It was an inauspicious beginning to my mission to find the deathmage and bring her to the capital. I found her exactly where the Mandate said I would: at a tavern table, in one of the northern work camps, wasted drunk. Her long black curls, laced with silver, lay like vines across the table’s rough wood. She was snoring faintly.
“This is the mage?” one of my soldiers asked.
He did not believe it, but he had not heard the Mandate speak with the voice of the gods, and I had served the Emperor long enough to know a Mandate could not lie. Yet I understood the soldier’s disbelief. A deathmage was the stuff of legend, living on the border of history and nightmare. The War of Three-and-a-Half Kings had been decided by deathmages who walked untouched across fields of blood, casting death with a gesture, not old women passed out over their cups in grimy camp taverns.
“It is,” I said, hoping the softness of my response hid my weariness. “The Deathmage Daneel.”
The ride from the northern border had been long and hard. The forest roads through the wastes of the Emperor’s outer territories were narrow and poorly marked. At times, our horses had been up to their hocks in mud. When we camped, grey wolves passed through the pines around us like ghosts haunting the forest.
I had hoped the difficult part of the journey would be over when we found the deathmage. But seeing her here, in this tavern thick with the smell of piss, soul ale, and sawdust, my spirits sank. If I had not heard a Mandate itself foretell this, I would have been as doubtful as the soldier. The Mandate had said Daneel would be the Empire’s salvation, but it seemed unlikely she would be able to rise from this table unaided, let alone fulfill any prophecy.
“Clear this rabble,” I told the soldiers, and they moved to obey, muscling the few woodsmen out of the tavern and into the darkness of the forest.
The woman did not stir.
I gathered my cloak, holding its hem above the stained sawdust of the floor, and stepped toward the table. The room’s faint light showed her wide face and jagged star of scars across the eye that I knew would be blind and milk-white when she opened it. She looked half as old as the Empire itself. Yet this woman had killed more soldiers in the War than I had seen in my life, and I had seen the marshaling of legions.
She stirred only slightly when I sat down opposite, her lips twitching in sleep. Her left arm was on the table, hand gripping a cup that remained half full of something dark. Very slowly, I inched the cup away from her fingers.
Her eyes flashed open.
Deathmages could kill with a gesture. I held my breath.
“Wolves don’t come until dusk,” she muttered. “Send for me then.”
She reached for the cup. I slid it out of her reach.
“And just who in Skrae’s bloated member do you think you are?” Her eyes were fully open now, her blind one white as bone, though she made no motion to raise her head.
I gave her my name. “I am the Emperor’s legate, sent by a Mandate of the Gods, to find you.”
A rasping cough trailed into a groan as she closed her eyes again. “Leave me alone. And when you go home, remind the Emperor what eternal exile means.”
“Your exile is ended, Daneel.” I sniffed at the cup’s contents, acrid with raw alcohol, and poured it out onto the dirt and sawdust floor.
“You little shit.”
“There is food and wine, actual wine, back at our camp,” I told her. “I have been ordered to return you to the capital with all possible haste.”
“All possible haste?” She opened her eyes again. The good one struggled to focus. “Only imperial lick-spittles talk like that.”
Slowly, as though her head was a millstone, she lifted it from the warped wood of the table and raised the first two fingers of her left hand. “And what if I refuse, legate? I don’t care how many soldiers you have. I can kill them all before they so much as touch me.”
“Yes.” I twirled the empty cup between my fingers and considered my words. If I was wrong, it didn’t matter that the Mandate had been right about where to find her. I would be dead before her fingers traced a full circle in the air between us. “But you won’t.”
“Why the hell won’t I?”
“What work do you do here, in the camp? What do you kill?”
“I don’t kill in the camp.” Her voice held a sickening rasp; of disease or age or neglect, I couldn’t tell.
“When you follow the logging teams into the forests.” I had guessed correctly, and I tried to keep the relief from my voice. “What do you kill, deathmage?”
“I kill wolves.” She scowled. “Big sons of bitches, and smart as hell. Smarter than most here.”
“Wolves. In the War, you filled the Narrow Sea with so many corpses they say you could walk across it on the backs of the dead. But now the Emperor’s last deathmage culls dogs.”
She stared at me. “I haven’t killed a human in decades.” For a moment the rasp dropped from her voice, replaced by a hardness that seemed half-anger and half-despair. She twitched her fingers. “But don’t tempt me.”
I set the cup on the table. “I am not asking you to kill again.”
I could lie for the Emperor as easily as I drew breath, but this was not a lie. At least, I didn’t think it was. The terror that stalked the streets of the capital was not something a deathmage could kill—which made the Mandate’s oracle all the more inscrutable. But the Emperor would be consumed, it had intoned gravely, and the entire Empire lost, unless a deathmage stood at his side.
And there was only one deathmage left.
Daneel studied me with her single good eye.
“What kind of actual wine?” she finally asked.
The work camps were scattered in a huge arch across the northern fringe of the Empire, and we had traveled to one of the farthest to find Daneel. Now our journey out was proving as onerous as our journey in, and we traveled with one against whom the wolves of the forest seemed to hold a personal grudge. Almost as soon as we passed beyond the camp’s wooden palisades, we saw them watching us from the shelter of the trees.
“Might have been easier if you’d brought the Emperor to me,” Daneel muttered, glancing from the trees to my company of soldiers. “I’ve killed a lot of wolves. Doubt they’ll let me walk out of their forest.”
She had not asked for any time to prepare or to fetch personal belongings from a hut somewhere. She had simply stooped to retrieve a small satchel from below the table and risen, only a bit unsteadily, to follow us to our mounts.
We rode as quickly out of the forest as we were able, which was not quickly at all due to the mud and the roads that were mere suggestions. Near the end of the third day our path passed through a narrow defile. The topography worried me, and I sent soldiers to screen the rise on either side as we passed through. The pines closed in so that they formed a canopy over our heads, and when the wolves came they broke from both sides together. The two flanking soldiers were overrun immediately, and I saw one ripped from his horse in a blur of crimson.
