Neren wailed as we chased her through the Chalkwood—great, moaning sobs that echoed among the dusty trees, her tear tracks shining silver in the moonlight every time she glanced back. The moans weren’t necessary for us as the dogs had picked up her scent miles ago. It was all the lads and I could do to keep the dumb beasts from tearing off after her, but their baying was fit to wake half the forest, which I suppose was just fine with Captain Sthis.
If I hadn’t known just where to look, I would’ve missed her. Sthis ranged behind us, silent, almost invisible in her dusty cloak, martyrbone crossbow at the ready as she padded through ashy drifts of bark. Not that anyone would be looking for someone trailing behind, what with all the lads waving torches and shrieking like Adjenci savages.
We all had our role to play, I just sometimes wished mine wasn’t so blunt.
Neren let out a shriek as she pretended to trip over something, maybe an exposed root, and tumbled down a muddy embankment. I couldn’t help but admire her dedication to her role. Somehow, she’d found the only stream in a dozen miles that wasn’t completely gummy with chalkbark.
Captain Sthis took up position behind us along the rise as the lads and I surrounded Neren. She lay silhouetted in a shaft of moonlight. Torchlight picked out her gaunt cheeks, shadows pooling in the darkened hollows of her eyes. Trembling, she pushed to her feet, pitiful as the sodden wedding gown that clung to her thin frame.
“I won’t go back to that monster.”
“That monster is your husband.” I let my grin turn ugly, my accent a rough Unser twang. “Your rich husband.”
There was a nervous edge to the lads’ laughter. The branches above us trembled, and I saw a couple lads look to the trees. Professionalism was too much to expect from jobbers recruited from alleys and wine-sinks. It had been a long time since I’d even bothered to learn their names.
“Please, don’t take me back. I’ll do anything,” Neren called, fresh tears gleaming in her eyes. Overwrought as her reaction was, it dragged everyone’s attention back to the scene.
“That you will, girl.” I nodded to the others. “Take her.”
Laughing, a few of the braver lads splashed into the stream. There was a moment of indrawn breath, imminent violence like a charge in the air. The whole scene sat like a Nightfeast cake still hot from the oven, just waiting for some passerby to snatch it from the windowsill.
And our hero didn’t disappoint.
His arrow took the nearest lad in the hand. He stumbled back, his shrieks imbued with an authenticity I found wholly refreshing.
“Leave her alone.” The man who dropped from the trees was enormous. Broad-shouldered and long-limbed, his bare arms were corded with lean muscle. He wore hunter’s leathers, shirt unlaced despite the late autumn chill in the air. His longbow was a length of wych elm, unadorned but polished from heavy use, and a long wide-bladed knife was belted at his side.
I let my eyes go wide and afraid. “Bao Broadbow?”
“In the flesh.” The fool grinned, his teeth like diamonds in the torchlight. “And the girl isn’t going anywhere with you.”
“She can go where she likes.” I shed my affect like a ragged cloak, hands tightening on the grip of my axe. “We’re not after her.”
“You’re glory hounds?” Bao’s laugh was like the peal of a Liberation Day bell, clear and high. “Thieves and murderers, scrabbling at the censors’ leavings.” He slapped his chest. “I am the hero of Unser, slayer of Nine-Dusks and its monstrous brood. I spit upon the Synod. I spit upon the censors. I spit upon you.”
“And therein lies the problem.” I shook my head, not needing to feign regret. So it was with heroes. The story was always the same. Trapped in a world that could never match their expectations, they were doomed to break everything they found in the hopes of making it perfect.
At my nod, a crossbow bolt slammed into Bao’s chest. Normally, his hero’s skin would’ve been proof against such a tawdry missile, but the steel for Sthis’ quarrels had been quenched in saints’ blood, the bolt propelled by the bones and sinew of martyrs. And if that wasn’t enough, it had been coated in enough coldwillow sap to drop a team of oxen.
Bao coughed. Looking down at the bloodied shaft, he did a slow, shocked pirouette, longbow slipping from his grasp. His eyes found mine. In them, I saw what I always did—shock, disbelief, then fear. To be a hero was to give oneself wholly over to the belief that the world would bend before you did.
“Let go. Just let go. Please.” I spoke as if Bao and I were old friends, but my throat was tight, and my mouth tasted of copper and chalk.
With a gurgling roar, he surged forward. Even mortally wounded, Bao was adder quick. One huge hand closed around the nearest lad, casually lifting him from the ground. With a wet pop the man went from flailing to limp, and Bao tossed him aside with barely a glance.
The dogs went mad as Bao stepped among us in a spray of fists and bloody water. One lad with more courage than sense tried to tackle him. Bao’s backhand almost tore the lad’s head clean off.
I dove away, powdery chalkbark filling my mouth, the impact knocking the axe from my hands. There was nothing to see; what little torchlight remained was lost in the choking cloud the fight had kicked up. Dimly, I heard Captain Sthis cursing, the thud of martybone bolts loud as parade drums in the clinging gloom.
Bao loomed above me like an avenging titan, arms outstretched. One heavy hand gripped my shoulder, tight enough to make the bones grind as he lifted me.
Strangely, I felt no panic when Bao hugged me close. Sthis’s broken shafts dug into my flesh. In a way, it was actually a fitting end to my unremarkable tale—poor actor turned even poorer revolutionary, crushed to death by some rustic hero half-a-hundred miles from civilization.
Saints’ steel glittered in the gloom. I saw Neren’s face appear behind Bao’s, her long hair whipping around as she clung to his back. One delicate hand cupped Bao’s chin. With a frown of concentration, Neren drew her dagger across his throat.
Hot blood soaked my shirt, my chest prickling as scratches scabbed and healed over. All I could think was that there were those in Heko who would’ve paid a small fortune for such a treatment.
The terrible strength fled Bao’s limbs, and he slowly sunk to his knees, toppling sideways. His breath was hot on my cheek, smelling of pine and freshly turned earth.
The hero gave one last wracking gasp, then fell still.
I extricated myself from his slack arms and stood, shivering in the gloom, bloodied but unhurt. In fact, I felt better than I had in years.
Breath ragged, I met Neren’s gaze. “Thank you.”
She scowled at the rivulets of red oozing down my shirt. “That there is coming from your cut.”
“Told you it would work.” Captain Sthis nodded at the body in the cart, already bled, sectioned, and concealed in salt for the journey back to Heko. “Gallant bastards just can’t help themselves.”
I spat over the side of the wagon, feeling sour but not really able to put my foot on the root of it. We’d paid off the jobbers—triple for the kin of the two Bao had killed—and were heading back with a full load ready to be smuggled past the censors.
“I still think the dogs were a mistake,” I said.
“Dogs are cheaper than men,” Sthis replied.
“Depends on the man.” I shrugged. “Or the dog.”
Sthis’s laugh was high and musical. Word was she had played the damsel herself back in the day. Hard to figure, what with her being all gravel and sharp edges for as long as I’d known her, but the past bled through in odd ways.
