The Fensena stopped at the place where all pretense at building ended, and the Ancient caverns began. The roots of the palace were down here. His ears flattened on his head as he looked up at an image carved above the entrance. That it stood open was yet another sign that the Emperor was losing his grip. This place had always been sealed as long as Vermillion had an Emperor to sit on the red throne high above. Now Kaleva had gone mad, the locks were all sprung—just as the Rossin had told the Fensena they would be.
The image above the passage, however, would have been enough to scare away any curious adventurers who came down this deep. The Murashev, the bright deadly female-shaped geistlord danced around a terrible figure, one that was very far from human. It towered over the entrance, clasping the edges of it with muscular tentacles. The Maker of Ways had been depicted in the very moment of tearing open the world to the Otherside. It was a cataclysmic event that the first Emperor had warned against. Many thought this was a depiction of the Break, but the Fensena knew that the damage this powerful geist would do was so great that that earlier event would seem but a bruise to this realm.
With his head lowered and his ears pinned flat, the coyote slunk under the terrifying arch and into the Ancient belly of Vermillion. It was a small circular room with a wide sandy floor, unmarked and unpaved by anything made by humans. Yet it smelled old and felt warm. The coyote slunk forward and sat down at the center of the room. In the human realm there were sacred places; some were venerated by the gods and their worshippers, some were home to Ancient legends, and still others were marked because of terrible things that had happened there.
This place was known to very few—but those few were very powerful. Where the Fensena now sat was the very spot where the Rossin had come into the human world. Here was where the first Emperor—who had also been the very first Deacon—had sealed the pact with the terrible geistlord and given him a toehold into this realm.
The Fensena looked up at the ceiling. He marveled at how the rock above was as smooth and polished as glass. Great heat had bloomed once in this room, and the rock still spoke of that.
The sand beneath the coyote was special too, and definitely not from Arkaym . . . it was from his home. A deep chill settled into the great coyote’s bones as he recalled the Otherside. It was either all burning or all freezing, and there was no rest to be found there. It was why all geists wanted to be on this side; in the human realm where there was choice and hope. He had no desire to return there—nor to see the geists of hunger and revenge come to the human realm. They would lay waste to it as they mindlessly had the Otherside. They feasted on the human souls that passed through that place, because that was all they had. The Fensena, and the mighty Rossin, had other plans.
The coyote smelled the arrival of the human and heard the racing of his heart in his ears long before he appeared. His golden eyes gleamed as he turned and looked over his brindle-furred shoulder at the coming of the Emperor of Arkaym.
In his own way, he was a handsome man, fresh skin and firm jaw, but the geistlord easily saw beyond that. Kaleva, the Prince that the leaders of Arkaym had called from far Delmaire to crown their Emperor, was a broken vase of a man. All the spirit had been snatched from him—but then he had never really been strong enough to hold so much. The coyote ran his tongue over his lip and swept it against his nose. He firmly believed that all the strength of that family had been placed in one female vessel. The Princes of Arkaym had not chosen well.
The Emperor was making a show of striding through the Ancient cavern, but the truth of the matter was, he had been summoned by the same geistlord that had caused the Fensena to be here.
However, he understood nothing—that was immediately apparent. He looked at the melted stonework and did not blink. When the Rossin had spared this puny human’s life at the breaking of the Mother Abbey, the Emperor had promised the great pard something from his palace . . . and he could not leave to continue his personal war until that pact was satisfied.
Kaleva in his smart white uniform reached the part of the tunnel where he could see the interior, and he visibly flinched when he saw the huge coyote crouched at the center of the room—after all he had not had good experiences with the geistlords in animal form. The Fensena’s mouth split open into a canine pant that was his best approximation of a human smile.
“You are tardy for a leader of men.” He couldn’t resist the jibe—nor the chance to make the Emperor jump with his ability to speak.
The Emperor took a step back, and glanced over his shoulder as if he expected some kind of puppet master to leap out of the darkness. The man really was a fool, and Derodak had left him barely holding on to sanity.
“You sent the dream?” Finally the Emperor found his own voice.
“No, it was not I,” the coyote yipped, getting to his feet and stretching. He was trying to convey his best impression of not caring. “It was he that we both call master.”
