The following is a draft chapter of Brandon’s unfinished novel Mythwalker from 2001. Brandon later repurposed some elements of this story into Warbreaker, Mistborn, and The Way of Kings.
“It was Quin’s idea,” Skeer explained.
Devin raised an eyebrow, shooting a look toward Hine. The older warrior met Devin’s eyes—he was suspicious too.
“What plan are you talking about?” Devin asked.
Skeer looked around again, then motioned for Devin and the other three to pull closer. “It’s perfect,” Skeer explained quietly. “They won’t be expecting it, you see.”
“It?” Devin prodded.
“The assassination of King Sserin,” Skeer said with a smile.
Devin regarded Skeer with a flat look. “Didn’t you try that once already?” he asked.
“That’s why they won’t be expecting it,” Skeer said. “Last time, I didn’t even make it into the Sserin palace. They’ll assume we’re not stupid enough to try the same plan again.”
“But we are?” Hine asked with a grunt.
“Of course we are!” Skeer exclaimed. “That’s why we’re not stupid. You see?”
“We’re not stupid because we’re stupid?” Voko asked, lying back on his mat with a sigh. “Someone else try to understand this fool. I had trouble doing that when I didn’t have a headache.”
Skeer ignored the soldier, instead focusing on Devin, his words becoming more excited as he spoke. “It’s a brilliant plan because we’re going to do what’s unexpected. We strike when their defenses are weak! Plus, we have something Sserin won’t be expecting.”
“Which is?” Devin asked.
“You,” Skeer said, his eyes wide and eager. “Quin didn’t believe me about you at first, but he’s seen you fight now. He finally realized how good you are, Devin. That’s why he thinks such a small group can succeed where it failed before.”
So that’s what it is, Devin thought. “Let me guess,” he said. “The assassination team will just be me and you.”
“That’s right,” Skeer continued. “We’ll sneak into Dunn’s palace at night, kill him in his bed, and be out before anyone knows the better.”
“Why?” Devin asked.
Skeer frowned. “Why won’t they know better? Well, because they won’t catch us, I guess—”
“No,” Devin corrected with a sigh. “Why kill the King? What would it accomplish?”
The question gave Skeer pause, and he sat for a confused moment. “Well, because,” he finally answered. “He’s one of the Kkoloss. He’s oppressing the people.”
“And if we kill him?” Devin prodded. “Won’t another just take his place? The people wouldn’t be any better off.”
“It would draw attention to the Rebellion,” Skeer argued. “When it got out that we had killed the King, people would hear and know that the Kkoloss aren’t as invincible as the priesthood teaches. They’ll get courage, independent thinking, valor!”
“The Archpriests would suppress it,” Hine guessed. “They’d claim that the King died of a sudden sickness, not an assassination. Then they’ll find this ‘Rebellion’ and make sure to kill every last man.”
“Um, they’re going to do that anyway,” Voko mumbled.
Devin shot him a look.
“I’ll explain later,” Voko grumbled.
Skeer frowned, standing with a hurt look in his eyes. “You disappoint me, Devin,” he informed with a shake of his head. “Where’s your faith? I thought you were for the rebellion, yet here you aren’t willing to take the simplest of risks for your fellow man. I’m sorry I even rescued you from that dungeon.”
With that, the tall man stalked from the tent out into the sunlight. Devin watched him go with a shake of his head.
“I warned you that you were a threat, son,” Hine said. “Quin’s not going to just leave you alone. You’re going to have to do something—now that his subtle plan to get rid of you has failed, he’ll have to grow more blatant.”
Devin turned, sighing to himself. He knew Hine was right—he’d never met a person as vindictive as Quin, but he was growing to have a sense for the bandit leader’s personality. Devin had made a major statement by joining the nightly sparrings. Slowly, through no attempt on his part, he was drawing Quin’s best fighters away from him.
“It’s too bad, really,” Voko mumbled. “I kind of like that Skeer. He’s an odd little scrinn, but he’s got a lot of fire. It’s too bad the world he lives in isn’t real.”
Devin sat, staring at the tent flap fretfully. I have to do something, Devin thought pensively. He’d made a determination to fight the Kkoloss, but he didn’t think killing the King would be the right way. The Kkell power would just pass to the next man in line. And, as bad as King Dunn was, Devin suspected that Sarn would be far worse. One of the images that was most vivid in Devin’s mind was the utter callousness in Prince Sarn’s eyes as he ordered the helpless Skaa slaughtered.
“What if we didn’t kill the King?” Devin asked, almost to himself.
