By the gods, I hated the smell of piss and vomit. The rancid stench clung to the air like a disease.
Before me, forty-eight bound criminals knelt in the Executioner’s Square. My square. Moonbeams lit the winter air steaming off their wet groins, and clouds rose up from pools of vomit melting the snow into an unsavory brown mush. Crammed together, street upon street, the throng of onlookers gawked at the criminals who’d been stripped naked so as to leave the world as they had entered it. The usual jovial, boisterous nature of the city had grown quiet and somber, their murmurs done in sympathetic tones while their eyes betrayed the sick pleasure people seemed to gain while watching others suffer.
Turning my gaze to the criminals, I curled my lip in disgust as they begged for mercy like a starved dog begged for food. Of the forty-eight, I counted eleven who gazed at me without pleading, without tears streaming down their face, and without wetting or retching all over themselves. For those few men, I nodded in approval. Better to meet death without fear, without regret, and for the love of Cehdyah, meet it while staring into its eyes. That was how I hoped to die: unafraid and unyielding to my executioner.
Krowen joined my side. The captain was one of the few other men who surpassed me in height, and when I looked up into his normally cheerful eyes, no joy glittered, and his voice lacked its usual easy cadence. “Bishop Shaln has given the prisoners’ their last rights, Commander Grayden. Cehdyah has not spoken to save them. Their damnation is yours to sentence.”
With the captain’s words, sobs crescendoed through the spectators. Thousands of gazes darted to me. I knew their thoughts. Rumors had spread like wildfire through the city of Traptin since my first publicly performed execution seven years ago when I was a mere eighteen. To the people, I was death reincarnate. My chainmail and surcoat were blacker than the deepest pit, but what petrified the masses was my power. None other in all of Illryn possessed it.
A movement in the crowd caught my eye. Four men with no other purpose than brute strength carried the High Arch Bishop’s litter to a cleared alley. Pelik rarely left the church, but as he stepped from his litter, he made no attempt to interrupt or gain my attention, so I carried on with the execution.
My voice rang emotionless in my ears. The words the same ones I’d repeated for years. “You have been found guilty in our courts. Cehdyah has denied you entrance into Blessed Sanctuary and no longer wishes to hear your pleas.”
I flicked my hand. The power within roiled in my veins, freezing cold. It chilled my bones then rippled out across the square. The criminals’ screams gurgled back in their throats as blood sputtered from their mouths and their severed tongues fell to the ground. At least I wouldn’t have to listen to the begging anymore.
As the less sturdy women and children quieted their screams, I searched for the eleven criminals that had been brave. Three had lost control of their bowels and sat in their own excrement, sobbing. Three more babbled incoherently, weeping like hysterical children. Only five kept their hateful gaze upon me.
Arch Bishop Shaln began to murmur his prayers at my side, a singsong rhythm of words that always made the man sway. Gray hair along his temples shone in the torchlight, and his salt-and-peppered beard had been recently trimmed, his simple crimson robe pressed smooth.
When his verse ended, he looked up at me with dull brown eyes softened by near forty years of devoted service to his god. He shook his head and gave me a sympathetic smile, wrinkles springing to life around his mouth and eyes. “Their crimes are unforgivable, child,” he said in his soft voice, his words meant only for me. He placed a light hand on my arm. “Cehdyah will not save these men.”
I inhaled a deep breath and raised my voice for all to hear. “Cehdyah is not an unmerciful god. He grants you blindness so the horrors of the Netherworld do not drive you mad.”
I flicked my hand. Another wave of power rolled over the square, leaching more strength. Ninety-six eyeballs popped from their sockets. I clasped my hands behind my back to keep the tremors of exhaustion hidden. An eyeball wobbled down the cobblestones to rest against my boot, the accusing brown iris staring up at me. I kicked it aside and silently recited my purpose: I live but to serve, and my service is death. I live but to serve, and my service is death.
I glanced at the five men who’d remained steadfast in the face of death. Two retched through sobs, one had wet himself, and another rolled on his side screaming. Only one leveled his eyeless glare upon me.
I waited for the shrill cries to subside before I spoke. “For crimes against kingdom and church, I condemn your unclaimed souls to roam the Netherworld! Let all who look upon your heads take to heart the laws established. Let all who dwell in the Kingdom of Vard adhere to these laws, lest their fate be the same!”
I flicked my hand. Another surge of power left me. My bones seemed to sag inside my skin and exhaustion seeped into every muscle. I widened my stance to keep from toppling over.
Starting at the criminals’ feet, their skin liquefied and streamed down the cobblestones, followed by streaks of rich crimson as muscles dripped from bones like melting wax.
