It’s been nine long years since the death of his patron, Namara, and exalted assassin Aral Kingslayer desperately misses the thrill and glory of being a higher power of justice. Now he is haunted by the ghosts of the past—and by the ghost of the lost goddess herself.
When Namara calls upon Aral in a dream to seek justice for her death and the ruination of her temple, Aral must obtain the help of his fellow former Blades and his Shade familiar, Triss, to pursue the vengeance he knows Namara deserves. Even if it means attacking Heaven’s Son—and going against one of their own—in a bloody battle of epic proportions…
I speak to the dead. Usually they don’t answer me back. Usually . . .
This time was different.
It’s been nine years since the death of Namara and the destruction of her temple. Nine years that saw my few remaining fellow Blades driven and harried before the forces of the archpriest called the Son of Heaven. Nine years of death and darkness and retreat. But only recently have I learned the real reasons for the fall of my goddess and her temple. . . .
My goddess was murdered by her peers for the crime of caring more about justice than the safety and comfort of those who inhabit the Empire of Heaven.
We were assassins once, killers in the service of Justice who used magic and the sword to bring death to those high lords of the eleven kingdoms who considered themselves above the law. Where courts and trials could not reach the great, we could. And, they hated us for it. Us and our companion shadows, the elemental creatures of darkness known as Shades who conceal and complete us.
We knew of the hate of the mighty, and their fear, and we welcomed it. It was a sign that no one was beyond the reach of justice. What we didn’t know was that the gods themselves were also frightened, for Namara had made the swords that she gave us into a tool that might slay even a lord of Heaven, and that was the true reason for our fall. I know it now, but what to do with the knowledge? That is the question that had me calling out to the dead. That is the question that had brought me an answer.
The bar was the Gryphon’s Head, a place I knew as well as I knew the dark parts of my own soul. It was the place I had plumbed the depths of despair back in the days when I was trying to drink myself into the grave so many of my fellows had already entered. But this time it was different. None of the regulars were in evidence, not even Jerik the bartender who was one of my few true friends in the world.
No, tonight, the Gryphon was peopled with the dead. When I walked through the door, the first person I saw was Alinthide Poisonhand, who I had loved from afar as a boy and who had died trying to kill a king. She nodded to me, but she said no words, merely pointing to an empty table by the back wall. It was my usual place, and the only table without a full compliment of the fallen. Most of the closer dead were Blades and priests—those I had known at the temple in my youth.
But not all. At another table sat two kings that had fallen to my swords, forever changing my name from Aral Brandarzon to Aral Kingslayer, as the world knew me now. They glared hate at me, Ashvik and his bastard half brother Thauvik. Nor were they alone. Nea Sjensdor sat with them, Lady Signet, and preceptor of the Hand of Heaven—the order of sorcerers that had destroyed my temple—and another I had slain. There were more, for somehow the taproom of the Gryphon’s Head now looked both exactly as it ought and seemed to stretch out to encompass hundreds of tables.
Here were all my dead. Those, I had loved. Those I had hated. And those who had meant nothing to me at all. These last were perhaps hardest to face, for I had killed many over the years, most for no more reason than that they had stood in the way when there were those I needed to slay. I will not attempt to excuse their deaths. Not here, and not when I, in my turn, stand before the lords of judgment. I did what I felt was right at the time, and I will pay the price when it comes due.
Slowly, I walked through the ranks of the silent dead, approaching the place that waited for me. There were only two chairs there, though five could have sat at the table comfortably. That too was in keeping with my past experiences, for once I had called the Gryphon’s Head my office and used that table to conduct my business. One chair was mine, and one belonged to my client, whoever that might be at the time.
I paused then, looking for my shadow and, with it, my familiar Triss. For Blades are sorcerers as well, dependant on our darkling companions to focus the gift of our magic. My Shade assumes the shape of a dragon made of shadow when he is not concealing himself within my own. But, there and then, though I could feel that he lived through the link that bound our souls, I had no shadow. I missed him dearly, for I love Triss more than I love myself, and I rely on his advice in all things.
