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.
“I am tired now, so I will go to sleep.” Ix made the comment in his normal, emotionless voice as he looked around to make certain his companions had heard him. Then the squat black man lay down on his cot, closed his eyes, and immediately began snoring quietly.
“Why does he always tell us what he’s doing?” Devin wondered, regarding the creature.
Skeer, still sitting in thought, shrugged. “He’s just trying to prove how human he is.”
Devin frowned. “I don’t think he is human, Skeer,” he said slowly. “He doesn’t look quite right, and his skin is too dark.”
Skeer shrugged again. “Your hair is white, Kkoloss hair can be any color, and Skaa don’t have any hair. We’re all human—why can’t a man with dark skin be human too?”
“You’re not worried about . . .”
“Him being a shadowling?” Skeer asked. “Ha. I’m skeptical of anything the Kkoloss say. I refuse to let my mind be ruled by their manipulative directions. I say, the Kkoloss threw him in prison. That makes him good enough as far as I’m concerned.”
Devin thought for a moment, then nodded slowly. It did have a logic to it. Unfortunately, Skeer’s mention of Skaa brought horrific images back into Devin’s mind. Images of the poor Skaa man dying in his arms.
If we’re all human, he wondered with a shudder, why did Hess make some of us better than others?
No matter how much he pondered the question, he couldn’t reach an answer. One thing he knew, however—what he had done in killing that Skaa had not been right. If the pickers had been Eruntu, the prince would have ordered them captured. If they had for some reason been Kkoloss, he would have let them go free. Only Skaa would have been slaughtered.
Devin wasn’t certain why he hadn’t made such a connection before. The Eruntu tried to ignore the Skaa, content in the knowledge that even though they themselves weren’t Kkoloss, they also weren’t Skaa. The Skaa were regarded as animals, and were ignored accordingly. Except, the pain Devin had seen in the eyes of the man he had murdered had been so familiar. It had not been the pain of an animal.
The realization—which he would never have made, had he not been forced to perform such a gruesome act—bothered Devin even more than his incarceration. He worried that everything he had been taught, all that he had known, was false. Skaa felt pain, just like Devin did. What was more, the prince had acted unjustly in imprisoning Devin—yet, Kkoloss were supposed to be infallibly just.
Suddenly, the world seemed very, very wrong.
“Aha!” Skeer suddenly said with a triumphant smirk. “You may now bask in my brilliance, fellow rebels.”
Ix cracked a sleepy eye. Devin himself was beginning to feel tired—it must be approaching night time. Of course, he hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, so he couldn’t be certain.
“What is it you have discovered, friend Skeer?” Ix asked.
“I have the solution,” Skeer announced, proffering a couple of small pieces of metal. “I worked them off of the cot.”
Ix regarded the pieces of metal. “Those are very small swords, friend Skeer,” he said.
“They’re lockpicks, you fool,” Skeer announced. “I’ll pick the lock on our door and we’ll be back at the rebellion headquarters before the sun rises.”
Devin eyed the pieces of metal. They were probably thin enough to fit through a keyhole, but they were twisted and awkward. He didn’t know much about picking locks, but he doubted the shards of iron would be much of a help.
However, he had already learned enough about Skeer to realize that the man wouldn’t give up simply because his task was impossible. Sure enough, Skeer walked over and reached through the door’s barred front and began to work at the lock.
I hope the guard isn’t watching, Devin thought with a shake of his head. Of course, what did it matter if the guard saw them? They were all probably going to get executed anyway. At least Skeer hadn’t given up.
Devin sighed, turning over on his side. He began to doze on his cot while Skeer worked—unsuccessfully—on the lock. Devin had drifted off completely when he was awakened by the sound of a door opening.
He sat up immediately, coming wide awake. He couldn’t believe that Skeer . . .
Devin frowned. Skeer still knelt by their door, a look of frustration on his face. Their door was still locked tightly. Then what had Devin heard?
A noise came from behind him, and Devin turned, looking through the cell’s barred back toward the large bowl-shaped room beyond. A broad set of doors had opened down below, and some figures were beginning to pour into the room.
“What’s that?” Skeer asked with confusion. He stood, moving over toward the back of the room. Ix stood and joined him. Devin didn’t pay the two of them much attention—he was too amazed by what he saw below. Kkoloss. Dozens of them. And they were tied up.
“By Hess!” Skeer mumbled with shock. At least a hundred Kkoloss—men, women, and children—were being led into the large room by a group of Eruntu Guards. Devin blinked in surprise, unable to accept what his eyes were telling him. Eruntu? Leading captured Kkoloss? Devin squinted with confusion and, with surprise, realized that he recognized several of the Guard faces down below.
Vevinn suffered the indignity with as much pride as he could manage. He wasn’t certain what enraged him more—that House Sserin had commanded its Eruntu to attack Kkoloss, or that the Eruntu had obeyed. True, the Sserin Guards hadn’t dared draw their war hammers against Vevinn and his men. However, being captured and tied up was almost a greater indignity than being wounded.
Of course, House Kkeris had not gone easily. Even those men who weren’t interested in the Games knew proper Kkoloss dueling techniques, and they all had the benefit of their Kkell power. The power made most Kkeris noblemen incredibly skilled fighters. At least half of the thousand men who had attacked the pavilion lay dead, and half of those who had survived were wounded.
