The Necromancer and the Revenant: Complete First Chapter!

As was promised this past Sunday, here’s a fully-updated, reconfigured, rebalanced teaser for The Necromancer and the Revenant–it now includes the entire first chapter!
Content Warning: extremely graphic depictions of gore and death.

Author’s Note, 4/29/2020: This version of the first chapter will be appearing in the upcoming Resurrected Edition of The Necromancer and the Revenant. If you love it, wonderful, it’s much better than the previous one and I love it too! So, with that in mind, please wait until I actually release the Resurrected Edition before buying the book. It should be some time within the next couple of weeks, with The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear hopefully coming out in June.

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Chapter 1
The Death of House Sairo
“Betrayal begets betrayal, as death begets death, and who seeks vengeance will find it sought against herself.” –Matriarch Chu Sairo’s The Façade of Power

A long black helm weighed Divari’s head down. She knew she should keep the visor closed, but it was so damned stifling! She tucked blond bangs aside, reframing a pale heart-shaped face and sapphire eyes.

“A bundle of golden silk, palm-sized, likely in the Matriarch’s tent,” Divari whispered to herself again.

“Easy, highness,” Captain Venor said from behind. A gauntlet settled on her shoulder. “We’ll find it. Jasczynk can’t know what it’s worth, anyhow.” Divari didn’t look back. If she couldn’t contain her fear, she could still conceal it.

“Lest I sound unfair, Captain,” Divari said, “he did bring an army to collect it.”

“Ha, a fair point indeed!” Venor said. “Suppose we’ll see how much army’s left, then.”

Blood-tendrils crept through water beneath their finely-blacked boots. Through the gaps in the dense undergrowth and forests lining the riverbed, Divari saw corpses—more with each step. Fallen warriors choked the stream ahead. Even the water stank, but it was her useless fear making her breath ragged. She didn’t bother telling herself it was only disgust. The hero—heroine—was always afraid at first, but overcame it.

“As iron were my ancestors, so must I be steel,” she recited, disguising a nervous gulp.

The thirty-odd visitors hunkered low, fearing sudden quarrels between the shoulders or the arcane’s killing flare. Divari held a classic Tresar talon-sabre with a spiraling cup-hilt and double-edged reverse-hook blade longer than her own arm. It weighed two and a half pounds but felt like forty. Like her guards, she positively broiled in a red-lacquered kembrad—copper wires holding segmented scarlet steel plates to golden padding.

“Her highness might breathe easier if allowed practical wear,” Mistress Hevrin said.

“It’s traditional and befits her rank,” Venor countered. Clattering metal suggested some dramatic gesture. “What could be more practical than that?”

For Divari Sidra, Crown Princess of Tresamer, “traditional” meant a courtly lashylla: a golden robe embroidered with wilderness images and enhanced by scarlet twinings, jet-black fabrics piled on the neck to create parted “skirts” and lengthen the sleeves, and copious precious-metal rings woven around the limbs.

“You might learn to revere your ancestors properly, woman,” Venor continued. “‘sides, it’s thick material. Doubles as extra armor.”

While he was correct, Divari felt he’d forgotten to mention that the late-morning sun would kill her instead. She stopped to stare at a young Ton woman framed just above the butcher’s runoff. White and black ash painted the pale features. Thick red bands enhanced slanted eyes; gore clouted the corpse’s loosely-held wedgepoint sword and misted away in the red stream, red silk tassels swaying like loose-torn veins. Hours underwater had rusted its blade hideous orange.

Rust-filled gashes latticed the dead woman’s armor where exposed steel met river-water, platelets stained bloody where a spear-thrust took her belly. The platelets were split apart and driven into the wound, a slit leaking no longer. The warrior was little older than Divari. She shuddered and walked up the riverbed, its waters too shallow to explain the sodden soil at each bank.

A wall of corpses dammed the river ahead, all wearing white-lacquered lamellar marked on the shoulder with House Sairo’s red blossom. What trickled through the gaps held little of water. They leaned into the current over broken twenty-four-foot pikes, fingers bound to shafts by death-rigor. White banners with the red blossom stirred in the low breeze, most sagging from broken staves. Dead marked the muddy riverbanks, crushed subtropical ferns, sprawled over stones. They fell thicker still ahead; the first distant piles from the battle’s core stayed just visible beneath smoke pouring from many fires along the river’s southern side—the left side, where the Sairos made their stand.

Divari couldn’t help but imagine her own people sprawled in these heaps. So much blood, and rot, and blood, always blood, she thought. Its iron reek choked her nose and churned sickness within her belly, and coated her tongue.

“This wouldn’t happen in Tresamer,” she told herself aloud. “Not this much, not this senseless.” Behind her, Hevrin loosed a skeptical laugh.

“Holding action,” Venor said, stepping up beside her. “Not sure what they thought they’d accomplish. Just opened their flank for Jasczynk’s shock troops.”

The head of her guard was a hawk-nosed, cavern-cheeked man with a respectable tan. A sturdy kettle-helm hid his blond hair. Plates over his ears protected the sides of his head; a black bevor covered his chin. He carried a well-oiled, heavily-notched talon-sabre, but the sheer slaughter made him nervous.