“I liked the dogs. They gave the chase some urgency.” Neren opened one eye. She’d been napping in the back. I never understood how she could sleep so soon after a hunt. My hands were still trembling, and I knew it’d be days before I could shut my eyes without seeing the look on Bao’s face when the captain had feathered him.
“‘Course you liked the dogs.” I snorted. “You weren’t the one trying to hold the damn things back.”
“And you weren’t the one wading through silt in a fucking ball gown. Five nights I spent shivering in the damp before that big bastard decided to get involved.” She gave one of the barrels an irritated thump. “And for what? Barely an eight-footer.”
“Tell that to the lad whose back Bao broke.” I winced. Even now I hadn’t bothered to learn the poor sod’s name.
“You tell him, old man.” Neren slapped me on the shoulder. “I don’t plan on dying any time soon.”
By the time I’d thought of a suitable response, she had already turned to Sthis.
“What do you think the payout will be?”
Sthis sucked air through her teeth. “Depends on the war, I suppose. Zemmel’s crew was bragging about how they’re going to bag Suntalon or one of the other Adjenci heroes.”
“That’s where we should be,” Neren said. “Hunting the big game instead of trawling for local trash. I bet a hero like Suntalon could net us enough to retire on.”
I thrust my chin at the barrels in the back. “That local trash keeps us safe and fed. You ever seen what a real hero can do to a person?”
“No,” she said with a grin. “But Zemmel has, and he’s still got the balls to try.”
“Zemmel is a hack.” I scowled. “You know he wears the eye patch just for show.”
Sthis shrugged. “It’s all for show, Deff. You should know that by now.”
We rode in silence for a bit after that, the rattle of wagon wheels punctuated by the occasional bird call from the forest around us. The day was pleasant enough, autumn just shading into winter, an easterly breeze whispering through the forest around us. Still, I couldn’t seem to get my fists to unclench.
“Nice to be among proper trees, again.” I nodded at the thick rows of pine and larch that crowded the path.
“Suppose it’ll take a while before the chalk taste is out of my mouth.” I stuck out my tongue. “Can’t see how those Unsermen stand the stuff. Why, even their beer tastes like—”
She gave an irritated sigh. “All right, out with it.”
“How long have we worked together, Deff?” she asked.
I gave that a good think. “Twenty years or thereabouts, more if you count the Bad Dozen.”
“Long enough to know when you’re chewing cud. I can’t have my best man ruminating. It makes you slow.” She fixed me with a sharp stare. “So, out with it.”
I looked away, more than a little chagrined at being so transparent. Before the Leveling, I’d been an actor—not a good one, but Sthis’s words still rankled.
Somewhere, out in the pines, a treecat yowled. There was a brief scuffle—claws on bark, whipping branches, a pained screech, then silence.
“How could I forget?” She slapped her leg. “I still have stone in my thigh from when she knocked that battlement out from under us.”
I glanced back at Bao’s bow, easily a dozen feet unstrung, its central grip as thick as my forearm. “Towerbane’s hammer, how much do you think the damn thing weighed?”
“Two tons if it was an ounce,” she replied.
“Exactly.” I nodded at the longbow. “Now, look. Half those prancing idiots in the city guard could probably string that bow.”
She frowned. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
I went quiet for a bit after that. There was no need to elaborate. She’d been through the Bad Dozen same as me, seen the Weeper cast down kings and queens then raise herself up in their place. Although she never spoke of it, I knew Sthis had lost friends and family during the war. Everyone had. We’d both stood for the Levelers, added our bodies to the human waves that eventually dragged the Weeper’s sword saints down into the bloody muck. The Synod was far from perfect, but at least no one was kicking down mountains anymore.
“It’s just...” I swallowed, looking around as if the words I was searching for might tumble from the trees. “Bao was doing good, truly helping people.”
Sthis snorted. “That’s how it always starts—defending the weak, helping the poor. Soon he’d’ve been stealing from the tax caravans, offing local officials, leading a rebellion.”
“But what if this time was different?”
“That’s what they always say. The Weeper, Goshawk, Towerbane, they all promised this time it would be different. And was it?”
I stared at my hands. Bao’s blood had smoothed away a lifetime of scars and calluses, my skin soft as a career politician’s. “No.”
“Martyrs are more useful than heroes,” Sthis said quietly.
I gave her a look, but she was squinting at the road ahead. The wagon path curved around a stand of pine to link up with the old Tyrant’s Highway. Following her gaze, I could see a long line of folk crowding the ancient stone thoroughfare.
“Refugees?” I asked.
“This far from the Adjenci border?” She scowled and spat.
“Maybe it’s Goshawk reborn.” Neren scrambled up to peer past us. “Or the Weeper back from climbing the Vault of Heaven.”
“You been tumbling bards again, girl? The captain and I were there when Goshawk burned, and the Weeper ain’t never coming back.” Although I laughed, I cast a nervous eye skyward, relieved to see unbroken blue, nary a crack in sight.
Neren gave me a chilly glare but bit back her response as Sthis hailed the nearest group of travelers.
“Where you been? It’s on every broadsheet!” a round-faced woman in a faded lavender frock and sunhat shouted back. “The censors captured Suntalon. They’re marching the savage to Heko for a proper Triumph.”
Sthis gave an irritated hiss. “There goes our chance of reaching the capital tonight.”
I felt my shoulders loosen. “The war must be going well, after all.”
“A Triumph? Of all the cursed luck.” Neren slumped back against the barrels. “The Synod will be up to their elbows in parts after they carve up Suntalon. We’re bound for a buyer’s market.”
It started as a distant cheer, stilling mutters as people in the crowd jostled and craned their necks. Like an approaching wave, the sound grew until it washed over us, surrounded us.
Sthis pulled the cart into the grass a dozen paces off the highway as the crowd parted, a wedge of soldiers in the white and gold of the Synod Guard shoving aside any too slow or stupid to make way.
A phalanx of censors came next. A far cry from our ragged motley, they were mounted on white chargers, their tabards bright with the spoked wheel of the Levelers—different kingdoms, different peoples, all circumscribed by law, none above another. It was one of many fictions spread by the Synod. One had only to set foot in the slums of Heko and gaze up at the manses studding the Celedine heights to see the lie.
The censors’ oiled hair and amber skin gleamed in the afternoon sun. Armored in saints’ steel and bearing martyrbone lances, they looked half-heroes themselves. They waved at the crowd, acknowledging the accolades with tight-lipped smiles—far less enthusiastic than I would’ve expected from knights who had captured such a big prize.
The cause for their chagrin became evident as Suntalon rounded the corner. Easily twenty feet of lantern-jawed majesty, she stood in the martyrbone cage like a god come to earth. They had taken her armor and golden scythe, and clothed her in rough sackcloth, her hair plastered with mud and blood. And yet, a hush fell over the onlookers as the Adjenci hero rattled by. Some of the peasants had brought stones and rotten fruit to throw, but not a single one raised their hand.