Unfortunately, the Eruntu had pulled the Kkoloss down one at a time, dragging them back into the Guard lines to be tied like common animals. Though they were no match for Vevinn’s men when it came to ability, the Sserin Guard members were powerful and strong, their muscles enhanced by the Sserin Kkell power. Vevinn’s circle of fifty men had slowly dwindled until the remaining few could be captured.
Sserin, you . . . Vevinn thought with rage. Such a chaotic event would carry un unimaginable burden of Ki-Ssu. So much, in fact, that even a Kkoloss King’s soul might be denied entrance to paradise. As it was, the Eruntu who had followed him would have their spirits rejected. They would be forced to enter the Shadowspin, their souls set loose to become demons, manipulated and controlled by the Demon God and his Desicrates.
Vevinn held his head high as his family was marched into the Sserin Guard complex. House Sserin had more than just Spiritual repercussions to worry about. When the Priesthood found out that Sserin had used Eruntu to capture Kkoloss, then packed those Kkoloss into cloth-covered wagons to secretly transport them to his personal dungeons . . .
No, the Emperor would not treat House Sserin well after this particular escapade. Vevinn suspected Sserin would find himself unadopted from his family. In fact, his entire family would probably be unadopted, and the House title would pass to a cousin or uncle—a man more decent and pious. What Sserin had done was unacceptable.
“Where are you, Dunn Vas Sserin!” Vevinn demanded, still standing with his arms bound. He had already worked his bonds free three times, but the Guard members had obviously been told to watch him carefully, and they had quickly retied him each time.
There was no answer. The Kkoloss were gathered in the center of the bowl-shaped room. There were what appeared to be prison cells running in a ring around the top of the room—it was a dungeon of some kind.
The Eruntu Guards stood uncomfortably around the huddle of Kkoloss. They had already seen half their numbers slain—they knew that if their captives somehow escaped, they would easily be overpowered.
Vevinn snorted as he regarded them. You don’t even realize how dead you are, do you? He thought. When House Kkeris was finally released, the Emperor would see these Guards executed. They had never had a chance—if they had disobeyed the order to attack Kkoloss, they would have been killed for insubordination. Now they would be killed for blasphemy.
“Show your face, Sserin!” Vevinn announced. Though he was only the fourth son, all three of his brothers stood quietly and confused in an amazed huddle, too shocked to react. Eruntu sometimes rebelled and attacked Kkoloss—though they were quickly captured and executed. However, for a House to actually command its soldiers to lay hands on Hess’s chosen . . . it was almost too much for a man’s mind to grasp.
“You will never escape this, you know!” Vevinn announced, turning toward the darkened cells above. King Sserin had to be in one of them, watching quietly. “The Priesthood will see your Kingship taken away for this! What do you possibly hope to gain? Will you demand some sort of recompense from us? A bribe for our freedom? Or, will you simply hold us, hoping the Priesthood won’t think to check your dungeons?”
There was no response. Vevinn cursed quietly in annoyance—his Posture, his courtly manner, had been abandoned, but for once he didn’t care. Others maintained Posture better—the women stood with pale, quiet faces, the men with looks of defiance—but Vevinn would rather make himself heard than maintain courtly mannerisms. As he spoke, he noticed one oddity. Vevinn’s father wasn’t there. He hadn’t seen the king since the beginning of the attack.
Vevinn searched the shadows above in anger. He could see forms in some of the cells, but he couldn’t tell if any of them belonged to King Sserin.
“What do you want from us!” Vevinn screamed in anger.
The doors to the room snapped shut. The Eruntu around Vevinn jumped in surprise—they hadn’t been expecting to be locked in.
In that moment, Vevinn moved. He twisted his arms quickly, his mind—powered by the Kkell of Skill—easily discovering the perfect way to untie his hands. The ropes dropped to the ground even as Vevinn jumped at a nearby Guard.
The man looked up in surprise, and he raised his war hammer just in time to receive a punch in the face. He fell unconscious—Vevinn’s blows were always placed precisely enough to drop in a single strike. He inherently knew the exact amount of force to exert and the exact place to hit.
The Guards cried out in alarm as the enraged Vevinn jumped at them. He ignored the fallen hammer—it was designed for someone with the Sserin Kkell of Strength, and would be too bulky to be much good. It didn’t matter. Vevinn had trained himself in combat for fifty years, and he learned at many times the rate of a regular man. Surprise was his, and his enemy was weakened. Perhaps he could buy enough time for some of the other Kkoloss to break free.
“Kill them all,” a firm voice sounded from above. Dunn Vas Sserin’s voice.
Only then, as the arrows began to fall, did Vevinn fully grasp the extent of Sserin’s blasphemy.
Devin watched helplessly as the slaughter commenced. The arrows fell on Eruntu and Kkoloss alike, without regard for gender or age. The children fell first, followed by the women and the Eruntu.
“Why?” Devin asked with horror. “Why kill the Guards?”
