Kunas, Master Khyth of Ghal Thurái, lit a lantern that pierced the darkness inside the doors of the mountain hall. Built far beneath the surface that had birthed the name “the Mouth of the Deep,” it required a journey of some distance just to reach the entrance. Along with the treacherous paths that led to the outer gates, the city’s depth was its true strength—a deterrent to thieves and invading armies alike. The black- hooded Servant of the Breaker checked his lantern and started down the long walkway, footsteps echoing in the abyss.
The sounds of the city below were not as loud today, with the Fist of Thurái having marched off who knows where under General Tennech, the Dagger of Derenar. But the men they’d left behind did a fine job of raising their own racket. They knew this was their chance to prove their worth to a city without a Fist.
As he approached the bottom of the deep stairway, the Master Khyth’s footsteps slowed. A second set of doors stood before him, the entrance to the city.
Before he opened them, though, he hesitated. Barely discernible above the muted rumblings of the city below was something that gave him pause.
Was someone else there?
With a glance behind him, he held up his lantern. It creaked as it rocked back and forth, sending yellow light sliding up and down the rocky walls. He stood there for a moment before shaking his head and turning back to the blackened door that guarded the Mouth.
It was a door that took ten men just to open—ten men, or one Khyth with the power of Breaking. Kunas stared at the door, reached out with his power . . . and pulled.
Awaken the Three
The strain on his mind and body was immense, but filled him with a satisfaction that nothing else could, bending something to his will. The darkness around him filled with the groaning of iron as the door obeyed.
Stepping inside, he raised a hand and reached out once again for the weight of the great door, compelling the iron to move; it listened. Slowly and heavily, the door dragged across the ground, finally coming to rest with a shudder that sealed away the city. Kunas dropped his hand and turned around.
Silence filled the caverns once again. ***
It had been many years since the city of Ghal Thurái had been left unprotected; in fact, until the Fist’s most recent departure, no one could really remember the last time they’d left. The Fist of Thurái, a mainstay of Thurian strength, was as much a part of the city as the walls them- selves. Yet even in its absence, the city was well protected: doors of iron, walls of earth; pillars of marble, gates of steel.
To the Thurians, their city was a fortress. It was their life. It was their hope.
To the Chovathi gathering beyond its cliffs, however, it was some- thing else entirely: a wounded animal, lost and bleeding in the dark. An animal with no one to protect it from the destruction waiting beyond the walls.
An animal that would die like any other when the teeth of retribu- tion closed down to tear it apart.
The struggle between the Traveler and the Holder of the Dead is older than the world itself, and the Ghost of the Morning is the eternal re- minder of their sins. Her mark upon the world is everlasting, and her slumber just as deep.
—Excerpt from The Night Sky and Its Names, Author Unknown From the private collection of Hedjetten Hota
Awaken the Three
The sun was setting over the dunes of Khulakorum as Rathma doffed his hood, watching the colors retreat from atop his stone roof perch. His brown-and-black shemagh had been wrapped around his head and tied off, leaving nothing but his eyes exposed to the stinging sand and darkening dusk. Sparsely placed tents and huts made up most of the sprawling desert city, but closer to the center the city was denser and more built up, especially this close to the palace, where Rathma’s eyes now fell.
Tonight was the night; there was no longer any room for doubt.
The tribal city of Khadje Kholam was one of the largest cities be- yond the Wastes of Khulakorum thanks to its central location and trade routes between the other tribes, not to mention the palace that sat at the city’s heart. A stronghold for the man who lived inside it, the palace had come to be much more than the stone it was built from—and held some- thing more valuable than mere walls could contain.