I felt my breath catch, my palms suddenly sweaty. It had been years, decades since I’d been in the presence of a proper hero. A few of the crowd fell to their knees. Somewhere, a child screamed, calling out as it struggled to reach her. Even I felt a little tingle in my chest as Suntalon’s gaze swept over us, her dark eyes like a rising tide. A feeling of wrongness filled me, a surety that somehow we had failed her.
No one had yet found a way to manufacture the particular admixture of will, deed, and acclaim that created a hero. Gods only knew, the Synod had tried. But no one could deny the effect they had on us.
Neren let out a low whistle. “What a payday that would be.”
“Don’t care what Zemmel says, it’d take more than a pretty face and a mess of hounds to bring down Suntalon.” My words came sharper than I’d intended.
A slow smile lit Neren’s face, her eyes widening in mock surprise. “Captain, I think the old man is in love.”
“Enough, both of you.” Sthis flicked the reins and the cart lurched into jarring motion. “We’ll take the back roads and reach Heko before the city goes mad.”
Neren leaned back against the barrels, still grinning but thankfully silent. When I met her gaze she made a kissing motion, pressing a hand to her mouth to stifle laughter.
I swallowed the urge to throttle her. Neren was a dockside waif with a flair for the dramatic. She’d never seen a real hero; never trembled in pants-shitting terror as Goshawk rained fire on the Celedine heights; never fled, squealing like a child, as Towerbane scattered her regiment like burning leaves; never stood, paralyzed with grief, as the Weeper scaled the Vault of Heaven.
So I sat, hands clenched in my lap, as we clattered toward Heko, reminding myself again and again that things were better this way.
“Look at him, now.” Neren nudged me, smiling at the rest of the table. “Not a day over forty. Why, I bet he could even manage a girl he didn’t have to pay for.”
The other glory hounds laughed, and I laughed with them. Neren wasn’t half-bad when she’d had a few drinks, or maybe it was when I’d had a few. We’d been in the riverside tavern since midday, spending what little coin Captain Sthis had been able to wring from the clutching talons of those buyers willing to risk the ban on the hero trade.
Despite the meager payout, it was hard not to catch the buoyant mood that gripped Heko. The streets were hung with festival lanterns, the breeze thick with the smells of pepper and roasted mung beetles. Every corner seemed to boast an acrobat or folly show, the actors shouting to be heard over the frenetic beat of parade drums. Great trestle tables had been erected in every plaza, loaded down with baked serpent, racks of boiled sausages, and massive trays of rice seasoned with cumin and garlic. It seemed like every bell was ringing, every voice raised in song, every hand filled with food or drink, or waving streamers of colored paper.
We were celebrating a victory, after all.
“Best be off to the grand concourse if we want to catch the martyring. I’ve got an admirer in the city guard that’ll get us within spitting distance of the scaffold.” Neren slammed her goblet down, sloshing more than a little over herself as she glanced over at me. “You coming, old man?”
I took a pull from my own drink, then made a face, the wine gone unaccountably sour. “I’ve seen plenty enough triumphs. I’ll stay here, keep the bench warm.”
“You sure?” She stood and winked at me. “The oracles are laying even odds Suntalon will escape. Wouldn’t that be a sight?”
I shook my head, feeling the mix of wine and sausage roil in my gut. My face must have shown that discomfort, because Neren’s grin slipped. “You all right, Deff?”
I waved away her concern, nodding at the pitchers and half-empty plates. “Been on trail rations too long—always takes me a day or two to adjust to real food.”
She kissed me on the forehead. “Try not to die while I’m gone.”
I leaned back, surprised, unable to tell whether the flush in Neren’s cheeks was from drink or embarrassment. But the moment had already passed. She swept up her goblet and drained it, back to trading insults with the other glory hounds as they spilled out onto the street.
With the others gone, there wasn’t much to do except drink, but the thought of more wine made me queasy. I pushed back from the table, halfway off the bench before I realized I had nowhere to go.
The roar of distant voices rattled the cups and saucers. I felt the cheers resonate deep within my chest, more feeling than sound. It wouldn’t be long now until Suntalon met her fate. I tried to tell myself it was justice—she and her kind had killed thousands in the wars. And yet, as I closed my eyes, I saw not Suntalon but Bao Broadbow, his face shadowed with doubt. I wondered what it would be like to be a hero—to feel true purpose resonate through you, pure, clear, irresistible.
Perhaps, this time, it really would have been different.
I shook my head. The captain was right: what good was another bandit prince? Heroes’ bones would form the weapons that defended our borders, their blood and organs distilled into cures for all manner of ills, their skin used to buttress sails, their hair woven into cords of impossible strength. Bao would do far more good dead than he ever could alive—for those who could afford to pay, at least. The Synod gave lip service to Leveler ideals, but it didn’t change the fact that most everything of value flowed uphill. And as for what came down—
I opened my eyes to see Sthis standing above me. Her cheeks were flushed as she leaned in to rest her fists on the table. “Where is Neren?”
I nodded at the tavern door. “Gone to watch the show.”
“Damn.” She straightened. “We’ll have to collect her on the way out.”
“What’s going on, Captain?”
“Gather your things.” Sthis spoke just above a whisper. “I’ve got a lead on something big.”
I stood, if a bit unsteadily. “Already wearing everything I own.”
“Good, then follow me.”
We left the bar through the back entrance, sticking to the thin alleys that ran along the Celedine sewers. The Triumph was in full swing, and it was an unseasonably warm day, the smell such that we saw no one apart from a few ragpickers trawling for castoffs amidst the refuse.
The alley let out into a wide cobbled street, crowded with people, their faces painted in celebratory reds and golds. Neither rich nor well-connected enough to warrant room in the plaza, they made do with dramatic reenactments. On the nearby corner, a women on stilts, wearing cloth-of-gold padded to resemble musculature, was led to a stage where a dozen children in tinpot helms and mock censor doublets pretended to ritually strangle her. It was a sloppy scene, rife with giggles and flailing arms, but the crowd was too drunk to mind. The actors made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in ability. It wasn’t half bad. Although, to be fair, I was more than a little drunk myself.
“Captain, you ever thought about going back to the stage?”
She favored me with a narrow-eyed glance.
“No, really. I’ve been thinking we could do a run—vignettes of the hunt, that sort of thing.”
“Save the stories for Neren.” She rapped a knuckle against my chest. “I need you sober and I need you ready. This could turn sour, quick.”
Sthis and I had been in enough scraps together for me to recognize the coldness in her voice, the tight set of her shoulders that could only mean one thing.
We were on a hunt.
Sthis and I pushed through the press, crowds thinning as the street gradually sloped toward the base of the Celedine Heights. She moved like a woman possessed, pausing only once when we were forced from the road by a passing palanquin.
The woman inside spared us no more attention than she would any bit of roadway chaff. She was little more than a shadow behind the palanquin curtains, but a stray gust moved the fabric, revealing a stern, ageless face, high-browed and dignified, her skin smooth as marble and sheened with a pale glow that spoke to regular treatments of hero’s blood.
I couldn’t help but wonder what she’d done to deserve it.
At last, we came to a shabby-looking stone building marked with the shield and crossed spears of the Heko city guard. I was familiar with the type, had spent many a night in one, usually after a particularly impressive run of drunkenness.