Skeer just shook his head, his eyes stunned. “Because they have seen too much,” he whispered. “They have done too much. Kkoloss can’t be trusted, Devin. Sserin ordered his men to capture those other Kkoloss—House Kkeris, by their color—and now he has to kill them all. Eruntu who have realized that they can stand against Kkoloss are very dangerous.”
Devin pressed himself against the bars, shaking the inflexible steel in frustration. Down below, he saw Tekke take an arrow in the chest and fall dead. Other men he had worked with, powerful Jekkif and joyful Tomo, fell as well. Devin wanted to close his eyes to the horror, but he knew he couldn’t. Someone had to witness this. Someone had to sit as a silent testament to the bravery of these men. They had only done what they were told, and now it was costing their lives.
Men cried out in agony, in confusion, in pain. They yelled for Hess to protect them and they pled for mercy. Some tried to force the door open, others tried to climb the walls and reach the cells. All fell to the arrows.
As he watched, Devin’s eyes suddenly fell on a familiar form. His captain, the man whose name he had never learned, stood near the center of the room. The captain did not cry out, did not try to escape. He simply stood, surrounded by about a dozen other captains, sorrow—but acceptance—on their faces.
They knew this would happen, Devin realized, looking into their eyes. They might not have known at first, but as soon as they were ordered to capture those Kkoloss, they knew what would happen to them. And they obeyed anyway. The Kkell oath required men to swear their lives to their King. Apparently, these men took that Oath seriously—even if their King was the one who had them murdered.
The captain fell quietly, two arrows striking him at the same time. The other captains soon followed, their blood pooling on the ground, mixing with that of Kkoloss.
I swore no Oath, Devin thought, grinding his teeth in anger. That will be your mistake, Prince Sarn Vas Sserin. You should have had me swear the Oath.
“This is very horrifying,” Ix said—his voice odd, as if he were trying to approximate an emotion. Or, perhaps he just didn’t know how to express it.
“Hess,” Skeer whispered. “Look at them dodge.”
Devin looked away from the Captain’s body to notice something. Though most of the Eruntu and women had fallen—their corpses piling on the stone floor—the Kkoloss men lived on. Their blue-clothed forms spun and dodged, easily knocking arrows from the air. Once in a while a man would fall, but the vast majority of the arrows were dodged or deflected.
“House Kkeris,” Skeer mumbled, still transfixed by the battle. “They have the Kkell Power of Skill.”
“Skill?” Devin asked.
“They learn better, and more quickly, than regular men,” Skeer explained. “And they are House Sserin’s greatest rival.”
One man in particular seemed almost inhumanly capable. He was the man who had spoken earlier, a tall, passionate Kkoloss in a militaristic blue uniform. He stood defiantly, not even bothering to dodge as he deflected arrows. Except, this man didn’t just swat them away—he caught them with deft motions, then threw them back at the archers. Before that moment, Devin wouldn’t have thought it possible to throw an arrow with any accuracy. This man, however, proved him wrong. None of the arrows actually hit, but they came surprisingly close.
Eventually the archers, who crouched in shadowed cells on the other side of the room from Devin’s chamber, realized they were having little luck with their current strategy. Instead, they began coordinating their attacks on single Kkoloss targets. After that, the killing went more quickly, and the Kkeris men began to fall. It was a slow process, but the archers were patient and the Kkoloss began to tire. Eventually, only three men remained.
“Where’s King Kkeris?” Skeer asked suddenly. “I would have thought the drooling idiot would be one of the first to get captured.”
“The King?” Devin asked.
Skeer nodded. “Wherever he is, he’s grown incredibly powerful. All of those he had to share his Kkell power with are now dead.”
“Why?” Ix said. “I do not understand how we humans can commit such a slaughter.”
“I don’t know,” Skeer said. “Why slaughter Kkeris? They’re rivals, but all of the Houses are rivals, and have been for a thousand years. Why take such a risk?”
Skeer was silent for a moment, watching the death below. Then he swore to himself. “He wants the power,” he whispered. “He wants the Kkell of Skill for himself.”
Devin frowned. He didn’t know a lot about Kkoloss, but the priesthood’s training had told him some things. “That’s impossible, Skeer,” he objected, his senses dulled by the horror below. “Even if House Sserin slaughters all of these Kkoloss, someone on the mainland will become the Kkeris House Leader—some lucky son of the Seventh Sept. This is senseless! Even if Dunn somehow managed to kill every single man in House Kkeris, the power still wouldn’t go to him.”
“True,” Skeer noted. “Unless, of course, an Archpriest adopted him into House Kkeris.”
Devin paused. “That could happen?”
Down below, another man died. Now only the one remained. The brave, angry Kkoloss. He continued to throw back arrows with impunity, but he obviously knew he had little chance of survival.
“It could,” Skeer said. “The Kkoloss try to keep it quiet—they don’t like threats to their invincibility. Archpriests can unadopt a Kkoloss—effectively lowering his Sept so that he loses most of his Kkell power. They can also adopt, giving one man a fraction of the blood from another House. If Dunn were adopted into House Kkeris, he would be First Sept Sserin and about Fifth Sept Kkeris at the same time. Theoretically, if all of those with more blood than he were killed, the mantle of House Kkeris would pass to him. He would be First Sept of both Houses.”