Still, I drew back my chair and sat down, as I knew that I must. When I looked up, I was no longer alone. The greatest of my dead had come. Namara. My goddess.
“Hello, Aral, I’ve been waiting a long time to speak with you.”
When I had met with her in life, she usually wore the shape of a great stone statue with six arms and skin like granite. Today, she has assumed the size and shape of a beautiful woman in a scarlet dress. The only obvious evidence of her divinity were her six arms, but even without that, I would have known her, for her image was forever burned into my soul.
“You’re dead,” I said, wishing once more for Triss to come and stand beside me.
Namara inclined her head ever so slightly. “I am.”
“The dead do not return to us.” The words came out flat and hard.
“No, we do not.”
“Then, how . . .”
“I was a goddess, Aral. I am allowed certain dispensations.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You carry me in your heart. As long as it beats, there, will a tiny part of me remain. When I knew that I was to die, I took steps to see that what I cared most about might live on beyond my own ending.”
“I . . . what do you want of me?”
“Only what I have ever wanted of you. Justice.”
“Is that why you’re here? To tell me you want me to . . . what? Do justice?”
I was suddenly achingly furious. “Why now? Why not when I was in the fucking depths of despair and half dead from drinking myself unconscious every night?”
“Because I am dead. I’m not really here, Aral. I exist now only in your heart, and the hearts of those who once served me and may yet again. I do not speak from beyond the grave, I speak from within it. I could not come to you before you yourself summoned me up. Only in following the path I would have wished of you have you become again the man who can hear this message.”
“And your message is to seek justice?”
“That, and nothing more.”
“How?” I yelled. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I want justice, but I don’t even know where to look to find it.”
“Here,” she said, and reached a hand across, placing her palm on my chest above the heart. Her touch burned.
“That’s no answer.”
“It’s all the answer there is or ever was. You have found the path. Follow it.”
“But I can’t see it.”
“Neither could I. To seek to follow justice is to walk in shadows. Some days they part and you can see clearly where to put your feet. Some days they thicken and you may stray far from the road, at great cost in blood and souls. Know that now, for a little while, your feet are exactly where they need to be. That is all there is.” She began to fade.
“Wait, will I see you again?”
“I have delivered my message.”
“That’s no answer.”
“It’s the only one I have. Now let me leave you with a gift.”
One of her hands turned over and a cascade of efik beans spilled out of it. I looked at them with a sort of horror, expecting the drug craving again, the hunger that had been slowly devouring my soul. But I felt nothing.
“I . . . I don’t want them.”
“When you passed through smoke you left the flesh behind for a time and, with it, the needs of the flesh. That broke the physical desire in a way that only the power of a god could. What the Smoldering Flame began, I can finish here in this place and time, sealing the wound that was opened by the Kitsune.” She seemed little more than a ghost now.
“Will it last?” I asked, needing desperately to believe that it would.
She shrugged. “My power is broken. So, that is up to you. It always was.”
“And the alcohol . . .” I couldn’t even ask the question.
“Was never sacred to me. That demon you must fight alone.”
I sat bolt upright in my bed at the Roc and Diamond gasping for air.
What just happened? Triss spoke into my mind, his mental voice sounding muzzy and confused as though he were rising up from a deep and enchanted sleep. I had the strangest dream . . .
“Aral?” It was Siri, waking beside me. “What . . .” her voice trailed off as she touched the skin over my heart.
I looked down. Clearly visible in the late-morning light was a mark on my chest—like an old burn scar. It took the shape of a six-fingered hand.
I speak to the dead. My fallen brethren. The people I have killed unjustly whose forgiveness I beg in the small hours of the night. Most of all, my goddess. Usually, they don’t answer me back.
I think it’s better that way.