I turned my gaze to the one man. He convulsed silently on the ground. He did not plead or scream, and he did not writhe around like a dying animal. I flicked my hand and stopped his heart, ending his misery.
My gaze sought the gore rushing around my boots, staining them, contaminating them. Blood and dissolving organs added hues of red and putrid yellow, and white tendrils of bone snaked through the mess.
Shaln whispered, “Mountains breaking the river of sin, child. Today you have made Vard safer than it was yesterday. Cehdyah is pleased with his Chosen.”
Once my power had eaten away their bodies and only the heads of the criminals remained, I turned to Krowen. “Impale the heads along the outer wall of the city.” I glared at a handful of soldiers retching. Though they were not of my own Morté force, their weakness could not be tolerated. I motioned to them. “Ten lashings to each man who became ill.”
Krowen leaned close, his watery blue eyes and blond hair still vibrant in the lanterns’ dim light circling the square. “They’re new to our service, Commander. The scene is gruesome and—”
“Assign ten lashings to yourself.” I angled forward and lowered my voice to a menacing whisper. “And by Cehdyah, if you ever question me again the sight before you is nothing compared to what you will endure.”
Krowen held my gaze for a short breath then lowered his head in submission. The captain was my most trusted Morté, but more than once I’d seen this slight rebellion: the pause in obeying. I always surprised myself when I ignored it. I glanced at the Arch Bishop waving me over. “Clean up this mess, Captain.”
I turned on my heel and marched to Pelik, leaving Shaln behind to say the newly departed’s last prayer. By the gods, I hoped I remained upright. I cursed myself for not eating a meal before the execution. Behind me, Krowen’s voice rang out with orders, organizing the king’s men and my own handful of Morté that had been present at the execution.
Pelik jerked his head to an alley cleared of citizens. A lone lantern bobbed back and forth in his meaty fist as he waddled, his crimson robes swishing along the ground, the fabric tight against his rolls. I followed him, staying focused on his back to steady my dizziness.
Waiting like a serpent in high grasses was Ulissah, the High Arch Bishop’s seedy spy. The scrawny man made my skin crawl. His oily complexion glistened in the lantern light swinging long shadows along the buildings, seeming to call attention to his shaking body and adding a nasty hue to the open sores dotted along his arms. I assumed he had not had his recent fix of nictrin. Sweat beading down his face and dark circles framing his eyes confirmed my suspicion. He would have disgusted me, but I was all too familiar with the pains of addiction. Instead, I pitied him.
Ulissah bowed to Pelik, and his words hissed out like the poisonous snake curled around his forearm. “I have troubling news.”
I leaned against the wall. Although my knees quaked, I managed to keep them from rustling my chainmail. Krowen soon joined me, looming just behind me, arms crossed over his chest, a short, thin stick hanging between his lips, wiggling around as he chewed it—a most irritating habit.
“The Kingdom of Eadom has sent spies to our blessed city,” Ulissah said.
The hairs on my neck stood on end when the man’s fork tongue slithered between his lips.
Pelik stroked his white beard, small brown eyes bright with thought. “Why would Eadom send spies?”
“You are a fool if you think these are the first Eadonians to spy on us,” a voice boomed from behind.
I turned to see King Brackard sauntering down the alley.
“You forgot to summon me, Arch Bishop.” Brackard’s jovial wrinkles were drawn in a tight frown. “Luckily, I saw your little serpent slinking through the streets.”
Pelik tilted his head. “I was going to send for you once I learned the nature of his news, King Brackard.”
Brackard sniffed. “Don’t lie to me, Pelik. We’ve known each other far too long for lies.” The king turned to Krowen and me, and a smile lit up his dull brown eyes. “Boys.”
We both tilted our heads in greeting.
Brackard clapped my captain on the back before regarding Ulissah. “Where are the spies and how many?”
“No more than an hour’s ride outside the city,” Ulissah responded. “Due south. I did not get an accurate count, my king. Five, maybe six. They left before the gates closed.”
“Go back to your hole, Ulissah,” Brackard ordered.
The willowy man bowed to us all before he slipped away into the shadows.
Brackard shook himself. “Why you use that Penian is beyond me, Pelik. He’s unnatural.”
Pelik’s smile did not reach his eyes. “Penians are rare to find in our lands. When one manages their way across the vast sea, it is wise to snatch them up before another does. Their services are … most valuable.”
“Sneaky!” Brackard spat to the side. “You can’t trust a Penian.”
Once Ulissah’s shadow disappeared into the night, I collapsed. Krowen seemed to be expecting it and reached out at the last instant to ease my fall. Denied food and the red leaf, my power feasted on my life force, draining my strength like a horse-sized leech. My vision faded in and out, and Pelik and Brackard’s voices sounded muffled and far away.
