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Black Halo

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Black Halo

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Author: Sam Sykes
Publisher: Pyr, 2011
Series: The Aeon's Gate: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

THE TOME OF THE UNDERGATES HAS BEEN RECOVERED...

...and the gates of hell remain closed. Lenk and his five companions set sail to bring the accursed relic away from the demonic reach of Ulbecetonth, the Kraken Queen. But after weeks at sea, tensions amidst the adventurers are rising. Their troubles are only beginning when their ship crashes upon an island made of the bones left behind from a war long dead.

And it appears that bloodthirsty alien warrior women, fanatical beasts from the deep, and heretic-hunting wizards are the least of their concerns. Haunted by their pasts, plagued by their gods, tormented by their own people, and gripped by madness personal and peculiar, their greatest foes may yet be themselves.

The reach of Ulbecetonth is longer than hell can hold.


Excerpt

Prologue

The Aeons' Gate
The Sea of Buradan... somewhere...
Summer, getting later all the time

What's truly wrong with the world is that it seems so dauntingly complex at a glance and so despairingly simple upon close examination. Forget what elders, kings, and politicians say otherwise, this is the one truth of life. Any endeavor so noble and gracious, any scheme so cruel and remorseless, can be boiled down like cheap stew. Good intentions and ambitions rise to the surface in thick, sloppy chunks and leave behind only the base instincts at the bottom of the pot.

Granted, I'm not sure what philosophical aspect represents the broth, but this metaphor only came to me just now. That's beside the point. For the moment, I'm dubbing this "Lenk's Greater Imbecile Theory."

I offer up myself as an example. I began by taking orders without question from a priest; a priest of Talanas, the Healer, no less. If that weren't impressive enough, he, one Miron Evenhands, also served as Lord Emissary for the church itself. He signed the services of myself and my companions to help him find a relic, one Aeons' Gate, to communicate with the very heavens.

It seemed simple enough, if a bit mad, right up until the demons attacked.

From there, the services became a bit more... complicated should be the word for it, but it doesn't quite do justice to describe the kind of fish-headed preachers that came aboard the vessel carrying us and stole a book, one Tome of the Undergates. After our services were required to retrieve this--this collection of scriptures wrought by hellbeasts that were, until a few days ago, stories used to frighten coins into the collection plates--to say that further complications arose seems rather disingenuous.

Regardless, at the behest of said priest and on behalf of his god, we set out to retrieve this tome and snatch it back from the clutches of the aforementioned hellbeasts. To those reading who enjoy stories that end with noble goals reached, lofty morals upheld, and mankind left a little better for the experience, I would suggest closing this journal now, should you have stumbled upon it long after it separated from my corpse.

It only gets worse from here.

I neglected to mention what it was that drove such glorious endeavors to be accomplished. Gold. One thousand pieces. The meat of the stew, bobbing at the top.

The book is mine now, in my possession, along with a severed head that screams and a very handy sword. When I hand over the book to Miron, he will hand over the money. That is what is left at the bottom of this pot: no great quest to save humanity, no communication with the Gods, no uniting people hand in hand through trials of adversity and noble blood spilled. Only money. Only me.

This is, after all, adventure.

Not that the job has been all head-eating demons and babbling seagulls, mind. I've also been collecting epiphanies, such as the one written above. A man tends to find them bobbing on the very waves when he's sitting cramped in a tiny boat.

With six other people. Whom he hates. One of whom farts in her sleep. I suppose I also neglected to mention that I haven't been alone in this endeavor. No, much of the credit goes to my companions: a monster, a heathen, a thug, a zealot, and a savage. I offer these titles with the utmost respect, of course. Rest assured that, while they are undoubtedly handy to have around in a fight, time spent in close quarters with them tends to wear on one's nerves rather swiftly.

All the same... I don't suppose I could have done it without them. "It" being described below, short as I can make it and ending with a shict's ass pointed at me like a weapon as she slumbers.

The importance of the book is nothing worth noting unless it is also noted who had the book. In this case, after Miron, the new owners were the Abysmyths: giant, emaciated demons with the heads of fish who drown men on dry land. Fittingly enough, their leader, the Deepshriek, was even more horrendous. I suppose if I were a huge man-thing with a fish-head, I would follow a huge fish-thing with three man-heads.