Venor pointed to straggling dead further upriver past the corpse-dam, most fallen face-first with open wounds in the back. The gesture clattered dark plate and stirred his golden surcoat bearing Tresamer’s scarlet Javelet. The spiny prey-bird’s beak scrunched.

“Can’t blame them too much,” Venor continued. “Sairo kept a tight hand. Doubt any of her band were prepared to take over when she went under the scythe.”

Teman citizen-soldiers lay somewhat sparser than Sairo dead. Their bloodless fists clutched halberds and poleaxes, maces and flails; they wore cross-hilted swords as sidearms. Black, blue and brass against white and red; Temans and Ton alike expected their warriors to wear their leader’s colors into open battle.

The rank-and-file Temans wore black Ceslonian gambesons trimmed blue at shoulders and hems. The thick padded-linen jackets were knee-length, splotched by battle-grime.

It’s just armor, the same as our kembrads, Divari thought. She realized she had expected these warstock outlanders to look different, even in death. Fiercer or more noble, not merely taller and more muscular. They weren’t ignoble either; they were just dead. Just because they bred themselves for war has not made the warstock invincible, she tried to tell herself. Maybe so—then, what separated her from dying as they had?

“Let this be a reminder,” Divari ordered. She was ashamed at how clearly her voice quaked. Her father would do this better. “No one escapes death in the end.”

“Yes, highness,” the guards echoed.

Scattered plate and mail distinguished slain men-at-arms and knights, plate and helms blackened and trimmed with midnight blue, the mail tinted dull brass.

“Strange seeing so many knights in one place,” Divari said. “It shouldn’t be. Father’s introduced me to knights at court, but…”

“Ceslonians belong in Ceslon. It’d be bad if they felt familiar, highness,” Venor said.

“But of course, Ceslonian armor is just fine,” Hevrin said, giving Venor and his hypocrite plate a scalding look. He glared back.

“This makes me uneasy,” Venor said. “Temans are keen on pyres. I wouldn’t go to the trouble of burying Ton either, but why’re Jasczynk’s dead still here?”

“Sairo was small, but still a Ton house, and old,” Hevrin said. A thin-faced, brown-eyed woman, her red hair was cropped near-barren on her pale scalp; she had been bald on her return from Hanir a few weeks ago. She adjusted golden robes cut in trim Murit style—tight on the arms and waist, loose-hemmed—hems only knee-length, replaced by steel shinguards and scarlet silk wrappings. She looks so… temperate, Divari thought, with heretical longing.

“Besides that, Jasczynk forced them to a last stand. He likely has much burning to do.” Hevrin finished. She spoke his name’s jumping Teman inflection easily; Divari envied her.

“Fairly said,” Venor admitted, and turned to Divari. “Usually you win when the other side routs. Teman armor’s tougher, Ton folk are bigger, but they’re all warriors and one Ton is close enough to worth one Teman. If the Ton hold, how many Temans to kill twenty-one thousand of ‘em?”

“Thank you, Captain,” Divari said, faking a bright smile. “I proofread father’s missives and am aware of how wars function.”

“Oh, er, suppose you would be,” Venor said, missing her sarcasm.

“Of course, if you are implying that their losses must be equal, then does that not mean one Ton is worth much more than one Teman?” Divari asked, beaming innocently. “After all, I would think that as more of Matriarch Sairo’s forces perished, the difference in numbers would tilt further, and thus the Temans would kill more with fewer losses.”

“Er…” Venor said, scratching his cheeks. “Wait. That is true. Where’s Jasczynk, then? How’d this turn into such a damn mess?”

Meanwhile Hevrin passed by, awaiting them at the corpse-dam. She did not walk as Tresar women ought to, steps “light and slight”; she planted great loping strides like a man, splashing up the bloody water and caking gore-mud on her boots. Haughty Ceslon had undone Hevrin’s respect for their ancestors.

“Still, what about Those Who Fell?” Venor pressed. He vaulted the corpse-dam, and offered Hevrin his hand. Hevrin sniffed and levitated herself across. Divari fought a wince—she tried to accept Hevrin’s outland magic, truly she did. But Tresar should cast spells with words given power in ancient days. Hevrin’s invocation spawned from some alien, unholy art that Divari knew not. The Hearthwomen said magic unbound by the incantations their ancestors forged was drawn to strike the soul’s every secret, as fire struck dry grass. How could Hevrin trust hers not to betray her?

If Hevrin can trust her will alone to bind her spells, then what excuse have I, with my Ancestors’ hands upon my shoulders? she thought. Divari firmed her brow and felt for the current. It was there as always. She felt it as if with a second body projected within her mind: a cool caressing rush of power sacred and pure. She drew it in, let herself savor its bubbly thrum for blissful seconds as was proper, and produced a copper chime. She reached towards the corpses.

“Your highness, I’d be glad to help you across,” Venor said.

Divari ignored him. She rang the chime and said, “Bolsara” at the same time to ensure no one would hear her incantation—if another mage learned it, they could use the spell. Worse, anyone at all could mock the word until it lost all power. Divari felt the current concentrating and bursting down her arm.

