Jon's back ached. Frost had come early this year and the ground broke like stone. Jon had spent eight seasons breaking this ground to plant spring's crops and every year it got harder. Sweat beaded on his brow and he felt his cotton shirt stick to his skin under his coat. Jon took off his soft-brimmed hat and wiped his forehead. He examined the hat as he let his breath return.
The hat had kept the burning sun and beating rain off his head for as long as Jon owned the farm. He wore it every day. It had been a gift given to him on the day he married Alasandra but he could not remember who gave it to him. Jon put it back on his head and pushed the tiller deep into the stubborn earth.
Daven ran over the hill and down the cart path leading to their small cobblestone house. The boy had only left a short while ago and he held no sack with the bread and cheese his mother had told him to buy. Jon furrowed his brow. The boy continued to run and soon the wind carried his cry to his father's ears.
"Papa! A carriage is coming! Two horses!"
Jon's furrowed brow remained. Surely the boy meant a cart from a neighboring farm. No carriage made it out this far.
"It's from the city! A soldier drives it!"
Jon felt ice water flow over him. He turned to the house.
"Sandra! Get the musket out of the pantry!"
Jon saw his wife's face appear at one foggy window. Jon gestured wildly at her.
They were too late. As Daven reached Jon, the black carriage already approached. A single figure sat on the bench, guiding the two brown horses down Jon's path. The black hardwood of the carriage seemed to absorb the sun.
The cart stopped twenty paces from the house. The driver dropped down onto the ground, not bothering with the step ladder. He was tall and broad, his features covered by a black leather cloak and a matching three-cornered leather hat. Boiled leather armor covered his large chest and a thick collar of leather protected his throat. Four gun belts crossed his waist and hips. The hilt of a broadsword protruded from his left side and a pair of dagger hilts poked out of the top of both of the soldier's tall black boots. The large man surveyed the area, scuffing the dirt road with the toe of his boot.
The soldier opened the carriage's door and a smaller man stepped out, grunting when his feet hit the ground. His features were also obscured, this time by a black cloak and hood.
Jon became aware that his wife stood next to him, no musket in her hands. That was probably for the best. If she had held it, she might be dead.
The two men approached. The larger man walked behind and to the right of the smaller cloaked man. Jon felt Daven's hand slide into his. The low morning sun hit the side of the soldier's face under the brim of his hat. A canyon of a scar ran from the top of the man's left eye to the left side of his mouth. The scar ran in a groove where the man's eye socket, cheek bone, and upper jaw had been broken. The man's left eye sagged and his nose was bent on the same side. Jon tried to imagine what sort of weapon would make such a wound and concluded that it must have been an axe. Jon was amazed that the man still lived.
The two men stopped five paces away from Jon and his family. The soldier pulled back his cloak and hooked his fingers into two of his four belts. The silver caps of four pistols, two on each side, gleamed in the sunlight.
The soldier stood a head taller than Jon and towered over the cloaked man, but when the hooded man looked upon Jon with pale blue eyes, Jon felt a far more sinister threat. The shining clasp of his cloak, shaped into the shape of a black-pupled eye, confirmed that threat.
"Jonravel Ganven, eighty eighth Gray Wolf of the Emperor's Hand." The smooth voice of the hooded man sent a chill over Jon's skin. He felt Sandra's eyes move from the two men to him. "Thirteen years ago you were released into the service of the Eye. You owe the Emperor a debt. I am here to collect that debt." Silence followed before the man spoke again. His blue eyes moved to Sandra and his voice softened. "We must speak, Jon."
"Sandra, take Daven into he house." Jon felt her wife's hesitation. "Go."
Jon felt Daven's hand slip from his own and heard them walk back to the house. He heard the door close behind them. All the time his eyes never left the agent's own.
Sandra stood watching the three men from the window in the house's sitting room. Daven had disappeared, no doubt watching from one of a dozen of his hiding holes. Jon and the cloaked man spoke. The taller scarred soldier stood silent. Sandra had never seen such a dangerous man in her whole life. Sandra felt nauseous as she watched the three men with unblinking eyes. Visions filled her mind in such vividness that it became hard to tell truth from dream.
She imagined seeing the conversation stop. The large man would draw two of his silver-butted pistols. Both of the grizzly bear shaped hammers would crash down and balls of lead would tear out the back of her husband's green shirt. Her husband would fall in a heap like a sack of meat.
The big man would holster the two empty pistols and draw two more. With his pistols in hand, the big man would come for Sandra and Daven, soon leaving both of them with black smoking holes in their heads.
A tear ran down Sandra's cheek when she thought of her husband and son dead. Another vision came to her, one drawn from small details in what she had seen. She saw the tenseness in the big man, the way his arms were locked and flexed and the way he stood like a bar of steel under great stress. Her husband, however, stood loose and relaxed. From these details came a strange and unexpected vision.
Like before, the big man would go for his pistols, but this time her husband's hands would get there first, drawing the crossed pistols from the solder's belt and firing them all in one motion. Blood would jet from two holes in the man's leather chest guard. Jon would drop the two smoking pistols and draw two more from the soldier's belt as the man fell. His hands would grip them upside down to match their position on the dead soldier's belt. He knew exactly how to do it. One of these he would place against the hooded man's head and fire. A cloud of red mist would burst into the air.
Sandra shook her head, the odd and unrealistic fantasy fleeing. As she watched, the two men stopped talking. The cloaked man handed Jon a flat leather package and a small but heavy leather bag before turning and walking back to the carriage. Only when he had entered it and closed the door did the huge soldier turn and walk back to the carriage himself. The soldier nodded to Jon before he whipped the reins. The carriage turned around and left. Jon watched it go.
Once it had left his site, Jon stood for a long moment before reaching down, picking up his ground breaker, and returning to his work. Sandra, stunned, returned to her own, the visions of her family's murder still fresh in her mind.
They did not speak of it at the noon meal or at supper. Jon ate with his eyes on his bowl of chopped lamb. Daven and Sandra ate with their eyes on Jon.
Late that night, Sandra lay on her side looking at Jon, wondering where he had come from and what he had done. She had never asked him before. He was always quiet about his past. She knew he had been a soldier. She saw the scars on his body. Yet now she wondered if his life went beyond that and into something else. Jon laid with his hands behind his head, looking up into the darkness. Moonlight streamed into the bedroom window.
"I'm leaving tomorrow," said Jon. "I should be back by the winter's midcycle."
"Where are you going?" Sandra's voice felt weak. A tear rolled down her cheek.
"South." Jon rolled to his side and looked into Sandra's eyes. He used a fingertip to wipe the tear from her cheek. "I was in a bad spot after the war but I was given leave to pass by the punishments I deserved. I left them before my debt was paid. I thought I might have slipped past them but they knew where I was. They let me leave. I knew I would have to pay for it eventually but I didn't think it would be today. I'm sorry." His apology hurt worse than anything else.
Jon's hand stroked Sandra's cheek. She closed her eyes and felt more tears flow. He wiped them away and kissed her on the mouth, holding it. His hand circled her waist and he pulled her close. He kissed her again, hard, and Sandra felt her body react. The fear still filled her but the warmth of her physical desire flowed in. His hand pulled up her night shirt and she felt his strong fingers touching her, pressing hard and soft in the ways that always made her moan softly in the night. She reached out in the darkness and felt his arousal. She squeezed and heard him breathe hard.
She sat up and straddled him, pulling her night shirt over her head. Moonlight gleamed off of her young body. His hands squeezed her breasts as she rocked on top of him. They climaxed together, each driven by the sounds of the other.