Devin watched the last man fight. Now, with all of the archers focusing on him, he could no longer afford to catch arrows. He was forced to spin and dodge, jumping over the bodies of his fallen family members, his eyes focused as he slapped missile after missile from the air. He moved as no man should be able to move, his motions fluid and precise. There were no guesses or approximations—every slap, every step, was preformed with exactness.
“Who is he?” Devin asked with wonder.
“Prince Vevinn,” Skeer said. “Commander of House Kkeris’s Guard.”
“He’s amazing,” Devin mumbled.
Skeer snorted. “He’s still a Kkoloss. His death is no more pitiful than those of the thousands of Eruntu he has sent to their graves in those cursed Games.”
“Friend Skeer,” Ix said. “Even amongst Kkoloss, there are some good men.” Devin turned slightly, looking at Ix. The creature stood stiffly, his face expressionless. Yet, deep within those eyes, Devin thought he could see emotion. Ix wasn’t good at expressing himself, but he did have feelings.
Devin turned back to the fight. There was something noble about the prince’s struggle—something that reminded Devin of the odds he had faced all of his life. The slaughter he had just seen had forced Devin to admit that Kkoloss might not be as perfectly just as he had imagined. Prince Vevinn proved that at least some Kkoloss lived up to expectations.
Devin watched anxiously, letting the action below draw his attention away from the atrocity he had just seen. Eventually, the hail of arrows slacked to a trickle, then dwindled to a halt.
Why stop firing? Devin wondered. Only then did he realize that the red-stained floor of the inner room was littered with arrows. The shafts were piled so high at the edges of the room that it was hard to see the bodies. The archers hadn’t stopped firing because of frustration—they had simply run out of ammunition.
Prince Vevinn stood in the center of the room, breathing deeply from exertion. His uniform was stained with sweat, his boots stained with blood. He was the only one in the room still alive.
“Come down and face me, Sserin!” he yelled. “You want me dead, then come and perform the deed with your own sword!”
The challenge was met with silence. However, a few seconds later a sound came from the far end of the room—the sound of a bar being removed from a door. The broad double doors swung open, and a group of forms strode in.
Prince Sarn Vas Sserin Devin recognized, as well as several of the prince’s Kkoloss underlings. The man at the head of the group, a regal-looking Kkoloss whose features were an older version of the prince’s, could be none other than King Dunn Vas Sserin. The man standing beside the King, however, was a surprise. He wore black silken robes and a headpiece whose trails extended almost all the way down to his knees. An Archpriest of Hess.
Prince Vevinn’s eyes opened wide with shock. “You . . . condoned this insanity?” he demanded.
“It is the will of the Emperor, child,” the Archpriest informed with a smooth voice.
Vevinn cursed quietly, eyeing the Archpriest with disgust. Then his eyes fell on another form—that of an elderly Kkoloss Devin didn’t recognize. The man wore blue, and he stared ahead blankly, his face bearing a look of insane confusion. Apparently, Kkoloss weren’t immune to disease, as the Eruntu were led to believe.
“Who is it?” Devin whispered.
“The King of House Kkeris,” Skeer explained.
“Father,” Vevinn pled below. “Father, draw your sword. Defend your House as you once would have!”
The King continued to stare stupidly at his son, his eyes completely unresponsive.
Vevinn sighed, reaching to his side and drawing his thin Kkoloss dueling blade. “So be it, then,” he declared. “Which of you will face me? I demand an honest duel, as prescribed by the laws of conduct—”
There was a loud twang, and twelve arrows shot from above. Vevinn started to turn, realizing Sserin’s ruse—the arrows hadn’t been spent, the archers had simply been told to wait and fire when the prince was distracted. Even surprised, Vevinn moved with amazing dexterity. He dodged to the side, moving his arm in a protective swipe that knocked aside several arrows and blocked several others with its flesh. One shaft, however, took him in the thigh as he jumped away.
Vevinn fell to the bloodied ground, tripping over an Eruntu corpse. He didn’t even have time to cry out as the archers focused on their now-wounded prey, drilling arrow after arrow into his fallen body. A few minutes later Vevinn stopped quivering, and all was silent.
“Does he have it?” Prince Sserin finally snapped, turning.
The priest stood beside the drooling King Kkeris, staring directly into the old man’s eyes. Eventually, the priest nodded. “Yes,” he said, his voice slightly awed. “He now holds nearly all the Kkell power of his House. Never before has such power been confined to a single man’s body—always before it was distributed amongst the Septs.” The Archpriest paused, regarding the idiot King. “There is no telling what having such power could do to a man. It is a pity—we will never know what he was capable of. As soon as it passes to you, it will be distributed amongst the Septs of House Sserin.”
“Give it to us,” Prince Sarn whispered eagerly.
“You get ahead of yourself, boy,” King Sserin said, pushing past his son to regard the drooling King. “Your time will come, Sarn. It goes to me first.”
“It comes to all of us, father,” Prince Sarn reminded. “We are Sserin—your power is our power.”
“Do it, priest,” King Dunn ordered.
The Archpriest smiled with a nod that looked half-mocking to Devin. He placed one hand on King Kkeris’s cheek and his other on that of King Sserin. “It is done,” said.