“Highness, wait, that will likely—” Hevrin began. It was too late.

A mystic shove drove a dozen bodies clear from Divari’s way. It also ripped loose blades and splintered shafts buried in their flesh—all spattered Divari with rancid grime and lukewarm viscera. Trickling carrion-stench and cold water dripped with them down her kembrad’s collar. The princess took a deep breath. I will not cry, she thought, once again fighting against her rising gorge.

“Well, sorceress? What about Those Who Fell?” Venor repeated quickly to Hevrin, producing a bandage from his bandolier and handing it to Divari. “There’s one army broken here, mayhap two. You expect me to believe there’s not one warrior-ghost thinks death’s no reason to stop killing?”

Divari shuddered, still wiping gore from herself. In the process her eyes came to rest on the point, far away on the other side of the river, where sat Teman ballistae and catapults, abandoned. “Those engines concern me as much as missing battle-ghosts,” Divari said. “They’re valuable themselves, and the engineers needed to operate them—shouldn’t they, at least, still be with their weapons?”

“Agreed. And as for Those Who Fell, their absence is notable, but not impossible,” Hevrin’s thin brows pinched her nose tighter with each word. “I admit it’s unlikely enough I’d thought the distinction meaningless.”

“Jasczynk had his own mages, I am sure, and,” Divari paused, tongue curling at the word, “priests. Likely they have put the spirits to rest already.” She threw the filthy bandages into the blood-waters beneath her feet and stepped past the corpse-dam.

Venor wasn’t satisfied. “Your highness, I mean no disrespect, but my duty’s to foresee threats to you. This bauble pulled a duke, third in line to the throne no less, east and across the Ailing. From Temana it’s two months over open ocean. Ancestors’ Breath, they must’ve braved the ice south of V—” He stuttered, refusing to speak the outland Overgod’s name.

At last he continued lamely, “south of the Cap, else they had to pass north around the Barrens Feral, braving death either way, all to die here in Taifen! Jasczynk undertook all that, but didn’t plan to expect this slaughter? So flabbergasted at his losses he needs a whole day before burning the dead?”

“Perhaps if you relay your concerns to father,” Divari said, losing her temper at last, “he will find a man willing to do your duties without your nitpicking.” Venor finally went silent. “And Hevrin, don’t you start,” the princess snapped, whirling on the invoker even as Hevrin opened her mouth. “You are both loyal to Tresamer and our people. You may now be loyally silent.” And, miracles alive, they were.

Divari saw the battle’s full shape only as darkling impressions on the infernal smog around them: the air hung thick with smoke and death-stench. Splintered tree-stumps and riven trunks lay heavy. Defiant fires flickered. The slain lay corroded or choked on swollen tongues, burned and blackened with all hairs standing out and muscles still twitching. Plenty bore mundane wounds—if death in battle could be mundane!—arrows and quarrels, spears and swords and mace or warhammer’s plummet.

“Hevrin,” she said, “offer me your insight. Mei-la promised father she would bring fifty thousand spears against Jasczynk. How did it come to a mere twenty-one thousand against, if those Temans who whispered to our spies spoke truly, forty-five?”

“In fact, I scouted the surround yesterday,” Hevrin said. “I found two somewhat smaller columns, perhaps fifteen thousand each, dead to the last in hasty defenses.”

“Blood-mad Ton,” Venor said. “There’s honor and then there’s stupidity. Why stand against a force more than twice their own strength, and without their Matriarch?”

“Jasczynk had knights and men-at-arms,” Divari said. “Cavalry, captain? Is it not reasonable to assume he used them to harry and entrap the Sairo columns until his main force could descend upon them?”

“Ah,” Venor said. “Yes. Yes, it would be. Forgive me for failing you, highness.”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Divari said. “You are one of my guards. Your exact duty is to see to tactical concerns so that I may focus on strategic ones; there is no shame in struggling with strategy when you have not trained in it.”

Acrid fumes stung her eyes, and as she blinked and averted her teary ducts and itching nostrils from the nearest charcoal plume, Divari noted Venor fidgeting. She decided to take pity. “Come, show us that tactical knowledge. You may chart the massacre’s course for me,” she told him.

Venor puffed up with pride. “See there,” he said, “Sairo draws up her army.” He pointed to the only natural ford for miles. Sharpened-stake thickets filled the high point. The water ran thin as a veil above the riverbed’s loose rock and mud.

Here the Temans died thickest—piled around stakes and themselves piled with abundant arrows. The arrow-struck’s exposed skin sagged with black pustules and open sores, yellowed skin and suppurating sinew: Tonnish archers cherished knifestail venom. The leering decay took hours; the venom’s neurotoxic rush killed in thirty seconds. Some claimed the victims spent another ten wholly alert but paralyzed, feeling their bodies fail.

“The Sairos take formation about thirty yards back from the ford, inside the treeline—must’ve clear-cut the hill the day before to anchor their line. Wanted to bleed the Temans from afar first,” the Captain continued. “A good plan, but what with having so few mages the Ton tend to forget the enemy’s or can’t match their spells.”

