The God King came awake with a deep gasp. It was the uncontrolled gasp of one who had been without breath for too long. The gasp of the dead returning to life, his heart pounding, his eyes opening wide. It was a terrifying, yet exhilarating feeling.
It was a feeling he had never wanted to feel again.
Around him floated the serene sounds of his Seventh Temple of Reincarnation. Soft rain outside, hitting leaves and the quiet rooftop, leaving the air cool and damp. A few muted beeps from the deadminds that monitored his vital signs. The swishing of robes in the hallway outside; his Devoted, hurrying to obey the call of reincarnation.
Yes, outside was serenity. Inside was chaos. That would not do. Thousands of years of life had taught Raidriar many things, but the most important was to be in control. He sat up, reaching out to pick up the helm that lay on the nearby table. The faces of the Deathless were not to be seen by common mortals.
He rose, bare feet upon the smooth bamboo floor, and crossed the room to where a suit of armor stood waiting. One of the newer sets, the height of current design and technology. He’d been meaning to begin using it—this offered a good chance.
His old set had probably been taken by thieves by now, robbed from his corpse.
He checked the wall-mounted deadmind mirror—that mirror would have been called a ‘monitor’ in earlier eras, but it had been so long that he’d stopped using such terms. They could be confusing to people in this era. The mirror’s information indicated that his new body was functioning normally, that reincarnation had been a success, and that all was well in this particular quarter of his kingdom.
He stepped into the armor, which lay open and splayed like a corpse on a dissection table. It began to fold around him, locking into place.
The fight replayed in his mind. Another in a long line of “heroes” come to kill him, responding to the seeded legends. An offer to join him refused. A duel, one on one, after the classical ideal. Did these mortals understand the honor he did them in granting them such a privilege? Probably not—after all, this mortal had ended that duel by ramming the God King’s own blade into his chest.
For just a moment, lying stunned at the foot of his throne, the God King had known true fear. He could not suppress a shiver. That . . . that boy had used the Infinity Blade, killer of gods.
I could have died, he thought. Died the final death, real death. The concept was unfamiliar. He turned it over in his head, like a man tasting a new vintage of wine.
He found that wine bitter. It reminded him of something he had been long, long ago. He had no more in common with that person of old than an acorn had with a mighty oak. No—no more in common than an acorn had with a temple constructed from that oak.
The comfortable familiarity of his armor enveloped him, locking onto his arms, hands, neck, torso. Cool air immediately circulated over his skin, and the armor took account of his vitals, delivering strength, bursts of healing, and other aid through careful injections. He slipped on the helm.
The armor itself had no life, of course—not even a deadmind—and the boosts it gave were minimal. In clashes between the Deathless, one’s own body was the true test. Armor that worked like a machine had been abandoned millennia ago. When you could not be killed permanently, you found other ways to prove yourself superior. Duels were about finesse, skill, and class, not who could construct the most powerful device to aid them.
His Devoted entered in a cluster, then fell to their knees. The God King passed them, his footsteps crunching on the bamboo rug. “Activate the deadminds in the temple of Lantimor,” he said, waving a gauntleted hand.
“Great master?” asked one of the Devoted, looking up. “Has something gone wrong?”
“Of course not,” the God King said.
The Devoted said nothing; they knew the God King was not supposed to have been reincarnated here for some time yet. They also knew not to demand answers of him.
Some Deathless would execute their servants for even this small amount of questioning, but the God King was no fool. Mortals were a resource, one he had used to great advantage when many of his peers dismissed them out of hand. In fact, he was fond of many of them, including Eves, High Devoted of this particular temple.
Surround yourself with people too afraid to speak, and you left yourself to only your own ideas. That could be disastrous. It was important to have men who would question you and see flaws in your plans, so long as you could control them. It was all about control.
The rain continued outside; the God King wished he could control that. He was trying to find ways, for it galled him that he could not do something so seemingly simple.
The eye of the room’s primary deadmind displayed a window into his palace on Lantimor, the place where that . . . child had defeated him. It displayed an empty throne room, and information came up in lists beside it.
A week had passed since his death. A tiny smidgen of time, barely worth noticing—except it meant that the child had had time to escape with the Godkiller. No matter. Raidriar had good ways to keep track of him.
A particular bit of information scrolled past, and it gave the God King pause. Dead, he read.All three of my captives. But those were soul cells. They couldn’t be completely gone unless . . .
The sword was working. That should have been impossible, in the hands of one such as he’d faced. The proof was before him, however, and he felt a thrill at it. How, then, had Raidriar himself survived? He confronted this question, the one most worrisome to him, as it displayed a profound lack of control. That fight had not gone the way it should have.
Of course. It was strong enough to kill lesser Deathless, but not yet at full power. He should have realized this. Perhaps only one more death of the right bloodline, and . . .
Ah, he thought, seeing another bit of information. That could be an issue.
“Find me a recording of the moment where I let him defeat me,” he said out loud. The servants worked, and the deadmind mirror displayed an image of him fighting the child in the throne room.
Too many questions. He hated questions. They would surrender their secrets to him; he had come too far to let this plan spiral away from him now. In a way, all that had happened was good, as he now had the proof he needed.
And so, he decided he had not been defeated. This was what the plan had required, even if he hadn’t known it at the time.
Those moves . . . he thought idly, pondering the recording. So familiar. Who trained him . . . ?
