Vasher stood atop the palace of the God King, watching the sun drop above the western rain forest. The sunset was vibrant amidst the clouds, colors flaring, beautiful reds and oranges painting the trees. Then the sun disappeared and the colors faded.
Some said that before a man died, his BioChromatic aura flared with sudden brightness. Like a heart giving its last beat, like the final surge of a wave before the tide retreats. Vasher had seen it happen, but not with every death. The event was rare, much like a perfect sunset.
Dramatic, Nightblood noted.
The sunset? Vasher asked.
You can’t see it, he said to the sword.
But I can feel you seeing it. Crimson. Like blood in the air.
Vasher didn’t respond. The sword couldn’t see. But with its powerful, twisted BioChroma, it could sense life and people. Both were things Nightblood had been created to protect. It was strange, how easily and quickly protection could cause destruction. Sometimes, Vasher wondered if the two weren’t really the same thing. Protect a flower, destroy the pests who wanted to feed on it. Protect a building, destroy the plants that could have grown in the soil.
Protect a man. Live with the destruction he creates.
Although it was dark, Vasher’s life sense was strong. He could just faintly feel the grass growing below and knew how far away it was. With more Breath, he might even have been able to sense the lichen growing on the palace stones. He knelt down, laying one hand on his trouser leg and one on the stone of the palace.
“Strengthen me,” he Commanded, Breathing. His trouser legs stiffened, and a patch of color bled from the black stone beside him. Black was a color. He’d never considered that before he’d become an Awakener. Tassels hanging at his cuffs stiffened, wrapping around his ankle. With him kneeling as he was, they could also twist around the bottoms of his feet.
Vasher placed a hand on the shoulder of his shirt, touching another patch of marble as he formed an image in his mind. “Upon call, become my fingers and grip,” he Commanded. The shirt quivered and a group of tassels curled up around his hand. Five of them, like fingers.
It was a difficult Command. It required far more Breath to Awaken than he would have liked—his remaining Breath barely allowed him the Second Heightening—and the visualization of the Command had taken practice to perfect. The finger tassels were worth it; they had proven very useful, and he was loath to engage in the night’s activities without them.
He stood up straight, noting the scar of grey marble on the otherwise perfectly black palace surface. He smiled to think of the indignation the priests would feel when they discovered it.
He tested the strength in his legs, gripping Nightblood, then took a careful step off the side of the palace. He fell some ten feet; the palace was constructed from massive stone blocks in a steep pyramidal shape. He landed hard on the next block, but his Awakened clothing absorbed some of the shock, acting like a second, external set of bones. He stood up, nodding to himself, then jumped down the other pyramid steps.
Eventually, he landed on the soft grass north of the palace, close to the wall that surrounded the entire plateau. He crouched, watching quietly.
Sneaking, Vasher? Nightblood said. You’re terrible at sneaking.
Vasher didn’t respond.
You should attack, Nightblood said. You’re good at that.
You just want to prove how strong you are, Vasher thought.
Well, yes, the sword replied. But you do have to admit that you’re bad at sneaking.
Vasher ignored the sword. A lone man in ragged clothing carrying a sword across the grounds would be conspicuous. So he surveyed. He had picked a night when the gods hadn’t planned any grand celebrations out in the courtyard, but there were still small groups of priests, minstrels, or servants moving between palaces.
How sure are you about this information of yours? Nightblood said. Because, honestly, I don’t trust priests.
He isn’t a priest, Vasher thought. He moved carefully, creeping through the dark starlit shadow of the wall’s overhang. His contact had warned him to stay away from the palaces of influential gods like Blushweaver and Stillmark. But he had also said that the palace of a lesser god—like Giftbeacon or Peaceyearning—wouldn’t work for Vasher’s purpose. Instead, Vasher sought out the home of Mercystar, a Returned known for her involvement in politics, yet who wasn’t all that influential.