“What?” Hine asked.
Devin stood slowly, an idea forming in his mind. He stepped out of the tent. Skeer sat beside the cooking fire, poking disconsolately at the coals with a stick. He looked up at the movement and met Devin’s eyes, then smiled triumphantly.
“We’re not going to kill the King,” Devin explained after pulling Skeer back into the tent.
“Then what?” Voko asked. He was sitting up now, and was playing idly with a thin-bladed knife he had bought in town, trying to twirl it between his pudgy fingers. Every few flips, it would spin out of his fingers and drop to the mat beside him, causing the squat man to regard his hand with annoyance.
Voko sighed, picking up his knife. “Instead of killing him We just sneak in, dance around the palace, and leave a melon on the King’s pillow?”
“We are going to sneak in, Voko,” Devin said, “but we won’t be visiting King Dunn. Skeer’s right about one thing—we need to do something big if we’re going to bring notoriety to the rebellion.”
“What are you saying, son?” Hine finally asked. “You want to kill someone other than the King?”
“We’re not going to kill anyone,” Devin said. “We’re going to kidnap the Queen’s daughter.”
There was silence.
“Princess Vvenna Mas Sserin?” Hine asked.
Voko smiled. “The Emperor’s betrothed,” he said, flipping his knife dramatically, but failing to catch it once again.
“The princess?” Skeer asked with a frown. “But why kidnap her?”
“Because that way we don’t have to kill anyone, but we still can cause a stir,” Devin explained.
“Besides,” Voko added. “We’d have a hostage.”
“If we had the princess, they’d have to listen to us,” Devin began. “They’d have to negotiate to get her back—the choice of an Emperor’s wife is an important event, isn’t it?”
“Extremely,” Voko agreed. “Vvenna was chosen before she was born. They’ve been waiting for almost two decades to have the wedding—that’s a long time, even for a Kkoloss.”
Hine grunted. “It’s a good idea,” he decided. “Better than killing the King, at least. It gives us something to bargain with.”
Skeer’s eyes opened wide. “We could demand they free the Eruntu!” he exclaimed.
Voko shook his head, flipping his dagger and inadvertently slicing himself. He sighed with resignation. “I used to be so good at that,” he mumbled. Then he looked up. “Anyway, I doubt we’d be able to make such a large demand, even if we had the Emperor himself. Besides, we’d never be able to enforce it.”
“The Emperor would keep his word,” Hine argued. “If we could get him to admit to something, he’d have no choice. Hess forbids oathbreaking. King Sserin might be willing to ignore tradition, but the Emperor would never do so. However, I agree. He wouldn’t make a promise like that—he can afford to wait another twenty years for a wife, even if the Priesthood is paranoid to have another heir.”
“We don’t need a big promise,” Devin said. “Just something to draw their attention.”
“I don’t think we need to worry about that,” Voko noted.
Devin raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve been trying to tell you, Dev,” Voko explained. “It’s big news in town. King Dunn blamed the slaughter of House Kkeris on the Eruntu Rebellion. Everyone’s already afraid of us.”
Devin sat stunned for a moment. “What?” he asked.
Hine grunted. “No wonder the caravans have been frightened of us.”
“So, yes, we’ve got a name,” Voko said. “Unfortunately, that name happens to be ‘rampaging, merciless psychopaths.’”
“Hess!” Devin swore.
Ix frowned. “I do not understand. Why would they say that we killed those men when we did not?”
“Sserin doesn’t want people to know what he is. Why do you claim to be a human, when you’re not?” Voko pointed out.
Ix paused. “I see,” he said simply.
“Does this change your plans, son?” Hine asked.
Devin paused. “No,” he eventually said. “We have to do something, and I still think kidnapping the princess is a good move. Maybe we can convince people that we aren’t murderers, just reformers.”
“Yes,” Voko said disbelievingly, “and maybe we’ll get the priesthood to renounce Hess and worship the Demon God.”
Devin ignored the barb. “I think it will work. They won’t be able to hide the princess’s disappearance for long. And, even if we couldn’t get a major concession, maybe the Emperor would agree to something minor—like letting Eruntu speak the Kkoloss language. Anything would help.”
“The kid’s got a point,” Hine noted. “Of course, they’d probably try to hunt us down.”
Voko shrugged, absently twiddling his knife. He didn’t even notice as he caught it between two fingers and accidentally bent the blade.
Such strength, Devin thought with amazement. The Kkell power was truly an awesome thing—Hine, who had been a Guard much longer, was better at hiding it.
