The Bloodhunters’ quarry had been
on the move for months. He changed direction at random, sleeping nowhere longer
than a single night. The Bloodhunters discussed among themselves whether he
knew that they followed him, and finally decided that such was impossible. They
had not yet drawn close enough that he could have perceived any sign. Their
quarry, they decided, was moving like a caged bear, such as the emperor kept
for his menagerie. He was not running from them, but pacing, and his prison was
He led them down winding ways, down
dark and silent paths where the Gothos bees hummed in their milky hives. He led
them along game trails, and over the mountains of Skreeholm, down from the
Three Kingdoms and into the Keepholds.
He had led them here, to the ruins
of Ten Towers, and there remained. For three days he had stood unmoving before
the statue of a woman. On the last day he had sunken to his knees before the
statue, and he had remained in that position now for many hours. The
Bloodhunters did not know the woman or the ruins. The statue was extremely
detailed, and from its stature and the distinctive bone structure of the face
it was clearly meant to depict a Fae. She was very beautiful. Even kneeling,
Bawn was eye level with the likeness. It is a pity, the elder Bloodhunter
thought, that the Fae had become so rare. His name was Shiro, and he had seen a
few of the race during his time in the City of Immortals. They had been
collared, of course, but they had all been as exquisite as the statue. He had
pitied them for the scars that had once been wings.
It was rumored that the emperor
kept more than one hundred of their kind for his personal seraglio. It was also
rumored that he kept a dragon for the same purpose.
could never tell with the emperor.
second Bloodhunter was concealed behind the rubble of a collapsed building.
Protruding from the rubble was part of another sculpture, half the head of a
massive sleeping tiger. This Bloodhunter was clad in black, his partner, in
signaled that it was time.
signaled back, Shall I lead?
Yes, Shiro confirmed. His white garments
had already begun to blur, and a pale mist surrounded him as he activated his
chakras. Kuro’s weapons whispered out of their sheathes in a fraction of a
second. The gray tallo of their blades, called steel by some, was thickly
coated with Naku powder, a poison that had the added benefit of dulling the
tallo’s gleam. The dark of the night had deepened around the Bloodhunter as his
own chakras awakened. He sprang.
Shiro watched a moment longer before fading into the night.
* * *
The diskworld sits nestled in the boughs of a great ash tree
that roots in darkness. Water spills in a long fall from the southern lip of
the disk down to the depthless pool of Myrminar. There dwells a retiring serpent, vast and old
as time, with a name forgotten by mortal kind.
Mythopoeia, and on its western continent there lies a golden grassy reach, the
Ragnar Tang. Many days would a rider need to cross it, even more from north to
south. Beyond it is the Rim, and before it are Petronia and the Three Kingdoms.
The plains are uniform, grasslands marred only rarely by the occasional bluff.
They are home to various tribes, the White Feather Grahs and the many factions
of the Southwind Tang. These are not for us to know, not now.
eyes must focus elsewhere, in the beginning.
The Tower of Sorcery can be very simply described. It is
invisible. Ninety nine levels compose the Tower. The first level comprises a
city. It is somewhat large.
the grandest wall can be brought down for want of a single stone. Sometimes a
war is lost on account of a loose leather strap. In this case, the fall of the
Tower and the end of Mythopoeia itself began with a wager.
is no party like a wizard’s party.
In High Mancer Corneus Malsh’s
betting chamber a centaur was dueling a giant crab. The Circle of Melee had
been set at twenty paces in diameter. It was enough room for both beasts to
maneuver, but not so much that there would be any boring lulls in the combat.
mancers, many of high repute, were in attendance to this soiree. They sprawled
on divans, or stood in eager clumps on the edges of the melee. Sprinkled among
them, like dainties and baubles, were the Children. Their ages ranged from eight
to twenty-eight, these servants to the mancers. They bore plates of delicacies; pickled quail eggs, humming bird tongues, and a panoply of semi-rotten fruits.