Her palace looked relatively dark this evening, but there would still be guards. Hallandren Returned all had servants to spare. Sure enough, Vasher located two men watching the door he wanted. They wore the extravagant costumes of court servants, colored yellow and gold after the pattern of their mistress.
The men weren’t armed. Who would attack the home of a Returned? They were simply there to keep anyone from wandering in and bothering their lady while she slept. They stood by their lanterns, alert and attentive, but more for the sake of appearances than anything else.
Vasher obscured Nightblood beneath his cloak, then walked out of the darkness, looking from side to side anxiously, mumbling to himself. He hunched his body to help hide the oversized hidden sword.
Oh, please, Nightblood said flatly. The crazy disguise? You’re cleverer than that.
It’ll work, Vasher thought. This is the Court of Gods. Nothing attracts the unbalanced more than the prospect of meeting deities.
The two guards looked up when they saw him approaching, but they didn’t seem surprised. They had probably dealt with marginally insane people every day of their professional careers. Vasher had seen the types who ended up in the lines for Returned petitions.
“Here now,” one of the men said as Vasher approached. “How’d you get in here?”
Vasher stepped up to them, mumbling to himself about talking to the god dess. The second man put a hand on Vasher’s shoulder. “Come on, friend. Let’s get you back to the gates and see if there’s a shelter that’s still taking people in for the night.”
Vasher hesitated. Kindness. He hadn’t expected that, for some reason. The emotion made him feel a tad guilty for what he had to do next.
He snapped his arm to the side, twitching his thumb twice to make the long finger tassels on his shirt sleeve begin mimicking the motions of his real fingers. He formed a fist. The tassels snapped forward, wrapping around the first guard’s neck.
The man choked out a soft gasp of surprise. Before the second guard could react, Vasher brought Nightblood up, ramming the hilt into the guard’s stomach. The man stumbled, and Vasher swept his feet out from beneath him. Vasher’s boot followed, coming down slowly but firmly on the man’s neck. He wiggled, but Vasher’s legs bore Awakened strength.
Vasher stood for a long moment, both men struggling, neither managing to escape their strangulation. A short time later, Vasher stepped off the second guard’s neck, then lowered the first guard to the grass, twitching his thumb twice and releasing the finger tassels.
You didn’t use me much, Nightblood said, sounding hurt. You could have used me. I’m better than a shirt. I’m a sword.
Vasher ignored the comments, scanning the darkness to see if he had been spotted.
I really am better than a shirt. I would have killed them. Look, they’re still breathing. Stupid shirt.
That was the point, Vasher thought. Corpses cause more trouble than men who get knocked out.
I could knock people out, Nightblood said immediately.
Vasher shook his head, ducking into the building. Returned palaces—this one included—were generally just collections of open rooms with colorful sheets on the doorways. The weather was so temperate in Hallandren that the building could be open to the air at all times.
He didn’t go through the central rooms, but instead stayed in the peripheral servant hallway. If Vasher’s in for mant had been truthful, then what he wanted could be found on the northeast side of the building. As he walked, he unraveled the rope from his waist.
Belts are stupid too, Nightblood said. They—
At that moment, a group of four servants rounded the corner directly ahead of Vasher. Vasher looked up, startled but not really surprised.
The servants’ shock lasted a second longer than his own. Within a heartbeat, Vasher snapped the rope forward. “Hold things,” he Commanded, giving up most of his remaining Breath. The rope wrapped around the arm of one of the servants, though Vasher had been aiming for the neck. Vasher cursed, yanking the person forward. The man cried out as Vasher knocked him against the angle of the corner. The others moved to run.
Vasher whipped out Nightblood with his other hand.
Yes! the sword thought.
Vasher didn’t draw the sword. He simply tossed it forward. The blade skidded against the floor, then came to rest before the three men. One of the group froze, looking down at the sword, transfixed. He reached out tentatively, eyes awed.
The other two took off running, yelling about an intruder.