Sandra lay next to her husband, holding his head against her breasts. She felt his heart thumping in his strong chest. Her sisters had giggled at her, telling her she would never find pleasure with a new husband over forty years old and her just nineteen, but Jon had shown her things about her body that she had never known before.
Would she ever feel those pleasures with him again? Jon made love to her like a desperate animal this night, seeking one last opportunity to plant its seed. She had seen something in his eyes as he lay next to her that only now became clear.
Jon didn't expect to come home. Jon expected to die.
Sandra awoke in the darkness of early morning. Jon was not there. Sandra stood, pulling the bed's wool blanket around her naked body and went to the window. Lantern light filled the door of the barn. She watched Jon emerge from the barn, a lantern in one hand and a bundle of cloth in the other. She saw him leaning with the weight of the package.
Sandra remembered once seeing a large iron-bound trunk in the barn's crawl space. A large lock with three key holes clasped the chest closed and wax had sealed every seam of the trunk's lid. She could only assume the strange package came from there.
Sunlight broke shortly after. Sandra dressed and went out front. Graybeard, one of their two plow horses, was saddled, shifting uncomfortably under the unfamiliar tack. The bundle was strapped to the back of the saddle along with a bedroll and two bags of dried pig meat and two fat skins of water.
Jon came around from the side of the house holding a bundle of wood.
"There's enough to get you and Daven through the winter. The crop is planted and the pigs are tended." Jon handed Sandra a small heavy black bag. She untied it and watched sunlight gleaming off of the gold within. Twice in her life Sandra had seen a gold coin of the imperial city. Now she held forty or fifty such coins. "If you need help, see Matte. He will help you." Sandra did not realize until later that day that Jon had mentioned the only neighbor who had no wife. Matte's bride had died of the black cough three summers past leaving Matte to take care of his two young girls. Jon's statement was a seed. If he should not return, she might seek companionship with Matte and Jon would never blame her for it.
Instead, Sandra could only marvel at the gold. When she looked up, the look in Jon's eye pushed out any thoughts of the treasure she held.
"I love you, wife. Take care of Daven." Jon kissed Sandra hard and hugged her close. When she opened her eyes again, he was on his horse and riding east away from the house. Sandra watched until the sight of his familiar soft-brimmed hat disappeared over the crest of the meadow.
She would never see her husband again.
Jon rode half the day before stopping at a brook that crossed the wide cart path. His body already ached. It had been eight years since he rode this hard for this long. He unsaddled Graybeard and led the horse to the brook. As the horse drank, Jon untied the heavy bundle and unrolled his past.
Jon sat for a long moment, letting the memories of his old life flow through him. He picked up one of the two pistols, running his thumb over the rigid silver wings of the hawk that acted as the pistol's hammer. He cocked it back, the hawk's beak raising to the sky. He pulled the trigger and the beak cracked down on the pistol's firing plate. The silver hammer gleamed in contrast to the black barrel and darkwood grip.
Jon set the pistol aside and picked up a black three-cornered hat. He traced the creases in the leather, remembering each line. Jon took off his wide-brimmed farmer's hat and placed the black leather hat on his head in its place. It fit perfectly. He examined the farmer's hat for a long while and then threw it into the brook. Where he was going, that hat would be of no use.
When Jon crossed the brook he was a man transformed.
His loose trousers were replaced with a pair of leather breeches tucked into the tops of high leather boots folded down at the knee. A black chestguard of boiled leather covered his torso. The hilt of a silver-handled rapier gleamed on his left hip, the grip and pommel shaped like the arched wings of a hawk. When the wind caught his black leather cloak, it exposed the silver hilt of an off-hand dagger with a long blade and a hooked guard. A high neck guard with three deep scars protected his throat. A single silver ornament held his cloak around his neck. This ornament would protect him more than the two pistols that hung low on his hips or the armor that guarded his body. Few thieves, robbers, bandits, murderers, escaped slaves, or highwaymen would dare attack Jon when they saw the black and silver clasp shaped into a single black eye.
Rain splashed on the canopy of trees like the hissing of a thousand snakes. The rain beat down on Jon and poured down the front corner of his hat like a river. Streams slid down the back of his cloak, the oiled leather keeping Jon only partially dry.
Lightning illuminated the dark forest in pure white and Jon became aware of the eyes upon him. They saw the gleam of his pistols on his hips. They saw the shine of the hilt of his Salamonca falcon rapier leaning on one tree. They saw the eye around his neck.
Jon sat under the tree and waited. His pistols wouldn't fire in this weather. His hand found the hilt of his dagger. He sat and waited. Lightning again lit up the world around him. The eyes were gone. He was alone again. His hand relaxed on the dagger hilt and he pulled his cloak tighter around his body. He remembered the warmth of his bed and the warmth of Sandra's body next to his. Jon let the rain pour over him and continued to wish he were back home.
Jon's clothes dried on his body in the morning sun. A caravan traveled past, headed north. Jon recognized the trader driving the cart from the village of North Wind. The trader, though he had sold goods to Jon and Sandra many times, did not recognize him.
Jon rode through North Wind, not stopping to replenish his food or rest Graybeard. The eyes of the villagers all fell to the eye on his cloak and the guns on his hips and then fell to the ground. No one saw him as anything other than an agent of the Emperor - an agent of the Eye.
Jon rested between North Wind and Greenmoon, sleeping off the hard road. He would sleep little when he entered Gloomwillow so wanted to rest as much as possible beforehand. He entered the village of Greenmoon early the next day. Though curious eyes fell upon him, Jon had little fear of anyone recognizing him. It would matter little if they did. Jon wanted no word to connect Sandra to the man who traveled south by order of the Eye.
In the morning, rested, supplied, and fed, Jon rode out of the southern road that would take him through Gloomwillow Wood. Again eyes fell upon him him. A tall Voth slave stared at Jon until his master, a blacksmith, slapped him hard across the face and shoved him along. The blacksmith's eyes followed Jon as he rode south. Many other eyes fell on him as well.
Jon felt them all.
Krin's heart hammered in his chest. For most of his life Krin had known he would see the blue-eyed demon that had killed his family. His mother's mother had whispered it to him, the smoke of nightmares flowing around her gray hair. All his adult life he knew the man would come, but to finally see him was something completely different.
Krin had dreamed of him every night as sleep took Krin from his life of slavery. He saw the man's cold eyes as the screams of Krin's mother echoed out over the hills from the hut where the black-cloaked men had taken her. He saw the man watch as Krin's sisters were impaled naked on pikes and displayed on the sides of the road with forty other women and children. Krin had watched the man shoot his father down like a dog with the bird-hammered pistol he had just seen hanging from the man's belt.
The man had grown old since then, Krin saw. His black pony tail had grayed like storm clouds. Deep lines crossed his brow and spread down his cheeks on each side of his mouth. The solder's eyes were the same, though, pools of cold blue. The eye around his neck was also the same.
Krin felt the crack of Brovine's hand across his cheek. It caused him no pain but Krin acted as though it had. He turned his head and kept walking, hearing the blue-eyed demon's horse clop out of town. Krin had waited for so long. Now the waiting was over.
Two nights after leaving Greenmoon, Jon entered the Gloomwillow Wood. He rode hard the first day, making as much distance through the wood as he could. The dark forest swallowed him. Jon smelled decaying trees and pungent sulfuric gases that seeped out of the ground.
Night fell quickly over the gray haze of dusk. Around him, the trees twisted and swayed like dying old men. Large birds cawed, insects chattered, and creatures howled.