“We’d have the princess as a hostage if they came for us,” Voko reminded.
“I won’t hurt a Kkoloss,” the grizzled soldier said stubbornly.
“But you could pretend,” Voko prodded.
“We’re not going to hurt her,” Devin said. “Assuming, of course, we even manage to capture her.”
“You’re going to try, then?” Skeer said eagerly. “You’ll go along with the plan?”
Devin paused. “I suggested it, didn’t I?” he asked with amusement.
“I knew you wouldn’t fail the rebellion,” Skeer announced moving to stand. “I’ll go tell Quin—you and I can leave within a few days!”
“Wait,” Devin said. “We’re not going alone, Skeer.”
“But Quin said—”
“I know,” Devin said. “But this is my plan now. Hine, will you come with us?”
Hine shrugged. “Where you go, I go, son. If I can help without violating my Oath, I will.”
“Wait a minute,” Voko interrupted. “You can’t leave us behind, eh, Ralan?”
Ralan, almost unnoticed at the back of the room, nodded.
“You’ll need us,” Voko explained. “I, uh, have a little experience sneaking into buildings.” He looked down, noticing the bent knife blade for the first time. “Now, how’d that happen?” he mumbled.
“I don’t think Quin will like this. . . .” Skeer began.
“Don’t tell him,” Voko suggested.
Devin smiled—he liked that suggestion. “Yes,” he decided. “Don’t tell him—in fact, don’t even tell him we’re going to capture the princess. Let him think we’re going after the King. It will be . . . a secret. The fewer people who know our true plan, the better.” He winked at Skeer with what he hoped was a mysterious look.
Skeer smiled. “Good idea,” he said, nodding and standing. He paused, laying a hand on Devin’s shoulder, then left the tent.
“You realize this plan is only slightly less insane than the one Skeer came up with,” Voko noted.
“I do,” Devin said, turning away from the tent entrance to regard the other men. Hine sat contemplatively, Voko tried to bend his knife blade—but only succeeded in making it more twisted—Ralan looked troubled, and Ix wore his regular blank stare.
“We’ll make a better place. And if we don’t—well, some things are worth doing simply for the doing, not because of what you’ll get if you succeed.”
Vvenna sat upon another throne, watching another party proceed without her. The half-veil of betrothal obscured her view slightly, but she was accustomed to it. She had been wearing one for twelve years now. The activity before her proceeded just like the other seven parties had—the only difference was that this one was in her own palace. It would be the last such gathering before the wedding.
Couples approached, both men and women bowing before her, the depth of the bow indicating their own status in comparison to hers. As it stood, only Kings and Queens outranked Vvenna—a fact that would soon change. Just one day remained.
This party was smaller than the others had been. King Sserin had invited only members of the first three Septs. And, with such prestigious company, even the Kings and Queens had decided to come. They sat to Vvenna’s right, their chairs arranged so that they could speak quietly with one another and enjoy the company—and the intrigues—of the only people in Kkorimar of their equal station.
Vvenna sat alone. The Kings and Queens gave her cursory respect, of course—she would soon become the Emperor’s wife. No one knew how much influence the Emperor’s wife—the Vessel, as the Priesthood called her—had over the man, but it was widely suspected that her power was minor. The Emperor was said to be above political manipulations and influence. He was immaculately impartial, just like Hess himself.
So, openly, the First Sept gave lip service to her station. However, secretly they didn’t pay her much heed. In one day’s time, she would disappear into the Imperial palace. For one year, she would appear in the Emperor’s presence and attend functions with him. After that time, her job would be done. She would bear the Emperor’s heir, and after that she was redundant. She would disappear into the bowels of the palace, a recluse from politics.
Another couple approached. He wore an exquisite military uniform, with drooping chains of gold and silver. She wore a beautiful yellow silk dress, tight at the top and loose below the waist, with sleeves much longer than the hands. There were several servants to carry the train. They bowed, his chains clinking, her dress rustling, then they turned went back to the party, making way for another couple. In essence, they were bidding Vvenna farewell.
The ball was subdued. With only the first three Septs present, the Kkoloss felt a need to be even more reserved than normal—an attempt to prove themselves to their peers. The minstrels played a soft tune, but few people danced. They stood on the dark Amberite floor, talking, scheming, and trying and trying to make everyone notice how unnoticeable they were being.