Or woman-heads, in this case, I'm sorry. Apologies again; two woman-heads. The third rests comfortably at my side, blindfolded and gagged. It does have the tendency to scream all on its own.

Still, one can't honestly recount the trouble surrounding this book if one neglects to mention the netherlings. I never saw one alive, but unless they change color when they die, they appear to be very powerful, very purple women. All muscle and iron, I'm told by my less fortunate companions who fought them, that they fight like demented rams and follow short, effeminate men in dresses.

As bad as things got, however, it's all behind us now. Despite the fact that the Deepshriek escaped with two of its heads, despite the fact that the netherlings' com- mander, a rather massive woman with sword to match, escaped, despite the fact that we are currently becalmed with one day left until the man sent to pick us up from the middle of the sea decides we're dead and leaves and we really die shortly after and our corpses rot in the noonday sun as gulls form polite conversation over whether my eyeballs or my stones are the more tasty part of me...

One moment, I'm not quite sure where I intended to go with that statement.

I wish I could be at ease, really I do. But it's not quite that easy. The adventurer's constant woe is that the adventure never ends with the corpse and the loot. After the blood is spilled and the deed is done, there's always people coming for revenge, all manner of diseases acquired and the fact that a rich adventurer is only a particularly talented and temporarily wealthy kind of scum.

Still... that's not what plagues me. Not to the extent of the voice in my head, at least.

I tried to ignore it, at first. I tried to tell myself that it wasn't speaking in my head, that it was only high exhaustion and low morale wearing on my mind. I tried to tell myself that....

And it told me otherwise.

It's getting worse now. I hear it all the time. It hears me all the time. What I think, it knows. What I know, it casts doubt on. It tells me all sorts of horrible things, tells me to do worse things, commands me to hurt, to kill, to strike back. It gets so loud, so loud lately that I want to... that I just--

Pardon.

The issue is that I can make the voice stop. I can get a few moments respite from it... but only by opening the tome.

Miron told me not to. Common sense told me again. But I did it, anyway. The book is more awful than I could imagine. At first, it didn't even seem to say anything: its pages were just filled with nonsensical symbols and pages of people being eviscerated, decapitated, manipulated, and masticated at the hands, minds, and jaws of various creatures too awful to re-create in my journal.

As I read on, however... it began to make more sense. I could read the words, understand what they were saying, what they were suggesting. And when I flip back to the pages I couldn't read before, I can see them all over again. The images are no less awful, but the voice... the voice stops. It no longer tells me things. It no longer commands me.

It doesn't just make sense grammatically, but philosophically as well. It doesn't speak of evisceration, horrific sin, or demonic incursion like it's supposed to, despite the illustrations. Rather, it speaks of freedom, of self-reliance, of life without a need to kneel. It's really more of a treatise, but I suppose "Manifesto of the Undergates" just doesn't have the same ring.

I open the book only late at night. I can't do it in front of my companions. During the day, I sit on it to make sure that they can't snatch a glimpse at its words. To my great relief, none of them have tried so far, apparently far more bothered by other matters.

To be honest, it's a bit of a relief to see them all so agitated and uncomfortable. Gariath, especially, since his preferred method of stress release usually involves roaring, gnashing, and stomping with me having to get a mop at the end of it. Lately, however, he just sits at the rear of our little boat, holding the rudder, staring out at sea. He's so far unmoved by anything, ignoring us completely.

Not that such a thing stops other people from trying.

Denaos is the only one in good spirits, so far. Considering, it seems odd that he should be alone in this. After all, he points out, we have the tome. We're about to be paid one thousand gold pieces. Split six ways, that still makes a man worth exactly six cases of whiskey, three expensive whores, sixty cheap whores, or one splendid night with all three in varying degrees, if his math is to be trusted. He insults, he spits, he snarls, seemingly more offended that we're not more jovial.

Oddly enough, Asper is the only one who can shut him up. Even more odd, she does it without yelling at him. I fear she may have been affected the worst by our encounters. I don't see her wearing her symbol lately. For any priestess, that is odd. For a priestess who has polished, prayed to, and occasionally threatened to shove said symbol into her companions' eye sockets, it's worrying.