Jon stopped and made camp when he could no longer see the road. He did not know what a fire might attract so he sat in the dark, his cloak pulled tight around his body. Exhaustion took over and Jon slept.
He awoke in the deep of night aware that something drew close. Jon remembered the tales of the last days of the Voth war and the original Gray Wolves. Two hundred men had gone deep into the camps of the Voth king. They had assassinated him in his tent but were captured by those Voth who remained. A regiment of Emperial soldiers had gone into the woods to rescue the captured Gray Wolves. The Gray Wolves were found tied naked to the trees of Gloomwillow. Most of them had been ripped to shreds. Only six of them remained, insane and ranting about black demons, huge beasts that tore into them with bladed claws and jagged teeth.
Jon felt something large move just out of sight. The hair on Jon's arms stood on end and his heart beat hard. His hands went to one of his pistols and pulled back the falcon hammer. The hammer clicked in place and then silence sat like death. No insect made a sound. Jon imagined a huge shape with daggers for teeth and claws just a few feet away. He felt the air grow hot around him.
Jon heard another thud, another rustle of leaves and then silence followed once again. A cricket chirped followed by another. Jon let out a lung of breath he didn't realize he held. Sleep did not find him again that night. By the next evening, Jon rode out of Gloomwillow Wood.
The forest led to the hills and the hills led to the plains. Voth slaves stared up at Jon as he passed, their implements of farming hanging loose in their hands. One hundred such farms, owned by the Emperor for the city's food supply, spotted the countryside surrounding the city of Hammerfoot.
The keep of Hammerfoot appeared over the crest of the southern hills. Soon after, the rest of the city became visible. The keep rested on a man-made hill, the result of an expansion of the river that now ran through the city. Barges ran day and night bringing food, supplies, rock, and Voth slaves from the fertile south to the mountains of the north.
While the keep showed the modern architecture of the Faigon empire, the rest of the city betrayed its origin as the once mighty capital of the Voth. Huge hollow mounds dotted with smoke holes still housed the majority of Hammerfoot's population. A great stone archway covered in ten thousand skins of animals now dead for centuries rose on the west. This structure once housed the throne of the Voth king but now served as the market where the subjects of that king were now sold with livestock and salted meat.
To the east, Jon saw the collapsed ruin of another domed structure, a Clay Haven. This one sat concave in the ground, lifeless. Jon could almost hear the screams as his mind wandered back to the past. Jon quickly looked away.
Jon led Graybeard down a street of clay buildings and tents. A single stone building sat within the haphazard structures around it. A wooden sign with a grotesque carving of a woman's bare breasts painted on it hung above the door. "Mother's Milk" was painted below the sign. Jon tied Graybeard and entered.
Few frequented Mother's Milk this early in the day. A hunched over old Voth tended the bar, his eyes cloudy, bloodshot, and gray. Two soldiers in steel breastplates and three-corner hats turned and beheld Jon for a moment before they looked at each other, took one last drink, and rose to leave. Only the half-blind barkeep and a huge fat man in a black tunic remained. The fat man turned to Jon, his face red and beaded with sweat.
"Left-tenant Jonravel Gavlen," he said, his voice deep and slurred. "It has been too long."
"It has, Peter."
Jon walked to the fat man's table, his boot heels knocking loud on the wooden floor. He sat across from his old friend.
"I nearly pissed myself when I heard they sent you," Peter said. Peter was huge, about twice the size of the creaking chair on which he sat. His black tunic stretched over his belly. His head flowed right into his shoulders with no sign of a neck and only a dimple for a chin. Besides his sharp hazel eyes, he was unrecognizable from the young man who bedded more willing women in two months than the rest of their companions had bedded in a year.
"I thought you must have died. You disappeared after they sent you south."
"I thought I was dead too until I found out I had become a farmer."
Peter laughed. "A farmer? The scourge of the Southtowns? Snake of the Desert? I will never believe it."
The two men sat in the uncomfortable silence of years apart.
"I saw Dunkan about a year or two ago. The eye sent him to kill a witch. He didn't come back through here but that doesn't mean much. Remember that time he lined up six pistols and let six Voth younglings loose into a field? They were sure fast but he got every one of them. Hell of a shot. Hell of a swordsman too. He killed a Kerran fencing graduate in a bar dispute. Even half drunk, Dunkan stabbed him through the liver before the boy drew his sword." Peter's jovial face fell.
"Bardon came through last month. He had that boy, Kes, with him. His 'squire' he called him but we know which of Bardon's swords he polished and sheathed, don't we." Peter coughed. "I always hated him. He is as mean as he was in the old days. Hardly said a word but I could see his old self in his eyes. They were the same as they were the night he and Dunkan burned Whiteglen. I guess we were all hard men back then, weren't we? The war did that to us." Peter took a deep drink and affixed his glassy eyes on Jon.
"Seeing you again almost makes me miss those days but even a pack of Gray Wolves has to split one day, doesn't it." Peter took a deep breath. "Ah well, time for business."
The job was typical: impossible, brutal, delicate, and horrible. Only one part shocked Jon, squeezing his heart and making his skin crawl. It was the name of his contact in the south, another name from the past he never expected to hear again. Celenda.
Krin lay back on his straw cot listening to his brother's-in-chains snore around him. His mind went back twenty three years to the day he became a man.
His father was sprawled out under the hot sun covered in flies. His mother and sister sat kneeling staring up at the sky. Large spikes pierced through their bodies and out of their crying mouths. Krin, his uncle, and six other men had fled into the woods when the northerners had come.
His uncle had shaken him awake before dawn. He led Krin deeper into a thick copse of trees. The other men stood around a young birch. They saw Krin and his uncle approach and stood aside. Two men sat naked, back to back. Their hands were bound behind them, around the tree. They shivered in the chilled morning, their cloudy breath rapid and small. One face was bloody and broken but the face of the other was intact. The man looked up and beheld Krin with deep blue eyes. Thinking back, Krin didn't believe he was any older than fifteen but at the time Krin thought he was larger than life.
"These men killed your father, raped your mother, and pierced your sister through with steel," said Krin's uncle, he was old, small, and bald but Krin had always been afraid of him. He placed a knife in Krin's hand, a dagger with a long thin blade and a hilt of old wood.
"Stab him in the heart, here." Krin's uncle pressed his fingers below the triangle of his ribcage, just below his sternum. He stood back, as did the other men.
Krin did not see this man in his village. He did not see him shoot his father or take his mother and sister behind the tents. He looked up at his uncle, his uncle looked back with cold eyes.
Krin approached the blue-eyed man and knelt. The man started to cry and whispered to him in a language Krin did not understand. Krin supposed he would have known the words now.
The man's eyes never blinked, even when Krin pushed the blade into the man's white skin. It popped and slid in smoothly. Krin heard a hiss and felt warm air blow over his hand. The man coughed and blood came out of his mouth. He still wept.
"Do it again," said his uncle. "Push the blade up higher."
Krin pulled the blade out and stabbed in again, angling up. A rush of red blood washed over his hand and Krin fell back, terrified. Blood pumped out of the man's chest and his head fell forward. The other man began to scream until one of the other men with his uncle hit him hard with a wooden club.
His uncle helped Krin up and he took the knife from Krin's hand. He cut it across Krin's chest and Krin yelped. A line of blood oozed from the small wound and the sting woke Krin from the fog of the moment.
"You will carry that scar your whole life just as you hold that man's soul in you with your own. For every man you kill you will carry another scar and another soul." Krin looked to the sixteen scars that crossed the left side of his uncle's chest.