They bore enormous carafes of honeyed wine from which their masters regularly
decanted copious draughts of the stupefying brew.
cavorted in the vast vault of the ceiling. Beneath it rang the harried clop of the
centaur’s hooves and the clack of the crab’s pincers. “This is the end, my
friend,” Gargamel said, shouldering in beside Corneus. The two corpulent men
were festooned with brightly colored robes and sashes, embroidered with gold
umber thread, gems and sparkly disguises. Gargamel’s robes were themed so that
he seemed to be standing in raucous sea spume. Corneus’ own wrap was simply
centaur let out a shout as he endured a pinch to his left haunch. The opening
was deliberate. He had come inside the crab’s guard to slash across its
eyestalks with his sword-spear. A strip of flesh came free in the crab’s huge
claws, and blood welled from the wound as he disengaged.
splattered wetly on the marble, and the other hung limp, its optic nerve
severed. The fell crab chittered madly, its swings turning wild.
to submit?” Gargamel prodded, jowl’s
parting in a whale-like grin. Corneus only crossed his arms over his chest,
saying nothing. His gaze traveled the room in an effort to disguise his
irritation. He settled on a mancer fornicating with one of the children on a
divan well away from the ring.
known Skree with more patience than you,” he muttered.
was that?” Gargamel exclaimed, “Skree, you say? Why must you always go on about
those worthless lizards? Filthy, useless creatures.”
eyes narrowed. “Useless, Gargamel? They would make better servants than many
that we pluck from the City of Children below. I would warrant I could make a
decent prentice out of a Skree, better at least than any of the fools that stir
other mancer laughed until he fell down.
fell crab swung in a jagged circle, legs clicking. The centaur paced it,
confident now, with only a slight hitch in his gait. Aside from the
sword-spear, it carried two long hunting knives in a belt around its waist.
There was also a pouch of herbs and smooth pebbles, soul stones, tied to the
belt by a leather thong. This was all that he had carried when Gargamel had
crab had only its claws, large enough to remove a limb in one snip. Its shell
top was about level with the centaur’s chest, though its girth was such that it
still appeared squat.
pincer snapped, almost by chance, over the shaft of the darting blade spear.
Ferule bent and wood cracked. The centaur tried to twist the weapon free and
only succeeded in finishing the cut. The pieces clattered out of sight as the
centaur drew his knives, face twisting into a snarl.
and howls erupted from the onlookers. A passing colleague clapped Corneus on
the shoulder, which he ignored. He was focused now with his whole being on the
scene unfolding before them.
Now!” he urged his champion, even as the centaur caught the monsters arm at the
joint behind its claw, the twin blades sliding between the plates of its
carapace. A scissoring motion and the claw fell away, spasming.
Corneus swore, and Gargamel erupted in uproarious glee. The crab did try to
fight, but the centaur danced out of the reach of the other claw. Pale liquid
seeped steadily from the severed limb. It was only seconds more until the
centaur looked up from its grim work, sadness utmost in its gaze. This was the
whole of its existence, one savage struggle plied upon the next. Soon the
blackness would take him again and when he woke his body and his weapons would
be whole once more. In these few spare seconds of freedom he wondered whether
he could just give up. They would not allow him to kill himself, their control
was too complete. He could throw a match, however, if he was careful. If he
made sure to die quickly, could the master stop it, bring him back?
looked for his master among the humans--bloated, ignoble beasts. They were
demons, sorcerers, spirit hoarders. He had rebelled in the early days, but the
wards that bound him in the circle were stronger than any force of his body or
mind. He could throw himself against them as he liked. He would wake refreshed upon
his next summoning.
made an arcane gesture with one hand, and the centaur disappeared. There was a
card, a wooden rectangle that fit neatly into his palm. It was painted with a
perfect rendering of his champion. Perfect. He slipped it into his robes.
"Your base,” he said to Corneus, “belongs to me.”
other mancers clinked their goblets, and groped their favorite Children. Grumbling,
Corneus removed a single copper base, like a burnt fish scale, from his
multifarious pockets, and delivered it unto Gargamel. The mancer garbed as if
in sea foam kissed the base, and held it up for all to see. The coin burst into
a puff of ochre smoke.
brushed his hands as if to clean them.
fuming, played his hand. “One more wager, Gargles? Will you double down?”
Gargamel regarded him as if from a
great height, and said imperiously, "At any time you care to choose, in any
place you care to name, I will meet your wager, Corn-ass.”
said the nearby mancers, “Ooooh.”
was as red as a burst pustule. “No more Melees! I’m bored with them.” Silence spread from the tolling of the word.