And then it all locked into place.
He’d been played. Masterfully. Worker of Secrets, he thought. My, but you are a subtle one.
“Gather the Seringal,” he said, sending his Devoted to fetch the most skilled of his knights. “And set up surveillance on that child.”
The Devoted burst into motion. The God King sat back, contemplating. He waited for six hours, practically motionless, a few thoughts playing across his mind. He could faintly recall when six hours would have felt like a great deal of time to sit and think, but now it passed as quickly to him as a single breath.
His servants located the child, crossing the rocky expanses of his homeland. The God King laced his fingers, inspecting the child’s path.
So. This ‘Siris’ was returning to the palace, was he? Why? The God King leaned forward and watched with interest.
Siris stepped up onto the edge of a rocky precipice overlooking the God King’s castle. It squatted in the cliffs, like a nugget of dark iron trapped in the surrounding rocks.
He’d decided that he needed to start here, primarily because he wanted to lay down a new trail for anyone looking for him. He didn’t want them tracking him to Drem’s Maw; he needed, instead, to lead them another direction.
He started the hike down to the castle. The other Deathless, he thought. Maybe I could . . . buy them off.
He looked down at the sword he wore in an improvised sheath at his side. They wanted the God King’s weapon; perhaps he should just give it to them.
No, he thought. They’ll still execute me for killing their king. A mortal did not slay a god.
He continued down the pathway toward the God King’s palace. It stood to reason that they’d begin looking for him here; if there were daerils still in this place, he could make a big show for them of going somewhere other than Drem’s Maw. That might work, might give his mother some protection.
The rocky path was slippery with pebbles and shale. He remembered walking this long route just over a week before, each footstep electric. He’d been marching to his death. That doom was one he’d come to grips with, however, and he had even been excited by the challenge ahead of him.
This time, he walked with a slower step. He felt . . . older now. Ancient.
At the base of the cliff, he put on his armor. He continued forward, reaching a tree hung with ropes just outside the palace walls.
He stopped and inspected the tree. A rope could be a weapon, if you really needed one. Tie a heavy bit of metal to one end, then swing it about and attack. He’d practiced that.
The children of Drem’s Maw had done something different with ropes. They’d created swings on the trees outside of the maw. Siris had once stood on one of those, then had several boys push, so he could practice keeping his balance on unsteady footing.
He’d never just sat down and swung. What is wrong with me, he thought, continuing forward with clanking steps. Why didn’t I ever try it, even once?
He reached the side gate to the castle, and a daeril stepped out. Long of limb, with red-orange skin and a skeletal cast to the arms and legs, the daeril had a horrifically twisted face.
Siris raised his sword with a sigh. He’d have to fight his way in again, it appeared.
“Great master!” the daeril exclaimed. It jumped forward, and Siris stumbled back, wary. The creature didn’t attack, but threw itself at Siris’s feet. “Great master, you have returned!”
“I . . . State your purpose, daeril!”
“We live to serve you, master. I am Strix, and I obey. The castle is yours, now! Thekingdom as well.”
The kingdom . . . mine? He almost laughed. He’d never be able to stand against the forces of the other gods, even if this creature were telling the truth. Which he found suspect.
“What am I supposed to do with a kingdom?” Siris said, walking around the daeril—keeping an eye on it—and crossing the bridge to enter the palace’s outer court. The court seemed strikingly familiar to him, though he’d only passed this way that one time.
“Great master—” Strix began.
“Don’t call me that,” Siris said.
“Greatest lord of all that is powerful and—”
“That’s really not any better.”
The daeril fell silent. “My lord . . .” the daeril began again, stepping up to him. “Please. Let us serve you. Remain here and rule us. Do not leave us again.”
Siris hesitated. “How many of you are there in this place, still?”
“Perhaps two dozen, master.”
“And you will all serve me?”
“Yes, great master. Yes indeed! You have slain our ruler, and in so doing have become our leader.”
“Who led you before I returned?”
“Kuuth, master,” Strix said. “He is ancient and wise, a troll nearly forty years old.”
“Send for him,” Siris said. “And gather the other daerils. Every one of them in the castle. Bring them to the throne room.”
He didn’t trust these creatures, not for a moment. But perhaps he could use them.
Finish what you began.
Siris sat on the God King’s throne. What had his mother meant by that? Surely she hadn’t meant to imply that he should take the God King’s place. That would be suicide.
The God King’s throne wasn’t very comfortable—though Siris was wearing armor, which never made sitting particularly comfortable. He’d removed his helm and set his shield to the side, though he kept the Infinity Blade close.
Seeing his face unnerved the daerils. That seemed a good enough reason to him to keep the helmet off, for now. He inspected the Infinity Blade as he waited. The blade had some kind of magic that had let the God King summon it, making it appear as if out of nothing in a flash of light. So far, despite a week of tinkering, Siris hadn’t been able to figure out how that magic worked.
Something chirped beside him.
Siris jumped, glancing down. Only then did he remember the little mirror built into the armrest of the throne. He poked at it. The thing had done . . . something following the God King’s death. It was magical.
Poking at the thing made it speak, which chilled him. “What is your command?” it asked.
“I . . .” Siris looked up at the shuffling host of daerils—in a variety of shapes and colors—gathering at the back of the room. “I’d like to know how the God King’s sword works.”
“Answer pending. Please enter the pass phrase.”