A cursory pat of his body told Rathma that his sword, along with five daggers, was still concealed beneath his dark and loose-fitting tunic. The leather armor he wore beneath it would protect him only a little, a risk he had to take when dealing in stealth. On his forearms were leather bracers reinforced with steel that could deflect a sword swing or two, and into their undersides were slipped three thin, razor-sharp blades that could be thrown into an enemy’s throat in a pinch. His dark, hooded cloak—a gift from his brother—came down past his knees, concealing the twin daggers strapped to his thighs, as well as a grappling hook and rope tied to his waist. Of all the weapons at his disposal, though, the last was the most dangerous in Rathma’s hands: a recurve bow and a single quiver with twenty arrows. With shafts of wood and tips of sharpened steel, their true strength came in their reusability—a singularly import- ant quality when hunting humans. And none did so better than Rathma.
A last-second mental inventory of his tools and weapons confirmed that his careful preparation would not be in vain. He went over the layout one last time to make sure he was ready for battle, mentally and physically.
A great stone wall formed the exterior of the compound that held the palace, a city within a city. The inside of the compound was large
enough to hold a small army, and Rathma could barely make out the wall that enclosed the other side. There were four guard posts manned by one lookout apiece, one on each corner, watching the perimeter.
Beyond the wall were tents housing scores of sleeping soldiers loyal to Djozen Yelto—potential collateral if any of them awoke and decided to wander outside at the wrong time. And beyond those tents, in the very middle of the compound, was Djozen Yelto’s palace, a small fortress in its own right.
Even without the walls surrounding it and the army of soldiers camped around it, the palace was not easily penetrated. It was protected by two armed guards in front of a reinforced steel door and topped with four more guards in a lookout tower.
What was on the other side of the steel door, though, Rathma could only guess: no one from outside the compound had been inside in over ten years. It was one of the reasons Yelto had remained in power this long.
Tonight, Rathma planned to change that. He dropped from his po- sition on the stone roof, listening as the shadows fell.
Worship of the Holder of the Dead had spread quickly through- out the tribes, thanks in part to the influence of Djozen Yelto; Rathma planned to use that worship to his advantage. Every night at right around this time, the god’s followers in Khadje Kholam would chant an invoca- tion, turning their eyes to the sky—and away from the opening Rathma would need.
The guards on the wall raised their arms and eyes at last.
Do it, Rathma thought.
And as they started their chant, he moved.
The words that filled the air were as old as the stars in the sky that the Holder of the Dead commanded:
Ahmaan, Ahmaan, Ahmaan Ka. Dobrak mahn ihmantu zjha Mith te’kunde Lash’kun’a Ahmaan, Ahmaan, Ahmaan Ka.
Awaken the Three
By the time the chanting stopped, Rathma had scaled the outer wall.
Perfect, he thought. The first part of the plan had gone off with- out a hitch.
On to the next.
He pulled himself up, came to a crouch, and leaned his back against the guard post that extended several feet above the wall on the southeast corner. Somewhere up there and out of view was the lookout, eyes on the dark and back turned to Rathma.
Rathma’s fingers ran along the smooth edges of the stone as he found his grip. Raising himself slowly, his eyes cleared the surface. He saw the lookout’s back come into view. In a silent, fluid motion, he pulled himself up and crouched.
Drawing his dagger and a breath, he lunged.
One hand reached to cover the man’s mouth, while the other hand planted the dagger in his throat. Rathma squeezed, pulling the man back and onto the ground as they struggled; he would hold on as long as he must. The realization dawned darkly on him that, in doing so, he had be- come a sort of holder of the dead as well. He dropped the thought along with the man.
He looked around to see if his actions had raised an alarm. None was heard. The cloak from his brother hid him well in the moonless night, and his relentless training had quieted his movements. He was un- detectable to all but the sharpest ears.
Rathma rolled the dead man off of him to find his eyes still wide with fright. Closing them with his fingertips, Rathma stood. Looks like the Holder had his back turned as well, he thought coldly as he pulled out his bow.
He had to reach the palace, but in order to do that, he had to deal with two other lookouts: one to his north and one to his west. After that, the last lookout on the northwest would be blind to his approach.
This next part was crucial—and dangerous.
A few hundred feet to his west, the next lookout was barely dis- tinguishable against the darkness of the night, but Rathma could make out just enough of his shape to know where to aim. It was too much of a gamble to aim for the chest: the arrow could easily catch him in the
shoulder, or miss his heart, or bury itself in his arm, allowing time to raise an alarm. The slightest sound could give him away.