Between her and Denaos, Dreadaeleon seems to be torn. He alternately wears an expression like a starving puppy for the former, then fixes a burning, hateful stare upon the latter. At any moment, he looks like he's either going to have his way with Asper or incinerate Denaos. As psychotic as it might sound, I actually prefer this to his constant prattling about magic, the Gods and how they're a lie, and whatever else the most annoying combination of a wizard and a boy could think up.

Kataria...

Kataria is an enigma to me yet. Of all the others, she was the first I met, long ago in a forest. Of all the others, she has been the one I've never worried about, I've never thought ill of for very long. She has been the only one I am able to sleep easy next to, the only one I know will share her food, the only one I know who wouldn't abandon me for gold or violence.

Why can't I understand her?

All she does is stare. She doesn't speak much to me, to anyone else, really, but she only stares at me. With hatred? With envy? Does she know what I've done with the book? Does she hate me for it?

She should be happy, shouldn't she? The voice tells me to hurt her worst, hurt her last. All her staring does is make the voice louder. At least by reading the book I can look at her without feeling my head burn.

When she's sleeping, I can stare at her, though. I can see her as she is... and even then, I don't know what to make of her. Stare as I might, I can't...

Sweet Khetashe, this has gotten a tad strange, hasn't it?

The book is ours now. That's what matters. Soon we'll trade it for money, have our whiskey and our whores and see who hires us next. That is assuming, of course, we ever make it to our meeting point: the island of Teji. We've got one night left to make it, with winds that haven't shown themselves since I began writing, and a huge, endless sea beneath us.

Hope is ill advised.


One
Stealing The Sunrise

Dawn had never been so quiet in the country.

Amid the sparse oases in the desert, noise had thrived where all other sound had died. Dawn came with songbirds, beds creaking as people rousted themselves for labor, bread and water sloshed down as meager breakfast. In the country, the sun came with life.

In the city, life ended with the sun.

Anacha stared from her balcony over Cier'Djaal as the sun rose over its rooftops and peeked through its towers to shine on the sand-covered streets below. The city, in response, seemed to draw tighter in on itself, folding its shadows like a blanket as it rolled over and told the sun to let it sleep for a few more moments.

No songbirds came to Anacha's ears; merchants sold such songs in the market for prices she could not afford. No sounds of beds; all clients slept on cushions on the floor, that their late-night visitors might not wake them when leaving. No bread, no water; breakfast would be served when the clients were gone and the girls might rest up from the previous night.

A frown crossed her face as she observed the scaffolding and lazy bricks of a tower being raised right in front of her balcony. It would be done in one year, she had heard the workers say.

One year, she thought, and then the city steals the sun from me, too.

Her ears twitched with the sound of a razor on skin. She thought it odd, as she did every morning, that such a harsh, jagged noise should bring a smile to her lips. Just as she thought it odd that this client of hers should choose to linger long enough to shave every time he visited her.

She turned on her sitting cushion, observing the back of his head: round and bronzed, the same color as the rest of his naked body. His face was calm in the mirror over her washbasin; wrinkles that would become deep, stress-born crevices in the afternoon now lay smooth. Eyes that would later squint against the sunset were wide and brilliantly blue in the glass as he carefully ran the razor along his froth-laden scalp.

"I wager you have beautiful hair," she said from the balcony. He did not turn, so she cleared her throat and spoke up. "Long, thick locks of red that would run all the way down to your buttocks if you gave them but two days."

He paused at that, the referred cheeks squeezing together self-consciously. She giggled, sprawled out on her cushion so that she looked at him upside- down, imagining the river of fire that would descend from his scalp.

"I could swim in it," she sighed at her own mental image, "for hours and hours. It wouldn't matter if the sun didn't shine. Even if it reflected the light of just one candle, I could be blinded."

She thought she caught a hint of a smile in the reflection. If it truly was such, however, he did not confirm it as he ran the razor over his scalp and flicked the lather into her basin.

"My hair is black," he replied, "like any man's from Cier'Djaal."

She muttered something, rolled up onto her belly, and propped her chin on her elbows. "So glad my poetry is not lost on heathen ears."

"'Heathen,' in the common vernacular, is used to refer to a man without faith in gods. Since I do not have such a thing, you are halfway right. Since gods do not exist, you are completely wrong." This time, he did smile at her in the mirror as he brought the razor to his head once more. "And I didn't pay for the poetry."

"My gift to you, then," Anacha replied, making an elaborate bow as she rose to her feet.