From the stories, I expected her power to manifest with some kind of force, the crackling of lightning or screaming of wind, but Daneel killed in absolute silence. She turned in her saddle and made a sweeping gesture with the first two fingers of her left hand, as though she were motioning to someone to cut a length of rope or fabric, and the wolves around us fell, all of them, with no sound other than the gentle slump of their bodies against the carpet of pine needles on the forest floor.
There were more behind the first wave though, and they bounded over the corpses to reach us. I had time to draw my narrow curved blade from its sheath across my saddle before they were between my horse’s kicking hooves. The remaining soldiers flailed with their blades like winnowers threshing grain. I opened a wolf from throat to groin as it sprang at me, then another knocked me to the ground and I braced for jaws at my throat.
The crushing bite never came, and the wolf on my chest went limp. I pushed it off to see Daneel lowering her arm, fingers still extended. An arch of dead wolves, piled to nearly her chest, surrounded her. Only a handful of my soldiers remained.
“Your life is mine, half-man,” she said with a grin.
“My life is the Emperor’s,” I muttered, rising to my feet.
We heard howls in the distance and rode hard, fleeing the shadows of the pines and leaving our dead where they had fallen. I waited for another wave I was sure would sweep out of the forest, but it never came.
We stopped only when it was too dark to go farther and built a huge bonfire I hoped was large enough to keep the wolves at bay. Daneel seemed unshaken from the ordeal and threw herself onto the grass beside the fire, holding a bottle taken from one of the packs. Her good eye looked clearer in the dark, jet black and gleaming in the fire’s light.
“Now,” she rasped, her voice as jagged as a broken blade, “while your guards try to decide whether they’re more scared of the wolves or of me, you can explain why you’re bringing me back to the capital in egregious violation of the treaty.”
I glanced to where the remaining soldiers paced between the forest and the edge of the firelight. Daneel was correct. Having seen her kill, they were clearly as unwilling to stand within her line of sight as they were to move beyond the circle of the fire’s glow.
“The treaty terms have... provisions,” I began, keeping my voice low. “Certain allowances were written into the treaty, when the War was over. Deathmages are permitted to return across the Empire’s frontier in order to meet very particular threats.”
“Deathmages.” She spit into the fire. “There are no more deathmages. There’s only me.” She paused. “What do you mean, particular threats?”
I lowered my voice further. The soldiers were frightened enough already without reminding them what had happened in the capital and what might await us when we returned. “Stipulations in the treaty allow deathmages to return in the event of grey magic.”
Daneel stared into the fire so long I began to wonder whether she had heard me.
“Grey magic in the capital?” she finally asked.
“And you think I can do something about it?”
“The Mandate of the Gods did. One of the five came to the palace to give an oracle. It said the Emperor and Empire would both fall unless a deathmage stood at the Emperor’s side.”
“Mandates,” she groaned, rubbing her lined face with the hand that wasn’t holding the bottle. “Skrae’s bloody piss. Deathmages get exile or worse, but those veiled bastards still haunt the capital?”
I was silent. The Mandates were the voice of the gods. They spoke with the gods face-to-face, and all five of them wore the veil that shielded the eyes of others from looking upon faces that had looked upon the gods.
Daneel took a long swig from the bottle. “What kind of grey magic?”
“Do I have to save your sackless member a few more times before you decide to treat me like a person and not a tool you’ve been ordered to collect and return?” She stabbed a finger at me from around the neck of the bottle. “Then again, I suppose a eunuch is used to playing errand-boy to the Mandates and their whims.”
“A servant of the Emperor,” I corrected, meeting her good eye. “And I would prefer a life as the Emperor’s servant to one culling dogs in the forest in the rare moments I was sober enough not to piss myself instead.”
“I was the Emperor’s sword before you were a spasm in your daddy’s cock,” she growled, but there was a hint of respect and even mirth in her tone. “We’ve a long way to travel, and if I’m to keep myself, and maybe you, alive I deserve to know what I’m stepping into. And why.”
“Fair enough.” I sighed.
Our fire was on a rise with a few boulders at our back. The flames cast their light down the slope the way we had come. The line of forest was visible in that direction as a low wall cutting off the stars. I felt eyes there among the trees, watching us steadily.
“I told you what the Mandate said. On the strength of that alone, I was ordered to find you and bring you home. The Emperor’s safety apparently depends on your presence in the capital.” I paused, recalling the chaotic days in the palace prior to the Mandate’s oracle. “There have been three attempts on the Emperor’s life in the past month.”
“You’re not bringing me to the capital to stop some petty assassin ring. You said grey magic.”
“Yes.” I pulled my cloak tighter and listened for the fear in my own voice. “In each attempt, the assassin was a corpse.”
“In the capital.”
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
“I would suggest fear as an appropriate reaction. It took a full legion, deployed the entire length of the main avenue, to stop the latest attempt, and the Ivory Court was a splintered ruin when they finally halted the thing.”
She kept her eye on the fire. “A deathmage can’t do anything against the undead. They’re already dead. That’s the fucking point.”
“The Mandate said—”
“Oh bloody—” She ran her free hand in frustration through her black and silver curls. “Did the Mandate say who was trying to kill the Emperor? Did anyone think to ask it to share something useful for once in its gods-damn life? Riddles. That’s all they’re ever good for.”
The Mandate had come alone, slipping into the palace like a specter. When it appeared in the Emperor’s throne room, those in attendance there were too surprised to do more than stare. Usually the five Mandates delivered their oracles together, as a chorus, inscrutable but always infallible.
A twig snapped. One of the soldiers had returned to the fire.
“There is something out there,” he said.
“Is it the end of your watch?” I demanded.
“No, Legate. But there is something out there, in the trees. I thought the deathmage—”
“Could what?” Daneel interrupted, glaring up at him. “Sweep the forest with death? Kill whatever’s out there making you nervous?”
“Resume your post,” I told him.
The soldier gave a curt bow and disappeared back into the shadows. I stood watching the place where he had disappeared, then left Daneel and made a slow circuit of our encampment, ensuring the other soldiers remained guarding as well. When I returned to the fire, Daneel was sprawled out on the ground asleep on her cloak, the bottle empty beside her.
