Vivenna hung outside the window, breathing deeply, sweating heavily. She’d peeked inside. Denth was in there, as was Tonk Fah. Vasher was hanging from a hook on the ceiling. He was bloodied, and he held no Breath, but he seemed to be alive.
Can I stop both Denth and Tonk Fah? she thought. Her arms were tired. She had a couple of lengths of rope in her pocket she could Awaken. What if she threw and missed? She had seen Denth fight. He was faster than she’d thought possible. She would have to surprise him. And if she missed, she would die.
What am I doing? she thought. Hanging from a wall, about to challenge two professional soldiers?
Her recent past gave her the strength to push down her fear. They might kill her, but that would be a quick end. She’d survived betrayals, the death of a dear friend, and a time going mad from the illness, hunger, and terror of living on the streets. She’d been pushed down, forced to admit that she’d betrayed her people. There wasn’t really any more they could do to her.
For some reason, those thoughts gave her power. Surprised at her own determination, she quietly recovered the Breath from her cloak and her leggings. She Awakened a pair of rope pieces, telling them to grab when thrown. She said a quiet prayer to Austre, then pulled herself up through the window and into the room.
Vasher was groaning. Tonk Fah was dozing in the corner. Denth, holding a bloody knife, looked up immediately as she landed. The look of utter shock on his face was, in itself, almost worth everything she’d been through. She tossed the rope at him, threw the other at Tonk Fah, then dashed into the room.
Denth reacted immediately, cutting the rope out of the air with his dagger. The pieces of it twisted and wriggled, but weren’t long enough to grab anything. The one she threw at Tonk Fah, however, hit. He cried out, waking as it wrapped around his face and neck.
Vivenna pulled to a halt beside Vasher’s swinging body. Denth had his sword out; he’d pulled it free more quickly than she could track. She gulped, then pulled out her own sword, holding it forward as Vasher had taught her. Denth paused just briefly in surprise.
That was enough. She swung—not for Denth, but for the rope holding Vasher to the ceiling. He fell with a grunt, and Denth struck, slamming the point of his dueling blade through her shoulder.
She fell, gasping in pain.
Denth stepped back. “Well, Princess,” he said, warily holding his blade. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Tonk Fah made a gagging sound as the rope twisted around his neck, choking him. He struggled to pull it free with little success.
Once, the pain in her shoulder might have been debilitating. But after the beatings she’d taken on the street, it seemed somewhat familiar to her. She looked up, and met Denth’s eyes.
“Was this supposed to be a rescue?” Denth asked. “Because honestly, I’m not very impressed.”
Tonk Fah knocked over his stool in his thrashing. Denth glanced at him, then back at Vivenna. There was a moment of silence, save for Tonk Fah’s weakening struggles. Finally, Denth cursed and jumped over to cut at the rope on his friend’s neck.
“You all right?” Vasher asked from beside her. She was shocked by how solid his voice sounded, despite his bloodied body.
“They’re going to send Lifeless marching on your homeland,” he said. “We’ve been wrong about this all along. I don’t know who’s behind it, but I think they’re winning the fight for the palace.”
Denth finally got the rope cut free.
“You need to run,” Vasher said, wiggling his hands free from their rope bonds. “Get back to your people, tell them not to fight the Lifeless. They need to flee through the northern passes, hide in the highlands. Do not fight or bring other kingdoms into the war.”
Vivenna glanced back at Denth, who was smacking Tonk Fah back to consciousness. Then she closed her eyes. “Your Breath to mine,” she said, drawing back the Breath from her hand tassels, adding it to the large amount she still held from before. She reached out, placing her hand on Vasher.
“Vivenna . . .” he said.
“My life to yours,” she said. “My Breath become yours.”
Her world became a thing of dullness. Beside her, Vasher gasped, then began to convulse at the bestowal of Breath. Denth stood up, spinning.
“You do it, Vasher,” Vivenna whispered. “You’ll be far better at it than I will be.”
“Stubborn woman,” Vasher said as he overcame the convulsions. He reached out, as if to restore her Breath to her, but noticed Denth.
Denth smiled, raising his blade. Vivenna put a hand to her shoulder, stopping the blood flow, and she began to push herself back toward the window—though, without Breath, she wasn’t certain what she intended to do there.
Vasher stood up, taking her sword in his hand. He wore only the bloody, knee-length underbreeches, but his stance was firm. He slowly wrapped the rope he’d been hanging from around his waist, forming his characteristic belt.
How does he do it? she thought. Where does his strength come from?
“I should have hurt you more,” Denth said. “I took my time. Savoring it too much.”
Vasher snorted, tying off the belt. Denth seemed to be waiting, anticipating something.
