Authors: Chris Eisenlauer
Having overcome every challenge yet encountered, including that of Garlin Braams with his Blood Solution, the Viscain Empire continues to pursue its quest for
The Place with Many Doors
. Time moves on, with worlds like stepping stones, and Jav Holson, now First General, moves with it, leading the Empire’s elite Shades.
On Thrax Palonis, they encounter Dragon Shields, each possessed of a singular power and loosely ruled by an undead tyrant. In transit, the Vine is snared, caught between the guns of opposing fleets, in the middle of a war of mutual attrition. Finally, on Stolom, banishment awaits.
The path to Loss leads to and ends with
The Place with Many Doors
. The journey is nearly complete, but will the challenges in total—along with the unseen efforts of assassin Salton Stoakes—undo Jav’s sanity?
The Viscain Empire. More than 10,000 years ago, a voracious god born of the Viscain Tree set out from his own desiccated world to feed upon the bounty of the universe. He called himself Samhain and wherever he went his super-powered emissaries—Shades—laid waste to any resistance a civilization could muster. In this manner, countless worlds have been stolen, each connected by the Viscain Tree, now a massive vine and umbilical tether that yanks planets from their orbits and robs suns of their light. To trace the Vine back to its source is to traverse a vein of rot irrevocably rooted in the heart of the universe, all the way back to the dead planet of Samhain’s origin. As miracles are the stuff of gods, physical laws are easily bent or broken where Samhain has left his mark.
In 10,691, the Empire’s reign was nearly brought to an end by Garlin Braams on the Three Worlds. Though losses were severe, the Empire survived, rebuilt, and held an Artifact Competition in 10,700. The single winner, along with the top Locsard Psychic Academy graduate, joined the Titan Squad to complete the roster of Shades.
The year is now 10,735. Jav Holson is First General, head of the 21st Generation. Forbis Vays is First Specialist of the Titan Squad. The Empire thrives with new vigor and moves ever closer to the Emperor’s goal,
The Place with Many Doors
. . .
A bright yellow crack split the red sky to the ground and was gone in an instant. Upon the baked basalt plain where the crack spilled its payload, a lone black figure rose to its feet and then promptly lost most of its definition. Black bled out from it like living, writhing shadow somewhat subject to the will of the wind.
Salton Stoakes, Dark with the power of the Suicide Knife, surveyed the bleak landscape and the settlement that was his destination. The city, probably home to no more than 15,000, backed up against a low ridge of volcanic rock and was hemmed in further by a number of lava lakes, gaps in the great basalt cobbles like missing teeth that left the planet’s hot, liquid under layer exposed. Along the banks of these lakes were heat mills and simple steam engines, which provided the city with its power. The buildings in the city were mostly of worked stone or the wood of indurate, cyclopean mushrooms from a nearby forest. Rising above and beyond the city was a castle that looked like an eruption of volcanic rock, frozen in place so that it was both natural and perfectly suited for man at the same time. Stoakes wondered idly if its halls and corridors had been cut or if they were the results of air bubbles escaping from the rock as it had cooled.
He kicked off the ground, setting his strange diaphanous form into swift motion towards the city. It was hot and dry here, making it very easy for him to get around. He would just need to be careful not to land in one of those lava lakes.
As he sailed over the terrain, he produced the Yellow Diamond Spectacles and placed them over his eyes. These he had received from the Viscain Emperor to better accomplish his standing mission of assassination. Stoakes occasionally let his imagination wander regarding Pylas Crier, the man who’d made the Spectacles so many millennia ago, but now was not one of those times. He was getting more and more used to the lenses and what they allowed him to see. His head only started to hurt after an hour or so of use now, much better than when he’d first used them. The lenses were nearly opaque and were, Stoakes knew, made of actual yellow diamond, but not any common variety. They were fashioned from Crier’s own blood in a time when the Emperor’s Artifacts were of a much higher order. Crier was reputed to be one of the first Shades, along with Wil Parish. Stoakes shuddered at the thought of Wil Parish still living and the power he must wield. Stoakes thought that maybe he got a taste of it every time he put the Spectacles to his eyes.
Through the lenses he saw the swirls of heat, the currents they left in the air. He was aware of the great black light of the Vine, still high above and approaching. The cleave planes that the Emperor had warned him about were superimposed over everything, but Stoakes had learned to ignore these for the most part, for both his sanity and physical safety. It wouldn’t do to get sucked into one of those interstitial spaces, never to return. Looming ahead, bigger than the castle that held it, was a strange serpentine light that was the first of its kind Stoakes had ever seen. Overwhelming that, however, much closer within the city, was the infinity light of his target. He had killed seventeen iterations of this girl, keeping her from ever meeting Jav Holson. He had learned long ago to turn off that part of himself that was prone to over-thinking or to sentimentalizing, or at least he thought he had, before taking this assignment. Every time he approached one of these tragic soul echoes, he felt a little sick. The girls were innocent. The light they gave off was beautiful, alive, divine.
