For readers of Brent Weeks and fans of Netflix's Marco Polo comes a rich and inspired fantasy tale of warriors and nobles who must take the most desperate gamble of all: awaken allies more destructive than the hated king they hope to overthrow. Kate Elliott's new trilogy is an unmissable treat for epic fantasy lovers everywhere.
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The whole business stank of rotting fish.
From his position braced high in the branches of a sprawling lancewood tree that overlooked an unremarkable trail cutting through forested hills, Kellas felt the familiar warning itch between his shoulder blades. Something about this ambush wasn’t going to go right, and yet he had a job to do and a secret to hide and no choice except to stick it out to the end. If those cursed smugglers didn’t show up, he’d be no closer to the truth than he had been a month ago when he’d joined this company of Black Wolves on the hunt for a traitor in their ranks.
A breeze blew into his face off the nearest height but he smelled nothing except the dense scent of vegetation and the memory of rain. Birds had long ago resumed their chatter and song, no longer disturbed by the presence of six men.
The soldiers had set up an ambush point at dawn. They’d been slipped information that stolen goods would be smuggled down this specific trail under the guard of a demon and its armed confederates. The subcadre commander, Denni, had picked this spot because of the sprawling canopy of the lancewood tree and a flat patch of ground where they’d been able to dig a pit. By now it was midafternoon.
Kellas’s vantage in the tree allowed him to study his companions hidden in the surrounding undergrowth. He was certain one of the other five was the disloyal Wolf leaking information to the very outlaws they were meant to capture.
Crouched on a branch below Kellas, Ezan breathed noisily. On the stream side of the path, Oyard and Battas shifted around, brush rustling loud enough to almost drown out the gurgle of the distant stream. They were all so cursed loud.
Maybe they were all in on it.
On the mountain side, Aikar whispered to Denni. Idiot. Didn’t he know how voices carried on a still day? Maybe he hoped his words would carry a warning on the breeze. Kellas wanted to signal Aikar to be silent, but Denni was senior of this subcadre and thus in charge. Any initiative Kellas took might give away his cover of pretending to be a lowly tailman new to the Wolves.
As if the restlessness of the others made him doubt their careful preparations, Denni tugged experimentally on the pit rope where it stretched across the path under cover of artfully layered ground litter. They hoped to trap a demon on one of the stakes set in the pit and cut off its skin. It was a good plan, if it worked.
A new sound teased at the edge of Kellas’s hearing, a slapping that he identified as the thud of feet falling on dry leaves and dusty earth. A moment later a voice floated on the air.
“Sure, the king claims he’s sending in his best troops to protect us, but then we’re the ones who have to feed and house them above what we already pay in taxes.”
Two men strode into view. Both carried hunting spears.
“He’s like a baker selling bread for what seems like a good price, only then you discover he’s been mixing sawdust in with the flour all along.”
“Would the pair of you keep your mouths shut?” said a woman who was not yet quite visible beyond a bend in the path, although movement flashed through the dusty leaves. “You’ll warn off the pigs before we have a chance to strike.”
As Kellas tried to estimate heads and bodies in an oncoming group that he still couldn’t really see through the leaves, a glimmer of pale cloth caught his eye.
The most infamous demon of all wore a white cloak. Was she guiding the smugglers in person? He had accomplished a lot of things in the last eight years but he’d never tangled directly with a cloaked demon and its perilous magic. A racing clamor of excitement disturbed his concentration but he calmed it with slow, measured breaths.
The two spearmen in the front passed over the pit without noticing the give in the ground and headed under the wide canopy of the lancewood tree.
And there she was! Wearing a white cloak and armed with a bow and quiver, the demon strode into view and turned to signal to someone unseen behind her. Right on target, Battas and Oyard each loosed an arrow from their hiding place. Both arrows struck her in the chest just as a gaggle of fourteen youths carrying bows and spears appeared on the trail. They had the gawky eagerness of children out on a thrilling expedition, sacks slung over their backs. The ones in front stopped short as the demon choked out a warning. Their stunned, horrified expressions were so heartbreaking that a kick of fury made Kellas tremble even as he held his position in the tree.
The demon was using adolescents to cover its tracks, exactly the kind of cold calculation that made cloaked demons the most dangerous creatures in the Hundred, the true threat to the peaceful rule of the king.
A second woman appeared at the rear of the band. She was also wearing a white cloak.
With a shock Kellas realized both women wore the braided headbands and ritual white capes common to acolytes of the Lady of Beasts, who was both hunter and healer.
Neither of these women was a demon. They were priestesses dedicated to the goddess, leading a cursed practice hunt for training their youth.