“I do not—”
The Fensena growled. He preferred to play the trickster, but when it was called for he could be as vicious as any geistlord in this realm or the Otherside. “He is the Rossin, the scion of the Imperial family. From him all strength comes. I believe when he stood before you in fire and dust you understood that . . .”
The Emperor swallowed hard and turned the color of parchment. The Fensena was completely sure that the image was flashing in his fractured mind. The Rossin did many things well, but chief among them was make an impression.
The coyote paced forward a step, lowering his head and fixing his golden eyes on Kaleva. “Enough of this posturing. You are here to fulfill your word and give my lord what he desires.”
The Emperor looked around at the blasted and empty room. “There are many things in my palace I could have given him, but there is nothing here that—”
The Fensena cut him off again in mid-stupidity. “You really do not see a thing do you? It is as if no story was ever read to you as a child.” He whiffed a breath out of his long snout, shaking himself as if foolishness were water and he could somehow dislodge it. He could not believe that this man had come to Arkaym to rule it yet had never taken the time to listen to the old tales and myths. Delmaire was a beautiful land, but it was not the land. Not the first. Arkaym was the more Ancient by far.
Still, he had neither the time nor the compunction to waste his breath on telling it now. If the human was as blind as he appeared, then he would have to be shown. Instead, the coyote turned on his own tail and went to the center of the room. He could feel it humming through his bones, and setting his fur on end; the most Ancient of places and also a hiding spot.
Unlike the Rossin, the Fensena could at least come to this place, but even he could not do what the Emperor was required to do. To give him the hint the coyote began digging. His blunt but effective claws made the sand fly, and though the digging set his teeth on edge, he did not cease for many a minute.
Eventually, the Emperor became curious and drew nearer to observe what the geistlord was up to. The Fensena was panting, and his head was ringing, but he had done all he could. Together geistlord and Emperor stared down at what he had uncovered.
It was a doorway—or perhaps more accurately a hatch. The palace of Vermillion had more than its fair share of such hidey-holes, but this one was far more than that. Kaleva dropped to his knees and stared at the perfectly round silver hatch. “What do the words say?” he choked out.
That he could not read them was no surprise; they were in the language of the Ehtia, which had long been wiped from human memory. “Cursed be he that takes this up,” was a fairly decent translation, but one that the broken Emperor did not need to know.
“I do not have to answer your questions, boy,” he replied, a growl darkening his tone. “It is for you to do as you are told.”
To his credit the Emperor hesitated a moment. He stared at the coyote for a long time, his eyes darting this way and that as if he were having a conversation with himself. Maybe he was.
The Fensena’s hackles went up, and his lip pulled back from his teeth. “Do as you are bid—as you promised the Rossin when he spared your life—or feel the consequences!”
A line of sweat broke out on the Emperor’s forehead, but he leaned down and grabbed a tight hold of the handle. This was the moment where it could all go wrong. The Rossin’s blood did not flow in this Emperor, and the powerful cantrips Derodak had placed on the door could turn and grind Kaleva to dust. However, he was the Emperor and had sat on the throne of Arkaym. That should be enough for the cantrip . . . hopefully.
Kaleva gasped, and bent over as if he’d been punched in the stomach. The coyote waited for him to catch fire, burst into ashes or melt away. None of those things happened.
Finally, the Emperor uncurled himself and yanked on the door handle. A grinding, Ancient noise filled the deserted room, and then a rush of stale air exploded from behind the hatch. Both coyote and human turned aside and coughed desperately. The Fensena’s sharp senses told him to run; it was not just stale air down there. The Otherside was close, and an Ancient seam ran here. It was closed tight for now, but it still made the geistlord nervous.
Since he did not move, it was the Emperor who leaned down into the hole. He might be nearly as empty of sense as a cracked bowl, but he had plenty of that terminal problem for humans: curiosity. The Fensena let him do what he was doing since there could well be traps in there too.