“I feel nothing,” Dunn said with a sniff.
“You are only Fifth Sept Kkeris, Your Majesty,” the priest reminded. “The Kkell is barely noticeable at such a lesser level. You are, however, the only living male relative of the King who has a Sept greater than Sixth, which makes you his heir.”
Kkeris grunted, scratching at his bright red beard. Then, with a shrug, he drew his dueling sword and ran it right through the chest of the idiot King.
“Goodbye, Kkeris,” Prince Sarn whispered as the old man looked down with pain and shock.
The wounded King cried out like a child, whimpering as his legs gave out and he dropped to the ground.
“I feel nothing,” King Sserin announced again.
The Archpriest frowned. “Perhaps, because you already have the Sserin Kkell in such a large amount, the addition of more power was unnoticeable,” he postulated.
“Perhaps,” the King agreed. “You are certain none of them escaped?”
“The Emperor’s assassins took care of the three children too young to bring to the Games,” the Archpriest said. “Every male member of the Kkeris royal line is accounted for.”
Sserin grunted, sheathing his sword. “Then let us go test my new abilities.” He paused, looking around the room and up at the cells. “Sarn, see that his mess is taken care of.”
Sarn watched his father and the priest go, his eyes dissatisfied. Then he nodded to his companions, and they left and returned with a cart, then began to pile the bodies inside.
Suddenly, the room felt very warm to Devin. He drew in a breath in surprise—he felt . . . emotional for some reason. Tears started to form in his eyes—not from joy, but from sheer overwhelming sensation.
“What is it, friend Devin?” Ix asked, placing a hand on Devin’s shoulder.
“I . . . I . . . ” The words would not come out. Devin felt so much emotion he didn’t know how to release it. His mind was focused on the pain of all those who had just been slaughtered, but at the same time he felt incredible pleasure, enormous guilt, and a host of other emotions. The waves of feeling rammed together, making his muscles tense. His hand began to shake from the strain.
He took a deep breath, forcing the emotions to subside. He collapsed back on his cot, struggling to regain control.
“I think friend Devin is having problems,” Ix said. “A human so young should not have seen such a horrible sight.”
“For one so young?” Skeer demanded. “That was a difficult experience for me!” The lanky man stepped away from the bars. “Oh, Hess,” he mumbled, looking up with surprise. “You realize what we just saw?”
Ix looked up with confusion.
“Kkoloss slaughtered Kkoloss, shadowling!” Skeer said. “They completely ignoring the laws of dueling. Even worse, Eruntu accosted Kkoloss—and by House Sserin’s command! And it was all sanctioned by the Priesthood.”
“Yes,” Ix said with a nod. “I stood beside you and watched it happen. Perhaps you forgot that I was there, Friend Skeer.”
“We’re dead men,” Skeer suddenly realized, ignoring Ix.
Devin shook his head slightly, sitting up. The emotions from before subsided suddenly, as if a lever inside him had been thrown. Suddenly, a stark realization came to his mind. He was going to die. Not later, after a trial, but now.
Down below, Prince Sarn looked up. Devin felt chilled as he saw the look of confusion on his face. The Prince called over one of his men and pointed up at the cells.
“There are prisoners up there?” the Prince asked with amazement.
“I think so, my Lord,” the man said.
“Hess!” Sarn swore. “My father is an idiot!”
“Oh, Hess! Oh Hess, oh Hess, oh Hess!” Skeer mumbled nervously. “They’ll kill us tonight and put our bodies with those down below.”
As if to corroborate Skeer’s realization, a few Kkoloss split off from those below and disappeared through a side door. A few moments later, a sudden scream sounded from down the hallway of cells.
All of a sudden, prisoners started to make sounds, crying for mercy or praying to Hess. In the distance, through the rows of bars, Devin could see several forms moving methodically from one cell to another, their swords drawn.
“I think we are in very much trouble,” Ix declared. “How is it that we are going to get out of this dangerous situation? As a human, I am very curious to know.”
“Not now, Ix,” Skeer said, rushing over to the cell’s door and beginning to work furiously with the picks, his hands quivering. From his angle, Devin could see Skeer work, and realized how hopeless their plight was. Skeer couldn’t even see the lock—he had to insert the picks by touch, and appeared to be wiggling them in random directions hoping for a miracle.
Devin tried to look away from Skeer’s work to check on the oncoming soldiers. The screams of pain were closer now. However, for some reason he couldn’t tear his eyes away from Skeer’s hands. Skeer’s shaking, uncertain hands. He was doing it the wrong way. . . .
A sudden chill passed through Devin’s body. His head began to quiver, as if his tense anxiety had suddenly been given form. The shaking grew stronger, like a miniature seizure, for a sharp, painful second. Then the motion ended in a sudden jerk, his head cocking to the side.
“Let me try,” he suddenly blurted out, standing to his feet.
Skeer continued to work, swearing quietly and ignoring Devin’s announcement.
“Skeer,” Devin said, rising. “Let me try.”
“Fine!” Skeer said as he dropped one of the picks. Then he rushed over to his cot, picked it up, and proceeded to pound it against the ground, breaking off the wooden legs for weapons.