The dead clustered inside the smoldering wood were archers and skirmishers with javelins in addition to the thick-shafted, eight-foot war spears of the north Ton, wearing only helms and lamellar vests over their thin robes. Sairos leaned on or behind fallen trees clutching bows and arrows, waiting to loose one last flight. What horrible chaos, Divari thought, gaze creased by sorrow for these fallen strangers. How could one keep track of it all? A friend, panicked by a sudden move, could kill you before they even read your colors.

“The river runs dry just as Jasczynk’s folk enter range, they attack the whole line instead of clogging the ford, the skirmishers are overrun before they can retreat behind the heavy infantry,” Venor said, and shrugged. “Story as old as war herself.”

Looming through the smoke and drifting embers, Divari spotted a green-robed Teman mage charred across his front. He was split by debris and impaled on a broken sapling. Red muscle peeked through peeling black around a wide green eye; a few sable hairs remained to his blistered scalp.

Venor digressed for a few minutes to speak of the Loar War. He scoffed over arrogant Ton spell-slingers bleeding the Gift thin against the Gaunt Ones. Divari eyed the dead Teman. If the Ton are so disadvantaged in mages, shouldn’t the Temans’ own losses be fewer? she thought. What Venor described was considered common knowledge in Tresamer, but this battle gave her doubts.

“Anyhow,” Venor continued, pointing to a boulder-mound miles away upriver, “we see how well it worked. Jasczynk’s casters dam the river and what gets through isn’t enough to clean away corpses. I wonder, though, why Sairo stopped here. It’s mayhap three days’ march to her own lands and her fortress. Why not make a run for it past Jasczynk?”

“The sign of a commander who knows how to wield her mages,” Hevrin said. “Magic is drawn to sapient minds, Captain Venor. A place like this, wild since times unknown, should have no current. But we are at most twenty miles from the Kedrul Basin. Which,” she said at Venor’s dour look, “is perhaps Canno’s strongest nexus. She forced Jasczynk to chase her through wilderness without spells for supply or scouting. She likely guessed that when her forces arrived here, her mages together would suffice to pull current all the way from the Basin. A vital day to fortify her position and lace it with whatever spellcraft she wished.”

“Outland magics,” Venor grumbled.

“Outland arcane theory,” Hevrin countered, “Which, in contrast to our own, exists.” They approached the riverside woods’ southern edge. Streaking wild-fires ahead silhouetted the largest dead-masses of all against the ever-churning smoke; Divari’s eyes stung and blinked ceaselessly. Then, Hevrin stopped. She frowned. “Guardsmen, halt,” she said, addressing four who appeared only as wispy wraiths despite walking just fifteen feet ahead. They ignored her. “I said halt, you damned—!” she started.

The dry brush and branches under the lead man’s feet gave way. He and two of his comrades tumbled into a narrow pit. Before Hevrin could wield the current, before Divari could even touch it, they struck bottom, and blood-red fire screeched skyward.

Their screams came instantly: distorted animal squeals that dragged on even while Hevrin, eyes snapping from side to side, approached the murderous pit.

“Hurry, damn you!” Venor shouted, while Divari watched in mute horror. “Faster!”

Hevrin ignored him. An evil scent, as of roasted meat searing swiftly into charcoal, pierced Divari’s nostrils. The invoker at last reached the pit. The screams ebbed well before the current twinged; the skyward fire collapsed, casting eerie glows on the survivors.

“Get them out of there!” Venor snapped. “What are you waiting for?”

“They are dead. Burned even beyond necromancy,” Hevrin said, grim-faced. “Sairo—”

“Enough of this damned forest!” the fourth guard said, striding past her.

“Stop, you imbecile!” Hevrin snapped. Right as her words faded, his foot collided with something hidden in the underbrush: a tiny twanging string set between two intact trees. A crude contraption of rough-hewn branches lashed down from behind him and drove an iron spike straight through his kembrad. He spluttered and toppled, motionless. The contraption held him on his knees for a moment more until the branch anchoring it snapped. The jumbles came to rest with a dull clunk atop the dead man’s helm.

“Damn you all, when a Ceslonian-trained battlemage says to halt, you will, by your mothers’ shrunken wombs, halt!” Divari shouted, shaking with terror, with anger, and with a swift-rising sickness. “This is by my order as your Crown Princess! No Tresar were meant to die for that accursed stone!”

“As you order, highness,” Venor said. He gritted his teeth, glaring at the forest.

“And to answer your question,” Hevrin said, pulling the current and driving back the obscuring smoke, “I did not approach more quickly because that is precisely the instinct a good trap depends upon: the desire to help one’s allies.”

All through the fire-kissed trees they saw Teman corpses, as many as five to one for every Sairo slain. About fifty feet away a Sairo warrior slumped against a stone, on the other side of two smoldering pits separated only by a single-file earthen path. Ten punctured Temans cluttered it, several hanging over the pit-lips. Despite the ragged cleave that nearly took away her jaw, the fallen warrior’s laughing smile persisted.

“This isn’t funny, you fucking scum!” Venor roared, starting towards the corpse. “It’s—”

“Captain, please,” Divari said, catching his arm. “If you triggered another trap in approaching her and joined her kills, I couldn’t bear it. Calm.”