There were two guards inside, drinking ale and pitching coppers on the room’s single table. They had the look of rough men, but the dye on their tabards was still bright. As the war dragged on, many among the guard had been shifted to the Adjenci front and the missing ranks filled by less ideal candidates.
“Is he still here?” Sthis asked.
The guard by the table spat, then nodded. “Where’s the money?”
The captain glanced at me, motioning to the guard. It took me a moment to realize she meant me to pay the man. With a wince, I untied my coin purse and counted a week’s worth of drinking money into his callused palm.
“You almost missed your chance.” With a grin that showed several missing teeth, he fished a key from his pocket and moved to unlock the door that led back to the cells. “We got word the censors were coming to collect him, but they must’ve got held up on account of the Triumph.”
“Our luck.” Sthis offered the fellow a thin smile. “May we have some privacy?”
“Just be quick about it.” With a shrug, the guard returned to the table.
The cell was perhaps ten paces on a side, windowless and musty, the floor covered with dirty straw. Benches were bolted to the walls, little more than shadows in the thin slats of dusty light that trickled through the bars. It stank of blood and piss, and some other more unsettling odor that seemed to congeal at the back of my throat. Still, the captain approached the bars like it was the bower of some Celedine debutante.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I made out the cell’s single occupant. Huddled on the floor, he was almost shapeless in the dark, shivering despite the sickly heat. At our approach, he stood with a faint rattle of chains, head tilted as if to smell the air.
“Who’s there?” The question came like the rasp of a dying crow.
“Martyr’s blood,” Sthis whispered under her breath. “So it’s true.”
“I don’t understand, Captain. Who—?” My mouth went trail dry when the man shambled into the light.
He was swathed in bandages, the remains of once-fine clothes almost rotting off his body. A ragged slash traced the line of his jaw, and his eyes were spotted with burst blood vessels, but still I recognized him.
“By the Weeper.” I looked to Sthis, seeing my shock reflected in her eyes. “It’s Zemmel.”
“Deff? Captain? Is that you?” The wreck of our old comrade stumbled forward to clutch the bars. “You’ve got to get me out before the censors come. They’ll—”
“The censors caught you hunting?” I asked. Because of the Synod’s deathgrip on the hero trade, glory hounds who ran afoul of the law were likely to receive little more than swift hanging. It was odd they’d dragged Zemmel back to Heko.
“S’not like that.” He licked lips gone bruise purple. “We were up near the front, trailing the army. Got wind of a battle near Fort Sainshad. Talk was the plumes were moving entire regiments into the foothills—not just soldiers but censors, saints’ steel, martyrbone ballistae, all of it. Most thought they were preparing for a push, but the lads and I knew better.”
“They were after Suntalon,” Sthis said softly.
“The legions move slow.” Zemmel nodded. “Figured we could range ahead, snag a tribal champion or two, maybe even get the drop on something bigger.”
I swallowed against the tightness in my throat. “We saw the censors had captured Suntalon.”
“They didn’t capture shit.” Bloody spittle leaked from the corners of Zemmel’s mouth. “Talon slaughtered a few patrols, put Sainshad to the sword, and every puffed-up general on the front was fighting to take the bait. Almost three legions marched north. Fool that I was, I went with ‘em. Suntalon caught us out in the foothills. One moment it’s all sky and empty stone, next thing you know the hills are crawling with Adjenci shriekers. It was like the Bad Dozen come again. Everyone hacking at each other—men and women falling like wheat, the air full of screams, and blood, and fire.” Zemmel reached through the bars, blindly clutching at Sthis’s sleeve. “Captain, I could feel it in my bones, my heart.”
“How did Suntalon fall?” Sthis’s voice was sharp as an unexpected blade.
“Wasn’t the censors who brought down Suntalon.” Zemmel bared red-flecked teeth. “It was the Weeper.”
I took an unconscious step back, feeling like someone had buried a spear in my gut.
“You’ve got to believe me.” Zemmel’s fingers left bloody streaks on the captain’s sleeve. “She’s back, Captain. Climbed back down the Vault of Heaven to judge us all.”
“Impossible.” The word slipped from my lips unbidden.
“I swear, Deff, sure as I stood beside you at Ashfield. Why else would the censors be coming for me?” Zemmel bared his teeth. “Get me out of here and I’ll take you right to her.”
“You can track the Weeper?” Sthis asked.
“Would’ve gone after her myself, but my crew were all dead. I came south, hoping to put together a new one, but a patrol caught me just north of Lapo.”
Sthis glanced at me.
I frowned. “We could spike the guards’ ale with coldwillow. It’ll knock them flat in a half-hour or so. But, Captain, I mislike drugging—”
“No time.” With a nod, Sthis turned away. “Guards!”
There was a scuff of boots on stone, then the door to the main room opened, the gap-toothed guard squinting into the gloom.
Sthis took two quick steps and slipped her dagger into the hollow of his throat. The guard gave a choking gasp, trying to pull away, but Sthis had already snaked an arm around him, almost companionable as she guided his fall. It all happened so quickly I barely had time to register the surprised shout from the front of the guard post.
“Deff! He can’t get away.” Sthis’s call brought old reflexes to the fore. My hands moved almost without thought, plucking the axe from my belt as I charged into the main room.
The remaining guard lunged from the shadows at my left, quick enough I couldn’t avoid the thrust of his short sword. It slid through my bicep just below the shoulder. There was no pain, only a wet numbness that crept down the limb. I knew the hurt would come later.
Growling, I released my axe to grab the man’s wrist as he tried to draw the blade back. He beat at me with his free hand, face twisted into a look somewhere between fury and fright. No stranger to back-alley brawls, this one, but I had stood the wall against Towerbane, buried friends in the fields where Goshawk burned. I was no hero, but I had slain many.
I smashed my forehead into guard’s nose, using the brief moment of surprise to hook my foot behind his back heel. A twist sent him sprawling back against the table.
I snatched the blade from my arm, but before I could finish the job, one of Captain Sthis’ crossbow bolts pinned the guard to the pitted wood. He flopped like a feathered treecat, letting out little panicked grunts before slowly falling back.
“You’re covered in blood, Deff.” Sthis walked up to the dead man and bent to calmly work her bolt from his chest. “There are spare cloaks in the drawer. Fetch one for Zemmel as well.”
There were fresh cloaks—the largest barely covered me, while even the smallest ballooned like a wind-caught sail on Zemmel’s emaciated frame. After binding the wound on my arm, I got dressed. Fortunately, it seemed Bao’s blood was still with me, as the puncture had already scabbed over.
Sthis looked me up and down. “Stop gaping, you’ll give us away. I thought you were an actor.”
I did my best to hide the tremble in my legs as I helped a barely conscious Zemmel out onto the street. The Triumph was still in full swing, the roads thronged with drunken celebrants. It was easy to lose ourselves in the crowds; far harder to shake the memory of what we had just done.
We slipped back into the tavern and were quickly ushered to a private booth by the owner, an old Leveler whose discretion we had relied upon many times in the past.