I wondered again at the Mandate’s words. Maybe it had come alone because the other Mandates had heard the gods speak but did not believe their words. Perhaps they thought there could be no help for the Empire from a single wasted deathmage.
I took one of the blankets from my pack and laid it over Daneel. She did not stir.
Or perhaps, I thought, hugging myself against a sudden chill as I stared into the night, the voices of the gods were themselves so faint and uncertain that only a single Mandate heard.
Maybe it was the gods themselves who doubted.
The frightened soldier was right, as we realized the next day. There had been more than wolves in the forest that night, and we were still a day’s ride from the border to the inner provinces when a second ambush came, this one more successful. As its first arrows whistled around us, I shouted for the soldiers to form a circle around Daneel. She was useless to the Emperor and the prophecy if she was dead.
Our attackers came on foot. I caught sight of movement between trees to our left as an arrow passed over my shoulder from our right. We were surrounded. Another arrow flew, and Daneel roared as it struck home in her arm.
“We surrender!” I shouted, dropping my sword and lifting my arms. Surrender or negotiation could give Daneel a chance to strike when our attackers revealed themselves. If not, no ransom would be too high to pay. “We are on the Emperor’s business!”
A man in a white robe with a bow slung across his shoulder stepped from the trees.
“As are we,” he said. “Give the word of passage.”
“The word of passage is who the fuck do you think you are?” Daneel shouted, gripping the arrow shaft that protruded from her left shoulder.
“Sub quercum,” I said.
“Pelagia magna,” he answered, offering the correct response. Apparently, we were on the same side.
Several more figures stepped from behind trees. They lowered bows but kept arrows nocked.
“Why,” the man in white demanded, “are you bringing such an exile across the Empire’s borders?”
My mind raced. There were few alive from the War of Three-and-a-Half-Kings who would recognize Daneel on sight. Those close to her in battle hadn’t lived to tell about it. I had hoped the years would be enough of a disguise when I brought her home, yet here already was someone who knew and recognized her.
“First tell me who you are,” I answered. “It’s clear you’re in the Emperor’s service, as are we.”
The man had hair as white as Daneel’s was black. It hung straight down his back except for a single broad braid at his shoulder. He was tall, with narrow face and a ring of gold in his nose, and I felt he was someone I should recognize as easily as he apparently recognized Daneel.
“I know you,” he said, ignoring my question. “You are the Emperor’s legate, the eunuch. How much were you paid to betray your master and fetch the deathmage Daneel from exile?”
At the name, the features of an archer standing beside the man hardened with sudden hatred, and he raised his bow in a single fluid motion. Daneel was faster, though she gasped in pain as she gestured with her wounded arm.
The archer fell.
“Listen, you sanctimonious bastard—” Daneel began, her fingers poised to cast again. The rest of words were drowned in the creak of a dozen bowstrings drawn taut.
“Hold!” the white-haired man barked.
He knelt beside the dead archer, who lay awkwardly in the leaves. His fingers moved over the body’s chest, stroking the air as they might touch the strings of a lyre. After a moment the archer opened his eyes and slowly sat up.
Daneel’s mouth worked silently for a moment. “You’re Tenja Arkeel,” she finally spit out. “Thrice-Dead Arkeel. The lifemage.”
I heard the intake of breath of the soldiers standing beside me. A deathmage had the power to take life. A lifemage had the power to restore it, and Arkeel was the most powerful lifemage in the Empire. There were almost as many legends of him as there were of Daneel. But whereas deathmages had been exiled after the War, Arkeel was lauded as a hero and given the laurels of a Defender of the Empire before retiring to a villa in the hill country, where he was said to live like a prince.
“Lifemage Arkeel,” I said, inclining my head and wondering what had brought these two opposites face-to-face. “We travel at the Emperor’s bidding, obeying the word of a Mandate to bring the deathmage to the capital.”
Arkeel’s eyes narrowed. “A Mandate appeared in my hall a week ago. It prophesied a threat to the Emperor coming by the road to the north. We have been watching this road since, and when I saw her, I knew what threat it meant.”
I considered, rubbing the bridge of my nose and fighting the feeling that I had somehow found myself between white and black pawns arrayed on a game board according to rules I did not understand. Was it possible for a Mandate to work its own purposes? Or were the Mandates now divided, one saying the gods called for the deathmage and another that the deathmage must be stopped?
Daneel and Arkeel studied each other warily.
“We must speak in private,” I said.
Arkeel nodded again, not taking his eyes from Daneel.
“We can speak in my tent,” he said. “Our camp is not far.”
Arkeel’s tent was the size of a modest hunting lodge. We left his archers and my soldiers regarding each other watchfully and passed into an interior lit by half a dozen braziers and draped with tapestries and furs. A servant waited inside the tent flap. Arkeel dismissed him and said we were not to be disturbed.
“Sit here,” he told Daneel, taking a towel and ewer of water from a table. “I’ll examine your arm.”
Daneel glared at him but obeyed.
“Why?” the lifemage asked again as he prodded Daneel’s wound.
“Deathmage Daneel was exiled under terms of the treaty that ended the War. That treaty allows a deathmage’s return under specific conditions.”
I told him about the Mandate coming to the palace and the oracle it had given.
“Which Mandate?” he asked me. He turned to Daneel. “Remove your tunic and I’ll dress and bind the wound.”
“Piss off,” she hissed, gripping her arm.
He shrugged and turned back to me.
“How is one Mandate distinguished from another?” I asked. “This one came to the palace alone.”
“The one who found me was alone as well. It spoke of an approaching threat and death coming from the north. When I saw her,” he indicated Daneel, still clutching her arm and glaring at him, “I knew what it meant.”
“What were its words, exactly?”
Arkeel’s gaze clouded for a moment. “That the Empire and the Emperor were in danger, and that death approached along the northern road.” He frowned. “That death would stand at the Emperor’s shoulder.”
“Death at the Emperor’s shoulder—this Mandate said the same thing to the Emperor. The Mandate told you there was a danger and that death approached, not that death was the danger.”