“I’ve always found it funny that we bleed, just like ordinary men,” Denth said. “We might be stronger, might live much longer, but we die just the same.”
“Not the same,” Vasher said, raising Vivenna’s blade. “Other men die with far more honor than we, Denth.”
Denth smiled. Vivenna could see excitement in his eyes. He always claimed that there was no way Vasher could have beat his friend, Arsteel, in a duel, she thought. He wants to fight Vasher. He wants to prove to himself that Vasher isn’t as good as he is.
Blades whipped into motion. And after just a quick exchange, Vivenna could see that there was no contest. Denth was clearly the better. Perhaps it was Vasher’s wounds. Perhaps it was the growing anger she saw in Vasher’s eyes as he fought, marring his ability to be calm and collected during the fight. Maybe he just really wasn’t as good as Denth. However, as Vivenna watched, she realized that Vasher was going to lose.
I didn’t do all this so you could just die! she thought, rising to try to help.
A hand fell on her shoulder, pushing her back down. “I don’t think so,” Tonk Fah said, looming over her. “Nice trick with the rope, by the way. Very clever. I know a few tricks with ropes myself. Did you know, for instance, that a rope can be used to burn a person’s flesh?” He smiled, then leaned down. “Mercenary humor, you see.”
His cloak slid slightly off his shoulder, falling against her cheek.
It can’t be, she thought. I escaped from him. I tried to Awaken his cloak, but used a bad Command. Could he have been stupid enough to keep wearing it?
She smiled, glancing over her shoulder. Vasher had backed against the far wall, to the window, and he was sweating profusely, bloody drops falling to the ground. Denth forced him back again, and Vasher stepped up on the table by the far wall, seeking high ground.
She looked back at Tonk Fah, his cloak still touching her cheek. “Your Breath to mine,” she said.
She felt a sudden, welcoming burst of Breath.
“Huh?” Tonk Fah said.
“Nothing,” she said. “Just . . . Attack and grab Denth!” Command made, visualization made, the cloak began to quiver. Tonk Fah’s shirt drained of color, and his eyes widened with surprise. The cloak suddenly whipped into the air, yanking Tonk Fah to the side and causing him to stumble away from her.
That’s why I’m the princess, and you’re just a mercenary, she thought with satisfaction, rolling over.
Tonk Fah cried out. Denth spun at the sound, yelling as the very large, very uncoordinated Pahn Kahl man crashed into him, cloak whipping about.
Denth slammed backward, catching Vasher by surprise as they rammed together. Tonk Fah grunted. Denth cursed.
And Vasher was shoved backward out the window.
Vivenna blinked in surprise. That wasn’t what she’d been intending. Denth cut away the cloak, pushing Tonk Fah back.
All was silent in the room for a moment.
“Go grab our squad of Lifeless!” Denth said. “Now!”
“You think he’ll live?” Tonk Fah asked.
“He just fell out the third-story window, plummeting toward certain doom,” Denth said. “Of course he’ll live! Send the squad to the front doors to slow him!” Denth glanced at Vivenna. “You, Princess, are far more trouble than you’re worth.”
“So people are fond of telling me,” she said with a sigh, raising her bloodied hand to her shoulder again, too exhausted to be as scared as she probably should be.
Vasher fell toward the hard stone blocks below. He watched the window retreat above him. Almost, he thought with frustration. I just about had him!
Wind whistled. He screamed in frustration, pulling free the rope at his waist, Vivenna’s Breath a lively strength within him.
“Grab things,” he Commanded, whipping the rope out, drawing color from his bloodstained shorts. They bled to grey, and the rope wrapped around an outcropping of stone on the palace wall. It pulled taut, and he ran sideways along the ebony blocks, slowing his fall.
“Your Breath to mine,” he yelled as his momentum slowed. The rope dropped free and he landed on the first block. “Become as my leg and give it strength!” he Commanded, drawing color from the blood on his chest. The rope twisted down, wrapping around his leg and foot as he leaped off. He landed on the next block, one foot down, the coiled rope—and its strange, inhuman muscles—bearing the brunt of the shock.
Four hops and he hit the ground. A group of soldiers stood amidst some bodies at the front gates, looking confused. Vasher barreled toward them, colorless translucent blood dropping from his skin as he drew his Breath back from the rope.
He scooped a sword from a fallen soldier. The men before the gates turned and readied their weapons. He didn’t have the time, or the patience, for pleasantries. He struck, cutting men down with quick efficiency. He wasn’t as good as Denth, but he had practiced for a very, very long time.
Unfortunately, there were a lot of men. Maybe too many to fight. Vasher cursed, spinning between them, dropping another one. He bent down, slapping his hand against the waist of a fallen soldier, touching both shirt and pants, looping his finger around the colored inner undershirt.