"Gifts are typically given with the expectation that they are to be returned." He let the statement hang in the air like an executioner's ax as he scraped another patch of skin smooth.

"Recompensed."

"What?"

"If it was to be returned, you would just give me the same poem back. To recompense the gift means that you would give me one of your own."

The man stopped, tapped the razor against his chin, and hummed thoughtfully. Placing a hand against his mouth, he cleared his throat.

"There once was an urchin from Allssaq--"

"Stop," she interrupted, holding a hand up. "Sometimes, too, gifts can just be from one person to another without reprisal."

"Recompense."

"In this case, I believe my word fits better." She drew her robe about her body, staring at him in the mirror and frowning. "The sun is still sleeping, I am sure. You don't have to go yet."

"That's not your decision," the man said, "nor mine."

"It doesn't strike you as worrisome that your decisions are not your own?"

Anacha immediately regretted the words, knowing that he could just as easily turn the question back upon her. She carefully avoided his stare, turning her gaze toward the door that she would never go beyond, the halls that led to the desert she would never see again.

To his credit, Bralston remained silent.

"You can go in late, can't you?" she pressed, emboldened.

Quietly, she slipped behind him, slinking arms around his waist and pulling him close to her. She breathed deeply of his aroma, smelling the night on him. His scent, she had noticed, lingered a few hours behind him. When he came to her in the evening, he smelled of the markets and sand in the outside world. When he left her in the morning, he smelled of this place, her prison of silk and sunlight.

It was only when the moon rose that she smelled him and herself, their perfumes mingled as their bodies had been the night before. She smelled a concoction on him, a brew of moonlight and whispering sand on a breeze as rare as orchids. This morning, his scent lingered a little longer than usual and she inhaled with breath addicted.

"Or skip it altogether," she continued, drawing him closer. "The Venarium can go a day without you."

"And they frequently do," he replied, his free hand sliding down to hers.

She felt the electricity dance upon his skin, begging for his lips to utter the words that would release it. It was almost with a whimper that her hand was forced from his waist as he returned to shaving.

"Today was going to be one such day. The fact that it is not means that I cannot miss it." He shaved off another line of lather. "Meetings at this hour are not often called in the Venarium." He shaved off another. "Meetings of the Librarians at this hour are never called." He slid the last slick of lather from his scalp and flicked it into the basin. "If the Librarians are not seen--"

"Magic collapses, laws go unenforced, blood in the streets, hounds with two heads, babies spewing fire." She sighed dramatically, collapsing onto her cushion and waving a hand above her head. "And so on."

Bralston spared her a glance as she sprawled out, robe opening to expose the expanse of naked brown beneath. The incline of his eyebrows did not go unnoticed, though not nearly to the extent of his complete disregard as he walked to his clothes draped over a chair. That, too, did not cause her to stir so much as the sigh that emerged from him as he ran a hand over his trousers.

"Are you aware of my duty, Anacha?"

She blinked, not entirely sure how to answer. Few people were truly aware of what the Venarium's "duties" consisted. If their activities were any indica- tion, however, the wizardly order's tasks tended to involve the violent arrest of all palm-readers, fortune-tellers, sleight-of-hand tricksters, and the burning, electrocution, freezing, or smashing of said charlatans and their gains.

Of the duties of the Librarians, the Venarium's secret within a secret, no one could even begin to guess, least of all her.

"Let me rephrase," Bralston replied after her silence dragged on for too long. "Are you aware of my gift?"

He turned to her, crimson light suddenly leaking out of his gaze, and she stiffened. She had long ago learned to tremble before that gaze, as the char- latans and false practitioners did. A wizard's stink eye tended to be worse than anyone else's, if only by virtue of the fact that it was shortly followed by an imminent and messy demise.

"That's all it is: a gift," he continued, the light flickering like a flame. "And gifts require recompense. This"--he tapped a thick finger to the corner of his eye--"is only given to us so long as we respect it and follow its laws. Now, I ask you, Anacha, when was the last time Cier'Djaal was a city of law?"

She made no reply for him; she knew none was needed. And as soon as he knew that she knew, the light faded. The man that looked at her now was no longer the one that had come to her the night before. His brown face was elegantly lined by wrinkles, his pursed lips reserved for words and chants, not poems.