“Pass phrase?” Siris said. “I don’t know it.”
“Would you like to retrieve it?”
“Um . . . yes?”
“Very well. Please answer this security question: In what kingdom did you first meet the Worker?”
So it was a riddle. His mother had told him stories of magic mirrors that asked riddles. “In the kingdom of night and dawn, at the break of the day,” he said. It was the answer to one of the riddles from the stories.
“Answer incorrect,” the mirror said politely. “Security question two: What was the name of your first and most trusted Aegis?”
Aegis. It was a word for a master duelist, after the classical ideal. The daerils that guarded the castle had all followed the old precepts. Horrific and terrible though they had been, they had each shown that much honor.
“Old Jake Mardin,” Siris said, saying the name of the first man who had trained him in the sword, a retired soldier.
“Answer incorrect,” the mirror said.
“Your riddles make no sense, mirror,” Siris said. “Am I supposed to answer as myself, or as the God King?”
“I’m sorry,” the mirror said. “I don’t understand that query. Security question three: How many days passed before your first reincarnation?”
“Uh . . . five?”
“Damn it, mirror!” he said. “Please, just tell me how I make the sword come at my will.” He was silent for a moment. “Even better,” he whispered, “how can I find freedom? Can you answer that for me, mirror? Can you tell me how I can be free of all this and live my life?”
A rope swing from a tree, he thought. He’d write that in his book tonight, beginning a list of things he would try, once he didn’t have to worry about being hunted.
“I’m sorry,” the mirror said. “I am not authorized to speak further. The waiting period is one day before the next access attempt.”
The mirror grew black.
“Hell take me,” Siris said, leaning back in the horrid throne. Honestly, couldn’t someone who called himself the God King get a decent cushion?
“The deadminds will not speak to you, slayer of gods,” said a deep, tired-sounding voice.
Siris sat up, turning toward the back of the room. Something moved in the shadows, where a doorway led to the servants’ quarters. The shadow lumbered forward, entering the light and revealing itself as a massive troll. It leaned on a staff as thick as Siris’s leg, and wore bandages covering its eyes. White hair fell around the thing’s animal face, a face furrowed with wrinkles that were sharp and distinct—like the scars left by an axe chopping at a tree.
“Kuuth, I assume?” Siris said, standing up.
“Yes, great master,” the beast said, lumbering forward. The other daerils parted for him, and a younger troll helped the elder, looking concerned. This younger beast moved like an animal, with quick steps, testing the air with its snout, walking in a crouch. The aged one, however, had an unexpectedly civilized air.
“What’s a deadmind?” Siris asked Kuuth. Even stooped with age, the beast towered a good ten feet tall. Kuuth wore a strange robe that had the right shoulder cut out, exposing a wicked scar on his shoulder and neck.
“It is a soul without life, great master,” the troll said. “The God King instilled these souls into objects. They are knowledgeable about some things, but cannot make choices for themselves. They are like children, and must be instructed.”
“Brilliant children,” Siris said. He shivered. Had the God King used the souls of children themselves to create these things? The legends said that he feasted upon the souls of those who fell to him. Siris scooted a little farther away from the mirror. “Well, perhaps I won’t need its help. I summoned you because I hoped you’d be able to answer questions for me.”
“Unlikely, great master,” the ancient troll said, then coughed into his hand. “I know more than most here, but a cup with two drops instead of one still will not quench a thirst.”
“I’ll start easy then,” Siris said, walking down the steps to the throne. “The God King spoke of greater evils. And then, after that, I met a man in the dungeon who claimed to be my ancestor. He said that someone—or something—would come hunting me. Am I to assume that they referred to other members of the Pantheon?”
“Perhaps,” Kuuth said. “Ashimar, the Sorrowmaker. Lilendre, Mistress of the End. Terrovax, Blight’s Son. Others whose names I do not know. Each will be angered by what you have done.”
“As I feared,” Siris said, speaking loudly, so the other daerils could hear. “I will need allies, troll. Do you know where I should search for them?”
“Master,” Kuuth said, sounding confused. “These are not questions I can answer for you.”
“Surely the Deathless have enemies,” Siris said.
“Well . . . I suppose . . . there is the Worker of Secrets.”
That was a myth even Siris had heard of. He doubted the Worker was real, but hunting him was a perfect way to start laying down a false trail. “Where can I find this Worker?”
“He is imprisoned,” Kuuth said. “But, master, I do not know where. It is said that nobody knows.”
“Surely there are rumors.”
“I’m sorry, master,” Kuuth said. “I know of none.”
“Fine, then. I wish to attack one of the other Deathless. One who is very powerful, and also very cruel. Whom would you suggest?”
“Master? This is an odd request.”
“It is the one I make nonetheless.”
Kuuth frowned. “A Deathless who is close but powerful . . . Perhaps the Killer of Dreams? You travel to the north, across the ocean, to find him. He is not part of the Pantheon, and has of late been very antagonistic to our former master.”
Siris frowned, sitting down. There were Deathless who weren’t in the Pantheon?
Well, perhaps that’s what I killed, in the dungeon, he thought. But then, there had also been Siris’s ancestor. He wasn’t certain what he believed of what that man had said. When Siris had taken off the man’s helm, he had found a youthful face beneath it. Perhaps serving the Deathless granted men immortality? Was that why one who had come to kill the God King would instead choose to serve him?