“Fight for me, as if you were me,” he Commanded, draining the man’s undershirt completely grey. Vasher spun, blocking a sword strike. Another came from the side, and another. He couldn’t block them all.
A sword flashed in the air, blocking a weapon that would have hit Vasher. The dead man’s shirt and trousers, having pulled themselves free, stood holding a blade. They struck, as if controlled by an invisible person inside, blocking and attacking with skill. Vasher put his back to the Awakened construct. When he had a chance, he made another one, draining away his remaining Breath.
They fought in a trio, Vasher and his two sets of Awakened clothing. The guards cursed, much more wary now. Vasher eyed them, planning an attack. At that moment, a troop of some fifty Lifeless barreled around the corner, charging toward him.
Colors! Vasher thought. He growled in rage, striking and taking down another soldier.
Colors, Colors, Colors!
You shouldn’t swear, a voice said in his head. Shashara told me that was evil.
Vasher spun toward the sound. A little line of black smoke was trailing out from beneath the closed front doors of the palace.
Aren’t you going to thank me? Nightblood said. I came to save you.
One of his sets of clothing fell, the leg cut off by a soldier’s clever strike. Vasher reached back, drawing the Breath back from the second set of clothing, then stepped with an unclothed toe on the fallen set, recovering the Breath from it as well. The soldiers backed away, wary, more than happy to let the Lifeless take him.
And in that moment of peace, Vasher charged for the gates to the palace. He threw his shoulder against them, slamming them open, skidding into the entryway.
A large group of men lay dead on the ground. Nightblood sprouted from one man’s chest, as usual, hilt pointing toward the sky. Vasher hesitated only briefly. He could hear Lifeless charging up behind him.
He ran forward and grabbed Nightblood’s hilt and pulled the sword free, leaving the sheath behind in the body.
The blade sprayed a wave of black liquid as he swung it. The liquid dissolved into smoke before touching walls or floor, like water in an oven. Smoke twisted, some rising from the blade, some falling in a stream to the floor, dripping like black blood.
Destroy! Nightblood’s voice boomed in his head. The evil must be destroyed! Pain shot up Vasher’s arm, and he felt his Breath being leached away, sucked into the blade, fueling its hunger. Drawing the weapon had a terrible cost. At that moment, he didn’t really care. He spun toward the charging Lifeless and—enraged—attacked.
Each creature he struck with the blade immediately flashed and became smoke. A single scratch and the bodies dissolved like paper being consumed by an invisible fire, leaving behind only a large stain of blackness in the air. Vasher spun among them, striking with wrath, killing Lifeless after Lifeless. Black smoke churned around him, and his arm twisted with pain as veinlike tendrils climbed up the hilt and around his forearm—like black blood vessels that latched on to his skin, feeding off his Breath.
In a matter of minutes, the Breath Vivenna had given him had been reduced by half. Yet in those moments, he destroyed all fifty Lifeless. The soldiers outside pulled to a halt, watching the display. Vasher stood amidst a churning mass of deep ebony smoke. It slowly rose into the air, the only remnants of the fifty creatures he had destroyed.
The soldiers ran away.
Vasher screamed, charging toward the side of the room. He slammed Nightblood through a wall. The stone dissolved just as easily as flesh had, evaporating away before him. He burst through the dissipating black smoke, entering the next room. He didn’t bother with a stairwell. He simply jumped onto a table and rammed Nightblood into the ceiling.
A circle ten feet wide vanished. Dark, mistlike smoke fell around him like streaks of paint. He Awakened his rope again and then tossed it up, using it to pull himself up onto the next floor. A moment later, he did it again, climbing onto the third floor.
He spun, slashing through walls, bellowing as he ran back toward Denth. The pain in his arm was incredible, and his Breath was draining away at an alarming rate. Once it was gone, Nightblood would kill him.
Everything was growing fuzzy. He slashed through a final wall, finding the room where he had been tortured.
It was empty.
He cried out, arm shaking. Destroy . . . evil . . .Nightblood said in his mind, all lightness gone from the tone, all familiarity. It boomed like a command. An awful, inhuman thing. The longer Vasher held the sword, the faster it drained his Breath.
Gasping, he threw the sword aside and fell to his knees. It skidded, tearing a rip in the floor that puffed away into smoke, but hit a wall with a pling and fell still. Smoke rose from the blade.
Vasher knelt, arm twitching. The black veins on his skin slowly evaporated. He was left with just barely enough Breath to reach the First Heightening. Another few seconds, and Nightblood would have sucked the rest away. He shook his head, trying to clear his vision.
Something fell to the tiled floor in front of him. A dueling blade. Vasher looked up.
“Stand up,” Denth said, eyes hard. “We’re going to finish what we started.”