Krin remembered that moment clearly this night as he lay on his back listening to his brothers snore. He ran a finger along the scar his uncle had given him. He ran his finger across the forty seven other scars that ran across both sides of his chest.
The slavers who captured him didn't know what the scars meant or they would surely have killed him. The blacksmith who owned Krin didn't know either. His brothers knew what the scars meant. They wore no more than twenty between all three of them and they gave him the respect the scars deserved. Before this night would end, the blacksmith, his wife, and his two daughters would add four more scars to his chest.
Krin sat up and woke his brothers. Krin picked up his hammer and broke the clasp on his ankle easily along with those of his three brothers. Silently the four of them crept out of the blacksmith's shop and headed to the smith's home. Krin gripped the hammer tight and though he headed to kill another man, in his mind's eye he saw the cloaked man, the true murderer of his father, headed south on his gray ugly horse. Soon Krin would carry a scar for him as well.
Jon made camp within the grassland hills two days south of Hammerfoot. Here the green plains and rolling hills of the north dried and cracked as the land fed into the dead desert of the south. Here the air was thinnest of all the lands, save the mountains of the west and deep south. The dry air left the sky clear.
Jon looked up to the huge red disk in the sky, omen of the the five hells in the religions of the old empire. The Faigon emperor had outlawed the ancient religions but he could not outlaw the burning red sphere, Ikklix, that hung in the night sky two months of the year.
Jon could make out the fading white outline of the black moon, Zvel. During the war, the soldiers of Faigon used to whisper that, when Zven hung high in the sky, Voth witches called forth black-skinned demons when the Voth began to lose the war. Some even whispered that agents of the Eye had captured one of these demons and locked it up in the vaults of the tower. True or not, the story added to the mystery of the telepathic spy network, the network that let Jon move freely through the north. The same network that held him in debt and sent him south to kill or to die.
Jon leaned back on a block of carved stone worn down from ten centuries of wind. Four stones equally windblown stood upright at the four compass points of the hill. Jon rested his rapier in a groove that ran from the top of the long stone down the side of the block's base. The top of the block, where sat Jon's pack, was slightly concave.
Jon breathed in and sighed. There were fewer more worthy places for him to sleep than the thousand year old sacrificial alter of the Voth.
Jon closed his eyes and slept as shadows flowed around him.
The huge cart lurched as it headed out of the tiny outpost of Fena Kef. The brill, huge lumbering oxen of the desert, fat on water, belched and honked as they pulled the cart. The caravan master, a tiny black-skinned man, hooted and yelled at the large beasts. The beasts farted voluminously in response.
Jon sat in the back of the cart surrounded by ceramic vats of water and bags of feed. He watched as Fena Kef, the tiny waypoint between the green Northlands and the dead sands of the southern desert kingdoms shrunk and shimmered under the burning deep red sun. How many days he had spent in that small town, broken down and filled with naked begging children. The town had changed much since he had seen it last but he knew it would still be here long after he had gone. As poor and small as it was, Fena Kef stood at the center of the world and had for nearly five thousand years.
Jon caught sight of Graybeard eating at a stable. He had paid for three weeks of boarding for the old horse. If he did not return, Graybeard would have a new master.
Jon put his hand on the strange hilt of the long sword he had purchased. His own Salamonca falcon-hilted rapier was wrapped along with his dagger and his pistols in his leather cloak and tied to the bottom of the cart. Jon wore a thin gray cloak and a light cowl under his leather hat. A leather cloak would bake any man alive and the rapier and the guns were more likely to get him killed in the desert than they were to protect him.
The caravan master cried out again at the brill and the brill burped and lurched. It would take a week to reach Gazu Tevel. Jon hoped for a quiet trip.
He did not get his wish.
During his time in the desert, Jon grew used to trips like these. Age, however, seemed to catch up to him. His bones ached and his muscles stiffened. He sat up slowly when the caravan master cried out.
Three men approached on the backs of small desert horses. They wore black cloaks, bronze armor, and helmets of shining copper. Two halted back, drawing short recurve bows and knocking arrows tipped with shining barbed heads. The larger of the three rode in.
The large man dismounted and pulled off his helmet. Black hair flowed over his shoulders and heavy creases crossed his dark face. He shouted at the caravan master in a mixed desert dialect. The sound brought back ancient memories. All these years had passed and still the black-armored soldiers of Dan Trex, the warlord of the largest slave army of the world, ruled the southern desert.
"Get down," said the huge soldier. The caravan master leapt off of the cart and fell prostrate in front of the soldier. Jon hesitated and heard the creak of catgut from the rear soldiers. He dropped down and approached.
"You travel on Trex's road. What business have you?"
"I bring word to Gazu Tevel from the north."
"What news could you have for a city of thieves and whores?"
Jon stayed silent. When the soldier hit Jon, Jon felt like he fell off of a cliff. He stared up at the orange sky and coughed. He heard the sound of steel on leather as the solder drew Jon's longsword, a cheap iron blade purchased at Fena Kef, and broke it on the hard ground.
"You may have won against the woodsmen, but the desert will eat you," the soldier kicked Jon hard. The soldier's curved blade cut the pouch on Jon's waist. Most of his gold was with his guns, however, below the cart. The soldier tucked the pouch under his belt. "Be gone."
The soldier mounted his horse and the three rode west.
It took Jon an hour to catch his breath and the aches of the attack stole any chance for sleep. No symbol of the eye protected him in the sands. No one was safe in the desert.
On the eighth day, Jon sat next to the caravan master who had come out of the encounter with the Trexian soldiers unscathed. On the hazy horizon, Jon could just make out the tips of the three spires. They jutted from the desert like sharp golden teeth. It took them half a day to get close enough to see how huge the spires really were. Only when they crested the last dune did the full scope of the city reveal itself.
The towers stood taller than three hundred men. Around them, the city of clay sprawled under clouds of brown dust. Two hundred thousand called Gazu Tevel home, most of them slaves. The city below the spires rotted in starvation, poverty, and thirst. Seven warlords held onto the city's seven ancient wells as generals held battlegrounds. The wells alone kept the decaying city alive. Fifteen hundred years had passed since a king cared enough for the people to build the wells. The spires were much older.
Each spire held a city of people itself, though only a few dozen ruled within each one. Twisted lineages going back to the fall of the old empire kept the royalty in command of the spires. They were born, lived, mated, sired, and died without ever setting foot in the city below. Armies of soldiers and thousands of slaves brought in the most decadent supplies into the spires. Each spire even had its own supply of water. The spires remained fully independent from the rest of the city including the seven warlords, the wells they controlled, and those who bled under their whips.
The caravan master pulled hard on the wood handle of the brill tack. The caravan stopped. Jon stood and felt hot wind blow at his cloak and cowl. The huge red sun had begun to set and the deeper red planet grew in the night sky behind the three ancient spires. Above them, Jon saw the outline of the black moon.
"Which of the warlords do you serve?" said the caravan master.
"None of them," said Jon. "But we will travel to the southwest well."
The caravan master considered Jon with deep black eyes. "That is Panvel's well. He will kill you if you do not wear his brand."
"He will not kill me. We have an arrangement."
The caravan master watched Jon for a long time and nodded to him. Jon leapt off of the cart and began walking to the southwest gates. Jon paid the caravan master and retrieved his leather-wrapped bundle from under the cart. He handed the caravan master a small leather pouch and tied his pack to his back. Jon walked into the outer city wind and dust whipping at his cloak as he walked. The caravan master cracked his reigns and shouted at the brill. The caravan left.