Arkeel’s frown deepened. “The implication was clear.”
Daneel swore and shrugged out of her tunic. The bodice beneath left her thin arms bare and exposed the wound, still oozing blood. “Of course it was clear,” she sneered. “A deathmage can do one thing. Serve one purpose. Always a threat.”
Arkeel studied her for a moment without speaking, then began to clean and bind the wound. She scowled as he wrapped bandages about her arm and tightened them until the scowl was replaced by a wince.
I considered the situation. If the Mandate, and thus the gods, wanted Daneel to return to the capital, why had a Mandate gone to Arkeel’s villa to give a message he would almost certainly interpret as instructions to stop it? Yet here they were now, their mutual animosity nearly bubbling over but held in check. Deathmages and lifemages had at times fought on the same side during the War, but rivalry and hatred between them was legendary. This was likely the first time since the end of the War a lifemage and deathmage had exchanged words.
“There is a threat,” I said, deciding I had no choice but to trust Arkeel, “but it is not her.” I explained the attempts on the Emperor’s life.
“A deathmage could do nothing to stop grey magic,” Arkeel pointed out when I was finished.
“That’s what I said,” Daneel muttered, flexing her wounded arm slowly.
“And yet the Mandate’s words were clear. What of a lifemage? What could you do against such an attack?”
Arkeel ran a hand along his jaw as he studied me. He might have been as old as Daneel, though the lines on his face were softer, as though he had weathered those years in comfort. His eyes were pale and deep-set, his white brows furrowed as he considered.
“A lifemage recovers the spirit of one who has died, before it has time to wander. It must be done immediately. I have healed men who have been dead a few minutes, and once a child who had died perhaps an hour before. Longer than that and the soul is too far gone to recover.”
I shuddered, thinking of what I had seen in the capital. “The souls of those sent to kill the Emperor had been absent from their bodies for some time.”
“You saw them?”
I took a deep breath. It still left me shaken. I had not given Daneel the details as we sat around the fire, and I had been grateful then she had not asked. They were memories I had no desire to relive by night at the edge of a shadowed forest. Even now, in the brightly lit interior of Arkeel’s tent, I glanced at the tapestries as though their folds hid dangers and felt a chill of dread.
“There were three attacks. The first was the corpse of a child, some nameless urchin taken by disease or famine. I did not see it but only heard of it later from the guards. It approached the Emperor’s palanquin as they passed from temple to palace. Several guards were needed to halt the thing and end it with fire.”
I paused. Arkeel and Daneel were both studying me.
“The second attack was a dead soldier weeks later. It carved a charnel path through the barracks adjoining the palace. It only stopped when it was cut into so many pieces that those pieces could no longer pull themselves forward. They were still writhing when they were burned.”
“And the third?” Arkeel asked.
I closed my eyes, remembering the screams and the sound of shouting from beyond closed doors of the Emperor’s throne room. The third had been the worst, as though whoever was sending the corpses was growing surer in its power.
“The corpse of a rock troll. It climbed from the sewer beneath the East Gate and killed over seven hundred troops sent to stop it. When it reached the Ivory Court, they rolled in kegs of powder from the magazine. The captain of the guard lit them and buried the thing, along with herself and her soldiers, in the rubble of a quarter of the palace.”
We had still heard the thing moving beneath the rubble for hours.
“Fucking dead god fuck,” Daneel whispered. “You could have told me all that when you came to fetch me.”
“Would you have agreed to come if I had?”
“You conniving little—”
Arkeel held up his hand. “What happened next?”
“The Mandate came.”
It had slipped through the ruined gate of the palace, the dust from the explosion still hanging in the air around it. For a terrified moment I had thought it was another assassin, that the Mandate was another corpse come to claw its way toward the Emperor.
Daneel stared at me, her good eye heavy with anger. “And you took its words as an excuse to flee.”
“The Emperor ordered me to go.”
“But you are terrified to return,” Arkeel said.
My composure slipped. “Gods below! Yes, I’m terrified. I have left my Emperor and been to the ass-end of the Empire to find her because a Mandate said she was the Emperor’s only hope. I’m terrified at what I might find when I return, if there will even be—”
My words caught like fabric on a jagged edge.
Both the mages studied me.
“We heard rumors of trouble in the capital,” Arkeel said softly, “but only rumors.”
“Now you know the shape of things,” I muttered.
“He’s asking us to walk into something darker than anything that ever happened during the War,” Daneel said. The anger in her voice kept it hard and flat. “Or rather, he’s not asking us. He’s assuming we’ll simply come along at the Emperor’s whim, on a Mandate’s word, so we can be the good tools we’ve always been.”
Arkeel glanced at Daneel. “I have been asked nothing.”
There were other reasons, I realized, Daneel might have resisted returning to the capital. There would be those, like Arkeel, who remembered her; probably more of them in the palace than anywhere else. She would not only be returning to the capital and whatever dangers we found there; she would also be returning to being hated and despised, as Arkeel no doubt hated and despised her now.
“I am sorry, Daneel,” I said. “I would not have asked you to come if there were another way.”
She scowled at me. I turned to Arkeel.
“The Mandate said nothing of a lifemage, yet a Mandate sought you out and ensured you would be here to meet us. Would you abandon your Emperor in their hour of need?”
His brows furrowed again, white eyebrows drawing together. “Of course not. But this threat, this use of grey magic—surely you see a lifemage could be no help against it.”
“You would be there to restore the Emperor’s life.”
“For what?” Arkeel asked harshly. “If we cannot stop these attacks themselves? Restore the Emperor to flee the capital and live in the hills like a hunted animal? And what if the Emperor is already dead?”
Daneel leaned forward. “We’re not the soldiers you need for this battle, eunuch.”
I looked from one to the other: Arkeel all white lines and graceful linen, face like a governor of state; Daneel hunched and scowling, tangled dark hair, dark eyes, restless fingers. They looked like night and day, like they had been shaped in form and feature to be as opposite in flesh as they were in their powers.
“But you are the ones I have.” I forced a surety into my voice that I did not feel. “A Mandate has spoken. We must trust the gods.”