He tensed against her grip, then sighed. “Right,” he said, and spat in the laughing Sairo’s direction, “calm.”

“Enter single file behind me,” Hevrin said. “I will sound out our advance with invocations. If I should be killed by a trap I miss, then I recommend that you guards reform the file with Divari at its rear. It is likely most of you will survive the remaining distance.”

Not a single complaint nor jibe answered her, and this fact truly terrified Divari.

Thus they followed Hevrin’s lead. She took terse, narrow steps, the current pulsing and thrumming. Her spells sent faint light-traces through the encroaching smoke. They left lingering cyan glows suggesting tripwires and pit-mouths, hidden stakes and weighted stones. This is Sairo’s work, Divari thought. The art of the woman we nearly took for an ally.

After twists, turns, and one bated breath after another, Hevrin freed them from the deadly river-woods. They emerged onto blackened knolls and slopes splitting from the center hill. Divari’s breath caught at a dread aspect: a sprawling three-tiered earthworks with broad, sloping walls. The wan sun cowered high above and to her right, so diluted by haze as to cast only an otherworldly glimmer that scarcely reached the hilltop. Distant fires burned like sunset on a warped and broken horizon behind the dour bastion. From their glows a southerly wind blew torrential smoke up and over the hill’s far side towards Divari. The smoke cascaded down the earthworks and submerged their very feet; the fortification’s shapes appeared only by the smoke’s rise and fall in passing over its faces.

“Bells of Alansera,” Venor breathed. “All this in just a day… she could’ve done it. Even outmaneuvered, even with less than half the troops she meant to, she could’ve brought Jasczynk down.” Slain Temans carpeted the ground before the earthworks. Their still forms only half rose above the all-veiling smoke’s streams as if floating on fell ocean.

The white Sairo ranks were charred and split in a few places, but for the most part they were fallen neatly atop the earthworks and in narrow defiles. These latter served as gateways up the reshaped hill with Temans piled before, or mixed in where formations broke and swarmed together. Far above at the end of the steady-narrowing rampway leading to the rampart-hill’s summit, the last, largest Sairo standard fluttered. The red blossom reposed within a gleaming sun-breach upon the earthworks’ utmost height.

A final corpse-ring lurked in the half-shadow and smoke at its base, broken spears and helm-crests jutting up towards the illuminated banner as if reaching for it.

“I wager Sairo thought to take the Temans when they were coming out of the woods,” Venor said. “They break formation to run the trees. All those filthy traps bleed them and scatter them further, get that mad warstock ire heated, and all the smoke and fire and forest obscure the shot of the Teman engines. The Temans broke through too quickly, is all. Better to hold further back than have her own army charge in disorganized. A good plan, damn her unbeating heart, but too much hinged on holding the ford a little longer.”

Either way, both she and Jasczynk consigned their people to this butchery. Warriors, like morning fog, faded before noon, Divari thought. Would foreign warstock appreciate a Tresar woman’s eulogy? She offered it anyway.

Once they drew closer to the phantasmagoric ramparts, Divari noted many odd, over-regular craters studding their walls. Near the craters lay slain Temans in staggered half-circles: cruel iron rods and stone shards jutted from their bodies.

“Nobody try climbing a damn thing,” Venor said. “Doesn’t take a mage to see they put bombs in the walls. Hevrin, can we have another smoke clearing?”

“Certainly,” the invoker said, and drove back the char-born streams. Thus she granted them a few seconds’ sight towards the earthworks’ open flanks. Flanks, Divari saw, actually anchored by multiple layers of killing pits perpendicular to the defenses’ main lines. Much of the fire on this portion of the field emanated from them.

“Ancestors’ Breath,” Venor muttered. “Imagine thinking you’ve finally worked around the Sairo lines, going to take vengeance on these hell-women, only for the ground to open…” He trailed off, staring back towards the riverside forests. The smoke closed in once more.

“Hevrin,” Divari said.

“Yes, your Highness?” the invoker answered.

“Would you be so kind as to make sure we are safe from traps ahead, then leave us for just long enough to undo that Teman dam?” Divari asked. “The river is the Soloven. Its origin lies in Tresamer—let them not imprison our ancestral waters.” Hevrin smirked at the irony. “Please?”

Divari instantly wanted to strike herself. She should not beg of her vassals. But Hevrin bowed deeply. She hurried ahead, the current twitching with more arcane pulses. Then she looked back, waved them forward, and sent herself hurtling through the air: her foreign magic’s flight. Divari’s school, The Sisters of the Yelba Aflame, had no incantation for it.

The princess picked her way over the slain filling the gateway defiles. Here they again found pike-wielding Sairo infantry: at each narrow entry, they’d reaped a bitter toll from Jasczynk’s forces. Only a few Sairo corpses lay between the earthwork-levels, most caught mid-retreat. Most, but not all:

“Have a look at this one,” Venor said, coughing against an ember-gust. A Ton warrior knelt against his spear just before the second level’s gateway defile, further braced by his lamellar’s skirts. The grim-set lips made him seem a sculpture, and his helmet’s bowl hid his eyes. Death made his unpainted, warm brown skin pallid.