There was no greater insult to a wizard than that he could be boring.
sort of challenge. I told you I could make a Skree into a truer prentice than
any that you own. A year and a day for his training, and you may choose any of
yours to set against him in the Showing.”
was beside himself with mirth. “Of course. Of course. Take as many moons and
cycles as you require. Aha. Ahem. Shall it be the usual prize between us? One
smiled. “Let it be sealed.”
spat in their palms and shook on it.
melee circle was cleared, and in came the dancers, and the lyricists, and the
chanters. Tables rose out of the marble, and servants brought dishes piled high
with steaming meats and dainties. The pickled squid eyes, some as large as
apples, were a particular favorite. All through this the mancers hardly tasted
or saw, in their minds they mulled and maundered, tongues gossiping over the
crowning event of the evening.
wager? Memories were sifted and parsed, and there was nothing found. A Skreeling
to be taught the highest art, trained in the Arcanum, perhaps, if Corneus saw
fit. This was the most precious and treasured of rarities in the hearts of the
immortal and omnipotent.
was something new.
* * *
Flies murmured into the ears of the oxen as they sweated
under their yoke. Their sleek hides shone in the afternoon light, exaggerating the
play of the muscles beneath the sheath of their skin. Those ears twitched, and
sent the flies into careening orbits around thick bovine skulls.
“The heat, Kerry. The heat!” Maggitha complained, fanning
herself with a vellum fold-out made for that purpose. “It will be the death of
me.” She was a well fleshed woman, though past her prime. She was dressed as
nicely as the exigencies of travel allowed, in a fine if somewhat drab tunic, with nothing but her wedding collar as jewelry.
“Yes, mother,” her daughter answered from within the
carriage, her voice small through the netted window. It was her habitual response.
Maggitha Nae Lumlali rode beside the driver at the fore of
the carriage. It had been her hope that the wind would cool her. Alas, it was
no better. She was a commanding woman,
used to being obeyed, but somehow the spirits of the air and sky, and the
sunflower in particular, had never learned to fear her. If only she lived long
enough, it would be rectified. Before her there rode three of her most loyal guards,
and behind her a wagon overflowing with weaves of the highest quality.
Behind that rode three more guards on large riding mules.
They had set out three days ago from the city of Grape. It
would be as many again before they could succor at the first of the Dog’s
Keeps. If only she was a Rider, with a real horse and some real wind at her
back, she would already be there by now. Of course, if she were a Rider her
life would have been decidedly more uncomfortable than it was in innumerable
other ways. But what was the point of fantasies if you had to go and ruin them with
logic? No, she was no Rider, had never even met one, to be perfectly true. This
journey had to be made, and they would make it as quickly as they could,
whether or not that was very quickly at all.
“Nice day for this, eh?” the driver said by way of
conversation. She grunted in reply. The toothless old runt, smelling worse than
his oxen, didn't deserve anything more than that.
Maggitha Nae Lumlali was one of the richest people in Grape,
and she had done it without a hand to either oils or wine. No, she had her weaves,
a favorite luxury in the Keepholds, and her many, many properties. The only
difficulty being that none of it, actually, technically, was hers. Women didn't
own property. They couldn't. As a general rule they came with it, attached like
the plague in a gift of infected blankets. This had been fine when her husband
had been alive. She ran the estates and the businesses, while he napped in his
study or his library. She had absolute authority over their little empire, so
what could it matter that she derived that authority from him? Oh Lumlali, my
sweet mediocrity, if only you had held on for a few more years. If only she had
had the time to find Kerry a suitably malleable husband.
The business partners were all well used to dealing with
Maggitha over her reclusive husband. It had been that way for years, but as
days had congealed into weeks the risk of discovery grew ever more prevalent.
Lumlali had been advanced in his age even before their union, and he was
without male successors. His holdings, her
holdings, would all revert to the nobles who could best afford them within days
Maggitha could not allow that to happen, not when she had
worked so hard. Arranging this
marriage had been a stroke of genius, and if Kerrigan wanted to cry over that prickless dandy, Aric, then by all means, she could; as long as it was
out of earshot of her husband to be. Even if times hadn't been so precarious
for them she would never have let her daughter take the name of a boy with so
few prospects. Gallant enough, certainly, but gallantry doesn’t keep the roof
Now only one more week--one week her indentured needed
to keep the estates running without her. As far as anyone in Grape knew,
Lumlali was headed to his daughter’s wedding in this very carriage. Once she was
safely wed and the union duly consummated there would be no more need for
All would be right with the world.
The forward guard began to slow.
“What is it?” she demanded. “I told you we need make haste!”
The lead rider shook his head and held up his hand. They had come upon the
ruins of Ten Towers. The road had been a path rutted between two banks of
trees. Now one of those banks had fallen away and as far as Maggitha could see
the ground dropped away into wrecks of white stone. Half buried cornice, spire
and finial, statues of warriors and of strange, unknown designs; all of it
sprang up as if from nowhere. Once a great city--greater than any, some said--and now a place of ghosts.