No—he had to shoot for the head. He nocked an arrow, took aim, and held his breath. There were two archers in all of Khadje Kholam who could have made a shot like this, and they were Rathma and Rathma on a bad day.
His release made little more than a thrum in the still night air, and the arrow flew just as quietly. He held his breath for what seemed like an eternity as it sped after its mark. The thump he heard meant that it had found something, but he waited for a cry or a yell from the lookout to see just what. When none came, and the shadowy figure crumpled to the ground, Rathma finally exhaled.
One more to go.
The northeast lookout was the last he would need to dispatch. Rathma had already nocked an arrow in case the first one needed it, so he used it to aim at the lookout in the nearby post. He looked down the shaft of the arrow as he used it to track his target. Slowly, he pulled back and felt the tension in his bowstring. He held his breath . . . and released.
The well-fletched arrow did its job, as he watched yet another figure slump to the ground, another dead soldier in Yelto’s employ. Turning his eyes to the north, Rathma looked upon the prize.
The tiered, windowless palace was three stories high and square, and the red clay roof tiles made the palace stand out against the golden sand of the desert that surrounded it. On top of the third tier stood a guard tower manned by four of Yelto’s most trusted guards, one facing each cardinal direction. Rathma figured one of them held the key to the door below them that led inside.
Only one way to be sure, Rathma thought. He just hoped Kuu was hold- ing up his end of the bargain.
He waited nervously, squinting to try to see a little better in the dark. The nearly moonless night was a liability as well as an advantage, a dou- ble-edged sword concealing him and his enemies alike.
But Rathma had his hand on the hilt.
When he heard a commotion from the north, he smiled. Kuu had done his job.
Awaken the Three
The four guards in the tower shouted in surprise, turning their eyes toward the noise—and their backs to Rathma.
Now, he thought.
He had already fastened the end of his grappling hook to the wall; pulling it taut, he approached the edge. He stepped off and rappelled down, lowering himself to the ground in two short leaps. He let the rope drop when he reached the bottom. Turning to face the palace, he hoped Kuu’s distraction would be enough.
The bare dirt floor of the courtyard did little to cushion his steps as he ran, but he no longer cared about stealth. Now, his only concern was swiftness. He needed to cover a lot of ground while the guards’ atten- tion was elsewhere. Making his way past the rows of tents that lined the compound, he selected his path and never took his eyes off the guard tower at the top of Yelto’s palace. Once he reached the palace, he would have to climb.
Approaching the great steel door, Rathma slowed to a walk. The stone that comprised the palace was different than that of the outer wall surrounding it, smooth and not easily scaled, but the eaves from the next tier provided just enough surface area to grab on to. Rathma took a run- ning start at the wall, taking one step, two steps up it and going nearly horizontal as he climbed. Then, as his momentum was almost gone, he launched himself upward and back with just enough height to reach the eaves of the second story. He grabbed hold, nearly slipping off as his fin- gers found their grip on the hardened clay. He pulled himself up to his chest as his legs dangled beneath him and, finding himself steady, pulled himself onto the roof.
Only two more levels to go.
Rathma could hear the sounds of shouting from above him and knew Kuu was holding his own.
When his fingers found the top of the last tier, he pulled himself up slowly, just high enough to peek over the edge. He saw the four guards, only a few feet away, scanning frantically to the north for the source of the noise. They were dressed in long tan tunics that came down past their knees—long enough to protect them from the sweltering daytime sun, and light enough for them to breathe—over which they wore chainmail vests. Their open leather boots offered little more than protection from
the heat of the desert floor, as they looked more like sandals than armor. Rathma knew right away what he should do.
He pulled himself up slowly and silently, lowering onto his belly as he rose over the edge of the red clay-tiled roof. Pushing himself to his knees, he donned his hood and reached for the twin daggers in their sheaths on his thighs.