Embedded below his collarbone was a sword caught by its guard on the spear’s haft. The spear drove through the side of a Teman knight’s cuirass where the armor curved less, point piercing the backplate as well. “I’d heard rumors, but Ancestors’ Breath!”

“Double strike,” another guard said. “A bad business.” All nodded; even trained warriors might attack and thus die as one. The ramparts held many such mutual slayings.

Divari peered under the warrior’s helmet. She should have expected the woman she found. Other people are not mine, she reminded herself.

“Clear through.” A guard said, voice strangled. “How’d she pierce steel with steel?”

“Sapphire-steel,” Venor said, crouching to eye the exposed spearhead. Its blade was crystalline blue with darker shades sifted throughout. All sapphire-steel work had a unique pattern; this one spiked and leapt throughout the blade, sprinkled by dark specks.

“So it is,” another guardsman said. “That explains it.”

“Only part,” Venor said. “His Majesty graced me to test a sapphire-steel talon-sabre once. Passed the breastplate just enough it might’ve drawn blood. But to pierce clean and drive the haft through besides?” He shook his head. “Ton women can’t be human.”

“Still, what kind of man kills a woman?” another asked. Divari lifted the knight’s visor. Beneath it: a middle-aged Teman woman with sun-worn skin and a single ice-blue eye. The other, and the black brow above, were ruined by a deep, old scar.

Divari shook her head. She lead them up the earthworks, over the final corpse-ranks, and to the banner. The Sairos here wore ornate white armor inlaid with black-trimmed scarlet steel, blossoms stippled by engravers’ chisels to have fine texture and striations. Gold and silver adorned their weapons and their sword-scabbards, rubies fastened their helmets. Every blade was sapphire-steel, and Teman corpses surrounded the thin ring.

“The Matriarch’s Scarlet Guard,” Divari said. “Father said they were among the best heavy infantry on Canno.”

A straight line of corpses caught her eye amidst the coursing smog. A broad hole dripping blood and laced with viscera marked each body in the line, the first through a skull’s open ruin framed by helm-fragments, sinking a few inches lower on each. The ballista bolt responsible drove at that grand Sairo banner’s foot, surrounded by a great splatter of blood and gore-pulp. Inside the splatter bloomed a Ton warrior’s outline, itself filled with a dense red splash. Chills ran through Divari. Like nothing else on the battlefield, the bloody bolt looked frozen in time. It might’ve impacted just seconds ago.

“There it is,” Venor said. “The bolt spikes Sairo early, and there’s none other to take command. Her Guard protect her corpse rather than seek vengeance, leastwise ’til it’s too late. Mayhap they carried her off.”

A gold pocket watch, outside faces set with rubies carved into a single blossom per side, hung by a long black chain from a splinter in the bolt. The shaft stood taller than Divari herself, and thick as her thigh at its base. She pulled the pocket watch loose and eyed its cracked face. It read 2:72 in the afternoon: the exact instant of Mei-la’s death. Divari’s fear was not helped by thinking of a Queen—for surely a Matriarch of the Ton was a Queen by any measure—cut down on the field like a common peasant.

Divari’s right hand stung; she saw blood trickle from her palm. When did that happen? She shrugged this thought away. There were too many sharp things about; she must have snagged her hand on battle-refuse while distracted. Blood’s cloying taste, with a moldy, mildewed note, rose suddenly on her tongue. She pulled her waterskin from her belt and gulped greedily until it passed.

“Highness?” Venor asked.

“Nothing, only… I imagined I tasted blood,” Divari said, shrinking with her admission.

“Oh,” Venor said, and sighed. “You’re not alone. The spirit’s a queer thing. More suggestible to outside powers then we like to think. In a way, letting them have that little hold on you, they feel lighter because some part of you chooses them. No shame losing to that want, a little.” He clasped her shoulder. Then he looked up and backed off quickly.

Hevrin landed beside them, her impact rustling the grass, rattling the armored corpses and sending a shudder through the hillside and right up their legs. The smoke withdrew from her for but a moment before seizing them all anew; it came so forcefully that Hevrin’s wards sparked against it. The restored river rushed along its bed and foamed apart the carrion-dam below: none more than liquid glints and toppling shadows in the still-thickening fumes. Yet for a heartbeat, the battle’s awful stink lessened against Divari’s nose.

“That’s the Sairo encampment, right?” Venor asked, peering at tent-tops just visible above the hill’s opposite crest. “Bet Jasczynk’s made a grand display of the Sairo woman.” Divari swallowed hard and nodded. She stepped past the banner, looked out over the Sairo encampment, and her mouth dropped open.

“All Ancestors preserve us,” she said, voice quavering. She saw the final fortifications: sharpened stakes capped by rough-forged steel heads augmenting one last earthwork layer around the camp. The southern forests framed the tent-city’s far side, and far away in their depths burned the largest flames of all. Thick-boughed and glowering, the tree’s natural gloom combined with that hateful tide of smoke and embers to create unbreachable night.