“Why did we come this way?” she asked, the imperiousness
vanishing from her voice.
The driver said nothing, but tied off the reins on a peg in
the bench and began to climb down.
They had all come to a stop now, and Maggitha looked from
one face to the next as her men turned to her. Not yours anymore, she thought. But maybe…
“How much?” she asked the leader, Graham. He had always
seemed reasonable enough.
“What do you mean, woman?”
Red flashed before her eyes. Woman? How dare he! She
controlled herself only barely. “How much are you paid for this, to betray me? You must know
I can match it.”
The guard sneered. “We are not paid. And you can pay us
nothing. We betray no one by deserting you.”
Maggitha’s throat tightened. “Graham, please. Stop this. I
don’t understand why you’re behaving this way with my daughter’s wedding...” A hand
seized her by the shoulder and she screamed involuntarily. Eyes crazed, she
tumbled off of the bench and landed heavily in the dirt of the road.
“Mother!” Kerry called. “Mother, what’s wrong?”
Kerrigan, my Kerrigan, what can you do? Maggitha scrambled
to her feet and glared at the man who had had the nerve to touch her. It was
Blawd, one of the three rear riders, staring down at her from his mule. He wore
an unkind smile.
“Nothing,” Maggitha called, “it’s only a dip in the road.” That doesn’t make any sense, she told
herself. Betai love us, it doesn’t
matter, just don’t come out of that carriage, my daughter.
She turned her back on Blawd and glared at Graham
unflinchingly. Well past middle age, the old guard seemed almost embarrassed by
“We’ll leave you a mule, Maggitha. The rest we take.”
“You will all be outlaws!” She raised her voice. “Are you
criminals? Have I harbored criminals in my house, that you would do this to me?”
Blawd had dismounted, and he grabbed her again, this time pulling her against
“We could do more to you if you like.” His breath washed hot
in her ear.
Graham shook his head.“You've defrauded the household, and when it’s
discovered we’ll all be indentured. I can’t live through another term, and the
rest don’t want to try.”
It was true. Most estate guards were hired through short
term contracts, three years or less. Even that small indenture made them a part
of the household assets, and if the property reverted to the city those
contracts would go with it. Given the circumstances, they would be considered
complicit, and therefore in breach. Three years could become ten, or fifteen.
“It won’t happen. I promise you.” She pushed away from
Blawd, and he let her go, leering. “Both of you get back on your mounts and we
can continue on our way. My daughter is betrothed, betrothed! Don’t you understand that?”
“They’re already taking the estate,” Graham said in a low
voice. “I have a few friends with a few friends of their own. I got warning. By
the getting back, we’d be getting back too late.”
“I give you my word. Your contract is safe.” Her back was
straight, and her voice was steady. She did not doubt. It was not enough.
“Your husband is dead, Maggitha. Too many people know. They’ll
take his name back from you, and you’ll fare worse than any of us. I don’t care
where you go, but don’t go back to Grape.”
The other men were opening the carriage, disengaging the
many locks. “Open up, Lady.”
“Kerrigan, don’t!” Maggitha’s words rang out, but it was too
late. The carriage was fitted with a tallo security bar on the inside of the
door, but Kerry had lifted it free as soon as she heard the keys in the outer
The door swung open, and suddenly their hands were all over
her, dragging her out. The girl screamed, and her mother’s mouth opened to do
the same, though in outrage rather than fear.
Blawd cuffed her on the head, and she was on her knees. The
world spun, and Kerry’s screams sounded far away.
“Enough!” Graham commanded. “Don’t touch her.”
“Might as well.” Blawd shrugged, “Headless knows they’re not
getting to the city in one piece. Why not be the first to have at ‘em?” One of the
others laughed and casually pushed the girl. She tripped over a rut and fell,
staining her dress with mud.
“I said enough!”
Graham’s short-sword appeared in his hand. Maggitha felt a dagger pressing into
the skin under her jaw. “Push it away,” Blawd said quietly. “We’re just going
to have us a time with the lady girl, and then we’ll leave ‘em like you said.”
“Hush!” One of the others was pointing beyond the road toward the ruins of Ten Towers. A man was standing on top of a pile of rubble, huge
and naked and hairless. His skin seemed to glow in the light of the sunflower.
He walked, and the air appeared to bend before him, as water does a whale
surfacing in the sea.