He shouted, “Halt! Halt where you are! Denni, pull the trap now before the kids fall in!”
He grabbed for a rope he had strung from a higher branch of the lancewood, vaulted off the branch, and swung down, gauging distance and depth as he tucked up his legs. He planted the two men with a foot in each chest. The impact slammed him to a halt as they went down. He flipped in the air as he released the rope, and landed on his feet behind them.
Denni snapped up the rope to release the trap. The ground gave way to reveal the pit and its deadly stakes. As the children cried out in confusion, the injured woman staggered like a drunk, then slipped into the pit. She screamed as a stake impaled her.
One of the men Kellas had knocked over scrambled up, jabbing at him with his spear as he hissed out hoarse words. “Cursed cowards! Pissing dogs! You promised us no one would get hurt!”
A pair of arrows—Aikar’s reds—slammed into the man’s back and he toppled forward.
The wounded priestess was still bellowing, voice ripped raw by pain.
“Run! Run!” shouted the woman at the rear, and the children scattered uphill.
Denni shouted: “Round them all up! They’re all under arrest!”
The other spearman rolled up to his feet and jabbed at Kellas’s back. Kellas sidestepped with a spin and in the same motion drew the sword from his back. The man thrust again. Kellas slapped away the haft, cut in, and struck with the pommel under the man’s chin. The man staggered back, then cut the point of the spear toward Kellas’s head. Kellas ducked under the haft and again stepped inside, striking the man in the throat with the hilt of his sword. With a grunt, the man sagged into him, toppling him back. Kellas let the weight carry him down and rolled sideways out from under as the spearman collapsed to the ground.
Turning, Kellas saw Battas, Oyard, Aikar, and Ezan racing up the path after the children.
He cut a length off the swinging rope and tied the prisoner’s feet and hands. Denni slid carefully down into the pit to the woman thrashing below. He stabbed her through the eye; a mercy, seeing how a stake had pierced her raggedly through the belly, a wound no one could heal. Then Denni grasped the cloth of her cloak in his hand and looked up with a shake of his head.
“It’s just ordinary wool, not a demon’s skin,” he said to Kellas.
The hunter shot by Aikar clawed at the dirt, hacking out an incomprehensible word before going limp. Kellas made himself watch as the man’s life drained away. Some demons could also see a person’s spirit rise out of the dying. Kellas saw nothing except red blood, withered leaves, and gathering flies.
The other four tromped back into view, herding the frightened children, with the second woman trussed so tightly she could barely keep up as Aikar prodded her along. One youth was missing.
“Heya, Kel!” shouted Ezan. “You can’t follow orders and help us capture these? What are you doing? Standing around looking pretty?”
“What kind of heartless people march their children into harm’s way?” said Denni, which was exactly the question Kellas wanted to ask. Of all the awful things he had seen in his eight years in the king’s service, adults abusing their own children or callously using them as bait and bargaining chips disgusted him the most.
Young Oyard scratched his smooth chin as he pursed his lips thoughtfully. He did not look much older than the youths they had just captured. “Someone passed us bad information.”
“Throw all your bags to the ground,” said Kellas curtly, and of course the youths obeyed, too terrified to do otherwise. They were only carrying a few days’ stock of humble food: flat bread, cold rice wrapped in nai leaves, and sour balls of cheese.
“What, you hungry again?” Ezan asked jokingly in his usual ass-witted way, ignoring the dead woman and the crying children as if their grief and pain were of no more interest than the trees.
Kellas sniffed at the pungent, salty goat cheese. “Neh. Just checking to make sure they’re not smuggling valuable goods. I think the real smugglers are somewhere else. They purposefully sent this training group along this path guessing it was a good place for us to set up an ambush and figuring the king’s soldiers would not attack two priestesses and their pupils.”
Ezan laughed mockingly. “Whsst! Where did a small-time criminal like you get so smart?”
Kellas grinned, pretending sheepishness as he decided on a plausible lie that would deflect any suspicion that he knew more than he ought. “Eh, you’ve caught me out, me and my shameful ways. I got arrested for smuggling, me and a bunch of lads. We used to round up neighborhood children and have them carry the goods while the militia was searching us instead. It worked for a while until one of the kids got hurt and we got beaten up by the neighbors and turned in by them for endangering their little ones.”
As he spoke he watched the eyes of the surviving man and woman, hoping they might betray their comrade with a glance, but they kept their gazes fixed to the ground. Both had the stunned look of people who haven’t yet made sense of what has just transpired. He had to wonder if they were actually ignorant and had been used as unsuspecting bait. Yet when Denni slapped them, asking what they knew about the smugglers and if they were part of a decoy plan, they stubbornly said nothing.