“Captain, hunting heroes is one thing,” I said once Sthis had sent the fellow away for food and stiff drink. “But those were men we killed back there.”
“They would have never released Zemmel.” She looked away. “Besides, once word of the Weeper got out the other crews would be pulling up stakes in an hour.”
“This is about a bounty?” I could only stare. “I’d expect that from Neren, but Captain, you’re—”
“Don’t tell me what I am.” She spoke in barely a whisper, but the words came as if loosed from a bow. She turned to meet my gaze. Tear tracks cut her cheeks, bright as saints’ steel in the smoky gloom. “This isn’t just a bounty, Deff. This is the Weeper. If you don’t know what that means, then you’re as big a fool as Neren.”
Realization settled on me like a cloak. Lot of people had lost friends and family during the Bad Dozen, lost everything, in fact. Capturing the Weeper would bring us more money than we’d ever seen, but it was more than that. This was the woman who had toppled Empires, burned entire nations in the name of justice, made promise after promise then abandoned us when the payment came due.
She had much to answer for.
“I don’t want to do this alone.” Sthis scrubbed a fist across her face, squaring her shoulders. “But I will if I have to.”
“We were there when the Weeper ran away, Captain.” I shrugged. “Seems only right we should be the ones to welcome her back.”
The rattle of wagon wheels provided jostling counterpoint to the nervous thud of my heart. We’d been six days on the road, and I was still jumping at shadows. I couldn’t believe we were set to face the Weeper again—not just a hero, but a hero who had climbed to heaven and back.
“I’m going to build a tower on the Celedine.” Neren balanced her knife on the tip of one long finger. “All marble and gold fittings, bigger than any of the others, with high windows so I can look down on everyone else.”
“The only thing you’ll be buying is a coffin if you aren’t careful,” I muttered back. We’d been moving day and night, trading our horses for fresh ones at every town we passed. Whatever unnatural vigor Bao’s blood had given me was almost exhausted, and I was feeling every mile.
“How’s that?” Neren flicked her blade up, caught it, then slid it back into its concealed sheath.
She made a face. “How am I going to buy a coffin if I’m dead? No, it’s golden towers for me.”
“They’d never accept you.”
“Speak for yourself, old man.” Neren struck an exaggerated pose. “I’d be the belle of the godsdamned ball.”
I tried to imagine Neren in a palanquin, her face the cold perfection of a statue, but the image just felt wrong. Instead, I shook my head. “You’re better than that.”
Neren laughed like I’d said something funny. “Watch yourself. Too much talk like that and I’ll mistake you for a hero.”
I made a face. “Just an old glory hound, lass. No Triumphs for me.”
“You’d put on a better show than Suntalon, at least,” she said. “She didn’t even try to escape—just sat there and let the censors strangle her.”
“Enough,” Sthis said from the front of the cart. “We’re past the border—from here on we should be ready for Adjenci, legionary scouts, censors, anything.”
“The battle took place a day or so north of here.” Zemmel lifted a trembling hand toward the low foothills cropping the horizon. He had put on a bit of weight in the last few days, but he was still a poor shadow of the swaggering bravo I had known back during the Bad Dozen.
“Something I still can’t figure.” Neren picked at her teeth. “If it was the Weeper who knocked Suntalon on her ass, how did the censors end up with her?”
“That’s the thing of it,” Zemmel replied. “Weeper strolls down the mountain, works her magic, then just walks away. By the time it was finished, there was no one left but Suntalon. The censors just rode in and scooped her up.”
Neren whistled. “Lucky bastards.”
“Least until they have to explain to the Synod why three legions aren’t coming home,” Zemmel said with a shrug.
“Why the Triumph, then?” she asked.
“That wasn’t a parade, it was a retreat,” I said. “The Synod are gathering their forces. A Triumph keeps people ignorant. Everyone on the Celedine is probably shitting their silk breeches, thinking of what the Weeper will do when she comes south.”
Neren squinted at the distant mountains. “So why hasn’t she come south?”
No one had an answer for that.
We rode on, silent but for Sthis’s soft clucks as she spurred the tired horses onward. What had started as a legionary road became a river of tramped dirt, flat plains giving way to the choppy hillocks.
I was beginning to think we would make the mountains without trouble when Captain Sthis gave a low hiss.
“Censors.” She leaned back to give us a sideways glance. “Remember the story.”
Neren opened her mouth, but I held up a hand, shaking my head. Normally, the captain trusted us to know our roles. Her doubt was a testament to the apprehension that had settled over us all.
There were a dozen censors, all mounted, all armed. Far from the spit and polish we’d seen on those who marched south with Suntalon, these had the look of men and women who had been scouring the frontier for days. Their breastplates were flecked with mud, doublets stained with sweat and blood, but there was a hardness in their eyes that told me they were after the same thing we were.
I waved as they approached, doffing my cap to call out a greeting soon as they came within earshot.
The lead rider was a round-faced man in chain and plate, his graying hair swept back from a neat widow’s peak, deep-set eyes matching the color of skin tanned by long months on patrol.
He raised a gloved hand as he cantered up but did not match my smile. “What brings you north?”
“Always wanted to see the place.” I let out a low chuckle, wiping the sweat from my forehead. “Actually, we got word Suntalon fell. If the Adjenci are broken, there’ll be a lot of good land opening up. I figured it’d be best to claim some before anyone else gets the idea.”
He regarded us, lips pursed. The lie was one we’d told since leaving Heko, purchasing tools and supplies to lend credence to our claims. The Synod had long encouraged settlement along the border—putting down roots was the surest way to see that territorial claims didn’t blow away. Besides, the occasional homesteader massacre was good for whipping up outrage back home.
“I’m Defflin Kerr.” I grinned. None of us were recognizable enough to warrant fake names. “This is my wife and daughter,” I nodded at Sthis and Neren in turn, then thrust my chin at Zemmel. “And my older brother.”
“Sir Maro Alinari.” The censor nodded in greeting, then shielded his eyes from the late afternoon glare, squinting at Zemmel. “Do I know you?”
“We’re performers and tinkers by trade.” I leaned into his sightline. “Spent a lot of time on the road, sir. Our paths might’ve crossed before.”
“Perhaps.” Alinari regarded us for a long moment. Although the other censors were young, he had the weathered look of a lifelong soldier, certainly old enough to have marched with the Levelers.
“I heard we’d won a great victory,” Sthis cut in. “That the Adjenci were broken.”
“Broken doesn’t mean gone.” Alinari frowned, glancing over his shoulders. “Still plenty of savages in those hills. You should turn back.”
“But you did capture that horrible beast Suntalon?” Neren asked, her face the picture of innocent curiosity.
“That we did.”
“How brave.” She brought a hand to her mouth, coaxing the first smile from Alinari. He leaned back in his saddle, and something in my chest untightened.
“I’d hate for you to run afoul of an Adjenci kinband.” He nodded back the way we’d come. “Lapo is about a day’s travel southeast. Plenty of open land down there, not to mention a militia.”
I scratched the back of my neck. “Never been one for towns, sir.”
