I fell feel asleep quickly and slipped into the River. I could have freely explored, but chose to stay confined within my own Dream world, flowing along with the River in the hope of gaining insight into the day’s events.
I am standing over Robbo in Bazaar, pressing the tip of a sword to his chest. He begs for mercy, choking under the crushing weight of my boot against his throat. Filled with rage, a blackness rising up within me until I can no longer contain it, I pierce his chest with the blade in a gout of blood.
Suddenly I am looking skyward, a blade rising from my chest – the sword Robbo used to kill Nyeda. Shadowy figures fade in and out of view until one steps toward me, grasping the hilt of the sword and twisting, pushing the tip through me into the ground beneath. Tendrils of inky smoke snake their way down the blade into my mouth, silencing my scream as they fill my throat. Darkness clouds my vision until I can only hear the grinding of the blade into the hard-packed dirt.
Trey’s boots scrape against the ground as two Blades drag him further into the center of the ruin. The building we had sought refuge in was relatively intact. We had shored up most of the gaps in the walls with debris and posted lookouts on the remainder. Someone even managed to get a fire going. In the pitch black outside the walls, I can hear scrabbling and the Serfs’ foul language.
Thwap. Thwap. Kileg’s bow thrums with power, the Synthesis imbued arrows finding their marks even in total darkness. Something thrashes and moans piteously in the darkness. Kileg quickly squats back down, placing the bow across his thighs.
“We can’t stay here, you know,” he says.
I nod grimly. When some scouts had reported a Serf village a half day’s journey or so inside No Man’s Land, I quickly organized a raiding party to take care of it. It was a frequent enough event no one thought much of it; we would leave the Seven Fingers, find the village and raze it to the ground. If we did not, the Serfs would quickly multiply and spread like a disease. The village was easily located, but two Z’bri surprised us as we set about torching the buildings. Before we had a chance to respond, three of the raiding party were killed and two more wounded.
One of the Beasts was a Koleris, who had fought savagely, pain fueling its rage even as I ran it through with my sword. Its death throes had sprayed burning ichor, reducing my shield to a smoking, melted ruin. The second Z’bri was a Melanis. It was an impossible-looking creature comprised entirely of constantly moving legs, bent in a hundred different angles. It had no visible head, only horrific, distorted faces that emerged and disappeared randomly from within its skin. Skittering in the shadows between the burning buildings, it somehow rallied the score or so surviving Serfs, who began to jerk and stumble toward us like Dahlian string puppets. The Z’bri then began using its Sundering to siphon our thoughts and memories, clouding our minds and sowing chaos in our ranks. Trey was the first to succumb, reduced to a slack-jawed drooling shell. Even now the Z’bri’s Atmosphere scrapes against the inside of my skull and burns my throat with a putrid tang. When I spotted the ruin I quickly gave orders to retreat to it so we could regroup.
“We need to slip out of the far side of this building,” I say. “We break straight west, then south toward the Seven Fingers. When we’re close enough, Kileg can loose a signal arrow and hope the lookouts see it and send out a war party.”
“It will find us,” Selia whispers from her position near one of the openings in the wall. She is standing perfectly still, staring into the darkness.
I take her face in my hands and gently kiss her on the lips. She is covered in blood and gore, but I don’t care. Her eyes are wide, her pupils shrunk to dots despite the darkness. She needs me now, they all do. “We are going to get out this.”
Selia begins to shake, softly at first, her spine going rigid as the convulsions increase in strength. A terrible keening erupts from her throat and I hear the rasp of her sword leaving her scabbard. Kileg yells something behind me, but all I can do is look into her eyes, suddenly glazed over and unseeing, clouded by the influence of the Beast. I’m crying and shaking my head, even as I unsheathe my own sword. The inhuman sound trails off into a sputtering gurgle, and she looks down at the sword driven deep underneath her breastbone, her eyes wide and suddenly Selia again. I will never forget her look of betrayal and terror as she slumps into my arms.
I’m in Bazaar again, holding Robbo’s bloody sword. For the first time, I notice the intricate glyphs on the crossguard and the blade’s dull, flecked metal. In front of me stands the monster I faced when we escaped the ruins and the Z’bri attack. The bodies of my fallen comrades have been melted together into a patchwork of forms, lumbering along unevenly on legs and arms, multiple heads searching for its prey. But…the faces aren’t right. Where there should be the faces of the Joanites who died that night in No Man’s Land, instead are those of the three young Joanites, Nyeda’s, the Sin Eater’s and Selia’s. All of them begin pleading with me, the cacophony growing until I can no longer take it and drive the blade deep into its fetid flesh…
With an audible whoomp I forced myself awake, sitting up in my pallet. I was drenched with sweat despite the pre-dawn chill. What does that night in No Man’s Land have to do with Robbo? Or the Sin Eater? I thought. The sword! The sword was important in some way. Perhaps Den’a knew why.
It was not long before my initiate came with bread and porridge. After my meal, she helped me prepare for the day. I had no idea what to expect – where I was familiar with death, Mortuary was intimate with it. There was no telling what dangers might lurk within the enormous necropolis, hiding among its twisted paths and tangle of crypts, mausoleums, ruins and grave fields. I had him help me don my armor and weapons, pack provisions and a few other items, and descended from the Tower to make sure Robbo and the others were ready.
The air in the Tower’s lower level was filled with the scent of cooking food. I said a few greetings but did not stop, heading past the bustle of the common areas and the clang of arms in the Arena to the stairs leading below. Robbo was the only prisoner in the small block of unused cells underneath the Tower. Most Tribal criminals wound up in the Red Gaol, where they stayed just long enough to be tried and judged, and Joanites almost never held prisoners of their own. This left the cells in the tower empty except for high profile prisoners, or unusual cases like Robbo.
Robbo was sitting in one corner of the cell, muttering to himself as he rocked back and forth with his knees to his chest. Around his neck was a wooden collar with two metal rings driven into either side. He was covered in filth, his hair matted and his clothes in shreds. Two poles with dull hooks leaned on the wall outside of the cell, just outside of reach from the bars.
“It was the only way could get him out of the cart.” The jailer glared at Robbo as he brushed past me. The jailer was old and bent, one of his legs missing from the knee down. He limped around on a foot taken from some large doll that was found in a skytower near Bazaar. “He refused to get up or walk, and we were afraid to carry him with what happened to that Blade. So we slapped a collar on him and
dragged him here.”
“We’re not going to be able to handle the poles and collar…I’m going to need him in wrist and ankle shackles. If there aren’t already rings in the wagon to lock the shackles to, I’d suggest you set to putting them in.”
The jailer nodded, grabbing one of the poles. Two burly guards entered from an adjacent room, and started to put shackles on Robbo. He was covered in more blood than I remembered, and had several serious burns on his face and hands. The jailer must have read the look on my face.
“The Inquisitor went easy on him. Couldn’t get nothing anyway, not even from Truthsaying. Boy won’t speak.”
“I won’t have him looking like a Squat. Clean him up, and bandage those burns. He needs new clothes, too. Make sure he’s fed and see nothing more happens to him between now and when we leave.” My own words surprised me. I had little doubt he was the one who had murdered Nyeda. But something gnawed at my thoughts, something that didn’t add up, and I felt Robbo was the key.
“Will do. You’d better get upstairs, I heard Kileg was waiting for you. We’ll take care of him.”