Many authors are fond of this “two-chapter preview” shindig, and I figured I’d join them. The Prologue’s quite short, so I’m fudging the numbers a little and treating this post as one contiguous chapter. Material here is, of course, subject to change on the long, morale-breaking march to publication, but most of it’s close to finalized. What you’re about to read is a distilled decade’s worth of writing, years of historical research, and absolutely everything I had to give over the last half-year.
I hope you enjoy it.
Vigil Operational Briefing W-32-Sarn
Grand Inquisitor, Adept Wukanje, Adept Karsch,
Enclosed are all available details on the rogue mage Rai-Lu Loga.
Suspect Ethnicity: Ton, believed full-blooded
Suspect Sex: Female, believed heterosexual
Suspect Height: 6′ 3″
Suspect Age: Estimated mid twenties; given as 26
Combat training: Hand-to-hand, Ton-Ga spearfighting (conversation fragments suggest Hei Cho’s “Lashing Rain” school); probable sword, dagger training. Shadower Osiri estimates spear, hand-to-hand training were from birth. Subject is assumed low expert level, but is not an Adherent.
Arcane Training: Invocation, expertise unclear. Shadower Osiri confirms the subject has raised corpses repeatedly and deliberately. Subject is minimum Adept-level Necromancer. State of raised corpses suggests Physiomancy as well (no visible necrosis/decay). Subject may be physically augmented via Physiomancy.
Estimated Current Threat: Moderate
Estimated Threat Potential: Catastrophic
Source of Alert: Local Informant—Mei-la Sairo, Ton Matriarch
Via personal interview (in my guise as Gelbertus Montke), I have had the opportunity to speak with this necromancer at length. She is, to all appearances, a functioning member of society. She owns and sometimes runs the local bar, Hangman’s Bequest. Considering her nature, this name indicates a certain flippancy towards the laws of nature. We must assume that Rai-Lu is not only proud of what she does, but secure in it. Her visiting family are fully aware of her crime; Shadower Osiri has confirmed as much. Not only is rehabilitation out of the question, but the entire Loga family are guilty of first-degree Collusion With the Dark Arts, and first-degree Conspiracy to Perpetuate Undeath. While I confess some discomfort, my recommendation is that we enforce the full legal penalty. I have taken the liberty of filling out the appropriate paperwork for complete purgation; it is prepared for the King of Sarn’s review.
Notwithstanding local law, I recommend we move immediately. Rai-Lu has detected Osiri’s presence on several occasions, but been unable to catch her. Further delay places the Shadower in danger, and you are aware of how poor her fighting abilities are.
To this end, I have spoken at length with a number of the locals. Rai-Lu is primarily regarded as civil, intelligent, and friendly, but she is known to have a temper. Accounts of her participation in bar brawls, while inconsistent, suggest she is a reckless fighter with little regard for her own safety. I am certain her power in the arcane is insufficient to resist one full Inquisitor, let alone two adepts and yourself. I nonetheless recommend that you enlist Knight-Lieutenant Crusa’s platoon of Knotkeepers to participate in the assault.
On this note, and concerning his prior friendship with Loga, I believe the Knight-Lieutenant’s failure to report comes from misplaced altruism, not true collusion; he is merely another innocent taken in by warm smiles, and should of course be forgiven this misstep. His past experience in crisis relief and charity has left him too kindly to withstand a Necromancer’s manipulations. Aside from this, we have not been able to conduct independent observation of the rest of the Loga family (forty-six suspects observed to the present), and it remains unclear if the others have Rai-Lu’s affinities. The Knotkeepers’ warded equippage may prove vital, as may their numbers. This will also help reduce the need for area-effect casting within the cavern proper, as you have stated you wish to examine Rai-Lu’s records for other enclaves.