“Leave us, Krowen,” Pelik commanded.
Krowen propped me against the wall and said, “Commander?”
I managed to nod. I heard his heavy footsteps leave the alley.
“Dammit, Pelik,” Brackard muttered. “Why didn’t you give him any?”
“I gave him two this morning,” Pelik responded, kneeling by my side. “And one before the execution. He probably didn’t eat enough.”
Brackard squeezed my shoulder. “You really need to find a way to perform these without such a drain on you, boy. Can’t be good for you.” Tugging on the strings of his purse, Brackard growled to Pelik, “You know as well as I that he needs more when he does the executions, food or no food. He—”
“Do not tell me what he needs.” Pelik glared at the king. “Remember who serves whom. Grayden belongs to the church. And so do you.”
Brackard shoved a stiff, thumbnail-sized red leaf into my mouth. I bit down to release the bitter juices. Energy tingled down my body, and my power switched to feed off the nectar of the leaf. The leaf’s revitalizing properties fortified my muscles, and a surge of strength dimmed my vision. My head buzzed from the rush of blood until the power and my body found their equilibrium. It wasn’t enough though. My limbs were still heavy with exhaustion.
Brackard grabbed under my arm and hauled me to my feet. His honey-colored eyes twinkled a smile. “There you go, boy. Better?”
“I apologize, my liege.”
Pelik reached up and patted my shoulder. “Nonsense, Grayden. You kept upright until we were alone. None others witnessed your limitation.”
Brackard offered another leaf. I chewed it as if I hadn’t eaten for days. I shook off the lasting effects and turned down the third leaf Brackard offered. “I will take my men and find the spies, my lords.”
Brackard grinned. “I’ll go with you. It’s been a while since I’ve had myself a good fight.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Pelik snapped. “You’re not young anymore, Brackard. You’ll get yourself killed.”
Brackard chuckled. “You wouldn’t let that happen, now would you, Grayden?”
“Of course not, Majesty.”
“See! I’m perfectly safe.”
“I could order you,” Pelik threatened.
Mirth drained from Brackard’s face. “There is a line, Pelik, and you’re very close to crossing it.”
In hopes of distracting the two men, I went down to one knee before Pelik. “Might I have Cehdyah’s blessing, Arch Bishop?”
The two men who ruled all of Vard glared at each other as if they were common folk locked in a pissing competition. I remembered a time when I was young, before my sixteenth naming, Brackard and Pelik had been close. I wondered what had driven a wedge between them.
I cleared my throat to gain both men’s attention. “I swear I will keep the king safe, Arch Bishop.”
Pelik rested a pudgy hand on top of my head, his gaze still locked upon Brackard. “Who do you serve, Grayden?”
“And who conveys Cehdyah’s desires to his Chosen?”
“You do, Arch Bishop.”
“You belong to the church, Grayden.”
“I do,” I said. “I live but to serve, and my service is death.”
Pelik smiled smugly. “You may accompany them, Brackard.”
Brackard stormed off toward the crowd.
Pelik kissed my forehead. “May Cehdyah watch over his Chosen and guide your sword. Kill all of them, Grayden. Leave no one alive, show no mercy, and do not listen to their pleas. Eadonians are a devious race. Let not their foul lies reach your ears. Rise and kill, Grayden.”
I left the alley to find King Brackard fuming in the street.
The King cleared his throat. “I asked Krowen to accompany us along with three men from your private force.”
“Five Morté against five or six spies? I think one Morté would suffice, my liege.”
Brackard chuckled. “Perhaps you’re right.”
A voice thundered over the murmuring crowd. “Commander Grayden!”
Silence struck the square. The masses parted way to show a young one-armed man with a sword clutched in his hand. Tears stained his reddened cheeks, and his breath clouded out in the frigid air. An old woman clung to his leg, weeping for him to be silent. He couldn’t have seen his seventeenth winter yet.
He leveled his sword my direction. “I challenge you for the honor of my father! Or do you fear a one-armed man?”
I glanced at Krowen reaching for his axe. “Stay out of this, Captain.” Finger by finger, I pulled off my black gauntlets as I walked towards the young man. “I fear no one, boy.”
“My father—” The boy’s voice choked off.
I motioned to the bloody pool of heads. The boy nodded.
“Your father was a criminal,” I said. “He received a trial, and the courts found him guilty. Justice has been served this night. You do nothing to honor your father’s death by fighting me.”
The boy’s upper lip curled. “He stole—”
I raised my hand to stop his explanations. “I care not what he did, boy. I care only for the verdict of the courts.”
“Cehdyah does not want your soul yet, son of Vard,” Shaln said, his soft voice somehow traveling over the crowd. “Do not do this.”
