter for far too long.
He even suspected it was likely that they were trying to assist him in his work, though he’d have preferred to have known about it.
We share an enemy and find odd friendship in the sharing.
Vlad went to a corner and leaned the staff into it, feeling the spasms of pain rack his body as his hand left the warm metal surface of it. Then, he sat and braced himself for the headache and nosebleed that would inevitably find him.