“I can make them talk,” Ezan boasted.
“Shut up, Ez,” said Denni. “Let’s go.”
His words broke the surviving priestess’s silence. “What about our dead?”
Denni gave her a glare that made her cower. “We leave them. Chief Jagi will decide what’s to be done and whether he’ll allow your people to come back and fetch them.”
The youths began to cry again, and several, weeping copiously, wrapped the dead priestess in her cloak and arranged her hands on her chest in the traditional custom observed for the dead.
They made an uneasy group as they hiked out of the steep upper valley with the sobbing youths and the two uncommunicative adults. In his capacity as tailman, the newest and supposedly least experienced and thus most expendable member of the cadre, Kellas took the rear guard. He was sure they were being watched and there was in fact still one youth unaccounted for, but he heard nothing and saw no one except, once, a crow perched on a fallen log in a clearing. Its black eyes were trained on them with the inhuman intelligence native to crows. When he swung around and took aim with his bow, it took wing and vanished over the treetops.
He grinned briefly. He’d never have skewered it, as some men might who took pleasure in the killing rather than in the challenge. He allowed himself three breaths to savor the empty path, the fragrant air, and the peaceful forest. A pillar of sunlight cut down through an opening a fallen tree had made in the forest cover. Its lustrous brilliance illuminated a patch of the vivid flowers known as sunbright that had grasped this chance to bloom. Their simple beauty staggered him, like the kiss of an ineffable joy.
A branch snapped, but when he looked that way he saw nothing moving among the trees. As the noise of the others faded, he left behind the sunlight and the flowers to follow them.
After a while they passed a pair of upcountry farms ringed by stockades that protected against deer rather than armed marauders. Their commanding officer, Chief Jagi, waited with his command staff just beyond the village where the path forked in three directions. He took their report, then delegated a different subcadre to fetch the two bodies and haul them down to the crossroads at the market town of Sharra Crossing where the two dead people would be strung up as a warning to others not to break the king’s law and trouble the king’s peace.
“You think they are in league with the smugglers, Chief?” Denni asked.
Like all of the officers in charge of companies of Black Wolves, Jagi was Qin, a foreign soldier who had arrived in the Hundred sixteen years ago together with the man who had brought peace to the land. In his month with this company Kellas had not heard Chief Jagi raise his voice, not once. But beneath his pleasant voice and mild temper ran the steel of a man who got what he wanted by never slacking. He turned his gaze on the prisoners, who went as still as rabbits sensing the shadow of a hawk.
“As it happens, I just received word that this morning, while we were up here setting our ambush, the king’s portion of hides and sinew being stored in a warehouse near Elegant Falls went missing. Someone stole the tithe set aside for the king while we waited for smugglers who never came. Those who participate in a decoy are part of the conspiracy and thus are criminals. Unless you are willing to speak and convince me otherwise I must assume this supposed hunting party was part of the plot, which therefore means the two who died today are guilty of crimes against the king. According to the law, the bodies of criminals shall be displayed after execution as an example to those who might think to follow them.”
Kellas could not help but put in, “The local folk won’t like seeing one of their holy women hung from a post until her flesh rots away and her bones fall to the earth like so much rubbish. They’ll see it as disrespect.”
“Then they shouldn’t have used holy women and innocent children as pawns in their game, should they? String the corpses up according to the law.” Chief Jagi ignored the stony stare of the surviving holy woman and the outraged gasp of the other spearman as he turned to Denni. “Escort the prisoners to the fort. The two adults shall be taken before the assizes, and judgment passed. Assign a steward to find the parents of the children. Tell the steward the parents must pay a fine to get them back. Afterward you and your subcadre can take liberty until your regular duty tomorrow.”
They marched the prisoners to the fort and turned them over to the sentinel-guards—regular soldiers under the command of a Hundred-born captain, not Black Wolves under the command of a Qin chief—who were in charge of the cages. Instead of lying down to rest, they washed thoroughly in the tubs while the soldiers who had been stuck in the fort surrounded the washing planks to find out what happened.
“Told you there’d be nothing up in the hills,” said one fellow who was engaged in an ongoing duel with Ezan. “But we got some news. Besides the stolen hides, a farmer up by Elegant Falls saw a ghost woman out walking in the night.”
“Same as the other?” demanded Ezan. “Cloaked in a pale demon’s skin?”