Blast! Vasher thought. He yanked the rope, knocking the entangled servant off of his feet again. As the servant tried to stumble to his feet, Vasher dashed forward and wrapped the rope around the man’s hands and body. To his side, the remaining servant ignored both Vasher and his friend. This man picked up Nightblood, eyes alight. He undid the snap on the hilt, moving to pull the sword.
When he had barely gotten a thin sliver of blade free, a dark, fluidlike smoke began to stream out. Some dripped to the ground; other tendrils of it snaked out and wrapped around the man’s arm, drawing the color from his skin.
Vasher kicked out with an Awakened leg, knocking the man down, forcing him to drop Nightblood. Vasher left the first man squirming, tied up, then grabbed the man who had held the sword and rammed his head against the wall.
Breathing hard, Vasher grabbed Nightblood, closed the sheath, and did up the clasp. Then he reached over, touching the rope that tied the dazed servant. “Your Breath to mine,” he said, recovering the Breath from the rope, leaving the man bound.
You didn’t let me kill him, Nightblood said, annoyed.
No, Vasher said. Corpses, remember?
And . . . two ran away from me. That’s not right.
You cannot tempt the hearts of men who are pure, Nightblood. No matter how much he explained that concept, it seemed beyond the sword’s ability to comprehend.
Vasher moved quickly, dashing down the hallway. He had only a little farther to go, but there were already cries of alarm and calls for help. He had no desire to fight an army of servants and soldiers. He stopped, uncertain, in the unadorned hallway. He noticed, idly, that Awakening the rope had inadvertently stolen the color from his boots and cloak—the only pieces of clothing he wore that weren’t themselves Awakened.
The grey clothing would instantly brand him for what he was. But the thought of backing down made him cringe. He gritted his teeth in frustration, punching the wall. This was supposed to have gone a lot more smoothly.
I told you, you aren’t sneaky, Nightblood said.
Shut up, Vasher thought, determined not to run. He reached into a pouch at his belt, pulling out the object within: a dead squirrel.
Yuck, Nightblood said with a sniff.
Vasher knelt, putting a hand on the creature.
“Awaken to my Breath,” he Commanded, “serve my needs, live at my Command and my word. Fallen Rope.”
Those last words, “fallen rope,” formed the security phrase. Vasher could have chosen anything, but he picked the first thing that came to mind.
One Breath was leached from his body, going down into the small rodent’s corpse. The thing began to twitch. That was a Breath Vasher would never be able to recover, for creating a Lifeless was a permanent act. The squirrel lost all color, bleeding to grey, the Awakening feeding off the body’s own colors to help fuel the transformation. The squirrel had been grey in the first place, so the difference was tough to see. That’s why Vasher liked to use them.
“Fallen Rope,” he said to the creature, its grey eyes looking up at him. The security phrase pronounced, Vasher could now imprint the creature with an order, much as he did when performing a standard Awakening. “Make noise. Run around. Bite people who are not me. Fallen Rope.” The second use of the words closed its impressionability, so it could no longer be Commanded.
The squirrel hopped up to its feet, then scampered down the hallway, heading for the open doorway the fleeing servants had disappeared into. Vasher stood and began to run again, hoping that this distraction would earn him time. Indeed, a few moments later he heard cries coming from the doorway. Clangs and screams followed. Lifeless could be difficult to stop, particularly a fresh one with orders to bite.
We could have taken them, Nightblood said.
Vasher rushed to the place his information had indicated. The location was marked by a splintered board in the wall, ostensibly just normal wear of the building. Vasher crouched, hoping that his in for mant had not lied. He searched around on the floor, then froze as he found the hidden latch.
He pulled it open, revealing a trapdoor. Returned palaces were only supposed to be one story. He smiled.
What if this tunnel doesn’t have another way out? Nightblood asked as Vasher dropped into the hole, trusting his Awakened clothing to absorb the fall.
Then you’ll probably get to kill a lot of people, Vasher thought. However, his information had been good so far. He suspected that the rest was good as well.
The priests of the Iridescent Tones, it appeared, were hiding things from the rest of the kingdom. And from their gods.