Shadower Osiri informs me that the family are gathering food and gifts at a cave a mile south of the town proper. Colored paper has been hung. We assume some manner of celebration, though its precise nature is unclear. I have arranged a non-magical signal with the Shadower so as to avoid detection, which she will send when the party is fully underway (ideally, after the suspects are drunk.) The Shadower has not been able to infiltrate the cave proper; there are alert wards set all around the entrance and the suspect checks them daily. We will need to move quickly. The forest surrounding the cave contains anywhere from two to five hundred Lesser Undead. While Osiri believes these may be ignored until their mistress is dealt with, I believe it is best to destroy them first. We do not know if there are Greater Undead hidden among them. If so, it is better to confront them before assaulting the cave. Shadower Osiri has been able to identify corpses from no less than twenty local families among them. We do not know if Rai-lu has captured souls to bind in them, but we must assume it is so. She has three ghouls among her servants, and Osiri strongly suspects their spirits are not so bound by choice. We may comfortably add murder and slavery to the Necromancer’s crimes. Sickening, but such is the way of her kind.
I will close by saying that I owe you an apology. I include this in my analysis so it may serve warning to future Inquisitors, and that they may better keep the Vigil knowing it. I believed you were overreacting to Matriarch Sairo’s tip, and accused you of aiding a secular ruler against her rivals. I have never been more horribly mistaken.
Under our noses, within a day’s march of three major towns and just two from the capital of Sarn, a Necromancer has raised as much as a full battalion of the dead. Had you taken my advice, it is likely she would soon have overtaken a population center and we would have another Scourge of the Shards on our hands. I pray that Van goes with you, Grand Inquisitor. You need no such admonishment from me, but I offer it regardless: no hesitance, no mercy. This iniquitous breed must be extinguished from the face of Canno. You were right to say it: “If the Eye blinks, the Vigil is blind.”
Van’s Grace Keep You,
The Death of House Sairo
“Betrayal begets betrayal, as death begets death, and who seeks vengeance will find it sought against herself.” –Matriarch Chu Sairo’s The Façade of Power
Blood-tendrils crept through water beneath finely blacked boots. Each of the nine living visitors hunkered low, waiting for sudden quarrels between the shoulders or the arcane’s killing flare. The saber in Divari’s hand felt too light.
A wall of corpses in white-lacquered lamellar marked with a single red blossom on the shoulder dammed the river ahead, and what trickled through the gaps held little of water. They leaned into the current over broken twenty-four foot pikes, fingers bound to shafts by death-rigor. White banners with the red blossom stirred in the low breeze, some sagging from broken staves. Dead marked the muddy banks of the river bed, leaning on subtropical ferns and sprawled over stones. Divari brushed her blouse in her kingdom’s colors, tugged at the ties holding up her riding skirts and brushed blond bangs aside. The princess was a beautiful woman with a heart-shaped face and eyes the crystalline blue of sapphires. She didn’t belong here.
“Holding action,” Venor said, scanning the dead-press. “Not sure what they thought they’d accomplish. Just opened their flank for Jasczynks’s shock troops.” The head of her guard was a hawk-nosed cavern-cheeked man with a respectable tan and what her father called “earthy diction.” His blond hair lay hidden beneath a sturdy kettle-helm. Plates extended down over his ears, protecting the sides of his head; a black bevor covered his chin. He carried a well-oiled, heavily notched arming sword, but the sheer slaughter made him nervous.
He pointed to straggling dead further upriver past the corpse-dam, most fallen face-first with open wounds in the back. The gesture clattered his dark plate and stirred his golden surcoat with the red javelet of Tresamer. The prey-bird’s sharp beak scrunched. “Can’t blame them too much. Sairo kept a tight hand. Doubt any of her band were prepared to take over when she went under the scythe.”
Divari looked down on the face of a young Ton woman framed just above the butcher’s runoff, her full features painted with white and black ash. Thick red bands enhanced slanted eyes; gore clouted the corpse’s loosely-held wedgepoint sword and misted away in the red stream, red silk tassels streaming in current like loose-torn veins. Hours uncleaned and underwater had rusted the sword’s steel hideous orange.