But the nightmare which stole Divari’s breath was this: the countless tents and dividing walls of the encampment kept out just enough smoke that, from their high vantage, they clearly saw thousands of corpses splayed upon rocks, fallen against Sairo tent-ropes, hung in pieces from distant trees, and turning the blue-green grass within the camp to slick crimson. And, no more than dim bulges within the stake-filled ditches ringing the tent-city, there lay all the Teman army’s bulk: corpses heaped as if for burning en masse, forgotten.

“I think it is fair to say that Jasczynk is too busy on display himself,” Hevrin said.

Divari rushed down the hill.

“Your highness!” Hevrin shouted, “would you—damn it, girl!”

Divari ignored her. She mustn’t appear afraid, not now, especially not if there was bile climbing her throat. She saw Teman eyes burst in blood-raw sockets and skulls folded over on themselves, warriors’ own ribs piercing through armor. So many bloody hands clawed at shredded throat-remnants, nails torn off in flesh. She wretched a little, and pressed her collarbone. Somehow the gesture calmed her belly for the moment.

Then the stench hit her, and willpower availed naught against its infinite carcass reek. Divari collapsed, vomiting up her breakfast; most of the guards preceded her to the ground. Her throat ached and her eyes burned as her sickly spume added to the battle’s offal. Still, crawling first, then staggering upright, Divari forced herself forward. Her body rebelled. It ached, it shuddered, and it fevered.

She persevered.

At the encampment’s center, the largest carrion-heap climbed right to the ties holding Jasczynk’s banner to its stave. Terror froze every intact eye. Every weapon whether broken or whole jutted straight out in futile defense.

Flamboyant armor torn open like a sheet of paper, tendons hanging from skinless legs, bones spiked and splintered through exposed muscle-strands, rotted a gaping flay that must once have been Jasczynk. Its skull was folded open from the center-seam, and the plates broken and twisted round to dig into the jaw. Only the mouth still looked human. It screamed so widely the cheeks had split and torn.

“Let’s find what we came for and be gone,” Divari said.

She bolted past the decaying heap. They worked their way through the encampment’s dividing walls. They doubled back several times when they found dead ends, and in every dead end they found more butchered Temans. Always they sought the ornamental red blossom surmounting the center-pole of the largest tent, the one all the way at the encampment’s other side. They jumped at slight noises and their knuckles whitened on their weapons, but they met no more traps. The southerly wind moaned overhead and echoed through the dividing walls; they rattled and shook.

Finally, they passed into a cleared space. The Matriarch’s tent awaited them in its center; past it lay one last stake-moat, and over it ran a simple wooden drawbridge. It was lowered now, and lead to a tunnel formed by the hateful forests’ interlocking branches. Though Divari knew the fires they had seen must lie somewhere behind the shaggy trees, the broad ferns and pale flowers, the pathway carried only more smoke.

Divari started towards Mei-la’s tent, the southerly wind buffeting her ears and shaking the forest. When it ebbed, she caught a rhythmic thumping emanating from the tunnel.

“Someone comes!” she yelled, and the guards formed hasty ranks before her. She raised her chime, considering incantations. A form erupted from the fumes ahead: a rider, swatting his horse’s flank and letting out sobbing sounds that echoed out towards them.

When he approached, Divari shouted, “Halt!” but he ignored her. “Let him pass unless he aims to strike us!” she amended, and they moved aside.

Divari recognized Jasczynk’s colors when the broken knight drew closer: midnight blue and brass on his ruined surcoat and armor. His once-glamorous cuirass was scarred and dented. His right arm was sheared clean away, and he tottered in his saddle as he passed them. Blood from his wound drenched his side and soaked his panicked horse’s flanks. It sweated and snorted, its own hide savaged and its barding ripped to shards and tatters.

Chmych!” he shouted at them, his eyes wild, his voice watery and desolate. Spit and blood flew from his ruined face. His right eye, cheek, and much of his rightward jaw-flesh were torn away. “Chmych!” Then he thundered past them and disappeared into the encampment. His gallop and his screams died, yet the echoes from the merciless forest persisted. Distant screams and explosive thuds, metallic shrieks and agonized wailing. The devouring trees muffled and merged them into quiet cacophony.

“Whatever did this is still in the forest,” Divari breathed. “It’s still killing them… guards, form a perimeter! Hevrin, quickly, with me!” They sprinted for the Matriarch’s tent.

Mei-la’s quarters were sparse. Her cot was thicker and likely softer, but the same off-white and no less sweaty. Most space within the tent was given over to a hard-packed dirt-square surrounded by training weapons and the Matriarch’s personal armory.

The gilded stand of jet-black wood nearest Mei-la’s cot was empty: the Matriarch’s reaping spear was missing. Divari hurried to the red-brown desk in the near corner, and breathed relief to find a golden silk bundle smaller than her hand in the second drawer. Then, sensing pinprick tingles emanating from it, and the hole it made on the current’s thrumming rush in her mage-sense, Divari’s eyes widened.

“It’s warded,” she said, stepping back. “Why does it need wards?”

“If it’s truly a Loar weapon, that is reason enough to need wards so strong it drains all the current around it. Whatever it is, we have it,” Hevrin urged, “so let’s be gone.”