Daneel swore eloquently and stood. “I trust that you have something worth drinking in this camp.” She pushed past Arkeel, taking care to shoulder him with her good arm, and disappeared out the tent flap. Arkeel stared at me, considering, for another moment before following.
We rode south the next morning as soon as it was light enough to see, a combined company now of my remaining soldiers and the archers who formed Arkeel’s personal guard. I could not tell if he had decided to come with us because he believed he could help the Emperor or because he remained convinced Daneel was the true threat. In either case, he would not let her out of his sight as we traveled, watching her as though she might throw her power against anyone we came across. When Daneel noticed this, she rubbed her bandaged shoulder and moved her horse to ride alongside him.
“Did you do a piss-poor job fixing my arm because you were afraid of what I could do with it?” When he said nothing, she continued. “What kind of lifemage can’t even heal? I don’t like wincing every time I have to wipe my ass.”
“Can you make some poor fool ill?” he demanded. “No, you can only kill. I can only restore life. Mages don’t have the luxury of doing anything by half measures.”
She scowled at that, but she did not move her horse away.
From then on they kept up a constant, bickering dialogue as we traveled. If the road split and Arkeel thought we should take the right-hand route, Daneel insisted the left was better. If Daneel said it would likely rain, Arkeel knew the wind would change. If I asked how long it would take to reach the capital, Arkeel said three days and Daneel insisted two. It was as though each had found in the other a counterpoint or contrast they had been previously missing, and they both despised this and were fascinated by it. Soon the soldiers and even Arkeel’s archers were giving them wide berth, riding ahead or falling behind, weary of the ceaseless circling argument.
We were perhaps a day’s hard ride from the capital, or a day and half, depending on which mage you asked, when two of the archers scouting the road ahead of us rode back with grim expressions.
“There was a battle, ahead,” one explained, pointing behind him. “A dozen riders, judging by their tracks. They caught a single rider fleeing north. The attackers turned back south, leaving a body behind.”
“How long ago?” Arkeel demanded.
“The tracks are fresh. Maybe an hour, no more. But—”
“What is it?”
The archer’s face was ashen. “Come see.”
We realized why the scouts were so shaken by the scene when we arrived. The body lying in grasses smeared with blood was a Mandate. I stared at it in disbelief, my face no doubt taking on the same waxen expression as the others. Mandates were the voice of the gods. Even during the War, they gave their oracles without partiality and remained untouched. No one, not even a deathmage, would kill a Mandate.
Arkeel dropped from his horse and knelt by the body.
The Mandate was dressed in the flowing crimson robes and wide sash of its office. Even in death, with its robes stained a darker red, it retained the veil of white linen wrapping its face like a grave cloth.
“Well?” Daneel hissed. “This is what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
“Mandates belong to the gods,” Arkeel murmured.
“This one will belong to worms soon. If we want to know what in bloody hell is happening, you need to bring it back.”
Arkeel nodded slowly and reached out a hand. His fingers threaded the air, tentative, as if groping for the strings of some invisible instrument. After a few moments of searching, his hand flexed, fingers curling and wrist twisting, like he was pulling those unseen strings together.
The fabric of the Mandate’s veil trembled.
For a long minute it felt like the scream was all there was, ripping from the Mandate like an explosion. I saw Arkeel and Daneel step backward, covering their ears. The sound was as though a thousand souls poured their despair from the Mandate’s unseen lips.
When it finally ended, the Mandate lay still.
“Lifemage,” it whispered after a moment. Its voice after the crashing tide of the scream was a husky rasp, like fabric sliding across the floor of a tomb. “You should not have brought me back.”
“Who did this to you?” I demanded.
“You have brought the deathmage.” The Mandate ignored my question. It stood slowly and put a hand to its side where its robes were stained dark. “Eunuch. I was riding to meet you.”
“Who would kill a Mandate?” I asked again.
“The Mandates.” Its rasping voice grew heavy. “The Mandates killed me.”
The silence the followed was as shattering as the scream had been. I tried to process what the Mandate was saying and saw the same horrified confusion on Arkeel’s face. Daneel simply glowered, as if she had expected no less; as if the world could go insane, the mouthpieces of the gods turn and rend each other, and it only justified her expectations.
“I came to warn you,” the Mandate continued. “The gods are dead but one, and he is mad.”
We rode hard that evening until darkness forced a halt. The Mandate rode with us, silent as the corpse it had been not long before. We were nearly within sight of the capital’s walls, and I argued we should push onward. But Arkeel urged caution, pointing out that we should not arrive by darkness because we did not yet know what we faced. For once, Daneel agreed, saying it would be foolishness to blunder into whatever waited ahead of us. The Mandate’s words hung over us like a shadow: The gods are dead but one, and he is mad.
The Mandate might as well have said that the capital had sunk into the sea or the moon fallen from the sky. That the gods were dead were words that bore a meaning the mind could not grasp. And yet I had seen the Mandate murdered, had heard the tortured scream pour from its lips.
We made a fire in a small copse of trees some distance from the road. When it was burning, I turned to the Mandate, feeling the burden of its unseen stare from across the flames.
“You are the Mandate who came to the palace, aren’t you? The one who sent me north to find the deathmage? Tell us what happened.”
“The god Skrae,” it said slowly. Its voice was cold and hollow as if it was still finding its way back from wherever Arkeel had recalled its spirit. “For ages, Skrae waited behind the Nine, bidding time until he could rise and consume them. The War of Three-and-a-Half Kings weakened them and strengthened him. He grew fat on death. Now he is risen to power, and the Nine are no more. Only the whisper of Fae, goddess of hope, escaped. Her voice came to me.”
The Mandates gave their oracles without explanation or exposition. I could tell it was strange now for the Mandate to be speaking in conversation, that it was feeling its way through the words like a person in a dark room.
“The Nine are gone. There is only Skrae, and he hungers. The Emperor is the bridge, mediator between gods and humanity.”
“The attacks on the Emperor.” I leaned forward. “The corpses sent to kill them. That was Skrae.”