Rust-filled gashes latticed the dead woman’s armor where exposed steel met river-water, platelets stained bloody where a spear-thrust took her belly. The platelets were split apart and driven into the wound, a slit leaking no longer. The warrior was little older than herself. Divari shuddered, and walked on. She ignored slaughter for blessed seconds by scanning the riverbed. There was too little water for the sodden soil rising up at either side.
Teman citizen-soldiers lay somewhat sparser than Sairo dead. Their bloodless fists clutched halberds and poleaxes, maces and flails; some had swords as sidearms. They wore black gambesons trimmed blue at the shoulders and hem. The thick padded jackets of knee-length quilted linen were splotched in battle’s grime. For perhaps fifteen pounds of weight they stopped bludgeoning strikes and weaker cuts, but a skilled swordsman might cut killing deep, and they availed nothing against thrusts: plenty of holed-through dead proved that. Scattered plate and mail distinguished slain men-at-arms and knights, the latter with more and finer of it, plate and helms blackened and trimmed with midnight blue, the mail tinted dull brass.
Armies of Temans and Ton alike expected their warriors to wear their leader’s colors into open battle. Those soldiers wealthy enough kept a second set of armor with their own heraldry for ceremonies, duels and tournaments.
“This makes me uneasy,” Venor said. “Temans are keen on pyres. I wouldn’t go to the trouble of burying Ton either, but why’re Jasczynk’s dead still here?”
“Sairo was small, but still a Ton House, and old,” Hevrin said. The thin-faced, brown-eyed woman adjusted golden robes. Her red hair was cropped almost to nothing on her pale scalp; she had been bald on her return from Hanir a few weeks ago. “Besides that, Jasczynk forced them to a last stand.” She spoke the Teman duke’s name easily, jumping inflection and all. Divari envied her that.
“Fairly said,” Venor admitted. He hated Hevrin, as most Tresar men did. He turned to Divari. “Usually you win when the other side routs. Teman armor’s tougher, Ton folk are bigger, but at day’s end they’re all warriors and one Ton is close enough to worth one Teman. If the Ton hold, how many Temans to kill eight thousand of ‘em?”
Meanwhile Hevrin passed him by, to wait for them at the corpse-dam. She did not walk as Tresar women were supposed to, steps light and moderate; she planted her feet in great loping strides like a man. Divari liked her well, but it was sad to see her time in the haughty continent Ceslon had taken her so far from her ancestors.
“But what about those who fell?” Venor pressed. He vaulted the corpse-dam, and offered Divari his hand. Hevrin sniffed at him levitated herself over the wall without a word. Divari fought a wince. Father accepts her invocation, and so shall I, she thought.
Divari followed Tresar’s ways, casting spells with words given power by long use. Hevrin’s invocation used strong associations and images. Divari understood no more than that, and wanted to understand less.
“Well, sorceress?” Venor repeated. “There’s one army broken here, mayhap two. You expect me to believe there’s not one warrior-ghost that thinks death’s no reason to stop killing?” Divari shuddered.
“Their absence is notable, but not impossible,” Hevrin’s thin brows pinched her nose tighter with each word. “Still… I admit it’s unlikely enough I’d thought it might as well be.”
“Jasczynk had his own mages, I am sure, and,” Divari paused, tongue curling at the word, “priests.” The Tresar worshipped their ancestors, for without her forefathers there would be no Tresamer. Priests disturbed her; at least invokers used their own strength. “Likely they have put the spirits to rest already,” she finished.
Venor was still unsatisfied. “And what pulls a duke, third in line to the throne no less, east and across the Ailing? From Temana it’s two months over open ocean. Ancestors’ Breath, they must’ve braved the ice south of Van’s cap, else they had to pass north around the Barrens Feral! Death by winter-waters or death by monstrosities, but death either way, and all that just to die here! Why all this bloodshed here on Taifen? What did Jasczynk think he’d gain?”