The walls, like the rest of the palace, were constructed from smoky red Amberite. The floors and pillars were crafted from a slightly darker maroon, providing a contrast. Lanterns and chandeliers brightened the room, reflecting off the deep walls and onto the multi-hued Kkoloss dress. It was beautiful; however, Vvenna had seen such for so much of her life, she often wished for settings a little less dazzling but perhaps a little more comfortable.
“Hey,” a voice whispered. “Do you want me to get you something to drink?”
Vvenna almost twitched. Fortunately, she maintained Posture. “That wouldn’t be appropriate, Siri,” she said. The girl stood behind Vvenna’s chair. As a member of the Fourth Sept, Siri hadn’t been invited to the party on her own, and so the only way she could attend was as Vvenna’s attendant.
“Why not?” Siri asked, unseen behind Vvenna’s chair. “The Kings and Queens all have something to drink.”
“I am different,” Vvenna said. She spoke without moving her lips, as she had been trained. She had to maintain Posture at all times, especially when sitting before the people. She nodded slightly as another pair presented themselves.
Vvenna could hear Siri huff from behind. The girl almost hadn’t come—since she was coming as Vvenna’s attendant, she couldn’t mingle below, but was forced to remain beside the chair. Usually, Siri didn’t come to such functions, even though she was Vvenna’s primary handmaiden. She had trouble standing in one place for so long, and quickly got bored with courtly functions. This time, however, she had agreed. Vvenna suspected it had to do with the impending wedding.
Vvenna could feel Siri’s jealousy. As the Emperor’s betrothed, she had been trained to read people, even Kkoloss—and Siri wasn’t exactly the best at keeping her emotions hidden. The girl didn’t like the fact that Vvenna was forbidden to take her own attendants to the Imperial palace, and she was even less thrilled with the fact that Vvenna wouldn’t be allowed visitors. The two had been friends since childhood, and now the looming certainty of Vvenna’s marriage was upon them.
Vvenna knew she would miss her friend—probably even more than Siri missed her. Siri outraged the eight courts, but she still had many friends, and many of the men desired her. Vvenna only had one friend—only one person who knew and liked her. The rest simply served their Emperor’s betrothed—the were forbidden by court rules from growing any closer to Vvenna.
Siri was different. Even as children, Siri had ignored authority, Ki-Ssu, and politics. Only such a person could break through Vvenna’s walls, achieving what no one should have been able to do—making friends with the Emperor’s betrothed. Vvenna felt very, very grateful to have known her. And now, that friendship had to end. Siri would survive—she would quickly find others to be her friends. Vvenna wasn’t certain if she could do likewise.
But, she reminded herself, that doesn’t matter. I’m not supposed to have friends. I am the Emperor’s Betrothed. I am the Vessel. I will do my duty, as I have been raised to do.
Vvenna sighed on the inside, though she didn’t break Posture. Her back was beginning to hurt from the extended sitting, but she couldn’t shift positions. Instead, she focused slightly and lightened her body. Her Kkell Power was a savior during these longer balls. As she asserted control, she felt her body grow lighter. She rose slightly into the air, no longer pushing down on her cushion with as much weight.
“I think I’m going mad,” Siri complained from behind. “Suddenly, I have an overpowering need to scream very loudly.”
Vvenna could almost see her doing it too—suddenly screaming with a sharp yell that caused every Kkoloss in the room to jump in surprise. Amusing as the image was, it would, of course, have been incredibly embarrassing.
“Patience, Siri,” Vvenna whispered. “The ball is nearly over. After today, you’ll never have to do this again.”
That made Siri fall quiet, and Vvenna felt guilty. She shouldn’t have reminded Siri of the marriage. Vvenna worried that the girl’s hatred of the Emperor would get her into trouble. As unorthodox as Siri was, even she would have trouble if she began to speak blasphemy.
As the hour grew later, the guests finally began to leave. Siri bore it with increasing impatience, but Vvenna watched them leave with slight apprehension. It was really over. The final ball, and the final day. Tomorrow, she would go to the Imperial Palace for the formal wedding ceremony. The day was really here.
For the first time in her life, she suddenly found the anticipation almost too great to hide. In just a few hours, she would be married—married to a man she had never met. She had seen him, of course, sitting upon the imperial throne, surrounded by chanting priests. She had never spoken to him, though. She didn’t know anyone that had—the Emperor always communicated through the Archpriests. He was above speaking directly to lowly Kkoloss.
And she was going to marry him. As the last guests trailed away, the Kings and Queens bidding farewell to their counterparts, Vvenna’s mind became almost stunned. The day was here. This was the last night she would sleep in her own quarters.
Siri, along with several other attendants, escorted her to her rooms. They prepared her for bed, then she lay down in her enormous bed.