The Emperor proved the coyote right when he began to scream. Long tentacles, green and a vivid red, had appeared at the edge of the hatch, and the Fensena reconsidered; perhaps that breach was not as tightly closed as he had thought. The tentacles had already wrapped around Kaleva’s arm, thick and pulsing with power, and tearing at his flesh until blood pulsed from the wounds.
The Fensena felt a low whine escape his throat and he fought the natural inclination to flee. As the Emperor screamed and tore manically at his arm and the tentacles, the coyote bounded from side to side. He realized that the Emperor’s blood must stay in the hatch, above all things, so he lunged forward and clamped down on the Emperor’s arm, just about where the other had its grip. The Fensena braced, and made sure the human could not move.
The room stank of the Otherside. What if the barrier breached right here and now? Primitive fear—which the Fensena thought he was long past—rushed through him.
The tentacles held on, and the smell of blood filled the room. The Emperor let out a strange strangled scream, and then there was a tearing sound.
Kaleva was left rocking back and forth, clutching his arm to his body, but the tentacles were gone and so was the blood. It had been accepted. The Fensena let out a yip of relief and darted forward.
When he peered into the hole, he could see his goal inside the hatch, but he was not so foolish as to try and take it himself. He turned to the Emperor. “Reach in. Get it.”
Kaleva’s eyes were wide and terrified. “No, n-n-no . . .” he stuttered.
Foolish damn human. The Fensena had reached the end of his tether. He was so close to achieving the task the Rossin had set him. Finally, pushed to it, the coyote used his own power.
He charged the Emperor and knocked him down. For a moment he went into a frenzy; ripping and tearing at the howling man. The smell of blood drove him on, and it was quite possible that he might kill him then and there.
Eventually, the Fensena found his cool Center again. When he came to himself, he was standing over the terrified Emperor, who now had many bites to go with what the tentacles had already inflicted. The Fensena’s gaze was fixed on his throat, and he contemplated how easy it would be to tear it out. He could also take the Emperor’s body for his own—the coyote was close to burning this one out.
No, he could not do that. The Emperor was needed, and the Rossin only wanted what had been promised. He growled, deep and low. “Reach in there, and take it out. Now!”
The Emperor slid sideways, away from the coyote, and toward the hatch. Finally, the Fensena had convinced the human that he was more dangerous than whatever was in the pit. His hands wrapped around a bundle, and he pulled it out.
The smell of it was musty and powerful. The coyote immediately forgot about the human; all of his senses were focused on it. “Open it,” he growled.
The Emperor, still shaking, did as he was bid. The Rossin’s pelt was distinctive; the fur thick and luxurious and patterned with dark patches. It was wrapped in a bundle, and tied closed with a thin, red rope.
The Fensena’s eyes gleamed, and without a word he took the binding in his teeth. The Emperor he left sitting on the floor clutching his wounds. He was of no further concern. Now the coyote had to return to his master and quickly. It was time for their plan to move forward.
It was the nature of all traitors to strike in darkness, and this night—like many others that had come before it—they took that chance.
Sorcha Faris had begun the night sleeping next to her lover, Raed Syndar Rossin, perhaps the second most wanted person in the Empire of Arkaym after herself. They had drifted into sleep after making love and warming the sheets as best they could in the cold northern citadel that had become their refuge. It was a good way to slip off to sleep—even if she was not entirely used to it yet.
The smile on the Deacon’s face was not the kind many from the Mother Abbey would have recognized; Sorcha Faris was not known for her smiles. However, since the Order of the Fist and the Eye was broken, and the Mother Abbey lay in ruins, none of them would have the chance to judge her. That was truly the only good thing about its destruction.
When the first scream sounded, Sorcha jerked awake, and her initial instinct was to reach across to shake her lover out of his sleep. It was a surprise to realize that the howls for help were in her head; however, they also seemed to echo in the stone of the citadel.
Another shock was that her grasping hands found nothing; Raed was not there. His side of their meager bed was chill, and even the smell of his skin was absent. He must have slipped off sometime in the night.
Not that she could really begrudge him any late-night forays. Only hours before, Sorcha had sat in counsel with ten of the strongest remaining Deacons until the citadel’s hearth fires burned low. Afterward, she had very much enjoyed waking up Raed—consequently she had no real remembrance of falling asleep herself.