The young man shook off his mother and charged. I barely drew my sword in time to stop the blow from cleaving my head. Bloody Ert! The boy’s one arm bulged with muscles, and his strength would be the envy of half the King’s soldiers.
I blocked his flurry of attacks without surrendering any of my own ground. Thank Cehdyah for the leaf. I would have been a wet rag if the power had not been satisfied. The young man backed off to regain his footing and breath.
“Why do you not use your powers, Chosen?” the boy sneered.
“A duel should be fair, boy. Your skill is impressive. You would have been a valuable asset to the king’s army.”
The boy snorted. “I tried to enlist, but they laughed in my face. They said a one-armed boy had no place in an army.”
Damn fools. The boy could kill twenty before the average soldier bested one. Such a waste. I unleashed my frustration into an attack. I drove the boy back, step by step, thrust by thrust. Sweat glistened on his face, and his breath panted out of him. I could have sliced his head clean off, but I backed up to allow him to recover. We circled each other twice before he advanced. The boy had natural talent. He mimicked my previous attack, though somewhat clumsily since he had not practiced the moves. Still, I admired his ability. Such a shame.
Without letting him regain solid footing, I countered. Again, the boy stumbled back until we stood in the center of the square, slipping on the slimy blood, tripping over heads. One duck of his overextended thrust, followed by a flick of my sword, and my blade rested against the boy’s neck.
Defeat glittered in his eyes as his sword clanged on the cobblestone street. He did not beg, he did not cry. His eyes were as defiant as the last brave criminal, and his features made it clear who’d fathered him. I stepped closer and lowered my voice so only he could hear. “Know this, boy. I ended your father’s life early. He did not endure as much as the others. I did so because he was brave. He looked death in the face just as you are now.”
The boy lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. “I am ready.”
“The men who turned you down will be punished. Take my promise with you to your grave.” With a little boost of power to ensure a quick end, I slid my sword through his neck as if it were warm butter. His head teetered off his shoulders and rolled to land in the pile. A woman screamed.
I raised my gaze to the crowd backing up, their gaping mouths frozen open, their eyes wide with shock. “Do any others wish to seek vengeance upon me?” I roared.
The crowd flinched. After shared glances, they fled like a flock of scared birds. Cowards. I cleaned my sword on the boy’s tunic.
Krowen handed me the reins to a steed. I wasn’t looking forward to riding another horse. O’hoc was a reliable mount I’d rather take into battle, but my home was in the opposite direction of the front gate.
Before I swung into the saddle, a sharp boom—louder than anything I’d ever heard—reverberated among the stone homes, shaking the ground and making my horse nicker and rear back. Screams started immediately, followed by a rising rumble of a different pitch as if Cehdyah’s Peak were crumbling into ruin. A gust of powder flooded down the street and encased us, instantly causing racking coughs to spread.
A strong hand clamped down on my shoulder as I pressed the back of my arm over my nose and mouth, swallowing globs of thick saliva, trying to keep my lungs in my chest. Krowen’s grip tightened, his hacking cough no better than my own.
Shrugging from his hold, I choked, “Guard the king! Find the Arch Bishop!”
By the time I’d blinked dust from my eyes, I’d managed a few steps, and the rumbling had simmered down to an echo. People flooded past me, most covered in white dust, streaks of tears wetting their cheeks.
I shoved through the mob toward whatever they were fleeing, squinting as the dust thickened, suspended in the cold air. Lundred and Breyfore joined me—Breyfore using his incredibly large frame to part the wave of people. Lundred, too thin and short to do much good, took up a position behind me.
Orange began to throb through the haze, like the sun wrapped in thick clouds, and heat warmed my face. A few more steps and I saw the flames licking out of shattered windows, billowing from the demolished entrance. Rocks were strewn about, piled mostly around where the welcoming door had once stood. A priest lay face down on the cobblestone street, his humble brown robe burned, his back charred, and his fat bubbling. Others were staggering away, blood seeping from small wounds no doubt caused by the explosion.
I recognized the ruin as one of the old churches, a quaint one used by the poorer citizens of Traptin. Nearby, a man held tight to a woman as she screamed for her child and reached longing arms out to the next building—an apartment based on the size and number of floors. With Traptin so congested a city, flames were eating at the outside of whatever shops and homes surrounded the church.
Nathren and Drale, two others in my service, were already running into the building, chainmail crashing about their knees, swords thumping their legs. I took one step toward the building when Breyfore placed a restraining hand on my shoulder.
“Nathren and Drale will help those inside,” Breyfore rumbled. “You can’t risk going in.”
I was about to argue when I heard Pelik say, “Eadonian bastards.” He leaned heavily against Krowen, his face red and tear streaked, his voice a rasp through the cloth he held over his nose. “This was their mission? To burn our church? To maim our worshipers? Have they no heart?”