I knew stories of Skrae—that he was the tenth god in the pantheon, the shadow god who waited behind the others, the god of death.
“The gods cannot act through grey magic directly, not even Skrae.” Arkeel stroked his white beard as he spoke, his face more grave in the firelight than it had been when we came upon the Mandate’s body. “If it is the hand of Skrae in these attacks, there must be a conduit for his power.”
“The Mandates,” the Mandate said. “When Skrae killed the Nine, he became the only voice they heard. He consumed their minds and their will.”
“But not yours?” Daneel was eyeing the Mandate with suspicion.
“Fae’s whisper protected me.” The Mandate’s veiled face swung toward me. “I came to the palace, bringing her word. When I returned, the other Mandates had been consumed by Skrae’s madness. I fled.”
“You came to me,” Arkeel said.
“Yes. Fae’s whisper was faint.”
“What did it say?”
“Life and death.” The Mandate’s voice dropped even lower. “Together. Beside the Emperor.”
Daneel snorted, snapped a twig in her hands, and tossed it in the fire.
“But then you returned to the capital,” I pressed.
“I could not watch all the roads. If you were to return, Arkeel would find you. If you had already reached the capital, I would search for you there.” It paused. “But the Mandates found me first.”
“Why didn’t you tell me all this when you came to me?” Arkeel asked.
“That the gods, they were dead? That Skrae had consumed them, and would consume the Emperor?” The shifting light from the fire made the Mandate’s veiled face appear more animated than it did by daylight. “I had only Fae’s whisper. I did not know all that had truly happened until...”
“Until you were dead,” Arkeel finished softly.
“The mansions of the dead are broken.” The Mandate’s voice broke. “The halls of the gods are empty. There is only Skrae.”
Daneel stood abruptly and stalked away from the fire. I thought she was leaving, that she would mount her horse and ride back north, toward the wolves and away from this madness. Instead though she spoke, her voice coming flat and heavy from the shadows.
“I fed Skrae. Strengthened him. During the War.”
“We all fought during the War—” Arkeel began.
“You heard the Mandate say it! ‘Skrae grew fat on death.’ I lost count of those I killed. I was his instrument.”
“There were many deathmages.”
“I was the best!” Daneel shouted, stepping back toward the fire. “I killed more than the others combined. I killed until I lost count, so many that when the War was over I was beyond punishment.”
“I walked behind you,” Arkeel said softly, though his voice carried in the sudden silence, “though you never looked back to see. I pulled spirit after spirit back, until my fingers ached. Until the armies you had decimated stood again, breathing and alive.”
Daneel’s fingers trembled. She stared into the darkness as though looking for a path forward. Again I was afraid she would simply leave us; walk into the night and back toward the forests of the north. But instead she cursed eloquently and sank down beside the lifemage, her gaze glued to the flames, her face empty. No one spoke as she slowly laid her head against his shoulder and he, even more slowly, put his arm around her. The only thing that dared speak was the fire, coughing merrily of heat and light.
After what felt like hours, the Mandate spoke again.
“The next time they kill me, lifemage, leave me dead.”
By morning the road from the capital was clogged with travelers. There were merchants riding wagons piled with belongings and families walking with backs bent under the burden of possessions. We stopped those who would speak with us. The Emperor, they said, had ordered an evacuation of the city, and the legions of home guard were marching from the walls to fortresses in the surrounding hills.
Before noon we saw the guards as well. I recognized the officer at their head and hailed her by name.
“Legate,” she said when she recognized me, her eyes wide and haunted. The troop behind her halted uneasily. Refugees continued hurrying by on either side along the road.
“Why are you fleeing?”
“The Emperor’s orders,” she said. “They have kept a detachment of the personal guard but have sent everyone else away.”
“Word of the Mandates.” She stared at us and at the Mandate who rode with us.
“And everyone else?” I asked. “Fleeing the city like rats? Would no one stand with the Emperor?”
The officer looked down the road toward the hills. “The attacks,” she muttered. “There have been none since you left, but terror waits over the city like a storm. The Mandates told the Emperor to send the armies from the city, and the people follow. The capital is deserted.”
It felt as though we stood against a river’s current. The soldiers were eager to push around us and continue. I pulled my mount aside. The fear on their faces as the guards resumed their march was palpable. We found, when the road was open before us again, that both the soldiers under my command and the archers that had accompanied Arkeel had melted away into the mass exodus. The four of us rode on alone.
The capital sat on an outcrop thrusting into the Narrow Sea. To the north the hills offered a natural barrier breached only by the pass we had ridden through the previous evening, called the Neck. To the south and east and west, was the sea. As we rode toward the landward walls, I saw beyond the city the masts of ships at anchor like a forest along the seawall. None of them were moving. Whoever would abandon the city by sea had apparently already sailed.
The frightened officer had spoken the truth. There were no guards at the city gate or within the walls. The stalls and carpets of the vendors that usually crowded each courtyard like bright cobwebs were gone. The entire city seemed empty, as silent as the halls of the dead. My skin crawled as though I was being watched, as though Skrae was already here, striding unseen through the streets and alleys of my home or hovering over it like some vast carrion bird.
If the Emperor lived, I told myself as we rode deeper into the capital, there was hope. If the Emperor lived, Skrae’s power could not be complete.
Inside the palace, the wide corridors were as empty as the city streets until we reached the doors of the Emperor’s audience chamber. Here the bodies of the Emperor’s personal guard were clustered in a heap, men and women I knew by name, dead on the floor or against the walls, their faces rigid with an agonized horror but no marks on their bodies.
Arkeel made as though to kneel beside the closest, but the Mandate touched his arm. “They would not count it a mercy to return.”
I did not wait to hear Arkeel’s response. The Emperor was alone inside, without guard and in danger. I was no soldier, but if the Emperor were to die, they would at least know that I had returned, that there remained one servant who had not abandoned them. I pushed open the huge doors and rushed through them into the chamber beyond.