Stoakes lived with his guilt, drowning it between the breasts and thighs of many women over the course of this assignment. It worked for a little while. Though Stoakes appeared to be in his mid sixties, he was nine hundred and forty years old. He didn’t believe in any power higher than the Viscain Emperor and so there were none to judge him save his own conscience, and he’d found his way around that. Though he outlived all his lay mates, there would always be someone new for him to lose himself in. Besides, the Emperor had promised him his returned youth, a boon for which Stoakes could not feign indifference. Regardless of the terms of their contract, though, Stoakes prided himself on keeping his word.
He made a choice and took responsibility for it. Still, it made him wonder what might happen if Jav Holson ever caught him in the act. Every time Stoakes excised the infinity light, for that, in fact was all he did—none of the girls could be said to have died directly by his hand, though they died soon after or were left mindless and vegetative—Holson went a little crazier, got a little angrier. So far, this progression served only to increase Holson’s value to the Empire, making him into one of the most efficient killing machines the Viscain had ever known, but Stoakes knew that Holson was being drawn so taut that he might very well snap soon. Stoakes was good at his job, but he couldn’t expect to go on doing it indefinitely without sometime having to face Holson. Stoakes was an expert in both the Long Sword Knife and the Secret Sword. He knew anatomy better than most trained physicians, knowledge he used for the express purpose of killing. He was no fool, though. He saw what he was doing to Holson and to harbor no fear would be like standing defiantly before a dam that is cracked, leaking, and ready to burst. Stoakes hoped he would be ready for when Holson broke.
After touching ground briefly twice more to kick off and maintain his momentum, Stoakes passed through the city’s perimeter. The Yellow Diamond Spectacles showed him exactly where he needed to go, and he had no interest in harassing any of the other locals. They would all die soon enough once the Vine arrived. He moved like a black wind past men and women, all of whom had skin of a uniform bronze and who wore little more than metal ornaments and an occasional wisp of gossamer silk. Many turned their heads as he passed, but none could fix him in their vision long enough to see anything they could understand or accurately describe. He couldn’t help but be distracted by some of the women he saw. He was old by just about any standard, but his age had not yet robbed him of his interest in the curves of beautiful women, especially not when those curves were bared and on display as they were here. He smiled to himself. A nice distraction awaited him once his work was done.
He breezed through the narrow paved roads. On all sides were stone catacomb structures that Stoakes could see were used for businesses at ground level and for dwellings higher up. The stonework seemed to go no higher than five floors. Everything above that was built of mushroom wood, and some of the craftsmanship was rather impressive, with great arching structures connecting building tops over roadways, support struts looking like elaborate and artistic spokes.
His target was on the fourth floor, seventh window down, in the building to his right. The base of the building was occupied by what appeared to be a bar or restaurant. It was a little closer to the target than he would have liked, but convenience had more weight than useless emotion. He would return here when finished.
He sprang to the sill cut into the stone four floors up and seventh along its face. Wooden shutters were closed to the outside, but nothing short of a hermetic seal could bar Stoakes’s entry into any structure. He passed through the millimeter gap and into the apartment.
The girl was standing at a counter within a nook—a kitchen—at left, cutting what looked like vegetables of some sort. Stoakes wondered if she was preparing a meal for a family or for herself alone. He left her momentarily to her work and did a quick circuit of the suite.
There were two other rooms—bedrooms—and what passed for a bathroom, which housed a basin, a tub, and a chair of sorts with a chute going down into blackness. Stoakes sighed. The only other occupant was an elderly woman, bedridden. He accepted what he already knew to be true. Every one of these soul echoes was unattached, as if she were just waiting for Jav Holson to come along and mate with her. This meant, in all likelihood, that Stoakes would be responsible for two deaths. The old woman would have died anyway once the Empire arrived, but still it bothered him a little to expedite her end. It couldn’t be helped, though. At least she was sleeping now.
He moved silently through the main room, approaching his target from behind. He didn’t want to see her face. He didn’t want to know anything more about her. He didn’t want to know anything about any of them if he could help it. He removed the Yellow Diamond Spectacles after one last look to confirm the location of the infinity light’s source within her head, a confirmation of what he already knew from experience. He crept up ever closer, drew the Suicide Knife from its sheath at the small of his back, placed its chisel-tip point of black steel to her temple, and drove it soundlessly, bloodlessly home.