Shaln rushed ahead and, despite the heat and flames, went to the dead priest, his mouth moving in prayer.
I studied the flames, trying to gauge the volume of the fire. My power was a fickle thing. It only went as far as my imagination, and I was embarrassed by how lacking I was in utilizing it to its full potential. Imagining a fire going out was a daunting task. And always I had to think of the repercussions of whatever I chose to do. A lesson learned too late after I’d conjured up a storm in my youth. The city had barely survived its rampant massacre.
As I examined the building, the fire, the people around, I could think of no mishaps if I were to simply rob the flames of air. Fire could not burn without it. Closing my eyes, I imagined the air slowly leaving, starting from the center of the church and working my way outward. It took an eternity in my mind’s eye, a lifetime of determined patience.
When finally I reached the outer walls of the church, I let my power fade and opened my eyes. A few stubborn flames sputtered just outside the front of the church, and by now a bucket train had started and those were easily doused.
Success, but by Cehdyah I never wanted to do it again. Using that much imagination, that much patience and perseverance, left me dizzy and sick to my stomach. I swear my power feasted on my bones. Too many complicated acts in one night.
The mother flung herself at my feet, kissing my boots, not seeming to mind the muddy gore caked on them. “Bless you, Cehdyah’s Chosen. Bless you!”
Their villain one moment, their savior the next. Such was the way with people.
Drale and Nathren came from the apartment, a bundled child held in Nathren’s arms. The woman kissed my boots again before scrambling over to her child, crying loudly as she cradled it close.
“Cehdyah looks favorably upon his Chosen,” Pelik said. “You honor your god this night, my dear boy.” He clasped my hand, discreetly passing me a bundle of leaves. Pulling me close, he looked intently into my eyes, his flaring with righteous anger. “Kill those damnations, Grayden. Kill them.”
I bowed deeply. “As you command.”
Whirling around, I made my way back to Executioner’s Square, shoving the leaves into my mouth and chewing fervently. Footsteps echoed behind. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Krowen and the King trailing me, Krowen calling to the other four Morté to restore order and aid the citizens.
At the square, I paid the forty-nine heads no attention as I swung on my mount and squeezed the horse’s flank, steering him to the outer wall, Krowen and Brackard right behind me.
The thundering hooves echoing amid the two and three-story homes pounded an ache in my skull, despite the buzzing left behind by the leaves. The town square was in the outer part of the city where the squat, unstable-looking dwellings stacked upon one another on the cramped streets. Since the Winter Moon celebration was tomorrow, visitors from other towns gathered in the city of Traptin to witness the ceremony that would be conducted tomorrow evening. The overcrowded city reeked of filth, and each alley we passed wafted up the stench of piss. Regardless of the late hour, many had gone to the streets, pointing at the plume of smoke, that same sick hunger to see tragedy gleaming in their eyes.
At last, we reached the outer gate, where a few taverns were already filling up, singing and laughter spilling onto the street. How soon Vardans moved on.
The massive iron gate creaked and groaned as it parted way for us. Single file, we burst into the open farmland crusted with a thin layer of frost. I glanced to the east to see heavy fog rolling in from the ocean. The briny scent cleared the rank odor of the city from my nostrils and, though the cold air stung my lungs, I inhaled the fresh aroma of untainted life. Campfires dotted the landscape from visitors too poor to stay in the city, and the smell of crackling fires made me aware of the cold wind chapping my face and stiffening my muscles. Once past the fields, we climbed a steep hill.
At the ridge, Brackard reined in his steed. “Look, boys! Beautiful isn’t it?”
I turned so I could see the city of Traptin tucked against Cehdyah’s Peak. From our perch, the construction of the city vanquished any doubts that Cehdyah had formed the landscape. The mountain range along the northern and western edge of Traptin stretched as far as the eye could see both in length and height. The moon-kissed ocean to the east blended with the obsidian mountain range that would have toppled off into the sea had Cehdyah not changed its shape. After climbing for near a mile in its natural slope, the last peak—Cehdyah’s Peak—had been smoothed on all four sides to form a perfect rectangular block, preventing any from attacking Traptin from behind. It stuck out in contrast to the peaks rising and falling like an angry sea. Even on the clearest day, clouds wreathed Cehdyah’s Peak, and not one soul in all of Illryn could speak to its height.
Spilling down the peak, the city of Traptin bled into the meadow that had been cleared ages ago to make way for farmlands. The southern approach to the city was the single vulnerable attacking point, though I mused it was more of a strength than a weakness. The thick forest would be near impossible for any army to navigate. Furthermore, rumors of horrid creatures stalking the woods spread throughout Vard and leaked to other kingdoms in bedtime stories that frightened small children.