“I’m afraid I must insist.” To his credit, Alinari sounded truly regretful.
We regarded each other for a long moment. This close, we had no chance of outrunning them. With our weapons hidden amongst the sundries it would be all but impossible to put up a fight. Still, a sudden lunge might be enough to knock Alinari from his horse. If I could get a knife to his throat before the others reacted, we just might—
The wagon creaked as Sthis shifted behind me. A glance back showed she’d put her arms around Neren. To any onlooker she would appear little more than a mother concerned for the welfare of her daughter, but I knew it was to hold Neren back. Sthis met my gaze, then gave the slightest thrust of her chin at Alinari’s martyrbone blade. My look of silent protest was met with a barely perceptible shake of her head.
I didn’t like to think how we were going to part the censors from their equipment, but I couldn’t faults Sthis’s reasoning. We were going to need more than a single crossbow to bring down the Weeper.
“You’re right, these hills are dangerous.” I turned to give Sir Alinari my warmest smile. “Would you mind escorting us to Lapo?”
“Another drink?” I pressed the mug of wine into the hands of Alinari’s second-in-command, easing her token protests. Sthis’s laugh cut through the murky babble of conversation around the campfire. She was in rare form, telling jokes and tales that set the whole group at ease. Nearer to the fire, Neren danced to the soft strains of flute and viol, while, unnoticed and unremarked, Zemmel slipped coldwillow into the censors’ dinner rations.
It had been hard to break through the ingrained suspicion. Things were touch and go until Neren and I did a rendition of: Goshawk and the Unserman’s Daughters, which had the censors laughing despite themselves, especially as Neren switched from role to role, leaning hard into each daughter’s quirk. It made me proud to see she’d actually taken my acting lessons to heart.
I played Goshawk as a shortsighted buffoon, swaggering around, squirting puffs of down from the pillows under my arms. It was a popular play among the legions, and the small crowd went mad with laughter as Sthis stepped onto our makeshift stage in an apron and bushy moustache to berate us in a gravelly Unser twang.
The folly seemed to break the mood, and the censors were quick to relax. Unfortunately, their commander was somewhat less moved.
“What are you doing?” Alinari’s dour shadow fell across me.
I turned, grinning, mug in hand. “Thanking you for saving our lives, sir.”
“We’re one day from the mountains,” he replied.
I let my voice broaden, forcing good humor into every word. “It’s only a little wine, sir—to ward off the cold.”
Alinari glanced to the pickets, then out to the darkened plain beyond. “You were in the war?”
“No, sir. I never took to legionary work.”
“I’m not talking about Adjenci.” He looked skyward, an unconscious tremor flickering across his broad face. I’d seen that flinch before, felt it enough times myself as I considered who might be up among the stars.
There was no reason to lie. “I marched with the Levelers—Eleventh Regiment.”
“The Double Spears?” He raised an eyebrow. “You were at Ashfield, Harrow Bridge, The Siege of Celedine.”
I let my smile gutter. “And you?”
“The Eighth.” He sighed. “Or what was left of it after Towerbane annihilated the bastion at Kingsmeet.”
I’d run across survivors of the Eighth before, men and women as broken as the fortifications they had sheltered behind. Towerbane might’ve dropped the captain and I from a wall, but she’d brought the whole fortress down on the Eighth—millions of tons of debris, pockets of survivors clawing their hands bloody as Towerbane’s earthwyrms dragged them down into the rubble, one-by-one. By the time we’d retaken what was left of the fortress, only a few score remained out of a garrison that had numbered thousands.
“Do you ever miss them?” I asked, my mouth dry as desert sandstone.
He glanced at me.
“Your comrades, I mean.”
He shrugged. “I try not to dwell on the past.”
“Nor I.” I let out a shaky breath. “Nor I.”
He regarded me for a long moment, then gave the slightest of nods. “Perhaps I will have a little wine.”
I filled another mug from the barrel, palming the vial of coldwillow sap. Across the fire, Sthis watched us. She was laughing, but her eyes were cold and hard as river rocks. The vial sat heavy in my hand. What was a bit of poisoning weighed against the Weeper’s return?
I offered the mug to Sir Alinari, and we stood in silence for some time, sipping our wine and trying not to think of the past. Gradually, the laughter died. Men and women staggered to their bedrolls or slumped from their logs and tent chairs. I expected Alinari to notice, but his attention seemed focused on the darkened hills beyond the circle of firelight.
“I like the outdoors.” He chuckled, spreading his arms wide as if to gather up the shadows. “No walls, towers, no roof over your head, the sky so big and empty. Everyone truly equal. I suppose it must make you feel exposed, though.”
“I suppose.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Neren pad up behind one of the pickets and snake an arm around his throat.
“There aren’t that many of us left, even in the Censorate. Not many who remember the Bad Dozen, or what came before.” Alinari closed his eyes, swaying slightly as the coldwillow took hold. “Maybe that’s for the best.”
I felt the pressure building in my chest, behind my jaw, words jostling to come out.
“We know about the battle,” I said. “What the Weeper did. We know you hunt her.” I swallowed against the dryness in my throat. “We hunt her, too.”
“You’re glory hounds?” Alinari’s mug slipped from fingers gone cold and wooden. He made a stumbling turn, stiffening as he beheld the slumped bodies of his comrades.
“They’re only sleeping.” I slipped an arm around Alinari, gently pushing his hand away from his sword hilt. “Although I don’t envy any of you the headache you’ll have tomorrow.”
He spoke like a man passing sentence. “I will come for you.”
“I’m counting on it.” I lowered him to ground, watching as his eyes slipped shut and his breathing flattened. After I was sure he was out, I removed his sword belt and buckled it around my own waist. The sword was pure martyrbone, etched with the symbol of the Eighth Regiment. Few of these had survived the war, most like it had come from one of the Weeper’s Sword Saints. How quickly they had turned on us after their mistress’s departure.
I shook my head to clear the bad thoughts. My memories of the war were broken glass, useless and liable to cut.
A pebble bounced off my back.
“Best get moving, old man. We’ll want to cover some distance before this lot wakes up.” Neren grinned down at Alinari. She had helped herself to a brace of martyrbone daggers. “That is, unless you want to bring your new friend along.”
I stood, brushing the grass from my knees. “Show some respect. He was at Kingsmeet.”
“That supposed to mean something?” Neren turned away, heading over to where Sthis and Zemmel were saddling the censors’ mounts.
I thought of telling Neren off. Instead I watched her go, feeling age settle into my bones.
Perhaps it was for the best.
The battlefield crawled.
It was obvious from miles away that the censors had done nothing but drag Suntalon away in chains, each general eager to be the first to claim credit, or perhaps to flee the Weeper.
Bodies carpeted the valley floor. Crows and jackals had picked over the choicest bits, leaving the rest for the flies. Time and autumn chill had blunted the stench somewhat, but it was still close to overpowering. It clung to us like oil, seeping into our skin, our hair.
“They’re gaining.” Zemmel cantered up, a nervous frown on his deeply lined face. “Bastards must have sprinted back to Lapo for fresh mounts.”