“Think you’ll get a chance to kill a demon, Ez?” Denni laughed as he rinsed off his sweaty, sodden hair. “For fifteen years Wolves have been chasing the last four cloaked demons, and never took one down. Heya, lads, what say we go down to that thrice-rotted inn and drink what passes for decent rice wine here in this cold-cursed valley?”
Chief Jagi rarely offered spoken praise to the Wolves under his command, but he had other ways of showing that their performance had met with his approval. So Kellas swaggered out with the others—swaggering was necessary—and they put on their cold-weather cloaks and hurried down the main road to the village of Feather Vale. It was a thirsty walk with dusk sinking down over them.
Chief Jagi had made an arrangement with an inn on the outskirts of the village. His men could take their liberty there as long as they did not fight with the locals and broke nothing, and his steward paid up the bill at the end of each week. The place was nothing special: It had a long porch where folk stowed their sandals and boots before going inside. The inn’s single room was floored with old rice-straw mats and made comfortable with low tables and threadbare pillows for seating. Here in the hills it actually got cold at night in the season of Shiver Sky, so the room was cunningly fitted with small, lidded iron pots that had vents and a grated bottom with a plate beneath to catch ash; in these, charcoal burned to warm a man’s legs.
Aikar hadn’t bothered to wear a cloak. None of the locals gathered for an evening’s drink were wearing cloaks, either; it wasn’t cold to those accustomed to upcountry weather. The two women who worked in the tavern carried plain wooden trays and poured rice wine into crudely glazed cups, farmers’ ware. The smoke from the warming stoves stung Kellas’s eyes. Images from the skirmish in the forest flashed in his mind: A fern spattered with blood. Aikar shooting the man who had spoken. The missing youth. The way the spark of life vanished from once-living flesh. How did it leave? Where did it go?
For a region plagued with smuggling and theft, the folk hereabouts were cursed casual about their security, not even building proper stockades or posting a guard at an inn that had a supply of liquor in the back room. He closed his eyes to listen.
The locals at the table behind them were speaking in low voices. “. . . bad enough to have Wolves hunting in our woods. If they hear about Broken Ridge, they’ll never leave.”
Broken Ridge. That was better. Now he just needed to figure out what and where Broken Ridge was.
The rice wine had been heated to cure the cloying sweetness of a third-quality brew, and its drowsy flavor went to his head as the day and night he’d been awake caught up with him. He had the knack of dozing lightly, alert to any change in those around him. He could nod out, wake instantly to murmur a pointless comment—“Is that so, Ez? Did you really do that?”—and fade out again.
The locals discussed an upcoming wedding. The door tapped shut once, twice, a third time. A man vomited. Water splashed over the porch outside, rinsing away the mess.
Was that a horn’s cry, far in the distance?
He stiffened to full wakefulness, but it had only been a sound chasing through his dream. Often a random sound or sight prompted a reminder of an earlier assignment. A year ago, after he had eliminated the hieros of a Devourer’s temple in the town of Seven for plotting sedition against the king, horn calls had chased him for days as he had been pursued by an angry band of locals.
“So the wind came up, and mind you, when the wind comes up, it makes the water that much more dangerous.” Ezan was telling the story of a canoe chase across the Bay of Messalia, him in one canoe and a fugitive in another. Ez had a southern way of talking—his vowels twisted wrong and half of his b’s turned to soft v’s—and a braggart’s way of making more of the story than was likely there. But he sure as the hells was impressing the others, who were more drunk than they ought to be with black night to be traversed between here and the fort.
“After ten mey out on the water they were getting tired, I’ll tell you.” Ezan mimed men panting and blowing as their arms and backs fatigued with the stroke of paddles. “Then we came around the cliffs of Sorry Island right into the swells of the open ocean. Cursed if their steersman didn’t lose his nerve and then his paddle. Their canoe flipped right over. Dumped them all into the ocean. Five were smashed onto the rocks before we could come up to the swamped boat. But the gods were with us, for the man we were chasing we fished right out of the water and hauled back to Sandy Port to stand at the assizes for his crimes.”
“Hu! Ten mey out and ten mey back, and you never stopped for a rest or a drink? Paddling all that time?” asked Oyard with a snort of disbelief. Although the youngest Wolf in Third Company, he was always the quickest to question whatever everyone else assumed was true.
“What? You don’t believe me?” demanded Ezan. He drained his cup of rice wine and thumped it down on the table, daring the others to match him.
Kellas glanced around the tavern. It was very late, and the rest of the locals had gone home, but the two women who ran the inn had not yet worked up the courage to ask the soldiers to leave.
“No one of you can match that feat, can you?” Ezan went on. “A sad day when they had to let your broken swords into the Black Wolves. Haven’t you done a single impressive thing beyond surviving training? Chief Jagi’s the kindest officer you’ll ever serve under, I promise you.”