The Roc and Diamond was a typical example of architecture in the City of Wall. The ground floor was sixteen feet wide and sixty feet long, its shape determined by the nature of the gigantic magical ward that separated the lands of the Sylvani Empire from the human kingdoms to the north. The ward took the shape of a wall eight feet tall and eight feet wide, enclosing and confining the magics of the First within a perfect half circle that started and ended on the shore of the great eastern ocean. It was thousands of miles long and served as the only street of the strangest city in the world—a city a thousand miles long and forty feet wide.
The gods had created the wall as a sort of prison for the First, and they had endowed it with certain magical properties. Nothing could be built upon or remain atop the wall for any length of time. Stand still on the wall and you would find yourself slowly and inexorably sliding toward the nearest edge. Nothing could breach or harm the wall. For exactly sixteen feet on either side, the ground was as hard as granite, perfect footing for buildings, and the foundation of the city. For another hundred yards beyond that the ground looked normal but acted more like slow quicksand. Holes filled themselves in. Trees of any size couldn’t root properly and quickly fell over. And any attempt at erecting a building met with a similar fate. They called it the Fallows.
The wall was a bizarre place to build a city, but that interface between the human lands and the older Sylvani Empire provided opportunities that could be found nowhere else in the world.
My childhood mentor, Kelos Deathwalker had once quoted a scrap of an ancient lay describing the place, and now that I was temporarily living on the wall, it came back to me often: “A stone snake five thousand miles long coils its way around the empire, a city riding on its back. Within is the oldest and mightiest civilization in the world, a dreaming land of decadence and corruption ruled over by ancient immortals fallen from grace. Beautiful and terrible they were in the power of their youth, and beautiful and terrible they remain, though they are ruined now and their strength broken—a decayed remnant of the world that was, bound forever within a wall built by the gods.”
The requirements of magic kept the city from growing out into the Fallows or over the wall, and the crowding of centuries prevented much expansion side to side. That meant that the more successful buildings went up. The Roc was no exception, with a number of towers reaching as high as six or seven stories—more than that made the edifice vulnerable to tipping in the wind, for there was no way to fasten the building to its footing.
The eight of us had taken rooms in the tallest of the towers while we sorted out what happed next. Four of us were human and Blades once; me, Siri, Faran, and Kelos the Traitor. Four were Shades. Triss, Kyrissa, Ssithra, and Malthiss. The first and most pressing question we had to deal with was the matter of Kelos.
What to do with the traitor who had betrayed the Temple of Namara to the Son of Heaven? It seemed a simple enough question to answer. The man certainly deserved to die, and there wasn’t one of us who didn’t want to kill him. But he was stuffed full of secrets, secrets that we might desperately need in the days to come. Especially, if we decided to move against Heaven’s Son.
That didn’t even take into account that Kelos had all but raised Siri and me. A Blade enters the temple somewhere around the age of four or five. I have vague shadowy memories of the man who had begot me, but when I thought of a father, I pictured Kelos Deathwalker. Him I loved as much as I hated, and Siri felt likewise.
There was Malthiss to consider as well. Killing Kelos would kill his familiar, since the death of either half of a familiar-bonded pair always killed the other. How complicit was Malthiss in the crimes of his partner? Had Kelos compelled his familiar to join his treason? Persuaded him? Moved in harmony with him?
It was a tangle, and not the worst we faced. That was Heaven’s Son.
“Namara wants you to go after the Son of Heaven.” Kelos rose from his perch in the bay window to pace our small parlor. He was a big man with one eye covered by an old leather patch, and heavy with muscle, his skin a maze of scars and tattooed snakes’ coils. His familiar took the shape of a shadow basilisk, lying mostly invisible amongst the tattoos at the moment. “That was the message of Namara’s visit. Isn’t it obvious?”