“Never once has Traptin fallen,” Brackard whispered. “Not once have our walls failed us.”
“Breathtaking,” Krowen said.
“It is said A’Vill in Eadom is nothing compared to our city,” the king said. “Besides, E’Haven is not a god who builds cities. He makes his people build it themselves.”
“He forces his people to slavery when he can flick his hand and ease their burden,” I wondered.
“Well, let us ride on!” Brackard hissed his horse forward.
I reeled my steed around and followed the king with Krowen flanking me. We rode for near an hour before we slowed to a brisk trot once we entered the forest. Muddy snow crunched softly under our horses’ hooves, leaving their imprint amongst those who’d traveled toward the city for the Celebration.
I rested my hand on the hilt of my sword as we passed under the canopy of trees threatening to infringe upon the highway. All three of us tilted our heads, listening for any noise, searching for hints to the spies’ location.
Krowen raised his hand. Into the woods off the highway, a ruddy glow of fire pulsed amid the trees. I sniffed the air. The rancid odor of rotting flesh cut through the woodsy pine aroma.
“Necrophites,” Krowen hissed.
“By Cehdyah’s mercy,” Brackard whispered. “How many do you think there are?”
Krowen and I shared a glance. We both knew they traveled in packs. We also knew for the odor to be this pungent, there must be at least fifty. The damn spies had brought an entire horde with them.
“Captain, take the king back to Traptin,” I ordered.
“Commander,” Krowen said. “I will—”
I whipped my head around and glared at Krowen. “For the love of Cehdyah, are you questioning me again?”
Krowen shook his head, his steady gaze never leaving mine. “I want your safety.”
“He’s right, Grayden,” Brackard said. “We should all go back. We can get extra men.”
“They could already know of our arrival, my king. I have my orders to rid them from our lands. I will carry it out.”
Krowen’s body stiffened. “I’m not leaving your side.”
“Oh, stop it,” Brackard snapped. “I’m a big boy. I can ride back on my own. You two stay here and take care of it.”
“Bloody Ert, Grayden. That’s an order.”
“I swore to protect you, Majesty. I—”
“You forget, boy. I taught both of you how to use a sword. I’ve trained you since you were thirteen years old! I can take care of myself!”
We stared off, two equally stubborn men. Pelik was my Master. My first oath was to kill the spies. I nodded in agreement. “So be it, my king.”
Brackard grinned and winked. “Good. Come see me upon your return.”
Brackard wheeled his horse around and thundered off towards Traptin. A sickening feeling lined my stomach. Krowen nudged his mount, but the horse nickered in protest and stepped back from the dense forest.
“We’ll tie them up,” I said.
After we secured our horses to a nearby tree, Krowen and I slunk between towering pines as wide as a farmhouse. Our leather boots and careful footsteps made no sound. The closer we drew to the ruddy glow, the viler the smell of rotting flesh became. Krowen withdrew his two-headed axe from over his shoulder, my sword hissing as it slid free of its sheath.
Guttural grunts echoed in the silent forest, raising bile in the back of my throat from the knowledge of what act was being committed.
I shared a look of confusion with Krowen. Necrophites were of Eadonian origin. Had the spies lost control of the beasts?
The smoky smell of the campfire did little to alleviate the suffocating fetor of death. The flames came into view, casting dancing shadows on three tents splattered with blood. Four bodies lay strewn about, all naked and already defiled, their throats ripped opened and their insides devoured. The last body lay lifeless. Golden hair gleamed in the firelight, and wide eyes stared at nothing. I thanked Cehdyah the woman died when the foul beast had ripped out her throat. She did not have to live through what happened to her now, nor did she have to endure being eaten alive. Of the five spies, she was the luckiest.
Only one necrophite remained in the camp. It was mounted on top of the woman, pumping her corpse full of its seed. The creature’s rotting flesh hung off its decaying muscles, and the body reeked of spoiled milk. In the orange light, its large, chalky eyes gleamed with sick pleasure.
Disgust overcame me, and I rushed forward. The creature was too engrossed in its climax to hear my approach. I let out a roar of anger. I wanted it to know its fate.
The necrophite raised its gaze to see my shining blade whizzing towards it. With no time to react, my sword slid through its neck unopposed. Clotted blood spurted up from the stump as the head rolled from its perch.
Krowen joined my side, talking past the stick in his mouth as if it wasn’t there. “Do we hunt the horde?”
I stared off into the dark woods, my ears thudding from the rush of blood. “No. We clean this up and head back.”