Anacha stared at him as he dressed swiftly and meticulously, tucking tunic into trousers and draping long, red coat over tunic. He did not check in a mirror, the rehearsed garbing as ingrained into him as his gift, as he walked to the door to depart without a sound.

There was no protest as he left the coins on her wardrobe. She had long ago told him there was no need to pay anymore. She had long ago tried to return the coins to him when he left. She had shrieked at him, cursed him, begged him to take the coins and try to pretend that they were two lovers who had met under the moonlight and not a client and visitor who knew each other only in the confines of silk and perfume.

He left the coins and slipped out the door.

And she knew she had to be content to watch him go, this time, as all other times. She had to watch the man she knew the night before reduced to his indentation on her bed, his identity nothing more than a faint outline of sweat on sheets and shape on a cushion. The sheets would be washed, the cushion would be smoothed; Bralston the lover would die in a whisper of sheets.

Bralston the Librarian would do his duty, regardless.

"Do you have to do that?" the clerk asked.

Bralston allowed his gaze to linger on the small statuette for a moment. He always spared enough time for the bronze woman: her short-cropped, businesslike hair, her crook in one hand and sword in the other as she stood over a pack of cowering hounds. Just as he always spared the time to touch the corner of his eye in recognition as he passed the statue in the Venarium's halls.

"Do what?" the Librarian replied, knowing full well the answer.

"This is not a place of worship, you know," the clerk muttered, casting a sidelong scowl at his taller companion. "This is the Hall of the Venarium."

"And the Hall of the Venarium is a place of law," Bralston retorted, "and the law of Cier'Djaal states that all businesses must bear an icon of the Houndmistress, the Law-Bringer."

"That doesn't mean you have to worship her as a god."

"A sign of respect is not worship."

"It borders dangerously close to idolatry," the clerk said, attempting to be as threatening as a squat man in ill-fitting robes could be. "And that cer- tainly is."

Technically, Bralston knew, it wasn't so much against the law as it was simply psychotic in the eyes of the Venarium. What would be the point of worshipping an idol, after all? Idols were the hypocrisy of faith embodied, representing things so much more than mankind and contrarily hewn in the image of mankind. What was the point of it all?

Gods did not exist, in man's image or no. Mankind existed. Mankind was the ultimate power in the world and the wizards were the ultimate power within mankind. These idols merely reinforced that fact.

Still, the Librarian lamented silently as he surveyed the long hall, one might credit idolatry with at least being more aesthetically pleasing.

The bronze statuette was so small as to be lost amid the dun-colored stone walls and floors, unadorned by rugs, tapestries, or any window greater than a slit the length of a man's hand. It served as the only thing to make one realize they were in a place of learning and law, as opposed to a cell.

Still, he mused, there was a certain appeal to hearing one's footsteps echo through the halls. Perhaps that was the architectural proof to the wizards' denial of gods. Here, within the Venarium itself, in the halls where no prayers could be heard over the reverberating thunder of feet, mankind was proven the ultimate power.

"The Lector has been expecting you," the clerk muttered as he slid open the door. "For some time," he hastily spat out, dissatisfied with his previous statement. "Do be quick."

Bralston offered him the customary nod, then slipped into the office as the door closed soundlessly behind him.

Lector Annis, as much a man of law as any member of the Venarium, respected the need for humble surroundings. Despite being the head of the Librarians, his office was a small square with a chair, a large bookshelf, and a desk behind which the man was seated, his narrow shoulders bathed by the sunlight trickling in from the slits lining his walls.

Bralston could spare only enough attention to offer his superior the cus- tomary bow before something drew his attention. The addition of three extra chairs in the office was unusual. The admittance of three people, clearly not wizards themselves, was unheard of.

"Librarian Bralston," Annis spoke up, his voice deeper than his slender frame would suggest, "we are thrilled you could attend."

"My duty is upheld, Lector," the man replied, stepping farther into the room and eyeing the new company, two men and one visibly shaken woman, curiously. "Forgive me, but I was told this was to be a meeting of the Librarians."

"Apologies, my good man." One of the men rose from his chair quicker than the Lector could speak. "The deception, purely unintentional, was only wrought by the faulty use of the plural form. For, as you can see, this is indeed a meeting." His lips split open to reveal half a row of yellow teeth. "And you are indeed a Librarian."

Cragsman.