I was beginning to wish that I’d had the sense to keep my dream a secret. But Siri had demanded an explanation for the fresh burn over my heart. And, whatever had happened to the temple, Siri was the last of us to wear the title of Namara’s First Blade—my superior in the order still. When she asked a question, old loyalties read an order.
“No,” I replied. “It’s not obvious. Not to me anyway, and I was told to follow my own heart in this and all things. She cautioned me, too, about how easy it is to stray from the path of justice and spoke of the great costs that follow. For that matter, I’m not sure the dream was anything more than wish fulfillment.”
“Which left you with a burn scar on your chest?” Siri asked mildly from her place beside the fire.
Wisps of smoke wafted off the fire to coil and curl around her before sliding back to roll up the chimney. More smoke ran through the long thick braids that hung down her back and across the coal black skin of shoulders exposed by the tight vest she wore instead of a shirt. Likewise exposed was the fresh stump of her left arm, which ended just below the elbow. Her familiar, Kyrissa, took the form of a winged serpent. Alone among the Shades she was no longer a thing purely of shadow, but wore feathers of smoke on her wings and the coils of her body.
“Briefly . . . and maybe.” I opened my shirt to expose the smooth skin over my heart—the print had faded away. “Do you see a scar there now?”
“No, but it was there in the morning. Both Triss and Kyrissa witnessed it.”
Triss nodded, and whispered into my mind, Sorry, but I have to agree with Siri here.
“There,” said Kelos. “The word of a First Blade is good enough for me.”
I shook my head. “Even if the dream was real, and Namara was somehow speaking to me from beyond death, that doesn’t mean I’m supposed to hare off after the Son of Heaven at this late date. She said I was already on the right path, and that I should follow justice. I had no plans to face the Son of Heaven when she said that. It could as easily have been a warning not to move against him.”
“What could be more just than killing the man who destroyed the temple?” demanded Kelos.
“You know,” Faran, spoke up for the first time in several hours, “he’s got a point there.”
I started at that—Faran agreeing with Kelos? That would be a first. I turned to look at my apprentice. She was taller now than when I’d first met her, a young woman rather than a girl, and lovely in a hard and cold sort of way. Her hair was long and brown, her skin a bit paler than my own deep brown. A vicious scar carved its way down her forehead and across her cheek where she had nearly lost an eye—a scar that burned red now with barely suppressed anger.
“Those who destroyed the temple do deserve to die.” Faran drew her swords as she rose—swords of the goddess that had once belonged to a traitor Blade by the name of Parsi. “I think we should start with this one.” She lifted the point of one of her swords to prick the skin at the base of Kelos’s throat.
Kelos shrugged, but didn’t otherwise move. “I’ve certainly earned it. I won’t stop you.”
Faran’s arm remained perfectly still, but a drop of blood welled up on Kelos’s skin and began to roll its way down the length of the sword toward her hand. Tension hovered in the air like the bright moment before lightning rips open a stormy sky. She was a child of nine at the fall of the temple, thrown out into the world to make her own way. None of us had suffered more than she had.
“Well,” she demanded after a few long beats, “isn’t one of you going to order me to back off again?”
“No,” I said, my voice flat.
“No?” she turned her head to look at me, but kept her sword up.
“No. You know all the arguments against killing him as well as the arguments for it. If you aren’t yet convinced, demanding that you change your mind isn’t going to change anything. The goddess told me to seek justice. I say the same to you.”
I waited for the lightning to strike, vaguely relieved that I wouldn’t be the one who had to make that decision. The red drop rolled on down the sword until it finally touched the lapis oval of the guard—Namara’s all seeing eye. It clung there for a long moment, then dripped to the floor like a bloody tear.
Faran muttered a curse and flicked the blade back and up, away from Kelos’s throat. Slamming it home in the sheath on her back, she turned and stalked silently out of the room.
“Interesting play there, Aral.” Kelos raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know whether she’d go for it or not.”
“And I didn’t care,” I replied. “You’re on your own with her from now on.” I followed Faran out.