The smell of decay and sweat hung hot in the air. Jon kept his eyes focused forward, though it could not shield him from the sight of bodies covered in flies, starving children, and eyes filled with sadness, pain, hate, and murder. Two men approached Jon, both significantly better fed than the others on the street. Sharp angular tattoos laced up the left side of their faces. Long curved blades hung on their hips.
"You are from the north." The smaller of the two dark men spoke in a mixed low dialect.
"I am," Jon handed the speaker a folded leather pouch. The man opened it and appeared to read though the seal was likely all he understood. He handed it back to Jon.
"Where do you go?" he asked, with much more respect than when he first approached.
The two men looked at each other and then back to Jon.
"You came all the way from the north to sleep with a man?"
In the smoke filled den of Sen-Vecca, oiled men of all ages, shapes, and colors showed their finest attributes while rich men and women bought, sold, and rented them. Thick smoke of the burned leaves of the red lotus made Jon's eyes water. It took two nights before Jon found what he wanted. Rather, she found him.
Jon was drinking an expensive glass of twice-distilled water when he heard Celenda's voice. His heart gave an involuntary squeeze as he turned.
Her skin was as fair as it had ever been, always well protected from the harsh sun. Her black hair hung down her bare shoulders and she looked at Jon with emerald eyes.
"That one," she said, pointing a long nailed finger at Jon. A huge dark-skinned bodyguard pushed aside the young oiled men and the older fat ones who groped at them as he approached Jon. The guard wore a golden mask shaped like a smiling child but the rest of the guard spoke of power and violence.
"Fourth mistress of the spire of Twilight demands your attendance."
Jon looked at Celenda who stood with her hands on her hips. No one dared make eye contact with her. One long shapely leg slid free of the whispers of green silk that hung low on her hips.
The guard leaned in, the smiling mask nearly touching Jon's own face.
"It is not up to you."
The two huge guards led the way and four more guards wearing the child masks, wide curved blades, and loincloths fell in behind them. The dark broad backs of the guards glistened in the twilight. All of those on the dirty streets, most donning the angled facial tattoos marking them as property of Panvel the warlord, backed away.
Celenda said not a word. She strode ahead of Jon, every ounce of her glowing in an aura of a woman born into nobility who just purchased her latest exotic play thing. Jewels glistened in her hair and her scent reminded Jon of times long past, of a time when she clutched tight as he rode hard on the northern desert cliffs.
They turned a corner and the full splendor of the Spire of Twilight loomed over them.
The spire had taken eight hundred years and half a million slaves to construct. The massive granite stones were sealed in blood. The rock walls gleamed white and gold in the light of dusk. Each of the main stones forming the foundation of the spire weighed more than five hundred men and took twice as many to move. Over ten thousand such stones formed the base of the spire with one hundred times as many building the spire up into the sky. And it was but one of three in the city. All three formed monuments so vast that they stood ageless as the city rose and fell for two thousand years around it.
Jon looked up to the platforms that jutted from the steep angled walls of the spire. From the surface, no one could see what wonders resided above. Likewise, without hanging over the edge, no observer on the platforms could see the decaying world below.
Two sets of walkways connected the three towers. The first rose six hundred feet off of the ground, the other set six hundred feet further up. The walkways were arched and supported at each spire but otherwise floated free above the streets below. Jon marveled at an architecture that could hold up such weight for twenty five hundred years.
Feeling dizzy, Jon focused on the massive doors of the Spire of Twilight. They stood higher than five men. Bands of steel over ancient petrified wood made the doors impregnable. Yet any force who attempted breeching the door would have to fight the one hundred guards stationed outside before even touching it.
The guards wore steel helms and leather chest guards. Half of them carried tall shields and pikes, the other half carried crossbows with wickedly intricate barbed bolt heads. The guards let Celenda and her party enter without a word though Jon saw the eyes of many follow the woman's curves as she stepped through.
They followed a narrow corridor lined with murder holes and charred walls. Anyone getting past the guards and through the door would face hell in this hallway. After forty feet the corridor opened into the main hall.
Jon felt an even stronger sense of vertigo when he looked up the spire from the inside. The main hall rose forty stories in the open. Fifty staircases lined the walls like a large spiral. The doors of hundreds of rooms for the merchants of the spires and the lowest classes of free men and women dotted the inner walls.
A massive statue of a warlord sitting naked on a throne holding a sword in his lap dominated the rear wall of the hall. The statue had been decapitated and castrated by a ruler who no doubt attempted to symbolically murder the once mighty ruler and prevent any offspring.
A wide open staircase descended into the ground at the feet of the statue. Smoke rose from the red glow within the gaping maw leading to the underspire. In his mind's eye, Jon imagined the roots of the spire reaching down into the earth as far as the spire was high.
The underspire was home to fifty thousand slaves who kept the spire alive as water sustains a tree. Thin dark-skinned slaves raised animals, repaired stonework, furnished wares, and served their noble masters until death. A small group of slaves dragging a fat cow from the underspire lowered their eyes as Celenda and Jon passed.
Jon felt a rumble and watched a huge stone platform descend from the ceiling on massive iron chains. The platform slowed and soon touched the ground. Celenda, Jon, and the child-masked guards boarded the ancient stone lift. Jon heard a counterweight begin to fall deep within the wall of the spire and imagined one hundred slaves pushing a great wheel deep below the spire's main hall to lift eight people into the levels of royalty.
From his estimates they rose nearly two thirds of the tower. They rose through dark shafts that opened into entire worlds of farmlands and pyramid dwellings of ancient granite all built within the spire itself. Some sections were almost entirely open to the outside air. Jon realized that all of the floors above rested on four massive pillars carrying an unimaginable burden. Jon could see the chain of their lift's counterweight falling down another shaft before their lift rose into another black tunnel.
The lift stopped in another large hall surrounded by a few dozen ornate doors, all guarded by groups of large men. Each group wore different uniforms. One door of black onyx was guarded by black-skinned giants wearing helms shaped like demons. Another door was guarded by small and stunningly beautiful women. They appeared unarmed until Jon saw the tiny knives on the belts around their slender waists.
More guards in the child masks guarded Celenda's own door. They opened the carved oak door. Jon and Celenda passed through. Two of the guards entered as well while the remaining four stayed outside.
Celenda's apartments were decorated in tapestries of purple and swirling gold. Oak furniture adorned every corner. Bowls of fresh fruit, a food most desert dwellers never saw in their whole lives, sat uneaten on a huge chest of ironbound hardwood.
As soon as she entered, Celenda slipped out of what little clothing she wore. In a moment she stood naked except for the jewelry on her fingers, wrists, ears, and a thin chain around her bare waist. A small attendant ran after, picking up the discarded silk clothing.
Celenda had changed much since Jon had last seen her. Her hips were wider, her legs more shapely, her bottom rounder and her breasts fuller. Jon had worried that age would steal Celenda's most valuable defense but her maturity only added to her beauty. She was not the same slender young woman he had known but she had fallen wonderfully into middle age.
"Come," she said and walked into her bedroom. Jon followed. The attendant closed the ornate double doors as they stepped through and they found themselves alone. Celenda turned and transformed into the woman he had fallen in love with so many years ago. Her eyes were wide and filled with pain.
"I don't know if I should kill you or make love to you, Jon. Either way, it is good to see you again."
"It is good to see you too, Celenda."
Celenda pulled a silk blanket embroidered with images of the old god Fzaal the Winterborn. She wrapped the blanket around her naked body, suddenly finding modesty. The sight of Celenda holding the silk around her creamy skin was more alluring than seeing her bare. Yet his mind was not on Celenda.