It took her a long time to get to sleep.
Devin’s first real tour of the capital was done in the darkness. With only starlight to guide them, Devin, Skeer, Hine, Voko, Ralan, and Ix slunk through alleys and side-streets. Voko led them through the streets, occasionally showing them tricks of sneaking that he knew surprisingly well—he claimed his former profession, whatever that was, had demanded it.
In a way, Devin was disappointed. As a child, he had often heard tales of the Holy City from travelers. Its beautiful Amberite palaces, its congested streets, and its incredible population were famous. He had lived on the Holy Isle for a month and a half now, and the first time he actually got to see the city was at night.
Even during night, however, the capital was impressive. The buildings were nearly all made of wood or stone—as opposed to the cob that was favored on the mainland. It bore eight massive streets that began at the Imperial Palace, each one running radially to one of the eight palaces at the city’s edge. Five other streets ran circularly around the city, each one a little closer to the Imperial palace than the others, forming a targetlike pattern.
Of course, actually standing on those streets was a less impressive experience. Maybe it was because they kept to the back alleys, but it seemed to Devin that the city had an odorous stink to it. The buildings ranged from well-built mansions to multi-story hovels crammed with occupants. Even this late at night—it had to be well past midnight—there were lights in many of the windows and activity in some of the alleys. However, anyone entertaining thoughts of no good shied away from Devin’s party as soon as they noticed the massive bulk of Hine, Ralan, and Voko. The Sserin Kkell power was not something to take lightly.
Up ahead, Hine paused at the mouth of an alley.
“What is it?” Skeer asked. Ostensibly, he whispered—but it was the loudest, most obtrusive whisper Devin had ever heard. Hine shot Skeer a look—Devin couldn’t see the man’s face for the darkness, but he suspected it was one of annoyance.
“Nothing,” Hine mumbled. “I thought I saw something.” He chose a direction that took them further into the darkness, then continued on.
The group began again. As they passed the mouth of the alley, Devin peeked forward to see what had caught Hine’s attention. A smaller street ran away from the one they were on—a dead-end alley. At its end, he could vaguely make out several dark forms. Five dark forms, staring out at him. He could hear their whispers in his mind. Devin froze, staring at them with horror.
Not tonight, he thought.
“Devin?” Ix asked from beside him. “I think we should keep going, otherwise we will be left behind, which would not be good.”
Devin blinked. The five forms were gone, though their whispers trailed in his mind.
Devin took a deep breath, and then continued forward, trying to move as quietly as possible. As with many things recently, walking stealthily came naturally—even instinctively—to him.
It had something to do with the seizures. He had one just before he tried something new—something he didn’t know how to do, but for some reason was required to accomplish. He had learned to fight when his life was in danger, had learned to cook when he needed to provide for an entire camp. Now he learned to sneak when stealth was vital. Each time, he’d had one of the strange mini-seizures right before he tried for the first time.
A sudden noise from beside him made Devin jump. At first, he thought Skeer had tripped again. However, this time a different form had tumbled to the ground, and was cursing quietly.
“Voko?” Devin asked, kneeling beside the squat man. “Are you all right?”
“Hess,” Voko cursed, disentangling him from the rotting crate that he had tripped over. “This is ridiculous! These squat legs are worthless.”
Devin gave the man a hand and helped him to his feet. Voko shook his head. “For fifteen years I was the quietest, stealthiest, most nimble scrinn you could find. Now I’m a bumbling idiot. Fist and Little Rat would laugh themselves silly if they saw me.” He paused. “Good thing they’re dead. Come on.”
Devin watched the squat Guard move off. He didn’t move like Hine or Ralan—his motions were more awkward. It was as if he were used to a body much smaller and much more dexterous—he hadn’t ever adjusted to gaining the Kkell power. Now, when Voko walked, he half lumbered, half sneaked. The combination didn’t work very well—even Skeer moved more stealthily.
Devin padded forward, passing Voko and the others until he caught up with Hine. They passed through a dark intersection, then Hine stopped, nodding forward. A massive building broke the skyline up ahead. It glowed softly in the darkness like a massive red coal, light from inside trickling up and through the Amberite walls.
“Hess,” Devin breathed. “That much Amberite, in one place . . .”
“It isn’t the most expensive color,” Hine said. “But still, it’s impressive.”