Siris knew so little. “Do you know how the God King made the magic of his sword and shield work, Kuuth?” He asked it in a softer voice, no longer for the show of the watching daerils.
“I may be able to guess, great master,” Kuuth said. “I believe it had something to do with his ring.”
Siris fished in his pocket, taking out a silvery ring. He’d pried it from the finger of the God King. “This? It’s a healing ring. I have others, taken from the bodies of Aegis I slew.” He slipped it on; he could feel its healing magic tingling on his finger.
“That one is more useful than the others you found,” Kuuth said. “It somehow let him summon his sword to him.”
“How?” Siris asked.
“I do not know. Before I lost my eyes, I saw the God King use it to sling fire as well.”
Siris frowned, then extended his hand to the side and attempted to summon fire. It didn’t work. Once he’d defeated the God King, all of his rings save the healing rings had stopped functioning. “It can’t do that anymore. Why?”
“I do not know.”
“All right, then. What were those creatures in the dungeon? They seemed . . . different from other Aegis I fought.”
“I never saw them, master.”
“Why did the sword flash when I slew them, and why did the God King have them imprisoned?” He still worried that he’d killed what could have become his allies. Yet, each one had fallen into the Aegis stance and then attacked him.
“I do not know that either,” Kuuth said.
A sudden flare of annoyance rose in Siris. “Bah. Do you know anything, fool creature?”
Siris froze. Where had that outburst come from? It had been many years since he’d lost his temper; his mother had trained him to deal with that as a child. He immediately took a grip on his frustration and shoved it down.
The ancient troll stood quietly, then sniffed the air a few times. He’s blind, Siris reminded himself, looking at the bandaged eyes.
“Do you mind if I sit, great master?” Kuuth asked.
The great beast tested with his large staff until reaching the steps to the throne, then settled down quietly. “Thank you, great master. It is growing difficult to stand in my age.”
“What happened to your eyes, Kuuth?” Siris asked, sitting on the lip of the throne dais, hands clasped before him.
“I put them out.”
“What? Why would you do that?”
“Among the kavre—that is what we call ourselves, great master, though many just call us ‘trolls.’ Among the kavre, the most powerful lead. I was wounded many years ago, when . . . well, it would have been when your father entered the palace. I fought him, and I lost.
“My wound was great, and I should have been slain by my kin in mercy. That would stop a younger troll from killing me and taking my honor, you see. However, the blind and the mute are not to be killed—they are left alone in the wilderness to die, as they are marked by the gods.”
“So you . . .”
“Blinded myself,” Kuuth said. “So that my kin would exile me rather than killing me. It also made the younger trolls see me as lame and blemished, to be left to rot, rather than to be slain as a rival.”
“That’s horrible,” Siris said.
Kuuth chuckled. “Yes. Horrible. And our way. At times, I wonder at what I did. A troll is not meant to reach ages such as I have. Still, now that I am of this great age, the others have begun to respect me.”
“The other daeril . . . he said you were forty years old?”
“In another two years,” the troll said, shaking a long-snouted head. “Ancient. But, great master, my concerns are not yours. I wished to speak more softly with you. Most of the denizens of this castle do not think about the future, and I do not wish to make them question.”
“Over the years,” Kuuth said, his voice quiet, “I have seen many things. I have thought many things. Perhaps these thoughts will be of use to you. You see, this castle has no servants. No maids, no groundskeepers, none of the things that are kept by the lesser lords beneath the God King.”
“I’ve noticed that,” Siris said. “I would have assumed that the God King would want comforts for the place where he lived.”
“You see,” Kuuth said, “he did not live here. He only came to the castle on occasion, usually when there was news of a warrior of note fighting his way through the wilds.”
Siris fell silent. “So this place was a trap.”
“Trap? I do not know that I’d say that, great master. But a destination . . . yes, that is what it was. Like a metal pole set up high to draw the lightning when it comes, this castle was placed here to draw the warriors who sought to kill the God King.”
“He dueled them,” Siris said. “He could have just used his magic to kill them, or overwhelmed them with his forces. Instead, he faced them in person. Why?”
“What do you know of the Deathless?”
“Not much,” Siris said. “Seven lords, ruling together, with the God King above them all.”
“Yes, though that is mostly just the illusion they give to others in the land nearby. The God King was but one of many who name themselves Deathless. They are immortal—truly immortal. They need neither food nor water to live. They do not age, and their bodies heal if wounded. Chop them to pieces, and their soul will seek out a new receptacle to be reborn. Often they are reborn into what the God King called a ‘bud,’ a replica of themselves, prepared ahead of time.”
“I saw some of those,” Siris said. “Below.”
“Yes,” Kuuth said. “But even without a bud, the soul of a true Deathless will find a new home. Unless . . .”
“The God King’s sword. You mentioned its magic before. You have the weapon?”
Siris reached to the side, fingers resting on the blade.
“The Infinity Blade,” Kuuth whispered. “Crafted by the Worker of Secrets himself.”
“But he’s just a myth, isn’t he?”
“What better creator of a sword that should not be, a sword to kill the unkillable? Great master, that weapon is designed to slay the Deathless. Permanently. It is a terrible and wondrous thing. The Deathless have lived for thousands of years, and have come to see themselves as eternal. But if one of them were to gain access to a weapon which could finally threaten them . . .”