Jon remembered a day when Sandra had led Jon from the fields of their farm to their bedroom. She had smiled at him and lifted her skirts up to her thighs as she tip toed through the high crops. Seeing Celenda now only made Jon ache for his wife.
"I thought you would have been as far away from this place as possible," said Jon. Jon turned to look out over the vast expanse of city that stretched from Celenda's open windows, firelight twinkling in a thousand times over in the darkness of the desert.
"It turned out to be safer to stay close. It is much harder to assassinate the Twilight King's third cousin if she holds his court than it is if she flees." Celenda paused, seeming to choose her words. Jon turned and looked into her eyes.
"You were right to leave," said Celenda, her voice quivering. "They would have come and they would have found us. But I will never forgive you for leaving me." Jon lowered his head. He gave her time and then spoke.
"I need to see your cousin."
"We will meet him tomorrow. He will learn of your arrival tonight. He is eager to meet with the northern ambassadors." Celenda rose. "You can stay here. I am expected elsewhere tonight." Celenda turned and left. The silk blanket dropped as she opened the door. Jon watched her go.
Jon slept better than he had in years. Celenda's warm blankets fought off the chill night air. After years sleeping on straw mattresses, Jon never knew a bed could be so soft. He slept for nearly half a day and awoke to the smell of spiced meats and broiled red leaves, a dish he had not eaten in well over ten years. He found a plate and pewter cup of clean water on the room's thick stone table. A fresh shirt and trousers sat folded next to a basin of water. Jon washed and dressed.
He wore the formal garb of a northern ambassador, leaving his guns, sword, knife, and armor at the bottom of a trunk of incredible age and beauty. Jon could only hope the weapons would be here when he returned.
In her sitting room, Celenda sat on a silk upholstered chair looking out over the city. Tendrils of smoke rose into the orange sky and the huge red sun reflected in Celenda's eyes.
"Three hundred years before the empire fell there was a king who ruled over the three spires. One morning a slave saved the king's only son from falling off of a lift. The king was so moved that he changed everything. He freed all the slaves. He gave them coin and food and a promise of a better life. He tried to unite the city with those in the spires. One day a week he worked the wheel below, his hands calloused and muscles straining to raise and lower the lifts. He took four copper bevels for the work and used to say it was the best money he ever earned.
"He spent every coin in the coffers of the vaults above us to dig the seven wells of Gazu Tevel. It was his gift to the city. I'm sure he had no idea how much blood would spill as the warlords took control of the wells.
"The king's son, the one saved by a slave, killed his father and all of the king's changes were gone overnight. Within two weeks the caste system had returned to the way it was.
"This city has a state of equilibrium and it doesn't like change."
Celenda turned to Jon.
"Why are you here?"
They took the lift high into the spire. Jon felt the tons of rock pressing around him as the spire narrowed.
Celenda wore a single shift of scarlet silk around her body. Bracelets of gold wrapped her wrists and a jeweled tiara held back her long hair.
Jon straightened his cloak and tucked in his clean shirt. The lack of a gun-belt made him physically uncomfortable. How easily his body had grown used to their weight after so long without them. His hands had held the wooden shaft of a plow for years but always they felt for his guns.
The stone lift stopped at the second floor from the top. Only a private lift would take the prince to his chambers above. Red light reflected off of the golden walls, bathing the audience hall in deep amber. Forty guards dressed in gold armor and masks shaped of wild dogs stood along the walls. Three young women, topless, fed fresh fruit to the slender king of the spire as he rested on a massive chaise.
A tall dark-skinned man stood behind the chaise. He wore no armor or insignia of rank. Two curved blades sheathed in oiled leather hung from a rope belt. Scars and tattoos crawled over his lean skin. The man's eyes glowed light gold in the sunlight and they never left Jon. His golden eyes never left Jon.
"Welcome Ambassador," said the reclining prince. Unlike the dark man behind him, the prince had a body soft from the lack of any hardship since the day of his birth. He bit off a piece of green fruit and cupped the bare breast of the girl offering it. The girl kept her eyes downcast. "And welcome, cousin."
"My prince." Celenda bowed. Jon removed his hat and bowed in the northern style, one foot back on its toe and sweeping the floor with his hat.
The prince stood and walked out on a balcony outside the walls of the spire. After a moment, Jon followed him and stood next to the prince.
Though his mind was on other matters, the view from the balcony amazed Jon. He stared over the sea of golden sand and a sky of amber and scarlet. Warm air blew over them, an air more fresh than any Jon had ever smelled. The red sun was high in the sky but Jon could make out the black shadow of the demon moon below, just on the horizon. Jon imagined no more than fifty men had ever seen a sight like this. No one north of the desert had ever seen this. Jon imagined what Sandra would see and imagined what she was doing at this very moment.
"I live in a prison." Jon turned and beheld the prince and his absurd words. "I live my life trapped in these walls surrounded by voiceless slaves and empty shells of nobility. I was born two thousand years too late and now I sit in these halls growing fat and waiting to die.
"My grandfather tried to take back the lower city. He built and trained an army. He marched out of the gates. He hunted the warlords. His men were ripped to pieces. His weapons were the same as theirs but those weapons were dull from lack of use while the weapons of the warlords were sharp from daily bloodshed. The warlords knew what the rest of us forget. We god-kings are but flesh and blood. They cut us and we bleed. I need something else to scare them and put doubt into their hearts. I need a magic or power they cannot understand and against which they cannot defend. I must show them that I am indeed a god."
The prince turned and looked at Jon. Though encased in a soft body of decadence, Jon saw the burning eyes of war. He was familiar with the sight.
"I need guns," said the prince. "Give me guns and I can crush the spirits of ten men for every one I shoot down. I will give you gold, slaves, workers, and women."
"It was not only the guns that allowed us defeat the Voth," said Jon.
"No, it wasn't."
Jon looked at the prince and the prince returned Jon's stare. Jon saw the unspoken answer in the princes eyes. The prince knew of the Eye. He knew of their power over the mind. Someone must have told him.
"Let me consider your words and give you an answer in the morning," said Jon.
"Indeed. My cousin will fulfill your every need."
Food awaited them as Jon and Celenda returned to her apartments. Celenda ate with her eyes on Jon. Jon stared at his food.
Jon pieced the puzzle together in his head. The prince knew of telepathy. He knew of the Eye's part in the Voth war. Only the Eye and their agents knew of that connection and took extreme measures to keep that secret safe. The agent of the eye who visited Jon was correct. The Eye had a rogue telepath and that telepath was here.
"I'm not the only northerner to come here, am I," said Jon. Celenda delayed before speaking.
"No. The other arrived here a year ago."
"He is one of the princes advisors?"
"He is his only advisor. The others were all put to the sword."
"He was not here today. Why?"
"He did not want to see you."
"Is he up there now?"
Jon thought about this for a long time. Celenda waited in silence.
"Come get me this evening. Do not tell him we are coming."
Celenda looked at Jon for a long while and then left.
Jon opened the chest and breathed deep when he saw his weapons were still there. He saw the silver hammers of his guns shining in the afternoon sun. Jon buckled his belt and tied the holsters down on his legs.
Jon cleaned his guns, oiled his sword and dagger, arranged his powder bag and his pouch of shot. He had two hundred steel balls in the bullet pouch and he would likely use every one of them. His fingers followed a long-ingrained motion as he loaded both pistols simultaneously, one hand holding both pistols and the other hand pushing down the twin loading rods. Jon could load and fire six shots in thirty seconds with this loading style taught to him over twenty years ago by the best pistolier on the planet.