“If father wishes you to know,” Divari said, “I am sure he will tell you.” Venor was finally silent at her father’s mention.
With the dam behind them, Divari saw the battle’s full shape. The air hung thick with smoke and death-stench. Splintered tree-stumps and riven trunks lay heavy, defiant fires flickering here and there. Many corpses were corroded, or choked on swollen tongues, burned or blackened with every hair standing out and muscles still twitching. Acid, poison gas, fire and lightning. There were plenty dead from more mundane causes—if death in battle could be mundane!—arrows and quarrels, spears and swords and the plummet of mace or warhammer.
At her request, Venor charted the massacre’s course for her. The Ton Matriarch, Mei-la Sairo, drew up her army on one side of the river at what should’ve been the only ford for miles. Sharpened-stake thickets filled the high point, so shallow now that Divari had to stare to see water above the riverbed’s loose rock and mud. The Teman dead lay heaviest here, piled around stakes with abundant arrows piled on them in turn. Where she could see skin, the arrow-struck sagged with black postules and open sores, yellowed skin and suppurating sinew, all haemotoxic effects of the knifestail snake-venom Sairo archers cherished. The leering decay came hours later; it was the venom’s neurotoxic half that killed in thirty seconds or less. Some claimed the victims spent another ten seconds wholly alert but paralyzed, feeling their bodies fail.
The Ton drew up about thirty yards back from the ford, inside the treeline and behind it on the clear-cut hill. Clearly they hoped to bleed the Temans with their archers and mages before committing to melee. It was a good plan, Venor explained, except that the Ton had few mages and often forgot those of the enemy, or could not counter them. Here the dead were archers and skirmishers with javelins in addition to the thick-shafted, eight-foot war spears of the Ton, wearing only helms and lamellar vests over their thin robes, clustered inside the smouldering wood.
“The river runs dry just as Jasczynk’s folk enter range, they attack the whole line instead of clogging the ford like they’re supposed to, the skirmishers are overrun before they can retreat behind the heavy infantry,” Venor said, and shrugged. “Story as old as war herself.”
Divari spotted a green-robed Teman mage charred across his front, split by debris and impaled on a thin, broken sapling, likely thrown there by a retaliatory fireball. Red muscle peeked through peeling black on the right side of his face around a wide green eye; a few sable hairs remained to his blistered scalp.
Venor digressed for a few minutes to speak of the Loar War. He scoffed over arrogant Ton spell-slingers bleeding the Gift thin against the Gaunt Ones. And yet the few they had drew blood, Divari thought, eying the dead Teman.
“Anyhow,” Venor continued, pointing to a mound miles away upriver, “we can see how well it worked. Jasczynk has his casters dam the river up there, and what gets through isn’t enough to clean away corpses. What I don’t understand is why Sairo stopped here. It’s mayhap three days’ march to her own lands and her fortress.”
“I suspect she hoped to fight somewhere with no arcane current,” Hevrin said. “Magic is drawn to sapient minds, Captain Venor. A place like this, where no one has lived for time unknown, should’ve been perfect. Unfortunately for Matriarch Sairo, we are at most twenty miles from the Kedrul Basin. Which,” she said at Venor’s dour look, “is perhaps the strongest nexus on Canno. Likely the current felt dead to Sairo’s mages, but the Teman mages’ numbers were enough to pull current across the distance and create a pool here.”
“Outland magics,” Venor grumbled.
“Outland arcane theory,” Hevrin countered, “Which, in contrast to our own, exists.”
The dam behind them splashed and clattered, a tumble of slain at one side pushed free by pooling water. Far away on the other side of the river sat Teman ballistae and catapults, abandoned. That concerned Divari as much as missing battle-ghosts. Good war-engines took skilled engineers to make and operate, and were valuable in their own right. Leaving them on the field was a last resort.