Although necrophite hordes were a plague all across Illryn, with only two of us, I feared our likelihood of success on such a dark and cold night. Especially with a horde that had just escaped servitude. They’d be nothing more than rabid dogs. Not to mention the bodies before us would turn within hours if we didn’t take care of them. A few months and the woman would birth a necrophite of her own.
Together, we lifted the woman and tossed her into the fire, allowing the flames to burn away any seed that had taken. I glanced around and motioned to Krowen. “We’ll burn them all.”
While Krowen built up the flames, I searched the four men then rummaged through the tents.
In the last tent, I found a sealed scroll tucked under a blanket. I moved next to the fire and unrolled it.
We have visited the city today and have finally laid eyes upon the Executioner. Our worst fears have been realized. I have spoken to the others, and we have all agreed: he must be killed. Though I await your orders, we do not see any choice.
We cannot get close enough to Arch Bishop Pelik to attempt any assassination. But do not despair. There is hope. King Brackard has grown wise in his old age. I saw him today in the city. He looked at me and knew I was Eadonian. He winked and carried on. One of us will gain an audience with him tomorrow.
My hope is this letter finds you in good health and provides some respite to your worry. Take heart, my king, a light shines in the darkness.
Your humble servant,
I walked out of sight from Krowen and sank to my knees, ignoring the cold wet of the ground. “Cehdyah, please speak to me. I need your direction.”
Silence. In all my years, Cehdyah never once spoke to me. Pelik said gods were a peculiar bunch. I thought he was a bastard. After all, I was Cehdyah’s Chosen, his right hand, his Executioner. I had sworn myself to his service. In spite of his silence, as much as I hated him, I loved him. He was my god, my creator.
I lowered my gaze to the scroll. It was a choice: Brackard or Pelik. I could turn it over to Pelik, and Brackard would be tried for treason. Doubtlessly I would be his executioner. However, my blood stained both their hands. Brackard’s treatment of me had not been merciful until I passed my fifteenth naming. Pelik continued his cruelty until I had sworn my life to Cehdyah. Both had taught me, both had punished me, both had been my father.
However, if I distanced myself personally and looked upon it objectively—which I should do as Cehdyah’s Chosen—Pelik had said the Eadonians were devious. Perhaps they had planted the letter, hoping to upheave our government. If I were to take this to Pelik, he might find Brackard innocent, but the investigation would create ravines in an already strained relationship. It was my duty to keep peace within Vard, and the kingdom had benefited greatly from my presence. Crime was rare compared to seven years ago; the criminals from today were brought in from all over Vard, and it had taken a full season to gather the forty-eight. I was here to keep peace and make the right decisions for Vard. This Cehdyah had entrusted to me.
Krowen’s call startled me from my thoughts. “Can you give me a hand with these bodies?”
I clenched the scroll in my fist, hauled myself to my feet, and walked to the clearing. After a brief hesitation, I tossed the scroll into the leaping flames before helping Krowen dispose of the bodies. The letter had to be a lie. Brackard would not betray his god.
We were covered in sweat by the time we finished destroying the camp. After the flames had desiccated the spies into husks of bone and shriveled lumps of muscle, we extinguished the fire.
By the time we made it back to our horses, hours had passed. If the horde of necrophites had found the king, he was a doomed man. We spurred our horses into a full gallop.
The ride seemed to take forever. Upon cresting the hill overlooking Traptin, nothing could be seen through the heavy fog that devoured all light. We barreled down the hill. Blood pounded in my ears louder than my mount’s thundering hooves. I cursed myself silently. I should have forced the king to stay. I should have known the horde would not linger around such a small group of dead.
A glow of light cut through the darkness, and we reined in our horses.
“Who goes there?” a voice called from the night.
“Commander Grayden and Captain Krowen,” Krowen said. “Has the king returned?”
“Yes, Captain. Only a short while ago.” A squat soldier came into view. “He gave me a message for you, Commander. He said something has come up, and he will not have an opportunity to speak to you tonight. He said he would seek you out in the morning.”
“Open the gates,” Krowen ordered. The captain nudged his horse beside mine. “Would you like me to check with the queen and ensure that the king is safe?”
I nodded. “Come get me if anything is amiss.”
Krowen banged his fist to his chest and trotted off into the city. I meandered through the sleeping streets, pondering the king’s timing. It had taken Krowen and me hours to burn the bodies and clean the campsite. Why did Brackard only just now return? He should have been back well before us.
The commotion from the fire had surely calmed, but I stayed clear and took a roundabout way home, staying far from the taverns that would no doubt be crammed full of people celebrating. As I passed through the inner city gate, I gazed absently at the estates sprawled out with their massive gardens and towering homes, most active with parties, windows lit bright and welcoming. The construction was such a contrast to the outer city. The inner city had been built by Cehdyah ages ago, and one could see the god’s mark on the structures. Carved, towering, and defying the laws of engineering, they rose up from the ground as if they were chiseled from one mountain. Vardans had erected the outer city after our population overflowed from the inner city. The wealthy remained in, the poor were forced out.