Devin nodded. Only clear Amberite—the most rare—was used for currency. Still, the other colors were precious enough to be worth far more than regular rock. And here was an entire building built from it—and not a small one at that. The tall spires and triangular build of the Sserin palace made it look much like a large patch of crystals growing from the ground. Each of the palaces was supposed to have a different design, constructed by the world’s greatest artisans a millennia before.
“You sure you can do this, kid?” Hine asked.
“No,” Devin said honestly.
Hine grunted. “Then don’t admit it to me—I’d rather not know.”
Devin took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
The group kept to the shadows—an almost useless convention with Skeer and Voko along. Still, it felt better than striding out in the open. They rounded the side of the building, approaching the back where, hopefully, they would be less likely to be seen. Here, however, there wasn’t an entrance.
Devin ran his fingers across the smooth Amberite. The walls were constructed from blocks, but they were fit together extremely well.
“I warned you,” Voko whispered. “Amberite is practically unclimbable. Certain . . . associates of mine have tried. I don’t know a single person who has been able to manage it.”
Devin turned his eyes upward. A series of windows and balconies began about forty feet upward, but there were none on the ground floor—at least, not any that weren’t near a Guard station.
“Which one’s hers?” Devin asked.
Voko paused, pulling out a small map, then unrolled it with his muscular fingers and looked it over for a moment. Then he looked up, counting over windows.
“There,” he said, pointing at a balcony a full hundred feet up in the air.
“You don’t sound very optimistic, Voko,” Skeer chided. “It’s not that far away—we can reach it. All we need to do is get a rope up there, then the rest of us can climb up.”
All eyes turned toward Devin.
“Give it a try, Skeer,” Devin suggested.
Voko raised an eyebrow in the starlight—that wasn’t the plan. Devin ignored him, watching intently as Skeer shrugged and accepted the coil of rope from Ralan.
This had better work, Devin thought with trepidation.
Skeer stuck his fingers into a handhold between two blocks and began to climb. He slipped and fell to the ground after putting his first foot on the rock, but Devin wasn’t expecting the lanky man to succeed. He wanted something else.
The seizure began. Devin endured the shaking with gritted teeth—he had been expecting it this time. It subsided a second later, and he immediately kicked off his boots and stockings.
Devin took a deep breath, then took the rope from Skeer and began to climb. He’d never done anything like it, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter. He found handholds instinctively; he somehow knew how to distribute his weight between his four limbs so that he didn’t strain any one; he understood how to use the slight slant of the wall to his advantage, and how to use his own sweat to gain traction on the otherwise slick Amberite surface.
Just minutes later he reached the balcony. Only after he had climbed atop it did he think to look down. His friends were barely visible in the darkness below. He felt a bit woozy, looking down at the ground—it seemed so much further when he was looking down. Had he really climbed all that way?
Devin shuddered, glad he’d had the sense not to look down while he was climbing. He affixed the rope to the balcony railing, then threw it over the side. It reached the ground with rope to spare, and there were knots along its length to aid climbing.
Devin stepped back and waited for the others. There was no denying it now—the seizures and his abilities were related. Somehow, he was able to do things he had never even tried. As long as he watched someone else try it, he could learn the skill in an incredibly short amount of time. It was almost as if the ability were sucked directly into his mind.
Voko was the first one up, and he was cursing. Devin reached over to help him over the railing. The short man simply shook his head. “I actually needed those knots, Devin. This is just pathetic.” He sighed, stepping away as Ralan came over. He was followed by Skeer and then Ix, and Hine came up last.
“Pretty good, son,” Hine approved as Devin helped him over the railing. “You’re good at a surprising number of things for one so young.”
“I . . .” Devin said quietly, not sure how to respond. “I’m just lucky.”
Hine regarded Devin for a moment, his face unreadable in the soft starlight. Finally, the older Guard nodded once to himself, then moved over to where Voko was using a piece of wire to try and undo the inside latch on the balcony door. The broad double doors were crafted from wood, rather than Amberite, and had glass panes to let in the starlight.
“This is very suspenseful,” Ix noted in the darkness.
Voko cursed to himself, mumbling something about his ‘Hess-cursed fingers.’ He fumbled, nearly dropping his wires. “I’ll have it in just a second,” he promised.
“Let Devin try,” Skeer urged.
“Devin?” Voko said with surprise. “Lockpicking isn’t easy, Skeer. It takes years of practice. Of course, it helps if your fingers haven’t been meated-out by a cursed Kkell oath.”
Devin waited, watching tensely as Voko worked, uncertain if he should interrupt or not. After a few minutes, he could stand the tension no longer.
“Here, Voko,” he suggested. “Take a break.”