The white ranks were charred and split in dozens of places just past the trees, but for the most part they were fallen neatly in lines with plenty of Temans piled before or mixed in where formations broke and swarmed together. Divari made out the shape of the Sairo position from their slain. A center line five ranks deep, with short wings of six ranks to either side and a smaller group around the center hill atop which the last, largest Sairo standard fluttered.
“I wager Sairo thought to take the Temans when they were coming out of the woods off the ford,” Venor said. “That way they’ve broken formation to run around the trees, and the woods make it harder for the Teman engines to lay shots on her folk. The Temans broke through too quickly, is all. Better to hold further back than have her own army charge in disorganized. Again, a good plan, but too much hinged on holding the ford.” Eight thousand warriors, gone like fog under the sun, Divari thought. How many of their enemies?
“Hevrin,” she said.
“Yes, your Highness?”
“Would you be so kind as to release the river up there?” She pointed to the distant boulders. “It’s the Soloven, with its origin in Tresamer. I will not have our ancestral water held prisoner by outland magics.” Hevrin raised an eyebrow and smirked at the irony. “Please?” Divari instantly wanted to strike herself. She should not beg of her vassals. But the woman’s bow was deep and long-held before she sent herself hurtling through the air. Mage-flight was no trial for the invoker; Divari’s own school, The Sisters of the Yelba Aflame, had no incantation for it.
She picked her way over the slain. Here the Teman dead lay scattered, many grappling with Sairo fallen in a last embrace. Sairos leaned on fallen trees or lay behind them clutching bow and arrow, still waiting to loose one last flight.
“Ancestor’s breath, would you look at this?” Venor coughed. A Ton warrior hung on his knees against the spear in his hands, stopped from falling over further by the “skirts” of his lamellar around him. The grim-set lips and final pallor made him look almost like sculpture with his eyes hidden by his helmet’s bowl. A sword embedded below his collarbone was caught by its guard on the haft of the spear, helping hold him upright. The spear drove diagonally through the outside front of a Teman knight’s cuirass where the armor was flatter, point stuck in the ground on the other side. “I’d heard rumors, but–!”
“Double hit,” another guard said. “A bad business.” Everyone nodded; too often even trained warriors attacked at the same time, and both died because neither protected themselves. This was far from the only mutual slaying on the field.
Divari stepped close and peered under the lip of the Ton warrior’s helmet. Not a man, but a woman. She should not have been surprised. Other people are not mine, she reminded herself.
“Right through,” one of her other guards said, sounding strangled. “You can’t pierce steel with steel. It’s just not possible.”
“It’s sapphire-steel,” Venor said, leaning down to eye the exposed edge of the spearhead. Divari saw that its blade was a crystalline blue, with darker shades of the same hue sifted through it. Every billet of sapphire-steel had a unique pattern; this one spiked and leapt back and forth through the blade, dark specks sprinkled through. Those impurities ruined swords, but a spear’s short blade counteracted them.
“So it is,” another guardsman said. “That explains it.”
“Only part,” Venor said. “I was given the chance to test a sword of it once. I got just deep enough through the breastplate it might’ve drawn blood. But to pierce clean and drive the haft through besides?” He shook his head. “Ton women aren’t human.”
“Still, what kind of man kills a woman?” another asked. On a whim, Divari lifted the knight’s visor. The sun-worn skin of a middle-aged Teman woman greeted her, and a single ice-blue eye. The other, and the blond brow above it, was ruined by a deep, old scar.
Divari shook her head and lead her party over the corpse-ranks up the hill to the banner. The Ton here wore ornate white armor inlaid with black-trimmed scarlet steel, blossoms carefully stippled by engravers’ chisels to have fine texture and striations. Gold and silver adorned their weapons and the sword-scabbards at their hips, and rubies fastened their helmets. Every blade was sapphire-steel, and Teman corpses surrounded the thin ring.