“He’d be a God,” Siris whispered.
“God among gods,” Kuuth said. “King among kings. First of immortals.”
Siris ran his fingers along the blade. “They will chase me. They’ll hunt me, for this.” He gripped the sword by the hilt. “I should throw it away.”
“And they would still hunt you,” Kuuth said. “Because you know the secret. Because you’ve done the unthinkable.”
“You’re dead too,” Siris whispered, realizing the truth. “Everyone in this castle. Each Aegis or daeril who knows that a mortal slew one of the Deathless.”
“You see why I needed to whisper this to you,” Kuuth said. “No need to inspire a panic. Many of the Aegis in this castle are golems with deadminds controlling them, but many are not. All will likely be destroyed. Just in case.”
“You don’t seem afraid.”
“I’ve lived many years beyond my lifespan,” Kuuth said. “I believe my death will be a nice rest. The others . . . well, they’ll probably be allowed to fight one another until one champion remains to fall upon his sword. It is the method commonly granted to skilled Aegis who have acquitted themselves well. They will consider it an honor.”
“Hell take me,” Siris said, looking at the creature’s bandaged eyes, then at the gathered daerils at the back of the room. “You’re all insane.”
“We are what we were created to be, great master,” Kuuth said. “Though, the rebel inside of me tells you all of this to perhaps . . . repay the God King and his ilk. My kind were created to die and to kill.” He raised his head, blind eyes looking toward the ceiling. “But they are the ones who created us this way.”
Siris nodded, though the beast couldn’t see him.
“Great master,” Kuuth said hesitantly. “If I may ask a question. Why do you say that phrase that you did?”
“Hell take me?”
“Yes,” Kuuth said.
“It is a saying from my village and the region about,” Siris said, standing up, taking the Infinity Blade. “These Deathless are the gods; they claim to rule the earth and the heavens. And so, when we die, we wish for a place where they are not. Better the pains of hell than living in heaven beneath the Deathless.”
Kuuth smiled. “And so, we are not so different, are we?”
“No,” Siris said, surprised at the answer. “No, I suppose we are not.”
“Then I must ask you,” Kuuth said, “as one warrior to another. Will you stay? Rule here, make your stand here. Together, the two of us may be able to decipher the secrets of the God King’s deadminds. We might be able to face the others.”
That . . . that was tempting, when put that way. Siris considered it for a long moment, but eventually discarded it. Making a stand here, even with daerils, was suicide.
As frustrated as he was with the townsfolk of Drem’s Maw, he was coming to understand why he’d been required to leave. He couldn’t remain long in any location where the Deathless knew to find him. They’d kill him and take the sword. If he was going to survive, he needed to escape them.
Freedom . . .
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “But it is not to be.”
Kuuth lowered his aged head.
“Your words are wise, Kuuth,” Siris proclaimed loudly, standing. “I will seek out this Killer of Dreams, starting immediately. If he was an enemy of the God King, then he may be an ally to me. If not, I will slay him, then hunt out the true location of the Worker of Secrets. You and the other daerils are to remain here and guard my castle.”
That should do it—his home was to the south, and so if he traveled north, he would leave a trail that would not endanger his mother. Speaking these words, however, gave Siris an immediate sense of regret. He was leaving these creatures to die. They were daerils, true, but it didn’t seem fair.
“Very well, great master,” Kuuth said. “That should—” He cut off, cocking his head, as if hearing something.
Siris threw himself to the side.
As a child, Siris hadn’t swung on swings. He hadn’t played marbles, or eaten everberry pies.
Instead, he’d trained. He may not have had a childhood, or a youth, to speak of. But he did have something to show in exchange for that loss: reflexes.
Siris dodged before he even understood why, hitting the ground and ducking into a ball, making himself as small a target as possible. He did this even before his mind registered what he’d heard. A click from behind.
Something sliced his cheek. Idiot, he thought. He’d let himself be caught without his helm. He came up from the roll with his back to the God King’s throne, putting it between himself and the windows behind it. Those would probably be the source of the attack. He pressed one hand to his cheek, stopping the flow of blood.
The pain was nothing. He’d trained himself to ignore pain with a specific group of exercises that had earned him quite a bit of notoriety in the village. They had not been pleasant, but theyhad been effective.
He remained still, pressing up against the stone of the dais. How many assassins were there? He needed his weapon. Making a quick decision, he let go of his bleeding cheek and scrambled up the steps to the throne, then grabbed the hilt of the Infinity Blade in his unbloodied hand and spun around the side of the throne to assess his enemies.
A single figure in dark clothing had dropped on a rope from one of the upper windows of the vaulted chamber. Sleek and dangerous, the creature wore a long black coat that came down to its ankles, with dark brown leathers underneath. It had the characteristic mask on its face, one that he had come to see as a mark of being in the service of the God King—or, perhaps, another of the Deathless.
The creature pulled a long, thin sword from the sheath at its side. Siris sighed, flexing his hands and gripping the Infinity Blade. His shield was on the table a short distance away, where he’d set his helm and gauntlets. He doubted he had time to grab them. Instead, he climbed down from the throne dais and fell into the stance of the Aegis, inviting the enemy into a duel of honor. In case of an emergency, the healing ring glinted on his finger.
He didn’t use it on his wounded cheek. That was a simple cut, and healing had a terrible cost. Before, he hadn’t cared. He had expected the God King to kill him. Now, the potential cost weighed upon him.