Devin stared down at the pieces of twisted metal. What was he thinking? He’d never picked a lock before. He wasn’t even very good at things he had been practicing for decades—what made him think he could do this?
Still, for some reason he knelt beside the door. He picked up the metal picks. He could see the Kkoloss swordsmen clearly now—they were just a few cells down. There were six of them.
Devin placed the picks in the lock, one on top and one on the bottom. He was a fool—why had he implied that he could pick locks? Now they would all die. Maybe if he hadn’t interrupted, Skeer would have—
He turned the picks once and the lock clicked. Skeer turned, looking at the door with a dumbfounded expression. Devin did likewise. The barred door swung open before them, providing a path to safety.
“Hess!” Skeer said with amazement. “Why didn’t you say something earlier, kid! Come on!” The lanky man picked up a cot leg—an unimpressive cudgel at best, but it was better than nothing—and pushed past Devin into the hallway.
Ix followed, patiently selecting one of the cot’s legs, stepping past Devin. Outside, two surprised Kkoloss stood watching as their four companions slaughtered the occupants of a cell. Skeer and Ix didn’t give them time to respond, instead barreling forward with battle-yells—one high-pitched and fervent, the other an uncertain imitation.
The Kkoloss fell into fencing stances, their shocked expressions turning to ones of amusement.
“Fear the rebellion, Kkoloss dogs!” Skeer informed, swinging his short club at the foremost of the two. “The Eruntu will not long stomach your oppression!”
The Kkoloss raised a powerful arm, and Skeer’s club thumped against it with a dull sound. It didn’t produce any reaction in the Kkoloss beside a smile.
Skeer was nothing if not enthusiastic, however, and he swung again. This time the Kkoloss didn’t even bother to block. The cudgel took him in the shoulder, but again didn’t seem to do the man any damage. He smiled and reached forward to grab Skeer by the neck. The Kkoloss was large and muscular, nearly seven feet tall, his body enhanced by the Sserin Kkell power.
“Ulp!” Skeer mumbled as the enormous Kkoloss picked him up and tossed him backward, sending the rebellion leader skidding down the stone hallway to land in front of Devin in a groaning heap.
The soldier Ix attacked decided to use his sword, and his trained battle reflexes easily blocked the shadowling’s weapon. The Kkoloss then followed with a strike of his own, slicing Ix’s arm as the shadowling dodged backward.
Devin watched it all with shock. Then, suddenly, his seizures returned. His head quivered, a chill running up his spine. He shook for a moment, his head vibrating.
Then, before he knew what he was doing, he jumped over Skeer and dashed toward the Kkoloss. The one who had attacked Skeer smiled as Devin approached. He raised his longsword to strike.
Devin leapt forward and grabbed the shortsword still in its sheath on the Kkoloss’s side. He whipped the weapon forth and, holding the blade point-down in his hand, swung it up to block the Kkoloss’s swing. Then, with a fluid motion, he proceeded to plunge the weapon into the man’s unarmored chest.
The Kkoloss gasped in surprise, dropping his longsword in pain. Devin ripped his weapon free and then spun to face the second Kkoloss. Devin’s hand moved faster than his brain could follow, blocking three swings from his opponent. Before the fourth could fall, Devin’s blade snapped forward in a shining arc.
The Kkoloss’s head bounced down the hallway and his body collapsed without a sound. Devin paused, looking down at the shortsword with amazement. How had he . . . ?
“By the Demon god himself!” Skeer swore in an amazed voice. “Why didn’t you tell us you were so good?”
The four Kkoloss in the cell had finished their work, and were now staring at Devin with astounded expressions. Devin reached over and, with a simple motion, slammed their cell door.
Skeer smiled, climbing to his feet. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he said, limping forward to take one of the fallen longswords. “The rebellion lives on!”
Ix had tied a bandage around his wounded arm, and picked up the second soldier’s shortsword. “I am wounded,” he said to Devin. “It hurts very much.”
Devin nodded slowly, still looking down at his weapon. He had trained a little bit in week he spent with the Guard—could he possibly have grown better than Kkoloss who had been practicing for decades? It must have been a fluke. Still, he did pause to take the other longsword before turning to watch Skeer. The tall Eruntu was limping down the hallway toward the exit.
“Wait a moment,” Devin said, searching the bodies. One of the two men he had killed had a set of keys on his belt. Devin snapped them free, ignoring the Kkoloss he had locked in the cell. They were cursing at him and giving orders—orders Devin didn’t want to hear.
Devin rushed past Skeer, who watched with impatience as Devin began to unlock cells filled with prisoners. “Devin, those are criminals!” Skeer informed.
Devin didn’t respond. There were only five cells that hadn’t been cleared by the Soldiers, and he quickly moved through them, freeing those inside with nervous fingers. He nearly dropped the keys twice.
But, why could I be so calm before? He thought with amazement, pushing open the final door. Nothing seemed to make sense—after everything he had seen in the last twenty-four hours, his mind didn’t want to think anymore. I’ll sort it out later.
As the prisoners fled from the final cell, one paused. Devin looked up to see a familiar face—the older Guard he had met in the detention cart. The man laid a hand on Devin’s shoulder, and nodded once. “Thanks, son,” he said.