“The Matriarch’s Scarlet Guard,” Divari said. “Father said they were among the best heavy infantry on Canno. For them he was tempted to keep his word.” His deceit was necessary, but speaking aloud of it made her hunch guiltily.
A straight line of corpses showed the place the ring had first collapsed. Despite Teman and Sairo corpses jumbled elsewhere, Divari knew these few Ton died early in the battle. A broad hole dripping blood and laced with viscera marked each body in the line, the first through the open ruin of a skull with fragments of helm still behind it, sinking a few inches lower on each. The ballista bolt responsible lay right at the foot of the Sairo banner, surrounded by a great splatter of blood and gore-pulp. Inside the splatter was a Ton warrior’s outline, itself filled with a dense red splash.
“There it is,” Venor breathed. “The bolt spikes Sairo early on, and there’s none other to take command. Of course her Guard try to protect her corpse rather than join the battle proper, leastwise ’til it’s too late. Much good it did, eh?”
A gold pocketwatch, outside faces set with rubies carved into a single blossom per side, hung by a long black chain from a splinter in the bolt. The shaft was as tall as Divari herself, and as thick as her thigh at the base.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “It’s clear to me that it hit Mei-la. Looking at the other corpses, it was probably just below the collarbone. Her lungs, her center-vessels, spine, part of her heart… no one could’ve survived that. Where has her body gone?”
She pulled the pocketwatch loose and eyed its cracked face. 2:72 in the afternoon. It must be the exact instant of Mei-la’s death. The idea of a Queen—for call herself what she was, a Matriarch of the Ton was a Queen to any other land—cut down on the field like a common peasant made her pallid.
Divari felt stinging in her right hand, and, looking at it, saw blood trickling from her palm. Now, when did that happen? She shrugged the thought away. There were too many sharp things about; she must’ve snagged her hand on one piece of battle-refuse while distracted by others.
Hevrin landed beside her; behind them, the restored river drove into the press of bodies and foamed apart the carrion-dam.
“The Sairo encampment is just the other side of this hill,” Venor said. “I can see the tops of the tents. Jasczynk’s got to be down there. Given this bloodbath, he’s probably making some grand display of the Sairo woman’s corpse.”
Divari swallowed hard and nodded. She stepped past the banner, looked out over the Sairo encampment, and threw up. They had found the rest of the Teman army. Thousands of corpses were piled over rocks, fallen against the ropes of Sairo tents, hung in pieces from distant trees, and turned the blue-green grass to slick crimson.
“I think it is fair to say that Jasczynk is too busy on display himself,” Hevrin said. Without another word, Divari pulled herself up and rushed down the hill. She mustn’t appear afraid before her subjects, even if she felt she needed to empty her belly further. The death-wounds she saw matched nothing she had ever seen or heard of. She saw eyes burst open in blood-raw sockets and skulls folded over on themselves, warriors’ own ribs piercing through armor. So many bloody hands clawed at the shredded remnants of throats, nails torn loose in flesh.
In the center of the encampment, piled high as the ties holding Jasczynk’s banner to its stave, were the rest. Those who had eyes left were terror-frozen, weapons held straight out in futile defense against something beyond thought or mercy. Flamboyant armor torn open like a sheet of paper, tendons hanging from skinless legs, bones spiked and splintered through exposed strands of muscle, was a gaping flay of a thing that must once have been Jasczynk. Its skull was folded open from the center-seam, and the plates broken and twisted round to dig into the jaw. The mouth was the only part of the whole still human, and it screamed so widely the flesh of the cheeks was split and torn.
“Let’s find what we came for and be gone,” Divari gagged, and moved past the decaying heap to the largest tent in the camp. Mei-la’s quarters were surprisingly sparse. Her cot was thicker and likely softer than the others they’d passed, but it was the same off-white and no less sweaty. Most of the space within was given over to a square of hard-packed dirt surrounded by training weapons and the Matriarch’s personal armory. A gilded stand of jet-black wood at the side nearest Mei-la’s cot was empty. The Matriarch’s reaping spear was missing. Divari hurried to the red-brown desk in the near corner, and breathed a sigh of relief to find a bundle of golden silk little larger than her hand in the second drawer.