As he prepared, Jon thought of Sandra. He saw the smile on her lips and smelled her as she lay on top of him. He could feel her soft skin and listen to her breathing in the dark of night. She never felt so far away as she did now. He thought about what he was about to do and he knew it had to be done. When the agent of the Eye showed up at his door, he knew he would either have to do this or Sandra and Daven would die. There was only one chance to ever see them again and that chance was small.
Celenda entered and her eyes fell to the hilt on his belt. His black cloak covered his belt.
"I need a rope," said Jon.
The stone lift rose and Jon breathed deep.
"When it begins, drop to the ground and don't get up." Jon did not turn when he spoke.
"You're going to kill him, aren't you."
"Kall, his guard, is stronger and faster than you are. I saw him kill twenty six men in the pit fights a year ago. You're not going to get out of that room alive."
The lift crashed to a stop. Jon led the way. A courtier scurried ahead, opening the golden doors to the audience hall.
"The ambassador of the north!" cried the courtier. Jon stepped in.
"What?" said the prince, standing up off of his chaise. The tall dark-skinned bodyguard stood tense, his hands falling to the hilts of his blades. Another man wearing a black silk shirt turned towards Jon. His head was shaved and black veins ran along his forehead and neck.
"You come unannounced!" said the prince. Panic filled the face of the northern advisor on his right.
The bodyguard's eyes blazed when he saw the silver rapier hilt on Jon's belt. His curved blades were out in a flash.
Jon felt a thickness fill his head. His vision narrowed. He saw the northerner, the rogue of the Eye, straining with teeth clenched and hands balled into fists. Jon gripped the wood grip of his right pistol in a numb hand. He drew and took unsteady aim. He saw the dark-skinned bodyguard rushing towards him. The thickness in his head grew. His stomach wretched. The rogue telepath's nose started to bleed.
The report echoed off of the stone floor, pillars, and ceiling. The shot hit the telepath in the shoulder. He fell back screaming. Jon saw the splintered white bone of the rogue's collarbone protruding from his tattered shirt.
The dark-skinned bodyguard was almost to Jon. He shouted and the six dog-helmed guards responded. Three fled for the lift hallway, the report of the magic weapon still echoing in their ridiculous helmets. Three others, however, rushed towards Jon.
Jon dropped to his left knee. He dropped his right pistol to the ground and drew his left one with the same hand. His left hand drew his off-hand dagger from the sheath on his back. He fired the pistol into the lower jaw of the first guard on his left. Blood erupted from the top of the guard's head, spouting from a hole in the top of his helmet. Jon stabbed another guard on the inside of the thigh with his dagger. The guard dropped his polearm and gripped at the gushing wound in his leg.
Jon dropped his second pistol. He drew and slashed his rapier in one motion. A waterfall of blood flowed down the chest of the guard on his right. As the three guards fell, the golden-eyed bodyguard was on him.
Jon nearly died the first second his blades met the curved blades of the bodyguard. Jon's left hand dagger caught the first blade of the bodyguard's attack and the hilt of his rapier countered the second. The dark-skinned man swung his elbow over the trapped blade and smashed it across Jon's jaw.
Jon fell back, his eyes filling with blackness and water. The numbness found him again. His right hand found the grip of one of his fallen pistols. It was empty but not everyone understood how those pistols worked. He aimed it and cocked back the hammer. The bodyguard cowered back. Jon kicked hard into the bodyguard's knee. Jon heard the pop echo in the stone hall. The bodyguard grunted and fell down. It was the only sound Jon ever heard him make. Jon scrambled on top of the man, planting one boot over the man's wrist to pin his left blade to the ground. Jon stabbed the bodyguard in the heart, pressing his off-hand dagger in with both hands.
Jon stood and picked up his rapier. The courtier was curled into a ball and Celenda stood off to the side. She had not followed Jon's instructions but seemed no worse for it. She stared at Jon.
Jon stepped up on the platform. The prince sat stunned on his chaise. Jon ignored him and stood over the unconscious rogue agent of the Eye. Jon ran his razor-sharp rapier across the man's throat. The rogue didn't stir as his blood flowed down across the raised platform.
His job was done. Now all he had to do was get home. Jon recovered and loaded his pistols. He looked at Celenda, remembering the feel of her, decades ago, when he carried her out of her husband's villa, weak and filled with poison. He could not save her now. She would have to save herself. Jon was confident she would succeed.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Jon fled for the lift chased by the cries of the prince. The cries would alert the entire spire and soon hundreds would come with at him with a single purpose. They would all want to kill him.
That night the streets of Gazu Tevel grew silent. The small cracks emanating from the spire of Twilight sounded like small bolts of heat lightning. Flashes of light burst from the high windows of the tower followed seconds later by another loud crack. On three occasions men fell from the tower and crashed like sacks of rotten fruit when they hit the ground. Those near the front of the spire saw half of the outer guards race inside drawing large bronze blades from their belts.
The hardened survivors of the streets of Gazu Tevel, the gang lords and the armies of the damned, had no idea what took place in the tower that night. They wondered and whispered and speculated that perhaps a demon had been loosed and wracked vengeance upon the corrupt rulers of the spire of Twilight.
They were right.
Jon fell back on a stone wall clutching a long gash in his left arm. He held his falcon-hammered pistol in his left hand, the barrel smoking. The other pistol lay somewhere among the dead men three floors above. Whoever found it could earn a king's vault from a Faigon weaponsmith, only a handful of the masterwork pistols existed. It would be priceless in the south desert but few would have any idea how to use it.
Jon tied a strip of cloth around the wound in his arm. He then reloaded the pistol and tightened the wrapped pack on his back under his tattered leather cloak. Only luck and speed had brought him to this moment alive. He felt his blood surging in his veins. Tomorrow his bones would creak and his muscles would scream but now he was twenty five again and the taste of blood was in his throat.
The cries for his death had escalated. Someone shouted that he had killed the prince himself, not just the prince's advisor. Perhaps Celenda had found a way to survive after all. Jon could see her picking up one of the curved blades from the dead bodyguard and hacking the prince as he sat paralyzed on his chaise. She herself would call for Jon's death and no one would remember that she was the one to bring him in. By dawn she might rule this spire herself.
Four men in leather breastplates and bronze swords saw Jon and rushed down the corridor. The leader of the small group shouted a single syllable order. The three other men attacked.
Jon's rapier darted in at the first punching a hole under the man's raised arm and into his lung. He fell away gasping. Jon shot the second through the chest and saw a cloud of red blood appear behind him. The man died before his body hit the ground. Jon sidestepped the swing of the third man and dropped to one knee. He stabbed his rapier through the left thigh of the attacker. The blade drove out the other side. The man's leg gave and he collapsed screaming.
The leader, a powerful man with a long braid of black hair, picked up one of the fallen bronze swords and circled Jon. He was relaxed and death filled his eyes. Jon holstered his pistol and drew his off-hand dagger. He bent his knees and went up on the balls of his feet. His eyes locked with the dark eyes of the guard captain.
The captain attacked with a high left hand swing but Jon saw the ruse. He sidestepped, feeling the wind of the blade as it passed inches from his face. As Jon predicted, the other blade slid in low. Jon heard the words of his fencing instructor spoken across two decades. "Why parry the blade when you can parry the arm?" Jon stabbed his off-hand dagger into the crook of the captain's elbow. The captain cried out and dropped the sword in his wounded arm. Jon stomped on the captain's foot and heard the bones crack within his leather sandal. Jon's rapier pierced through the man's throat as he fell.