The stench confirmed the man's lineage long before the feigned elo- quence and vast expanse of ruddy, tattoo-etched flesh did. Bralston's gaze drifted past the walking ink stain before him to the companion still seated. His stern face and brown skin denoted him as Djaalman, though not nearly to the extent that the detestable scowl he cast toward Bralston did. The reason for the hostility became clear the moment the man began to finger the pendant of Zamanthras, the sea goddess, hanging around his neck.

"Observant," the Lector replied, narrowing eyes as sharp as his tone upon the Cragsman. "However, Master Shunnuk, the clerk briefed you on the terms of address. Keep them in mind."

"Ah, but my enthusiasm bubbles over and stains the carpet of my most gracious host." The Cragsman placed his hands together and bowed low to the floor. "I offer a thousand apologies, sirs, as is the custom in your fair desert jewel of a city."

Bralston frowned; the company of Anacha suddenly seemed a thousand times more pleasurable, the absence of her bed's warmth leaving him chill despite the office's stuffy confines.

"As you can imagine, Librarian Bralston," Annis spoke up, reading his subordinate's expression, "it was dire circumstance that drove these... gentlemen and their feminine companion to our door."

The woman's shudder was so pronounced that Bralston could feel her skin quake from where he stood. He cast an interested eye over his shoulder and frowned at the sight of something that had been beautiful long ago.

Her cheeks hung slack around her mouth, each one stained with a purple bruise where there should have been a vibrant glow. Her hair hung in limp, greasy strands over her downturned face. He caught only a glimpse of eyes that once were bright with something other than tears before she looked to her torn dress, tracing a finger down a vicious rent in the cloth.

"Of course, of course," the Cragsman Shunnuk said. "Naturally, we came here with all the haste the meager bodies our gods cursed us with could manage. This grand and harrowing tale the lass is about to tell you, I would be remiss if I did not forewarn, is not for the faint of heart. Grand wizards you might be, I have not yet known a man who could--"

"If it is at all possible," Bralston interrupted, turning a sharp eye upon the Cragsman's companion, "I would prefer to hear him tell it. Master..."

"Massol," the Djaalman replied swiftly and without pretense. "And, if it is acceptable to you, I would prefer that you did not address me with such respect." His eyes narrowed, hand wrapping about the pendant. "I have no intention of returning the favor to the faithless."

Bralston rolled his eyes. He, naturally, could not begrudge an unenlight- ened man his superstitions. After all, the only reason people called him faith- less was the same reason they were stupid enough to believe in invisible sky- beings watching over them. Not being one to scold a dog for licking its own stones, Bralston merely inclined his head to the Djaalman.

"Go on, then," he said.

"We fished this woman out of the Buradan weeks ago," the sailor called Massol began without reluctance. "Found her bobbing in a ship made of blackwood."

A shipwreck victim, Bralston mused, but quickly discarded that thought. No sensible man, surely, would seek the Venarium's attention for such a triviality.

"Blackwood ships do not sail that far south." Massol's eyes narrowed, as though reading the Librarian's thoughts. "She claimed to have drifted out from places farther west, near the islands of Teji and Komga."

"Those islands are uninhabited," Bralston muttered to himself.

"And her tale only gets more deranged from there," Massol replied. "Sto- ries of lizardmen, purple women..." He waved a hand. "Madness."

"Not that the thought of seeking them out didn't cross our minds," Shunnuk interrupted with a lewd grin. "Purple women? The reasonable gen- tleman, being of curious mind and healthy appetite, would be hard-pressed not to wonder if they are purple all over or--"

"I believe it is time to hear from the actual witness." Lector Annis cut the man off, waving his hand. He shifted his seat, turning a scrutinizing gaze upon the woman. "Repeat your story for the benefit of Librarian Bralston."

Her sole reply was to bend her neck even lower, turning her face even more toward the floor. She folded over herself, arms sliding together, knees drawing up to her chest, as though she sought to continue collapsing inward until there was nothing left but an empty chair.

Bralston felt his frown grow into a vast trench across his face. He had seen these women who had sought to become nothing, seen them when they were mere girls. There were always new ones coming and going in Anacha's place of employ, young women whose parents found no other way out of the debt they had incurred, girls snatched from the desert and clad in silk that made their skin itch. Often, he saw them being escorted to their new rooms to waiting clients, the lanterns low as to hide the tears on their faces.