The squat man paused, then nodded, wringing his overworked fingers. “I would have had it in seconds, before . . .” he mumbled.
Devin accepted the wires from the man. As Voko stepped back, Devin peered through the glass, noting the intricate latching mechanism on the other side. No wonder Voko was having a hard time.
Devin didn’t have to think as he slid the wires between the door panes. He turned them twice, and the latch came undone.
“Hess . . .” Voko breathed from behind. “Is there nothing you can’t do?”
Devin swung the door open. The balcony looked directly into the sleeping chamber—a massive bed, larger than one person could possibly need, dominated the room. Even in the darkness, Devin could see the extravagance. Silk fluttered in the window’s breeze; it seemed to trim every ledge and corner. Metallic gleams reflected the starlight—overlays of gold and other precious metals. And, of course, the walls were crafted of Amberite itself.
“In we go,” Hine whispered. “You,” he said, pointing at Skeer. “Stay out here.”
Skeer opened his mouth to object, but Hine lay a firm hand on his shoulder. “And don’t say anything,” he growled. “Make a sound, and I’ll throw you off the ledge.”
Devin led the way, sliding into the room with his newfound stealth. Ralan moved almost as quietly, stepping like a prowling beast. Hine and Voko were far less dexterous, but they didn’t make too much noise. Ix stayed with Skeer, peering into the room anxiously as Devin and the others approached the large bed.
A solitary form, visible only because of the slight impression it made, lay in the middle of the wide bed. So much . . . cushion for one person, Devin noted with a frown. As he got closer, leaning against the bed itself, he could make out the Kkoloss form curled up beneath the cushions. She was slight of frame and tall—Kkoloss for certain.
Am I certain I want to do this? Devin wondered. What I did before, that was in self-defense. This is premeditated. If I kidnap this woman, then there is no turning back.
Devin looked up, meeting Hine’s eyes. The bright starlight outside reflected through the Amberite walls and numerous windows, providing just enough light to see by. Hine nodded—he was ready. He had said he wouldn’t hurt a Kkoloss, but he was grudgingly willing to take one prisoner.
Devin turned to look for Voko, but the squat man wasn’t in place—he had instead drifted toward a desk at the far side of the room, and was peeking into one drawers. A second later he noticed Devin’s annoyance, and quickly padded over.
“Sorry,” he whispered. “Sometimes old habits are hard to shake.”
Devin didn’t bother to respond. He motioned for Ralan to get into place near the woman’s feet, and the warrior responded. Devin took one look down at the Kkoloss woman’s beautiful face—fortunately, she had rolled over close to the edge of the bed—then motioned once with his hand.
Immediately, Devin clamped his hand over her mouth. At the same time, Voko whipped her blanket off and Hine grabbed her hands and began lashing them together. Ralan did the same with her feet.
The woman’s eyes opened wide with shock, and she immediately began to writhe, trying to push Devin away. However, Hine had a powerful grip on her hands. Before she even knew what was happening, she was bound tightly, despite her squirming. Devin whipped out a rag and stuffed it in her mouth, then tied it in place with a second one. Then he stepped back.
“It actually worked,” Hine whispered with a measure of surprise.
The princess twisted in her bonds, shooting looks of confusion, anger, and fear in their direction. Watching her looks of horror, Devin felt an immediate stab of guilt—this woman had never harmed him. They were taking her captive in the middle of the night—four massive, shadowed forms, like horrible visions from a nightmare. Like the creatures that had been following him.
Devin leaned close. “We won’t hurt you,” he promised quietly. “You needn’t fear.” He knew his words sounded weak, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. “I promise,” he said, “no harm will come to you.”
The promise didn’t seem to slacken her fears. Her eyes continued to dart around with paranoid confusion.
Devin sighed. “All right, Hine. Pick her up, and let’s get out of here.”
Hine nodded, reaching over to do as instructed. However, as he did, Devin noticed something. The woman began to sink. Devin frowned in confusion. The woman’s body pressed down on the cushions, almost as if she were growing heavier.
Hine grunted in surprise as he tried to heft the woman. She barely budged. The massive warrior strained, his Kkell-enhanced muscles tensing. Eventually, he managed to roll the princess into his arms and lift her off the bed.
“Hess,” he mumbled. “She feels like she’s made of stone.”
Ralan moved to help, but before the other Guard could arrive, Hine began to wobble. He tried to lift the woman and place her over his shoulder, but the maneuver threw him off balance. With a grunt, Hine toppled to the ground, the Kkoloss woman on top of him.