Jon stood a moment watching the captain, a slave of high rank, die at his feet. How had it come to this? How could he forget what he had done? He had tried to forget his dark art but his hands and body remembered everything. Killing other men had always come easily.
A roar captured Jon's attention as a crowd of fresh guards rushed forward. Jon fled.
Jon raced down a network of halls, stairwells, and ramps, men dying in his wake. His rapier flashed and blood streamed against the ancient rock. He fired his pistols, reloaded, and fired again.
Cold morning air blew past as Jon ran to the lower bridge between the Spire of Twilight and the Spire of Dawn. Men chased after him with blades and spears high.
Jon watched with dismay as men flowed out of the entrance of the Spire of Dawn and onto the bridge. Bull-helmed, the men drew their blades and rushed. In a matter of moments, Jon would be crushed between the two groups. There was no escape.
Dawn broke over the horizon. Deep red sunlight shined over Jon and he thought of Sandra and Davin. Jon sheathed his rapier and reached for the loop of rope under his cloak. He turned and aimed his pistol at the guards of Twilight. Those up front reared back and cowered. Jon heard the footsteps of the guards of Dawn behind him. When the first one reached him, Jon turned, put the barrel of the pistol under the chin of the bull helmed man, and fired. The rest of the guards of Dawn cried out and backed away. Jon slipped the loop of rope over the man's head. The guards on both sides of the bridge regained their courage and rushed forward.
Two more nights had passed before Jon left Gazu Tevel. Two dozen cuts and scrapes crossed his skin. He could just barely begin walking on his left knee again. His back still screamed in spasms. Yet Jon considered himself lucky for no man or god could ever explain how he survived a fall like that even with a rope.
Jon spent the rest of his money on three horses, enough water to take him to Fena Kaf, and freedom from Gazu Tevel. Hollow threats, false promises, and more luck paid for the rest.
Jon spent two weeks riding his three horses north and west, avoiding Trexian patrols and spending evenings watching the black moon and red planet dance in the sky. Two of the horses had died by the time he reached the small town that separated the corruption of the north from the barbarism of the south. Jon sold the remaining horse for some food. He patted Graybeard on the muzzle when the stable master led her from the stables.
Jon was half a day north of Fena Kef when the Voth found him.
He had just been considering his good luck and hoping that luck would help him through Gloomwillow when the shaft of a spear smashed across his face. He fell back off of Graybeard, landing hard onto the packed earth of the northern road.
A Voth stepped out of the wood, grabbing Graybeard's reigns and pulling the horse off to the side of the road while another, the spear wielder, stepped to Jon's right. Horse thieves, Jon thought. All of this would end being cut down by horse thieves.
The one who had taken his horse returned and stood on Jon's left, two handaxes in his hands. Two others stepped forward from the shadows of the trees. When Jon saw the eyes of the leader he knew he was wrong. These were no horse thieves.
The leader had panted a band of black band of warpaint across his eyes. Dozens of death scars lined the Voth's chest. At least eight of them looked fresh. The scarred Voth held a hammer in his hand, its head and half of its handle colored like dark rust.
"Do you know who I am?" said the Voth leader. His Evalan vocabulary was perfect. Jon thought for a moment.
"You were in Greenmoon when I passed through."
"That was not the only time we have met," said the Voth. Jon did not answer.
"My name is Krin. Twenty three years ago you and your men raped and murdered my mother and my sister. You put them on pikes. I saw you put a ball of lead into my father's skull. But that was not even close to all the evil you have done, is it?
"Your fat friend said nothing until we showed him his insides. Then he told us about what you had done. He told us about killing the king's children to ensure no heir would rise. He told us how you burned one hundred of us in Ravenclaw. He told us how you ordered the barrels of black powder in the doors of the second Clay Haven in Hammerfoot and collapsed it on the women and children screaming inside.
"If I killed you a thousand times it would not sate those who you have damned."
"Then kill me not at all, Krin," said Jon. His stomach tied itself into a knot. The memories of his life stabbed him like a spear. "I have done all these things and more. I deserve to die a thousand times for the acts of my youth. You deserve your revenge.
"But I just want to go home. I want to see my wife and hold my son. I will surely burn in the five hells for my actions when I die but I want to live as I should have for the little time I have left. I want to go home. Please let me pass."
The Voth's eyes blazed within the strip of black war paint. He stood unblinking, gripping the heavy hammer in his hand. Jon looked into his eyes and saw the eyes of a dead man.
"He is going to draw his pistol and shoot me. When he does, I want you to kill him, strip him naked, and impale him on your spear in the center of this road." Krin spoke in the guttural language of the old tribes. It was only by chance that Jon understood the words. Chance, it would seem, was the shield that protected him throughout his entire cursed life.
Krin raised his hammer and swung hard.
Jon rolled back and onto his feet, outside of the swing of the hammer. He drew his right pistol, and shot the axe wielder on his left in the face. His head exploded in a red mist. The crash of the gun shook the spear wielder, Jon easily parried the spear with his off-hand dagger. He pinned the spear head to the ground and broke the shaft with a hard stomp.
Jon caught a flash of movement behind him. He kicked hard and felt his boot connect with Krin's ribs. Krin fell back as Jon drew his dagger and stabbed it through the spear wielder's heart and out his back.
As the spear wielder fell, Jon reset his stance, his off-hand dagger in his left hand and his rapier in his right. Krin picked up one of the handaxes of his dead companion and circled. He was lean and Jon could see the movement of his corded muscles under his skin. The scars stood out on his chest and Jon could almost see the souls of the dead men, women, and children the scars represented swimming in Krin's eyes.
Krin was both younger and stronger than Jon and had spent much of his life fighting or learning how to fight. He had killed scores of men, soldiers of the northern empire, themselves killers of men. He was powerful and he was fast but he was no match for the Gray Wolf.
Krin swung his hand axe horizontally. Jon moved back just slight enough to let the axe swing past his eyes. He didn't blink. Without looking, he parried the incoming hammer blow without looking, trapping the hammer's handle in the fork of his off-hand dagger. Jon spun and pushed his shoulder against Krin's locked elbow. The Voth's arm broke in two places.
Krin fell back, his arm twisted in ruin. The hammer slid from dead fingers to the ground. He went white but his eyes continued to burn. He swung with his axe again. This time Jon slid the entire blade of his rapier against Krin's wrist as it flew past, cutting down to the bone. Krin stumbled past, blood spattering in a line on the dirt road. Jon did not give him time to register the wound. He held no grievance with the Voth. Jon stepped past Krin and stabbed his off-hand dagger deep into the base of the Voth's skull to the hilt. He drew the blade out and Krin fell dead to the ground.
Jon spent the night staring at the body of the Voth and considering the ghosts of his past.
Five weeks from when her husband left, the Gray Wolf rode into Sandra's farm. He wore a black tattered cloak and a hat colored with a red dust Sandra had never seen. A silver rapier gleamed on his hip as he rode. He rode on her husband's horse.
Daven stepped up next to Sandra and clutched her hand as they both watched the man approach. When he saw them, he dismounted and took off his hat. The soldier's hair was gray, like her husband's, but longer. He was thinner and walked with a limp.
Sandra's heart both leapt and sank every step closer the soldier came. Who was this man who looked so much like her husband? Where had he gone and what had he done? What had happened to him?
She felt his arms around her and heard his words. She smelled the man she had married yet still she held a stranger in her arms. She may one day love this man. She may one day watch the man hold her child and not fear for her child's life, but she knew one thing clearly as she looked into the man's eyes.
Her husband was dead, if he had ever existed at all.