His foe studied him for a moment, then raised its blade.
Here we go, Siris thought.
The creature promptly lowered its sword and raised something from within its coat—a slender, dangerous-looking crossbow.
“Oh, hell,” Siris said, flinging himself to the side. The creature fired, and had expert aim. The bolt drilled into Siris’s thigh, where the metal armor plates parted. He grunted. This was not how a proper duel was supposed to go.
Siris came up, stumbling, and winced. He yanked the small bolt from his thigh, awkwardly holding his blade and trying to watch for the creature’s next attack. As he did so, he felt a deadening of his leg. Poison.
Hell take me! He had no choice now; he took cover beside the throne dais, then engaged the ring.
The healing effect was immediate. He felt a burning on his finger as the magic was expended, and a shock ran through his body. His skin grew clammy, as if he’d dunked himself into an icy pond in the winter.
It lasted only an eyeblink, and when he came out of it, his pains were gone. However, in that eyeblink, his hair had grown all the way down to his shoulders, and he now had a beard where previously he’d had none. His fingernails had grown long.
The healing rings sped up his body in a twisted way. Though they made him heal quickly—wounds scabbing over, then becoming scarred—they also made him age as long as it would have taken to heal wounds naturally. As near as he could figure, each use of the ring took about a half of a year off his life.
He raised a hand to his newly grown beard as he glanced at himself in the polished marble of the throne’s dais. He hated healing. The more he did it, the more . . . alien his own features seemed.
He peeked around the side of the large throne. The assassin was slinking along the side of the dais toward him, obviously expecting him to be succumbing to the poison. The creature yelped in a quite undaerilic way as Siris dashed out from behind the dais, running toward the side of the room.
The assassin raised its crossbow again, but Siris was ready. He ducked low and jumped in a roll. He came up beside the table and grabbed his shield, turning and raising it.
The enemy scuttled away, taking cover. Siris gritted his teeth. Every beast he had faced in the God King’s palace—even the most foul of daerils and most primitive of trolls—had followed the ancient dueling ideals. Obviously, he was facing a different kind of evil now.
“So . . .” a feminine voice called from beside the pillar where the assassin had fled. “You’re not dead then, I see.” Her voice had a faint accent that Siris couldn’t place. She said her “eh” sound too long, like it was an “ee” instead, and she punctuated her syllables too much.
Siris blinked in surprise, but didn’t reply. He moved across the room back toward the throne dais. It made for good cover.
“This is very awkward,” the hidden assassin said, voice echoing in the room. “I’m going to flay that vendor alive; he promised the poison was a three-breather. You’ve taken considerably more than three breaths since I shot you.”
Siris reached the base of the dais.
“I don’t suppose you’re starting to feel tired?” the voice asked.
“Afraid not,” Siris called back.
“Weak? Dizzy? A little peckish?”
Siris hesitated. “Peckish?”
“Sure. You know, like something has pecked you? Isn’t that what the word means?”
“It means hungry,” he said flatly.
“Damn.” There was a sound coming from one of the back pillars, like the assassin waswriting. Taking notes? “Your language is stupid, immortal.”
“Wait,” Siris said. “Immortal?”
“And might I add,” the voice continued, “that when people speak of awe-inspiring divine powers, spontaneously growing a beard doesn’t really come up. I expected lightning, thunder, earthquakes. Instead I got facial hair. I’m less than impressed.”
Thunder . . . earthquakes . . . immortal?
Siris almost laughed. She thought he was the God King!
What else would she think, finding someone sitting in the throne, with the God King’s sword beside him, speaking with a troll?
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding—” Siris began.
At that moment, she leaped out from behind her pillar and leveled her crossbow at him again. She’d removed her mask, and he was surprised to see that she was completely human.
And she was not unattractive, with long black hair that she kept in a simple ponytail. But her eyes spoiled it. Those were grim and hard. Dangerous.
Siris’s hard-won reflexes meant he got the shield up in time to deflect a crossbow bolt; the woman ducked back behind the pillar, her black coat swishing. She’d been trying to lull him with the conversation.
“Look,” Siris said. “You’re making a mistake. I—”
The door to the room exploded. A massive, hulking thing of sparks and darkness broke its way through the far wall, tossing down chunks of rock. It held a blade as wide as a man’s stride, and its head was capped by a helm that trailed black mist through the eyeslit.
“What’s that?” Siris demanded.
“You didn’t think I came alone, did you?” the woman called.
Great, Siris thought, turning toward this new foe—though he had to be careful not to put his back to the woman. That would likely earn him a crossbow bolt between the shoulder blades. His armor was good, but she obviously had an enhanced crossbow built to punch through the best steel.
The newcomer stepped into the room, the beautiful marble tiles crunching and cracking beneath its feet. Siris was half-afraid the tower floor would fall out from under them. They were at the highest point in the castle, and the drop would be deadly.
Most of the daerils fled, though Kuuth retreated to the side of the room. The ancient troll rested on his staff, head cocked to listen.
None of the daerils offered to help Siris, despite their willingness to call him “great master.” Siris put himself into an Aegis fighting stance—well, as best he could, while watching two places at once. The machinelike monster took a pair of crunching steps forward, and then another one just like it followed through the hole the first had made, knocking pieces of rock to the ground.