Often, he had wondered if Anacha had cried them when she was so young. Always, he wondered if she still did.

And this woman had no tears left. Wherever she had come from bore the stains of her tears, bled out from her body. Violently, he concluded, if the bruises on her face were any indication. He slid down to one knee before her, as he might a puppy, and strained to look into her face, to convey to her that all would be well, that the places of law were havens safe from violence and from barbarism, that she would have all the time she needed to find her tears again.

Lector Annis did not share the same sentiment.

"Please," he uttered, his voice carrying with an echo usually reserved for invocations. He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers to suggest that he did not make requests.

"I was..." she squeaked at first through a voice that crawled timidly from her throat. "I was a merchant. A spice merchant from Muraska, coming to Cier'Djaal. We were passing through the Buradan two months ago."

"This is where she begins to get interesting," the Cragsman said, his grin growing.

"Silence, please," Bralston snapped.

"We were... we were attacked," she continued, her breath growing short. "Black boats swept over the sea, rowed by purple women clad in black armor. They boarded, drew swords, killed the men, killed everyone but me." Her stare was distant as her mind drifted back over the sea. "We were... I was taken with the cargo.

"There was an island. I don't remember where. There were scaly green men unloading the boats while the purple women whipped them. Those that fell dead and bloodied, they were... they were fed to..."

Her face began to twitch, the agony and fear straining to escape through a face that had hardened to them. Bralston saw her hands shake, fingers dig into her ripped skirt as though she sought to dig into herself and vanish from the narrowed gazes locked upon her.

She's terrified, the Librarian thought, clearly. Do something. Postpone this inquisition. You're sworn to uphold the law, not be a callous and cruel piece of--

"The important part, please," Lector Annis muttered, his breath laced with impatient heat.

"I was taken to the back of a cavern," the woman continued, visibly trying to harden herself to both the memory and the Lector. "There were two other women there. One was... tired. I couldn't stop crying, but she never even looked up. We were both taken to a bed where a man came out, tall and purple, wearing a crown of thorns upon his head with red stones affixed to it. He laid me down.... I... He did..."

Her eyes began to quiver, the pain finally too much to conceal. Despite the Lector's deliberately loud and exasperated sigh, she chewed her lower lip until blood began to form behind her teeth. Having failed to fold in on her- self, having failed to dig into herself, she began to tremble herself to pieces.

Bralston lowered himself, staring into her eyes as much as he could. He raised a hand, but thought better of it, not daring to touch such a fragile crea- ture for fear she might break. Instead, he spoke softly, his voice barely above a whisper.

As he had spoken to Anacha, when she had trembled under his grasp, when she had shed tears into his lap.

"Tell us only what we need," he said gently. "Leave the pain behind for now. We don't need it. What we need"--he leaned closer to her, his voice going lower--"is to stop this man."

The woman looked up at him and he saw the tears. In other circum- stances, he might have offered a smile, an embrace for her. For now, he returned her resolute nod with one of his own.

"When the other woman wouldn't scream anymore," the female con- tinued, "when she wouldn't cry, the man burned her." She winced. "Alive." She paused to wipe away tears. "I'd seen magic before, seen wizards use it. But they always were weak afterward, drained. This man..."

"Was not," the Lector finished for her. "She witnessed several similar instances from this man and three others on the island. None of them so much as broke into a sweat when they used the gift."

And this couldn't have been sent in a letter? Discussed in private? Bralston felt his ire boil in his throat. We had to drag this poor thing here to relive this? He rose and opened his mouth to voice such concerns, but quickly clamped his mouth shut as the Lector turned a sharp, knowing glare upon him.

"Your thoughts, Librarian."

"I've never heard of anything purple with two legs," Bralston contented himself with saying. "If it is a violation of the laws of magic, however, our duty is clear."

"Agreed," Annis replied, nodding stiffly. "Negating the physical cost of magic is a negation of the law, tantamount of the greatest heresy. You are to make your arrangements swiftly and report to Port Destiny. You can find there--"

A ragged cough broke the silence. Lector and Librarian craned their gazes toward the grinning Cragsman, their ire etched into their frowns.