“Hold,” Divari said. A slim book bound in white leather lay atop the desk, a still-damp quill beside it. Divari flipped pages until she found the most recent entry.

“Your Highness, the—whatever massacred the Temans is clearly still here,” Hevrin insisted. “Their… disposition… does not speak well for the chance they will end the threat.” Divari shushed her and read quickly, now thankful for learning Tonnish years ago:

2nd of Emtith, 1295 V.R.

Sidra has forsaken us; I chose the best position possible and have made all preparations. We cannot retreat further south; Huan’s bogs are too close now. My daughters must carry our line. I transferred Wozhao’s bond to Fei. This much I vow: whether my trap defeats Jasczynk or he breaches it, I will have vengeance. I will see Sidra’s line broken. He made this easy. I have thrown the Vigil a scrap of flesh: perhaps these fanatics will free Sairo of the vermin Lins.

All of this would be easier if She stopped laughing. She is dead, but still She laughs. She poisons my dreams every night. Damn Her. DAMN HER!

By My Own Hand,

Mei-la Sairo, Matriarch of House Sairo, The Red Blossom At Repose, Vanguard of the Ton-Ga, Marshal of the North Bogs, On the Way of the Sundering Fist.

“We’ve a new pass before us,” Divari said. It does not seem as if Mei-la was entirely in her right mind, she thought, still considering the journal; she seized it. “House Lin would make a powerful ally. With a warning and the favor of Mei-la’s death, I might sway them.” Divari did not say how much the Ton’s War-Matrons terrified her: six feet tall, loving only bloodshed and mayhem from first steps to last breath.

“Here, take Mei-la’s journal first,” Divari continued. “Father will want to have whatever secrets it carries.” The invoker nodded and accepted it, slipping it into her pack. “Now for the stone itself.” She pressed the golden bundle into Hevrin’s hands. Antler-augured Laresba, grant that my father was right. Let this bundle be worth it, she prayed. Her line’s ancestral protector, Tresar folklore’s hero, was silent. He held no power beyond Tresamer.

Divari’s heart sank. Then, as she and Hevrin touched the bundle together, it heated and cooled and reheated beneath their hands. Rhythmic tingles ran from her fingers to Divari’s head, pooling on her tongue. Each beat, as of a drum, strengthened a curious metallic taste. A stinging, too-clean scent clawed up her nose: hollow. Sickly-sharp. Lacing the breeze ruffling Mei-la’s tent, she heard undertones like humming voices—perhaps even songs.

To look within, she thought, as the heat upon her finger-pads and palms became nigh burning, like too many hours beneath the sun. To look within and know. A wondrous smile bloomed on her face, and Hevrin’s lips twitched against the same. She fancied that she felt the shape within the bundle, so crisp and beguiling, a shape that if she comprehended it—

No! Get out, get out, get out! She thought, snapping back to herself, knowing that the shape within would unmake her. Even now it tugged her mind, dragged her eyes and fingers towards the bundle’s glittering folds. She breathed rapidly, clearing her head.

“Take this to my father,” she said, blinking and ripping her hands away from the bundle. “Do not look within! If you open it—”

“The seal would be broken. We will give it no more purchase in our thoughts,” Hevrin said, her voice earnest. A somber smile touched her lips: a smile of respect.

Venor and Divari’s guards shouted alarms, accompanied by stamping feet. Divari saw shifting red at the corners of her eyes. She began to gasp, but Hevrin’s hand clamped over her mouth. They inched back from the tent-walls. Bloody mists seeped through the gaps.

“You’re dead!” Venor shouted. “Begone, spirit! Walk nevermore among the living!” The rite sounded silly from the gruff captain.

Mortal silence greeted it.

There was a clattering scuffle while Divari and Hevrin ducked beneath the tent’s far edge. Ahead lay nothing but miles of forest, trees thick as new grain growing throughout the Soloven delta: south towards House Huan, northeast towards the poisoned Kingdom of Sarn. Divari felt tingling and Hevrin disappeared. She reached for the woman, and her hand was gone too! Then, without sight or sound, she felt Hevrin’s hand on hers.

“Peace, Divari,” Hevrin whispered. An unearthly whirring overlaid her words. “Besides the invisibility, I’ve muted our scent and dampened our sounds—for about an hour, I think.” A howl of pain pitched up into a gurgling screech, and there was a wet pop like a sack of fruit falling from a tower. Venor’s sword embedded itself in a tree ahead of them. Venor’s right arm and both shoulders were still attached. Divari shut her ears to the sounds her other guards made; she and Hevrin crossed the cleared ground into the trees.

“Then we must part ways,” Divari said. “You must reach Alansera, Hevrin,” she whispered. “Warn my father. Give him the bundle, and Mei-la’s journal.” She turned northeast. “I go to Sarn.”

***

Here, of course, the sample ends–if you want to read the rest of the story, you’ll have to buy a copy come release!

(If you enjoyed this chapter, then please leave a like, chat about it in the comments, share it with your friends wherever you may go online–no, seriously, people can’t buy the book if they don’t know it exists!–and consider supporting me on Patreon! )

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