Great, Siris thought. He made a snap decision, then attacked forward, intending to try to defeat one of the monsters before he could be overwhelmed.
The assassin had been waiting for that move, however, and took a shot at him as he charged. Siris had to lurch to a stop, letting the bolt shoot in front of him, then awkwardly raised his shield to block a blow from the first golem.
The monster’s gigantic sword crashed down, hitting hard and sending a shower of sparks from his shield. The shield’s magic held, but just barely. Terrors, he thought, I’d never be able to parry a blow from something like this unaided.
He breathed out, bringing his sword around to strike, but caught another motion from the corner of his eye. He leaped to the side in time to dodge yet another crossbow bolt. She wasfast with those reloads.
“Did that one kill you?” a feminine voice called.
Siris grunted as he blocked another blow from the golem. The second golem was rounding to his right, each footstep shaking the room.
“You’re downright unaccommodating, Deathless,” the girl called at him.
“I’m not the God King!” Siris yelled desperately.
“I’ll be satisfied with one of his minions.”
“I’m not one of his minions. I . . .”
Something about this situation seemed suddenly familiar. One foe in front, one to the side, one to the back. Siris felt as if he knew how he should stand, how he should fight. As if he’d done it before.
But he’d never been in a situation like this. He’d trained in the Aegis Forms. One on one.
Except . . .
The golem attacked again with a crash. At the same time, the second one charged in from the right.
Siris cursed, jumping into a roll. The first golem’s sword smashed into the ground, spraying chips of stone, and Siris rolled up just inside the reach of the other. He met its blow with his shield.
Terrors, but these monsters were strong. The shield’s magic gave out, and he heard a distinct crack. His arm felt numb, and the force of the blow hurled him backward.
Siris hit the marble floor with a grunt, his vision going black for a moment. He could feel the ground shaking, could smell the too-clean, too-sterile air of the God King’s throne room. He groaned, rolling over.
No. Don’t stop. It’s coming.
Siris growled and his vision returned. He was lying on the floor before the God King’s throne. His hip ached where he’d hit the ground. His head rang with pain.
Without his armor, he’d have been dead. He could barely feel his shield arm.
The golems were coming at him slowly, cautiously, stone tiles crunching under their feet. Siris climbed to his feet, then stumbled backward, moving up the steps toward the throne, flexing his fingers. That was when he realized both hands were empty.
The sword. He’d lost the sword.
He cursed, glancing to the sides. The Infinity Blade rested on the marble floor a short distance away from the throne. Too far for him to reach without exposing himself to the now-close golems, particularly with the pain in his hip making it harder for him to walk.
Dared he heal again? He glanced at his ring; its runes weren’t glowing. It hadn’t recharged yet. His hand brushed the throne as he moved, and there was a beep from the magical mirror on the armrest.
“Ring of Transportation,” the helpful voice said, “fifteenth generation, running service pack six. Please enter the password for activation.”
“Damn you!” Siris sputtered.
“It can heal too, right?” Siris asked, desperate as the golems closed.
“Rejuvenation sub-specialization,” the mirror chimed. “Seventh generation. Currently rebuilding injection from ambient compounds. New injection available in seven minutes.”
Terrors! Siris thought, leaping over the side of the throne’s armrest as one of the golems swung for him.
The room shook, and the throne exploded into rubble, the golem’s sword spraying chunks of metal and rock. Siris hit hard on the other side of the dais, and his hip screamed in pain. Where was the other golem? Why wasn’t it attacking?
He found it by following the sound of its footsteps. Incredibly, it had turned away from him and was lumbering toward . . . toward the Infinity Blade.
The beast’s emotionless helm—trailing a blackish smoke from the visor—was fixed on the fallen sword.
And on the slender figure crouching beside it.
“This should sell for a bit of gold,” the assassin said. She looked up at Siris and smiled a toothy grin, snatching the Infinity Blade and turning to dash away.
Siris cursed, running after her. Fortunately, both golems stopped paying any attention to him, and instead began charging after the girl. Were they leaving with her?
No. They were chasing her.
“You’re not with them!” Siris yelled.
“Enemy of my enemy and all that,” she called back, reaching a rope dangling from the window she’d come in through.
“Routines . . . damaged . . .” a voice came from behind. “Restarting system . . .”
“You don’t know what you’re doing!” Siris yelled. “I’m not the God King. I killed him!”
“He’s immortal,” the girl said, scrambling up the rope. She reached the window, then pulled her rope up behind her. “You couldn’t have killed him.” Siris stopped his pained running as the two golems lumbered up to the wall, glaring toward the assassin with smoking visors.
“If you think that,” Siris yelled, “then why in the hell were you trying to attack me?”
She couched on the window ledge and looked down at him. She’d stopped grinning, but now just shrugged, almost in a consoling way. Then she leaped out of the window.
I’ve been played, Siris realized. She was never trying to kill me. She didn’t ever think I was the God King.
She just wanted the sword.
As did the golems, apparently. One began beating the wall down with its fist, breaking open a hole, causing the ceiling to rain dust. If they kept bashing holes in the walls, this place was going to come tumbling down on their heads. The other golem glanced back at Siris, as if considering finishing him off.
They probably had the place under surveillance, he thought. In case I returned. Well, at least he’d done what he’d wanted. He’d drawn their attention, and could now lead it away from Drem’s Maw.