"Pardon us for not living up to your expectations of noble and self- sacrificing men of honor, kind sirs," Shunnuk said, making a hasty attempt at a bow. "But a man must live by the laws his fellows put down, and we were told that gents of your particular calling offered no inconsequential sum for reports of all deeds blaspheming to your peculiar faith and--"

"You want money," Bralston interrupted. "A bounty."

"I would not take money from faithless hands," the Djaalman said sternly. "But I will take it from his." He gestured to Shunnuk.

Bralston arched a brow, certain there was a deeper insult there. "A report of this nature carries the weight of ten gold coins, typical for information regarding illegal use of magic."

"A most generous sum," the Cragsman said, barely able to keep from hit- ting the floor with the eager fury of his bow. "Assuredly, we will spend it well with your honor in mind, the knowledge of our good deed only serving to enhance the luster of the moment."

"Very well, then." The Lector hastily scribbled something out on a piece of parchment and handed it into a pair of twitching hands. "Present this to the clerk at the front."

"Most assuredly," Shunnuk replied as he spun on his heel to follow his companion to the door. "A pleasure, as always, to deal with the most generous caste of wizards."

Bralston smiled twice: once for the removal of the stench and twice for the relief he expected to see upon the woman's face when she learned of the justice waiting to be dealt. The fact that she trembled again caused him to frown until he noticed the clenched fists and murderous glare on her face. It was then that he noticed the particular hue of the purple discoloration on her face.

"These bruises," he said loudly, "are fresh."

"Yes, well..." The Cragsman's voice became much softer suddenly. "The laws that man has set upon us and such." Seeing Bralston's unconvinced glare, he simply sighed and opened the door. "Well, it's not as though we could just give her a free ride, could we? After what she'd been through, our company must have been a mercy."

"Not that such a thing means anything to heathens," the Djaalman muttered.

Bralston didn't have time to narrow his eyes before the woman cleared her throat loudly.

"Do I get a request, as well?" she asked.

The two sailors' eyes went wide, mouths dropping open.

"You did give us the actual report," the Librarian confirmed.

"You..." Shunnuk gasped as he took a step backward. "You can't be serious."

"What is it you desire?" the Lector requested.

The woman narrowed her eyes and launched her scowl down an accusing finger.

"Kill them."

"No! It's not like that!" The Cragsman held up the parchment as though it were a shield. "Wait! Wait!"

"Librarian Bralston..." Lector Annis muttered.

"As you wish."

The next words that leapt from the Librarian's mouth echoed off of the very air as he raised a hand and swiftly jerked it back. The door slammed, trapping the two men inside. The Cragsman barely had time to blink before Bralston's hand was up again. The tattooed man flew through the air, screaming as he hurtled toward Bralston. The Librarian uttered another word, bringing up his free palm that glowed a bright orange.

Shunnuk's scream was drowned in the crackling roar of fire as a gout of crimson poured out of Bralston's palm, sweeping over the Cragsman's face and arms as the tattooed man helplessly flailed, trying desperately to put out a fire with no end.

After a moment of smoke-drenched carnage, the roar of fire died, and so did Shunnuk.

"Back away!" Massol shrieked, holding up his holy symbol as Bralston stalked toward him. "I am a man of honor! I am a man of faith! I didn't touch the woman! Tell them!" He turned a pair of desperate eyes upon the woman. "Tell them!"

If the woman said anything, Bralston did not hear it over the word of power he uttered. If she had any objection for the electric blue enveloping the finger that was leveled at the Djaalman, she did not voice it. Her face showed no horror as she watched without pleasure, heard Massol's screams without pity, no tears left for the carnage she watched lit by an azure glow.

When it was done, when Bralston flicked the errant sparks from his finger and left the blackened corpse twitching violently against the door, the Librarian barely spared a nod to the woman. Instead, he looked up to the Lector, who regarded the smoldering bodies on his floor with the same dis-taste he might a wine stain on his carpet.

"Tomorrow, then?" Bralston asked.

"At the dawn. It's a long way to Port Destiny." The Lector raised a brow. "Do bring your hat, Librarian."

With an incline of his bald head and a sweep of his coat, Bralston vanished out the door. The Lector's eyes lazily drifted from the two corpses to the woman, who sat staring at them with an empty stare, her body as stiff as a board. It wasn't until he noticed the pile of ash still clenched in the charred hand of the Cragsman that he finally sighed.

"Waste of good paper..."

Copyright © 2011 by Sam Sykes


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