“Think we can keep ahead of them?” Sthis asked.
Zemmel winced. “Not on these horses. Better to cut them loose once we get to the cliffs. There’s a switchback at the far end of the valley. Might be able to shake the censors in the rocks.”
I shared his concerns. We’d abandoned the wagon in the foothills; to lose the horses meant carrying our own packs up the mountain, but it was better than getting ridden down.
“How much farther?” Sthis asked Zemmel.
“Not long.” He chewed his lip, squinting up at the shadowed mountains ahead. “She’s up there, somewhere.”
We skirted the remains of the battle. I’d seen plenty of corpses since my time in the Levelers, but never this many at once. The sheer scope of the slaughter unearthed all manner of memories I would have rather stayed buried.
“The Weeper killed all of them?” Neren asked. For the first time, I thought I heard something approaching apprehension in her voice.
I shook my head. “Not the Weeper’s style to fight her own battles. Most likely, they killed each other.”
“Weeper has a way of slipping inside your heart.” Zemmel tapped his chest. “Twisting everything around until you got nothing to believe but what she gives you.”
“Do you think we can bring her down?” Neren asked.
“Captain has never steered us wrong before.” I glanced away. It wasn’t an answer, and we all knew it.
The entrance to the switchback was hidden behind a pair of sloping boulders, almost invisible against the rocky cliff. We would have ridden past if Zemmel hadn’t been there to guide us.
We dismounted, grudgingly sending our horses away after shouldering what remained of our supplies. The southerly breeze was slight but chill, the rocky valley echoing with the clatter of our pursuers’ mounts. Although I couldn’t see them, it was probably too much to hope that Alinari would follow the hoof tracks. In truth, we needed the censors.
It was a similar con to the one we pulled on Bao. Even with Zemmel’s tracking skill, finding the Weeper was a longshot. The hope was she’d see a group of ragged, threadbare refugees fleeing a party of well-armed knights and be unable to hold back.
For once, I didn’t need to play a role. The climb was hard, and it wasn’t long before I was puffing. Zemmel set as good a pace as he could muster, but I could tell he was near exhaustion from the way he leaned on the rock face, eyes downcast as he panted.
It wasn’t long before the switchback dissolved into a web of footpaths. We spent the better hours scrambling up embankments of loose stone and traversing ragged cliff faces. I don’t know how Zemmel kept on the Weeper’s trail—she might have flown up the mountain for all the traces of her passage—but he seemed to have an almost preternatural sense of his quarry.
More than once we heard the rattle of dislodged stone further down the slope, the occasional flash of a censorial crest golden bright in the setting sun. Soon, even Sthis couldn’t ignore that Alinari was gaining. More than once I caught her eyeing the ground, measuring the approaches.
“I don’t think the Weeper is coming, Captain,” I said as she paused to regard a wide plateau dotted with massive boulders. They had the rough, porous look of volcanic rock, perhaps an old lava flow cracked and scarred by the slow rasp of time. There was a sameness about them, such that, at first, I thought they might be the remains of ancient dolmen or perhaps Adjenci burial pillars, but the placement seemed too random to be the work of human hands.
“Zemmel and I can shoot from over there.” Sthis nodded at a low rise of chipped stone. She spoke as if we were discussing the price of lumber, but I could see the tightness in her shoulders. “Can you and Neren keep them from getting to us?”
“Don’t see that we have any other choice.” I glanced at Neren.
She shrugged off her pack with a grateful sigh. “Least we won’t have to haul these any farther.”
Sthis and Zemmel scrambled up the rise while I drew Alinari’s blade and took up position where the path narrowed between two toppled boulders. Neren crouched beside me, a long dagger in each hand, standing so our attackers would be charging into the light of the setting sun.
After that, there was nothing left to do but wait.
“I always expected it would end like this.” Neren gave a soft laugh.
“Truly?” I asked.
“You’ve read too many plays, old fool.” She nudged my shoulder. “Still, I’m glad you’re here.”
I was about to reply, but the scrape of boot on stone had me squinting into the pooled shadows at the edge of the plateau. The censors had removed their doublets and blackened their armor and faces with soot, perhaps hoping to fall upon us unawares. Their weapons were steel rather than martyrbone, but we were no heroes—mundane blades would do for us just as well as saints’ steel.
The censors advanced across the broken ground, weaving around the fallen pillars like treecats stalking prey. I could see Alinari among them, the gray of his hair setting him apart from his comrades.
At my side, Neren tensed, ready to spring.
The stone was rough against my back as I pressed into the shadow of the boulder. Perhaps I had read too many plays, but it seemed the height of idiocy for us to be drawing blades against another Leveler, especially now. The thought of it opened a hollow in my stomach, not dread, nor even sadness, but a sense of regret so deep that it seemed I was looking up from the bottom of a great well.
This time, it was supposed to have been better.
Whatever doubts I had fled as the captain shot. One of the censors fell back in a spray of dark blood, flesh and bone parting like clouds before the martyrbone bolt. Zemmel’s arrow caught another in the thigh and he crumpled with a pained groan.
They came through the breach two abreast, Alinari and the woman I’d served wine just a few days ago.
My first swing sheared the top from her shield, and it would have taken her head had not Alinari shouldered her out of the way. Neren was quick to fall upon the downed censor, and they wrestled on the ground, cursing and grunting.
I moved to aid her but had to twist to avoid a thrust from Alinari. It took only a moment to realize he was the far better swordsman. He would’ve run me through in a heartbeat if he hadn’t been wary of the saints’ steel blade carving his current sword to ribbons.
I chopped down, hoping to break his sword, but he snatched it back, flicking it around in a tight slash at my wrist. It was all I could do to dodge the swing, let alone press my advantage.
Abandoning any pretense of skill, I threw myself at him. Reflexively, he brought his blade up, and I hacked at it with all my strength. Steel gave way before razored martyrbone, my strike missing flesh by a hairsbreadth as he dove away. My blade sunk into the volcanic stone of the boulder. I tore it free with a snarl, raising it high above my head as he desperately crabbed back.
The glint of metal caught my eye, bright in the light of the setting sun. I shifted, expecting one of Alinari’s comrades to have gotten around me, but no blade came arcing down.
It was the bolder that shimmered.
My strike had carved away the rock to reveal pale metal underneath. Even so, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at until Alinari gave a startled gasp.
He pushed to his feet, stepping up to run a finger over the exposed portion. “Martyrbone.”
Any thought of cutting him down was eclipsed by burgeoning realization. I glanced back at the captain. Her wide-eyed stare told me that she had seen as well. Even the censors seemed shocked. They paused in their advance, peering out from behind boulders, mouths agape.
Panting, Neren stepped to my side. “Goshawk’s balls, are these all—”
“Bones.” A voice echoed from the darkness. Thirty years had passed since I last heard it, but it felt like nothing stood between then and now.