“We have it,” Hevrin urged, “Now let’s be gone, as you said.”
“Hold on,” Divari said. A slim book bound in white leather lay atop the desk, a still-wet quill beside it. Divari opened it and flipped through until she found the most recent entry.
“Your Highness, whatever massacred the Temans is likely still near,” Hevrin insisted. “Their… disposition… does not speak well for the chance they ended the threat.” Divari shushed her and read quickly. She breathed faster and her eyes grew anxious-broad.
2nd of Emtith, 1295 V.R.
Sidrath has forsaken us, as I suspected he might. More the fool I for meeting the Temans here. My daughters will carry the line as long as they can, but I have left them only two thousand warriors. It’s but the beat of hours before we are absorbed. They will say Chu Sairo’s legacy died for my hubris. Perhaps they will be right. But this much I vow: whether we die here as I expect, or by some miracle win through, I will take my vengeance. My line will fade into others, but I will see Sidrath’s broken. He made this easy, at least.
And at least my daughters will be free of the vermin Lins. I have set the Vigil on them. I hope these mad foreigners are as powerful as they claim.
By My Own Hand,
Mei-la Sairo, Matriarch of House Sairo, The Red Blossom At Repose, Vanguard of Ton-Ga, Marshal of the North Bogs, On the Way of the Sundering Fist
“We’ve a change in plans,” Divari said. Despite her concern, she glowered at the Matriarch’s signature. What manner of conceited fool signs her private journal with her titles? She passed over the golden silk. “Hevrin, take this to my father. Do not look within!” The invoker nodded. “Matriarch Lin’s second husband saved my father during his regency. I must return the favor.”
She pressed the golden bundle into Hevrin’s hands. So little a thing drove us to leave the Sairo in death’s hands. Antler-augured grant that my father was right. Let this bundle be worth it. The ancestral protector of her line was silent; what she asked was not in its power to grant. Divari had known as much, but a flutter of hope died aching in her heart.
“Ah, you come at last!” The voice outside the tent was deep for a woman, and proud. Divari saw shifting red at the corner of her eyes. She began to gasp, but Hevrin’s hand clamped over her mouth. She let the invoker bring her away from the wall of the tent. Bloody mists seeped inside through the gaps.
“You’re dead!” Venor shouted. “Begone, spirit! Walk nevermore among the living!” The rite sounded silly from the gruff captain, and the voice treated it in kind.
“You come at last,” the voice repeated, “But your King promised me fifteen thousand. I see before me seven. Tell me, is Sidrath with you?”
“You’ll not reach his Majesty,” Venor roared, “You fall here!”
There was a clatter and scuffle, and Divari and Hevrin ducked beneath the far edge of the tent. In front of them lay nothing but miles of forest, trees thick as new grain growing North towards Tresamer and the rundown Kingdom of Sarn. Divari felt tingling and Hevrin disappeared. She reached her hand for the woman, and it was gone too! Just when she felt she must scream, she felt Hevrin’s hand on hers.
“Peace, Highness,” Hevrin whispered. “I’ve given us invisibility, and dampened our steps. We have an hour to flee clear.” A howl of pain pitched up into a gurgling screech, and there was a wet pop like a sack of fruit falling from a tower. Venor’s sword embedded itself in a tree ahead of them. Venor’s arm, and both his shoulders, were still attached. Divari shut her ears to the sounds the other guards made; she and Hevrin crossed the cleared ground into the trees.
“Not together,” Divari said. “You must reach Alansera, Hevrin,” she whispered. “Warn my father, and give him the bundle.” She looked northwest in home’s direction, then turned northeast. “I go to Sarn.”