The spiraling mosaics of the audience hall’s wide floor stretched away before me. Across the glittering surface, the Emperor’s great ivory throne reared up, as distant and imposing as a monument. The Emperor sat upon it, pinioned at hands and shoulders with what looked like spears of bone, their face a rigid mask of pain.
Four Mandates stood facing them. Their backs were toward the doorway, but I could see the wrappings of veils hanging down around their necks. They stared unshielded at the Emperor, and the Emperor appeared held by the withering power of their combined gaze as much as by the pinions fastening them to the throne.
At my entrance, two of the Mandates slowly turned.
“Close your eyes!” Daneel shouted behind me.
Instead I moved toward the Emperor. Daneel grabbed me and wrapped her arm over my face.
“Close them, you idiot!” she hissed in my ear.
A voice came from the front of the chamber, identical to that of the Mandate we traveled with. “Well met, sibling.”
“Your minds are diseased,” our Mandate answered. “What have you done?”
Between their words, I could hear the Emperor’s labored breathing. I tried to move forward, pulling Daneel with me.
“We prepare a vessel for our master,” the first Mandate intoned.
“Fuck’s sake,” Daneel growled, loosening her grip on me. I felt her arm twist in the familiar casting motion, followed by the sound of bodies hitting the floor. Then came a strangled gasp, and Daneel was falling as well.
I pulled away and opened my eyes.
Daneel was dead on the mosaic floor, her face a mirror of the guards’ beyond the door. Two of the Mandates were sprawled beside the throne, cut down by her gesture. Two more were struggling against each other in front of it, which left—
I heard the fifth Mandate approaching and kept my eyes on Daneel’s body until the Mandate was nearly upon me. Only then did I spin, keeping my gaze downward, sweeping low with curved blade and then thrusting up, guessing at where the body would be. I felt the blade make contact and clenched my eyes shut. After a moment I felt weight relax onto my arms. Still, I kept my eyes closed until I could feel blood running across my hands. I pulled away and heard the body hit the floor.
When I opened my eyes, it was to see the last unveiled Mandate snap the neck of the other at the foot of the throne. Arkeel was at the Emperor’s side. The remaining Mandate moved toward them.
I called a warning.
At my voice, the Mandate turned to face me.
There was a visage blasted of any human semblance, a face rubbed away by the sandstorm gaze of a god. Exposed muscle and sinew ringed blank eyes. Broken teeth formed a lipless, rigor mortis grin.
There was darkness and a howling wind. A moment before, there had been something solid supporting me, as real and unchanging as the ground beneath my feet, and I realized that thing had been life. I had passed my days upon its surface not realizing it was a slender thread suspended over a chasm. Now that thread had snapped, spilling me into the void.
The empty universe of death surrounded me, and there were no gods. Or rather, the darkness itself was the only god, hungry and raging.
Someone was calling.
A hand reached into that darkness. Threads were re-knotted, pulled tight, and held.
I gasped and sat up, ripped from emptiness like a fish on a line. Arkeel’s hand poised above my heaving chest.
The last Mandate was dead and all their faces again veiled.
Daneel had already risen. Arkeel must have raised her back to life before me, and for a moment the image of the white-robbed lifemage leaning over her form burned in my mind. But there was no time. Daneel was helping the Emperor rise to their feet, wrists and arms still stained with blood where they had been pinioned. Arkeel moved to the body of the Mandate who had accompanied us.
“Leave it,” Daneel barked. When Arkeel paused, her voice softened. “Leave it to its rest.”
I thought of the howling winds and shuddered.
“We need its knowledge.” Arkeel’s fingers waited over the Mandate’s chest like a pale spider.
“We know what to do,” the Emperor whispered.
I had not heard that voice since it had sent me north. It was softer now, edged with raw pain. The Emperor’s aquiline face was again passive and controlled, though thin lines of blood still ran down their gold and ivory robes from shoulders and wrists to puddle on the mosaics.
“Skrae comes for me,” the Emperor continued, taking a halting step forward. “The Mandates channeled Skrae’s power to summon first a child, then a soldier, and then a beast to consume me. Their power grew with each summoning.”
“But they failed,” Daneel said harshly. “They’re dead and will do no more summoning.”
“You have horses?” The Emperor strode across the throne room, leaving spots of crimson to mark their passage. “We will ride for the hills, where we may possibly be safe.”
Realization rose up in me like a dark wave.
“We were too late,” I said, hoping I was wrong. “The Mandates must have already performed their final summoning. They were holding you here until whatever was summoned arrived.”
The walls of the palace shuddered.
“We are too late,” the Emperor agreed.
The palace shuddered again, more violently, tiles crashing to the ground around us. We raced from the audience chamber. When we reached the courtyard, it felt as though an earthquake shook the capital. I caught the reigns of my rearing horse and ventured a glance toward the seawall.
I had never seen a tide so low. The sea had drawn back, leaving a stretch of muddy flats beyond the seawall. Flopping fish, old shipwrecks, even the cracked pillars of some ancient city hidden beneath the waves, were all now revealed. To the south, where the wide strait of the Narrow Sea curved away, a mountain of water grew.
“Ride!” the Emperor shouted.
We mounted and rode from the palace as the ground rumbled again, and I heard the thundering of surf. A wave raced over the exposed seabed, its progress slowed by distance to seem a hypnotic crawl, as the water that had drawn back returned and broke against the city. Beyond the wave something was rising, first like the mast of a ship, then like a fortress, and finally—
“Leviathan!” The word ripped from Daneel’s lips.
I saw it rising behind me, even as our horses carried us through the city streets: the devil of the deep, the terror of every sailor’s dreaming, dead for perhaps a thousand years, rotting in the deepest pits of the sea. It was risen now, summoned by the Mandates, a mountainside of rotting, sea-sodden flesh and segmented bone. The scraping of bone on stone blended with the sickening squelch of wet flesh as it surged over the wall on a tide of twisting arms.
We spurred our mounts faster through the streets, but it was like trying to outpace the shadow of a cloud passing over a field. In what seemed an instant the leviathan’s arms were all around us, heavy with the stench of salt and decay.