The Weeper stood silhouetted in the dying sunlight. Twenty feet tall, and still dwarfed by the boulder, which I now realized was a giant skull. She looked older than I remembered—a streak of silver through her midnight hair, her face not so much aged as weathered. She was unarmed, wearing little more than a linen robe gathered at the waist. Tear tracks cut shadowed valleys into her cheeks, like verdigris bleeding from the eyes of some ancient colossus.
“Deflin.” She spoke a name I’m sure was mine, but was also Zemmel’s, and the captain’s, and everyone’s. I had never met her, not in-person, but that was always the way with the Weeper—like she was speaking only to you.
Distantly, I heard Sthis curse, then the rattle of her crossbow being winched. Neren was saying something, but the words were lost amidst the pounding of blood in my ears.
Sir Alinari stepped to my other side, former animosity seemingly eclipsed by the swell of old loyalties. Before the Levelling, we had fought for the Weeper. Everyone had. We’d bled for her, died for her, then turned on each other when she’d abandoned us.
As if understanding my thoughts, the Weeper’s smile hung heavy with loss. It kindled a strange warmth in my stomach, and I found my own eyes prickling with tears.
“I climbed the Vault of Heaven, searching for truth.” Her voice seemed to echo from deep inside my chest.
I glanced to the captain, who was sobbing as she struggled to fit a bolt into her crossbow. Zemmel was on his hands and knees, face pressed to the stone. Neren still held her daggers, but her hands hung loose at her side. It was all I could do to grip the hilt of Alinari’s sword, my arm trembling so badly that I almost slashed myself.
“Do you wish to know what I found?“
In that moment, I wanted little else.
“Nothing.” The Weeper gave a sad laugh. “Empty mansions, crumbling palaces, towers scattered like fallen branches. There were no gods. No answers. They had cast each other down.“
The realization of her sacrifice pressed down upon me like a physical weight. The Weeper hadn’t abandoned us; we had abandoned her. The world could have been perfect, could still be perfect.
“So I came here to see for what remained. I meditated upon what this all meant, tried to sift some meaning from the bones of the ancients. It took me years to finally understand.” She ran a hand along the brow ridge of the giant skull. Only then did I notice the cleft in the skull’s crown, the cuts across its face.
“All their wisdom, all their power, and the only way they could think to save this world was to end it.” She took a step toward us. “They killed each other. Freed each other.“
In that moment, I saw with perfect clarity. An empty world, wind blowing over fallow fields, cities slowly turning to ivy-covered ruins. I knew now why the battle had ended in slaughter, why Suntalon hadn’t even attempted escape. Who were we to believe we could govern our destinies when the gods themselves weren’t up to the task?
The click of Sthis’s crossbow seemed to come from miles away, the whisper of the bolt little more than an afterthought.
The Weeper raised a hand as if to brush the shot aside. Had it been mere steel, she would have. Instead, the bolt sunk into the meat of her palm, bright blood, hero’s blood, glittering like rubies in the setting sun. The Weeper had left before we unlocked the secrets of martyrbone, before the first forging of saints’ steel. She did not know of the Levelers, of the death of her fellows.
I expected sorrow, the Weeper’s eyes reflecting the pain of yet another betrayal. Instead, I saw what I always saw—shock, disbelief, fear.
It was as if someone had snatched a cloth from my eyes. Suddenly, my body was mine again.
As the Weeper turned to flee, it all came flooding back—battles, conquests, corpses piled high in mute testament to heroic arrogance. She had seen the world and judged it rotten, cutting away those parts, those people who did not fit her design. Even now, we struggled to free ourselves from the bloody history she had wrought.
I took a step toward her, blade coming up.
Sudden, sharp pain blossomed in my side. I twisted to see Neren, eyes smudged with tears, drawing her dagger back for another slash.
The captain, Zemmel, I, even Alinari—we had all been caught by the Weeper’s madness before, witnessed destruction, death. But Neren had never been in the presence of a true hero.
Her smile was sad as she slashed at me, knives quick as darting wasps. Sharper than daggers was the affection in her eyes, the realization that, although we shared no blood, Neren was more a daughter to me than whatever dockside villain had sired her.
Out of the Weeper’s litany of hurts, this was perhaps the cruelest. That those who followed her killed not out of hate but love.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the other censors step from behind boulders, beginning their advance once more.
“I’ll save you, old man.” Neren’s blade traced a line of cold fire down my forearm. Her second dagger would have done the same to my throat had not Alinari slapped the blade from her grasp.
Shrieking, Neren turned, only to be swept up in a great bear hug.
“Go.” Alinari’s face was drawn, but his eyes were clear. “Finish this.”
I turned to stumble after the Weeper, following the trail of blood through the scattered rocks. The rattle of gravel caused me to glance back, and I was relieved to see Sthis behind me, crossbow loaded and ready.
“Not much time.” She panted between gritted teeth. “Zemmel and Alinari won’t be able to hold them back for long.”
We found the Weeper crouched amidst a spray of arcing rocks, the remains of the ribcage of some forgotten god. She had removed the bolt, holding it almost as an afterthought as she watched the blood drip from her clenched fist.
“I think I understand at last. It is not the end, but the impulse; not the expression, but the hope. We shall remake the world, not in their image, but in ours.” Slowly, she stood, turning to regard us, her expression strange. “This time, it will be b—”
“Murderer.” Captain Sthis’s bolt took the Weeper in the hip, a gout of crimson welling from the wound as she toppled to the ground. I advanced on her, my blade at the ready, expecting the horrible fury of a wounded hero.
But the Weeper had never fought her own battles.
Strangely, she died like one of us. I had expected more.
It was a small thing for me to draw the blade across her throat, to stand silently as the Weeper slumped back against the ribcage of some ancient fallen god. Captain Sthis laid a hand on my shoulder. I felt her tremble, swaying on legs gone suddenly weak. To be fair, I needed a little steadying myself.
We walked back, covered in the Weeper’s blood, our wounds little more than scars.
The surviving censors knelt around Alinari’s mangled body, heads bowed. Their expressions were those of men and women hoping to awake from a nightmare. I had no fear they would renew their assault. If anything, they would join with us when the Synod’s lies were laid bare. I could almost see the words writ upon their brow; the need to believe in something now they had borne witness to truths of the universe.
Neren sat upon the stone, Zemmel’s head in her lap. He wheezed through punctured lungs, too far gone for even heroes’ blood. But his head turned as the captain and I approached.
I knelt to meet his questioning gaze and nodded. With a soft sigh, he closed his eyes.
Neren caught me in shuddering embrace. “I’m sorry.”
“No need for apologies.” I hugged her back. “It’s done.”
“You’ll have your tower, and then some.” Sthis gave her an awkward pat on the shoulder. “There’s enough martyrbone here to buy the Synod.”
“Or bury them.” The words just slipped from my lips. Still, they resonated deep within my chest, and I had only to glance at Captain Sthis to see she felt the same.
We had told ourselves the same story—that the world was better without heroes. Nobody was kicking down mountains anymore, but they were building mansions on them. In truth, the Synod had made a lie of the Leveling, of our sacrifice.
Purpose filled me, clear and irresistible. The Weeper had been wrong.
The world could never be perfect. But this time, it could be better.