Devin nodded, gripping his sword in tense fingers. Then he ran forward to where Ix was motioning for the prisoners to hurry up the staircase to the main floor. Devin shot one look toward the central room down below. The Kkoloss noblemen continued loading bodies, unaware of what was happening just above.
Suddenly, Devin froze. I killed Kkoloss, he thought with horror, turning eyes back on the two dead archers.
“Come on, friend Devin,” Ix urged. “If we do not run, those Kkoloss will certainly want to do us harm.”
A voice called from below—one of the Kkoloss, calling out to his companions and wondering what was taking so long.
“Friend Devin?” Ix asked, tugging at his arm.
Devin shook his head, realizing that he and Ix were the only ones still in the hallway. He motioned for the shadowling to go, and then followed as the Kkoloss below continued to call—this time more urgently.
Up above, Devin followed the escaping prisoners, who ran in a motley line. Devin could only assume they were going in the right direction—of course, these men probably knew the complex fairly well. A couple of them appeared to be Guard members—four or five of the twenty showed the enhanced muscles that came from taking the Kkell Oath. Unfortunately, they were unarmed and looked fatigued from their lengthy incarceration. Devin and Ix ran a short distance behind them, quickly gaining on the group.
“I am worried,” Ix confided. “This is not a good situation because they will—”
“Just keep running,” Devin urged.
Suddenly, the sound of metal ringing against metal sounded from ahead.
Devin looked up as they turned a corner. About halfway down the hallway, the twenty or so prisoners sat kneeling on the ground before a tall form. Only Skeer was on his feet, and he fought a pair of Eruntu Guards with wild, untrained motions. The Guards easily disarmed the spindly Eruntu, one striking him down with an armored fist.
Devin paused, regarding the twenty prisoners. They knelt with subserviently bowed heads. Even after all they had seen, they couldn’t disobey a Kkoloss order. In fact, Devin found it difficult not to join them.
The Kkoloss turned eyes on Devin. “Drop that weapon, boy, and receive your punishment,” he ordered in authoritarian Kkoloss.
Devin stood uncertainly for a second. The Kkoloss had muscles so large they nearly burst his uniform, and he was well over seven feet tall. He had to be from one of the Greater Septs. What chance did Devin have? Besides, he had three Guard members with him. Four men, one of them Kkoloss, the other three trained warriors.
Devin moved to drop his sword in shame. As he did so, however, he noticed something. The lead Kkoloss’s boots were stained red.
Devin’s muscles grew tense, and he felt anger begin to rise in him. He remembered the death, the horrid massacre. He saw the captain die again. He saw young Tekke, confused and frightened, drop with an arrow in his side.
Before he knew it, Devin found himself leaping between the kneeling prisoners, hurling himself at the Kkoloss with a yell of anger. The three Guards quickly moved to stop him. Devin’s sword moved in a blur. He heard more than saw himself parry the Guards’ blows.
They were far stronger than he—that much was to be expected. Yet somehow, Devin knew how to compensate for this. He stepped dexterously amongst the still-kneeling soldiers, trading blows with all three Guards at once. His opponents’ expression changed from disdain to respect as they battled. Their expressions changed again as Devin’s sword whipped to the side, taking one man in the arm, then immediately slashed a second one in the face.
The third man barely dodged to the side as Devin’s blade sought his throat. As Devin completed the swing, however, the shaking returned.
What’s happening to me? Devin thought with fear, barely hanging on to his sword as his head began to tremble and a wave of icy chills rippled through his body.
The Guard saw Devin’s misstep and pressed for the kill. The chills subsided just before the blade struck, and somehow Devin managed to spin to the side. The Guard’s sword took him on the shoulder and nicked off a bit of flesh and clothing, and Devin felt a sear of pain. He stumbled backward, barely avoiding stepping on one of the prisoners as he raised his weapon to parry further attacks.
The Guard Devin had hit in the face was rolling on the ground in pain, but the one with the wounded arm had switched his weapon to the other hand and was circling around to come at Devin from behind.
Devin still fought with a measure of disbelief. He couldn’t believe that in one week of training he had managed to become such a proficient swordsman. He had never been good at anything in his life—why now, all of a sudden?
Yet, he understood what he was doing. He knew how to prepare for each combination of attacks. He knew how to watch and wait for an opening. He knew when his chance came and, almost without thinking, he knew how to sink his sword straight into the unarmored spot under the Guard’s arm.
The Guard sank to the stone floor with a groan as Devin turned just in time to parry a blow from the man behind. Devin entered combat with the man easily, feeling out his abilities. It was obvious that the Guard was fighting with his off hand. His motions weren’t clumsy, but they were by no means as precise as the previous fighters. Devin counted a half-dozen different opportunities to deliver a fatal blow after just a few exchanges.
What am I doing? Devin thought. These men have done nothing wrong. To them, I’m a dangerous prisoner—is my life worth the deaths of three innocent men?
Devin didn’t have time to ponder the question. He heard a sound from behind, and dodged instinctively to the side. The final Guard, who had been preparing to strike, was thrown off balance by the move. As the man stepped forward to make an awkward thrust, the Kkoloss fist that was to have hit Devin hit him instead.
The Guard was thrown all the way across the room, and he cracked against the stone wall with a sonorous crunch.