I arrived at the end of the city where a carved staircase zigzagged up the sheer cliff. All two hundred soldiers saluted me as I passed. I urged the horse upwards with a steady pressure on his flanks.
It was a mile climb to the plateau where my home was nestled. Halfway up, the fog cleared above me, and I stopped to admire the sight of the High Church and castle snuggling the cliff face. The High Church was not so much a home to the priests of Cehdyah as it was a piece of art. It was carved from the mountainside, smoothed into three domes of obsidian that reflected moonlight and acted as a beacon to ships on those rare clear nights. An equally impressive sight, the king’s fortress spilled down the mountainside like a rock waterfall disappearing into the misty fog. Royal quarters were level with the High Church on the plateau while less important rooms intruded on the mountainside behind walls of the same glassy black stone. Lights twinkled from the scattered windows to reveal the seemingly infinite number of floors that tumbled down the full mile. My home huddled between the towering giants, though it would rival any of the sprawling mansions I’d passed earlier.
Another twenty men guarded the upper plateau, and I turned my steed toward home.
The ride was lined with flowerless roses and pine trees that sweetened the air. A layer of snow crunched beneath my horse’s hooves. Owls cooed in protest of my intrusion and darting shadows of raccoons, squirrels, rats, and who knew what else, followed me home.
I reached the gate to my estate, guarded by ten soldiers, and handed off the horse to them. The walls surrounding my home climbed glassy and smooth into the inky night sky. I couldn’t see the top in the darkness. Originally, they were built to imprison me when I was a youth and before I had pledged my allegiance to Cehdyah. Now, they kept out intruders, those who sought revenge for their executed loved ones.
After passing through the iron gates, I veered off to the stables. O’hoc was waiting, his chestnut coat brightening when I lit the lantern. His glossy black eyes regarded me intently, and then he snorted, tossing his head back.
“I had no choice,” I apologized, gathering up an apple from a nearby bucket. I held it up, just out of reach. “Forgive me?”
O’hoc snorted again but lowered his head. I ran my hand along his cheek and passed him the apple. He’d already been rubbed down, but I picked up the brush and slid it along his back. The simple task was an escape from my responsibilities; something I did without using my power, without striking fear into people, and without bathing my hands in blood.
O’hoc occasionally nibbled on my surcoat, his head nudging me affectionately. I stayed with him as long as I could but exhaustion called me home. I pressed my forehead against his muzzle and said goodnight before leaving.
I entered my home by way of the kitchen. Warmth washed over my face from the crackling fireplaces heating each room. A plate of bread and cheese with a circle of orange slices peeled of all that white, bitter fuzz I hated rested on the table. Trevir stood by the fire beside his wife, Rallara, who lounged in a chair. When I closed the door, she rose, curtsied, and motioned to the food with her warm smile dancing on her aged face. Her tawny hair was still in a bun, tight and clean, just as her gown was spotless and elegant.
Trevir’s old eyes sagged from the late hour he was forced to keep, and his wrinkled, blue velvet doublet and thick black trews attested to the nap he had surely been taking before I’d arrived. His gaze was disapproving as always on the nights of my executions, but his tongueless mouth could not voice his displeasure, although it was nearly tangible in the air.
I unbuckled my sword belt and placed it on the table. “Polish it and have it ready by morning. Make sure my other chainmail is cleaned as well.” I turned to Rallara. “I’ll need a fresh surcoat.”
Both bowed. I snatched up the plate of food and ambled to the meeting hall. I stared at the space shaped like a throne room while chewing a piece of cheese. Not once had I used it. I pondered why Brackard and Pelik had insisted I needed one. I met with the men at either the High Church or the throne room. I didn’t even use the expansive dining hall. Nor did I ever eat in the kitchen. Not once had I seen Trevir and Rallara’s rooms. I occupied only one side of the upper floor. No one had entered my bedroom except for my two servants since I had sworn myself to Cehdyah. It was mine and mine alone.
I popped an orange slice in my mouth, climbed the stairs, and opened the door to what I called my home. A massive bed centered the room and could easily sleep six. Heavy, rich blue drapes surrounded it and provided a cozy cave that beckoned me to its dark comforts. Three balconies offered views to either the ocean, Rallara’s gardens, or the never-ending mountains. Tonight, the drapes were drawn tight for privacy.
I stripped off all my chainmail and clothes and walked to the washroom. Once I cleaned off the soot from the fires, I stumbled into bed and allowed dreams to whisk me away to faraway places filled with mundane cities and rolling hills.