Crouching, he crept closer. When he was within reach he surged for- ward, plunging a dagger into the foot of each of the two middle guards. They howled in pain, grabbing the attention of the two outer guards still looking for Kuu, who looked at their screaming counterparts to see what was wrong. They whirled around just in time for Rathma to smile at them. He raised his hands in surrender.
Then, in the blink of an eye, he bent his arms inward at the elbow, where his fingers found the ends of the long blades he had planted on the opposite forearm, drew them, and flung them out in a V before the guards could ask what he was doing there. Each blade hit its mark, land- ing right in their windpipes. Their hands went to their throats as they collapsed, choking on blood and steel.
Rathma moved forward and drew his shortsword. He ran it through the guard on his left by grabbing his arm and thrusting upward through his side, the one place the chainmail vest did not protect. Then he turned to face the only guard still upright, who had dropped to a knee to try to remove the dagger from his foot.
“Please,” the guard said, putting out a hand and begging him to stop. “What do you want?”
“The key to Djozen Yelto’s inner chambers,” Rathma answered. “Where is it?”
With a shaky hand, the guard pointed to the one Rathma had just run through with his sword. “Th-There. It’s on his belt.”
Rathma kept his sword level and his eyes on the guard as he stooped to pat down the body in front of him. Hearing the jingle of a group of keys, he looked down to see about a half dozen, all of different shapes and colors, hanging from a key ring.
“Which one is it?” he asked as he unfastened the key ring from the belt loop.
Awaken the Three
Hearing no answer, he looked up to see his friend Kuu standing be- hind the guard with his dagger jutting out of the guard’s back.
Rathma sighed. “Why did you do that?” he asked, wiping off his sword.
“He was going to kill you,” Kuu answered. “You should thank me.” He pulled out the dagger and kicked the body of the guard with his boot. Kuu’s wavy black hair hung down to his chin, onto which the beginnings of a beard had sprouted. His emerald-green eyes stood out on his thin, dark face, which was capped with a big, crooked nose. He was skinny, and the meager leather armor he wore only accentuated that fact.
Holding up the ring of keys, Rathma sheathed his sword. “How will we know which one fits the door?”
“Try them all?” Kuu said with a shrug. “And will you take that thing off your face? I can barely hear you through it.”
Rathma stood up with a sigh and undid the shemagh, shaking out his dark red hair to let it hang down past his ears. His eyes, the same shade of red as his hair, darted back and forth over the north court- yard where Kuu had fought his own way through. “What choice do we have? Come on.”
Rathma walked south and leaped off, twisting to grab the edge of the story below him, then pushing off to drop backward to the ground. He heard Kuu muttering something about showing off as the thin thief grabbed on to the roof and lowered himself down, slowly.
Rathma had already been trying keys when Kuu dropped down beside him.
“That wasn’t it either,” Rathma grumbled as he slid another key off the ring and tossed it to the ground. “We might be here until morning.”
Kuu was tapping him on the shoulder as he looked through the keys, trying to see which would be a good fit.
“Not now, Kuu. I think this might be it.”
“But you may want to see this,” his friend said as he spun him around.
“Well”—the key ring dropped to the ground as Rathma slowly reached for his sword—“you’re wrong. I didn’t want to see this.”
Standing in front of them were three men in long robes—dark blue with a white border—and one of them was holding a blazing torch above his head. Behind them, emerging from the tents, were perhaps twenty armored men brandishing knives and swords.
“So,” the man with the torch began. “Do you think you can sim- ply walk into the house of Djozen Yelto?” He had cloudy gray eyes and spoke with the accent of the western tribes. But neither of those things was what signified he was a Priest of the Holder; those two things alone would have been tolerable for Rathma.
It was the fact that the servants of the Holder of the Dead had their flesh from the neck up stripped away by some awful power, leaving their eyes permanently open and all of their facial muscles exposed. That was what disturbed Rathma more than anything.
“Ah,” Rathma said. “We should have knocked.”
“Take them,” said the priest.
But as the swarm of men descended on the two young men from be- yond the Wastes, in the blink of an eye, Rathma disappeared from sight.