And . . . maybe letting the woman run off with the blade was a good thing. If she took it to one of the other Deathless, they might fight over it. Leave him alone.
But it is the only weapon that can kill them, he thought. The only weapon we could ever use to fight back. Am I really just going to let it go?
He froze in place. Suddenly, he felt like a horrible coward. He would seek freedom, but what cost would he pay for it?
Finish what you began. . . .
“Please . . . reset . . . security protocols . . .” the throne warbled.
Siris glanced at it. Then started running. He scrambled up the rubble-strewn steps to the throne. It had been mostly destroyed, and sparks buzzed at the back, where some long, thin bits of metal were hanging free like thick strands of hair. The golem’s strike had cracked the mirror, but words still glowed on its surface.
Siris touched his palm to it.
“Security protocols reset,” the voice said. “What would you like to do?”
“Activate Transportation Ring.”
“Ring activated and attuned to your Q.I.P., master.”
“How do I use it?”
“You must choose a gesture. The default is to spread your three middle fingers apart, then snap them together twice.”
Siris raised his hand and took a deep breath, then snapped his fingers together. His hands flashed, and weights dropped into them. The God King’s shield fell into one hand, the Infinity Blade into the other.
From outside he heard a distinct—and very aggravated—yell of annoyance.
Both golems spun on him.
“I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”
“I’m not equipped to answer that question,” the mirror said happily.
“You don’t need to,” he said, hefting the blade and shield. “How does the transportation thing work?”
“A linked ring and disc can summon inorganic material.”
“Nonliving matter. Metal, stone, or wood that has been dead long enough. You must keep the transportation ring on your finger, then attach the anchor disc to something inorganic. Performing the summoning will bring one to the other.”
He glanced at the sword’s hilt. There was a small metal disc there, stuck as if magnetically to the base of the pommel. He tried to pry it loose.
“Touch it and will it free, master,” the throne’s deadmind said in its helpful voice.
“Right,” Siris said, the room shaking as two golems charged him. Sweating in anxiety, he rubbed his thumb across the “anchor disc,” and it fell loose. He transferred it to his shield hand, holding it in his palm.
All right, he thought. I can work with this.
He hurled himself off the dais. His wounded hip still ached, but it was starting to recover from its numbness. He focused only on the fight, clearing his mind.
The first golem swung a sword the size of one of the palace doors. Siris skidded on the marble, going down on his knees and sliding underneath the blade. Its passing stirred his hair. He came up on his feet, tossing the ring’s metal disc toward the monstrous weapon.
The disc hit and stuck. Siris jumped to the side, narrowly avoiding a blade that crushed into the ground beside him. He rounded on the two golems, who turned and swung in a tandem attack.
Siris tapped his fingers together twice. One of the golems’ swords vanished in a flash of light, then appeared before Siris. He didn’t try to grab it—the thing was obviously too heavy for him—but he’d positioned himself so that it fell into the air just in front of him.
That blocked the second golem’s swing. The blades crashed against one another. Siris ducked forward, ears ringing from the crash, and rammed the Infinity Blade into the knee of the still-armed golem. The God King’s sword was made of strong material; it cut through the steel.
Sparks erupted around the blade as Siris—still in motion—moved past the golem and struck from behind at its other leg.
The golem teetered and dropped with a crash. The first golem—the one that had lost its weapon—was staring in stupefaction at its empty hands. It looked up at Siris, then swung a fist.
Siris dodged backward, his foot hitting the fallen sword. With a quick duck, he recovered the transportation disc and attached it to the Infinity Blade.
Then he tossed the blade between the golem’s legs.
The monster spun, watching the blade skid away. Obviously, its primary orders were to recover the weapon. The golem turned to go after the blade, and Siris attacked forward, summoning the blade back even as he did.
The weapon appeared with a flash in his hands as he rammed it into the golem’s thigh. Siris ripped the blade out, severing the thigh and dropping the beast. It smashed to the floor.
Grinding sounds from behind gave him warning that the other monster was—incredibly—climbing to its feet. Siris spun, pulling the disc free. The gigantic monster loomed above him, sparks spraying from its legs. It walked in a crouch now, trying to keep its balance.
Siris tossed the disc up toward the thing’s face; the disc stuck to the golem’s helm. Siris dodged a fist, then activated the ring. The flash of light from the disappearing helm blinded the creature, which stumbled.
Siris jumped, slashing his blade through the thing’s mechanical, clockwork neck.
It lurched, then dropped forward.
Siris took a deep breath, then walked up to the other golem. It was trying to move. Siris slammed his blade down through its back.
Both golems fell still.
“You know,” a feminine voice said, “you’re actually quite good at not dying.”
Siris spun toward the window. By reflex, he gripped the Infinity Blade tighter.
The window was empty.
“Over here,” she said.
He followed the voice, finding her standing in the shadows beside the doorway. Kuuth and a few daerils were waiting there, including Strix—the daeril who had first met Siris at the door to the castle. Strix yelped, moving out of the way as the assassin stepped into the light. He hadn’t seen her standing there either.
“How did you get there?” Siris demanded.
“I’m a good runner,” she said, folding her arms and looking at him appraisingly, one finger tapping her upper forearm.
“I’m not giving you this sword, woman.”
“I don’t want the sword,” she said. “Not anymore.” She smiled. “I’ve decided I want you instead.”
Read the rest . . . buy the ebook!