“Hine!” Devin whispered, kneeling beside the two forms, trying to push the princess off of his friend. Hine was right—the woman’s flesh felt like it was made of stone. Devin couldn’t get enough leverage to even budge her.
“She’s getting heavier,” Hine warned, his voice muffled beneath the woman’s form. There was a strained tension in his voice. “I . . . it’s getting hard to breathe.”
“All at once,” Devin said urgently, nodding to Ralan and Voko. Together, they heaved against the woman’s body, trying frantically to roll her off of their friend. She barely moved beneath their combined effort.
“It’s the Kkell Power,” Voko said with a quiet curse. “She’s making herself heavier.”
“Kkell Power?” Devin asked. He’d never heard of such a thing. “How do we stop it?”
“Stand over there,” Voko said, pointing to the other side of the room.
Devin regarded him with confusion.
“Just do it.”
Frightened, Devin did as instructed, rushing to the other side of the room. Hine wasn’t even groaning any more. When Devin turned back, Voko was reaching for his boot.
“Only one way to stop it,” Voko mumbled, slipping one of his knives free.
“No!” Devin said, suddenly realizing why Voko had sent him away. He dashed forward, trying to stop the man. However, he was too far away. Voko reached the knife forward and, with a methodical flip of the wrist, knocked the princess on the back of the head with the knife’s handle.
The wood handle cracked against her skull with an audible snap. Immediately, Ralan—who had still been pushing against the immobile body—was thrown forward. The unconscious woman rolled across the Amberite floor, Ralan toppling to the ground behind her. As soon as she was free, Hine took a deep breath.
Devin paused, stopping just a few inches from Voko. “I . . . thought you were going to do something else,” he confessed.
“I nearly did,” Voko admitted, sliding his knife back into place. “Like I said, old habits are hard to break.”
Hine lay on the floor, staring up at the ceiling with dazed eyes. “Hess . . . ” he mumbled. “That girl needs to lose some weight.”
Devin snorted, helping the other man sit up.
“The Kkell of Litheness,” Voko said speculatively. “The Sserin Kkell Power. It’s supposed to make Sserin women light and dexterous—I guess they can increase their weight as well as decrease it.”
Hine grunted, rubbing his chest.
Devin quickly reached forward, checking the man for broken ribs. “Nothing’s broken, as far as I can tell,” he informed.
Hine nodded, climbing to his feet with a groan. “Is she still breathing?” he asked. “I was almost unconscious, and even I heard that hit, Voko.”
Ralan, who knelt beside the Kkoloss woman, looked up and nodded. She was still alive.
Devin sighed in relief. “Let’s go,” he said.
Ralan picked up the woman, and the group made their way back out to the balcony. Voko threw the rope over the side of the rail, then Ralan swung over, still carrying the woman as he climbed down.
“I was wondering who was going to have to do that,” Hine said with a grunt. He looked over the edge, then immediately turned back, his face paling slightly in the starlight.
Ix frowned. “What is wrong, Hine?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Hine affirmed hastily. He carefully didn’t look down again.
Ix approached the edge as Voko climbed over. The shadowling peered over the side, tipping almost dangerously over the balcony.
“Hess,” Hine mumbled. “That thing is insane.”
Ix looked back up. “As a human, I am very confused,” he admitted.
“I’m just a little afraid of heights,” Hine explained gruffly.
“Afraid?” Ix asked. “Of heights? I had heard that we humans are sometimes frightened of spiders and large predators, but heights are very different from those. Are we afraid of heights too?”
“No no, Ix,” Devin said, pushing the shadowling forward. With a confused face, it climbed over the edge. He turned back to Hine. “Will you be all right?” he asked.
“Of course,” Hine said gruffly. He paused for a moment. “I could use a drink, though,” he admitted, regarding the rope with trepidation.
Devin snorted, nodding toward the rope. Hine sighed and, careful not to look down, the large man climbed over the side and began climbing down. Devin waited for a moment, then climbed onto the rope as well. As he did so, he noticed something.
Skeer, the last one left on the balcony, was peering into the dark room, a strange look on his face. It was as if he was trying to restrain himself, but was having a difficult time of it. He eyed Devin for a moment, smiled slightly to himself, then turned back to the room with a mischievous look on his face.
“Skeer . . .” Devin said warningly. He was too late.
“Come and behold!” Skeer suddenly hollered into the dark room. “Your princess has vanished! Just like all who try to impede the glorious Eruntu Rebellion! We will hold her until our demands are met. Vengeance, repayment, truth!”