The Kkoloss turned with a frown of dissatisfaction. Devin stared at the fallen Eruntu with amazement. He had heard the blow, but was stunned by how much power it had contained. The guard, wearing a breastplate and greaves, had been thrown more than fifteen feet by the Kkoloss’s strike.
I can’t let him hit me, even once, Devin thought as he watched the Kkoloss draw his dueling blade. There was a look of sincere disgust in the Lord’s eyes—he did not like the idea of dueling with an Eruntu.
Devin stood hesitantly for a moment. Behind him, Skeer was trying to convince the prisoners to get up and help, but none of them were moving. They watched Devin—he could feel their eyes.
I’ve already cursed myself by killing two, Devin thought. My soul is laden with so much Ki-Ssu, the Paradise guards will just laugh at me. There was no reason to back down from the fight. With thoughts of the massacre fresh in his mind, Devin struck at the Kkoloss.
The Lord dodged and easily parried the blow. He was a better fencer than the Guards had been. He knew how to fight as an individual. All of Devin’s practice during the week before had been on working with the other members of his squad—very little time had been spent on individual sparring.
Still, Devin held his own. He could sense the surprise in the Kkoloss’s eyes—even after seeing Devin defeat three of his men, he hadn’t expected the battle to be difficult. In his mind, a Kkoloss should always be able to defeat an Eruntu—up until just a few moments before, Devin would have agreed with him.
The prisoners watched in silence, the only sounds coming from the combatants’ blades and the occasional groan from the Guard who Devin had sliced in the face. The Kkoloss fought well; Devin tried for a quick win, but found no holes in the man’s defenses. A few minutes dragged on, and Devin began to worry that even if he somehow defeated his opponent, they would still be captured.
It’s a good thing he only has a fencing blade, Devin thought as he parried another blow. The thin blade prevented the Lord from making much use of his enormous strength. Even still, the man’s blows were powerful—each time Devin parried he could feel the Sserin Strength vibrate up his arm.
The man had a weakness, however. Devin could read it in his eyes. Working in the orchards, Devin had known men whose bearing was like that of this man—arrogant, contemptuous, and intolerant. He appeared furious that the battle had already lasted so long. And so, Devin hid some of his ability, making slight, intentional mistakes and sometimes moving more slowly than he could have. The Lord didn’t suspect the feint—Devin could see the satisfaction in his eyes. He thought Devin was weakening.
Devin left an obvious hole, and the Kkoloss struck. At that moment, Devin let loose the whole of his ability—ability he still didn’t know where he had gained. He flipped the Lord’s weapon out of the way, took a step forward, and thrust his own sword directly into the man’s neck, just above his red amberite breastplate.
The Lord looked down with a horrified expression of shock. Devin could see the fear of death in his eyes—something this man had probably never experienced before. More than death, however, Devin could see shame on his proud Kkoloss features. He had been defeated in a duel by an Eruntu.
The Lord slipped forward, blood as red as his hair dripping down the front of his breastplate. He was still struggling for breath—somehow hanging onto life despite the massive blow Devin had inflicted. However, even the Sserin Kkell of Strength couldn’t save him from a thrust directly to the neck.
Devin turned from the dying man, uncertain how he should feel. Before, he had killed the two Kkoloss without thinking. This time his sin had been intentional. He had tried to kill a Kkoloss, and he had won. His soul was lost.
The prisoners still knelt, regarding Devin with stupefied expressions. “Boy, do you know who that was?” one of them asked.
Devin shook his head.
“Lord Tan Vas Sserin,” another whispered. “Second Sept, cousin to the King himself. He’s said to be one of the finest duelists in the Sserin House, second only to Prince Sarn.” The man paused for a moment. “Who are you?” he asked with awe.
“He’s a member of the glorious Eruntu rebellion!” Skeer announced. “And he bids you all join with us! Together, we will repeal Kkoloss domination and see the Eruntu compensated for their centuries of near-slavery. Glory, independence, freedom!”
Devin ignored Skeer, kneeling down to check on the three Guards he had attacked. The one the Kkoloss had punched was obviously dead—his body was twisted and mangled, his head crushed from the impact. The one Devin had stabbed in the side was also dead. The one he had swiped in the face was still alive, however.
Devin approached carefully and rolled the man over, then turned away, sickened. Somehow, without knowing it, Devin had placed his swing so precisely that he had sliced through both of the man’s eyes, completely blinding him.
“Leave me,” the man mumbled.
“Come on!” Skeer urged, pushing the prisoners to their feet and herding them toward the exit. Several resisted—the ones who were Guards—instead standing and waiting to see what Devin did.
“Friend Devin,” Ix urged. “We should be going now.”
Devin looked up from the man he had injured. The Guard had only been doing as he was ordered—Devin would have done the same in his position. “What will happen if we leave him?” he asked.
“He will be killed,” Skeer said. “They will ask him what happened here, and he will claim that Lord Tan was killed by an Eruntu. What does it matter?”
Devin nodded, turning toward one of the waiting men—the older man who he had ridden with earlier. “Pick him up,” Devin requested of them. “Bring him with us.”
The men nodded immediately, not even bothering to question Devin’s order.