The street we galloped down widened into a square, and the Emperor, who had drawn ahead, pulled up and turned their horse to face us. It was pointless to run farther. We had come all this way, had killed the Mandates, and yet here, bereft of their guards and all the trappings of the court, the Emperor would die, alone and exposed.
“Kill it,” I screamed to Daneel.
Her black curls danced like a dark halo as she pulled her horse up beside the Emperor’s. “It is already dead.”
I looked back. The leviathan’s ruined bulk loomed into view above the houses like a wasted moon.
“Then bring it back to life!”
Now Arkeel was beside the Emperor as well. “It has been dead for centuries,” he shouted. “Its spirit is gone.”
I stared at the three of them frozen in the shadow of the horror rising up behind me. We had traveled the length and breadth of the Empire, had made it to the abandoned capital and battled the very mouthpieces of the gods—only to have the two most powerful mages in the Empire standing beside the Emperor to do nothing?
I screamed in fury and frustration.
One of the creature’s arms ribboned through the air, wrapping the Emperor in rot and pulling them from their horse.
Fae’s whisper had brought life and death to stand at the Emperor’s side. There had to be a reason. Brightness and darkness, light and shadow, stood together, yet they simply watched, powerless to defeat the thing filling the sky and drawing the Emperor upward in a whirl of decayed flesh.
The Emperor would be consumed by death, and Skrae would have his passage into the land of the living. The Emperor, the bridge by which a god could—
“Kill them!” I shouted. “Daneel, kill the Emperor!”
“Do it!” My voice burned in my throat. “Cut the bridge Skrae would cross! Kill them!”
I saw hesitation in her eyes, but she lifted her arm and cast the cutting motion with a quick and savage grace. The Emperor’s body, suspended above me, went limp, their head lolling at an ugly angle like a broken doll.
The arms stopped coiling in the air around us, hanging like grey scud below a storm. The creature was confused. The aspect of Skrae that the Mandates had summoned into the immense corpse was only a raw hunger, and now the life it had been summoned to consume was gone. Slowly, with a shuddering moan, the immense bulk began dragging itself back toward the sea.
The Emperor’s body fell with a sickening crack to the stones.
Arkeel slid from his horse and knelt beside them.
“Not yet,” I hissed, almost afraid to move.
“There is not much time,” Arkeel said. His voice was tight. “Their spirit will wander.”
Arkeel raised his hand but I dismounted and stood beside him, staying his arm, staring down at the Emperor’s wide and sightless eyes and listening to the leviathan slowly grinding back toward the sea. It seemed to take far longer to depart than it had to arrive, rolling away like thunderclouds in the distance. When it was gone I still gripped Arkeel’s arm, counting my breaths, needing to be sure.
“It must be now,” Arkeel insisted.
There was no sound beyond the seawall. The city was encased in silence like a solid thing. Then, finally, I heard the faint beating of waves along the shoreline.
Arkeel’s fingers stretched over the Emperor’s chest. I held my breath and felt Daneel come to stand beside me. Arkeel’s face was taut with intensity, his fingers straining. After what seemed far too long his hand twisted, the fist clenched, and the Emperor’s eyes were no longer staring into the empty distance but focused on our faces. A moment longer and their chest rose, their hands found purchase against the paving stones and they tried to rise.
“Peace, my lord,” I said. “It is finished.”
They closed their eyes.
When they opened them again, they were watching me.
“Legate,” they whispered, and touched my hand.
I saw the two mages a final time before they left the city. There were days of chaos as those who fled the capital returned, as the palace again came to life, as the Emperor’s advisors talked in hushed whispers about what would be done in the days to come. Sailors spoke of an enormous corpse that floated in the Narrow Sea like a bleached island, covered in flocks of carrion gulls. We had escaped calamity, but the Mandates were dead and we were bereft of our gods.
I did not leave the Emperor’s side.
Finally though, word came that Arkeel and Daneel would depart. I went to the courtyard, seeing the cracks in the pillars and the broken stones, wondering how long it would take before the city’s wounds would be cleaned and healed. The mages’ horses were being prepared and gifts loaded onto them. They both wore new robes and seemed rested, restored, several years younger.
“Legate,” Arkeel greeted when he saw me approach.
“What now, half-man?” Daneel asked, crossing her arms. “Has the Emperor changed their mind?”
I shook my head. “You are free to come and go as you wish. The Empire is yours.”
“No need to thank us,” she said.
I motioned to the treasures being loaded on their mounts. “Your rewards were great.”
They stood side by side, and I noticed how the fingers of their hands almost came together. Something had changed between them. They would no longer travel alone.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“Where we please,” Daneel said.
I watched them both, trying to find words. I felt I was standing on a sheet of ice that any moment could break to plunge me again into that raging darkness beneath. The illusion of life’s stability, of the boundary between it and death, had been destroyed. I had passed too easily from one to the other, and I knew now how thin that boundary was. I would live the rest of my life suspended by the thinnest of threads.
“You can’t leave,” I told them.
“Are these the Emperor’s words?” Arkeel’s face was mild, but Daneel’s darkened further. I wondered if she would carve a pathway of corpses out of the city if I sought to constrain them.
“They are my own.” The Emperor would not order Arkeel to remain. They were stronger than me.
“I learned long ago that I could not save everyone,” Arkeel said.
“You could save the Emperor.”
“I already did.”
“But not—“ Forever. Death would come again. It would consume us all. And I had seen, beyond a barrier no thicker than a Mandate’s veil, that the only thing waiting there was hunger and darkness.
“Legate,” Arkeel began, but Daneel shouldered past him.
“Listen,” she hissed, leaning toward me. Her dark hair spilled around her face. The white scar across her dead eye seemed carved of ivory.
I waited. She would say something that she had learned, something that the knowledge of death had taught her. Or she would speak of the god that waited behind the gods, or of Fae’s whisper of hope, which came to those who believed.
But she said nothing. Her dark eye held my gaze for several seconds. Then she turned and together with Arkeel led their horses from the courtyard until they were lost in the crowds of the city beyond.
The gods were dead but one, and he was mad. But in this world that hung by a thread over the emptiness of death, my lord lived.
It would have to be enough.