The other men considered this question so seriously that Ezan’s jutting chin relaxed as he contemplated his victory in the boasting stakes.
“I grew up in the hills,” said Aikar.
“What, like around here?” Kellas asked in the tone of a sloppy drunk.
Aikar hunched up his shoulders. “Anyway, I never saw the ocean until I went to Nessumara for training.”
Denni, Battas, and Oyard were plains-bred farm boys who had never done a cursed exciting thing before they’d joined the king’s army and then made the cut that elevated them out of the regular ranks into the king’s elite soldiers, the demon-hunting, bandit-killing, ruthlessly effective Black Wolves.
“I’ll drink to such a hells impressive tale, Ez,” said Kellas. “I reckon you grew up there on the shore, neh? Got used to paddling such long distances.”
“That I did. It’s what everyone does, go out to fishing spots, to the breaker islands to gather shellfish and birds’ nests.” Ezan was the kind who grew more pleasant the more he felt he had one up on you. “No reason any of you should have spent time on the water. How about you, Kel?”
Kellas had once paddled and swum across half the Bay of Messalia in the dead of night to infiltrate a reeve hall, where he had stolen a pouch of dispatches while his compatriot had murdered the hall’s crippled marshal. Then they had swum and paddled back, no one the wiser. But he shook his head just as if he did not know that the distance from Sandy Port to Sorry Island was three mey, not ten.
“I’m just a city boy from Toskala, Ez. You know me. Kicked around awhile, got arrested, was given the choice of joining the army or a work gang. Picked the army, got chosen to run with the Wolves, and they sent me here to serve as a tailman in Chief Jagi’s company.”
“Aren’t you thirty?” asked Oyard, who was eighteen. “That’s old to be a tailman.”
“He didn’t lie about his age to join up like you did, Oyard,” said Denni with a laugh.
“I’m a slow learner,” allowed Kellas with a lazy smile that attracted the notice of the younger of the women. She came over, ignoring the other men in favor of offering a friendly look to Kellas.
“Are you hoping for one more drink, lads?”
“No cause to keep you up later than you’re accustomed to, verea,” he said as the others protested that they wanted another drink. “We’re the last ones here.”
“If you’re willing to spend your chief’s coin on one more drink, I’ll bring it,” she said. “I’ll say this. Those Qin outlanders are so honest that a merchant could leave his entire chest of leya with any one of them and not have to count the coins when he got it back.”
She gave another smile to Kellas and walked back to the counter.
“What is it with you and women?” Denni muttered. “You’re not that good-looking.”
“I show a little courtesy.” For once he was unable to keep a ribbon of contempt out of his tone. “Which you lads would think well on, rather than keeping these two women up all night for your own selfish pleasure.”
“Tell me you aren’t eyeing the younger one and thinking of keeping her up all night for your own selfish pleasure,” Ezan said with a coarse laugh.
“I can’t take what’s not offered.”
Cursed if that didn’t start all but Oyard in on stories of women they had loved and lost, or temple hierodules who had taken their fancy and milked them dry. There were few things more tedious than arrogant young men bragging about sex, as he knew perfectly well. But there was an edge to their boasting that made him uneasy.
The woman came back with a warmed vase as Ezan was speaking.
“. . . and then she said, ‘No, ver, I don’t think I’ve a mind to,’ and I said, ‘We’ve come too far for me to hear no, don’t you think, lass?’ and so I . . .”
The woman’s expression shaded from tired good humor to scarcely hidden disgust just as Ezan glanced up to see it. Kellas jarred the table with his legs.
“Aui!” The table’s edge kicked into Ezan’s gut.
“I’m going outside to piss,” Kellas said, too loudly, and he made a show of staggering to the door.
As he’d hoped, the others followed, remembering their full bladders. Once they were outside, the stars and the rising half-moon made them consider the lateness of the night and the distance back to the fort, not to mention the rumors of a demon. They set off at a brisk march. He glanced back to see the younger woman standing on the porch of the inn watching them go. He knew that look. If he could slip away, he’d find a welcome.
But the people who served in the secret auxiliary of the Black Wolves—the silent wolves—lived by three rules, the third of which was: No dalliance when you’re working. Never. Self-control before all else. It was drilled into them: self-control and the ability to endure pain.
She pinched out the lamp’s burning wick and slid the door shut behind her. The men soon left behind the inn and village, Kellas sticking to the back to keep one eye on the man he was by now almost certain was the traitor.
Perhaps whipped into competition by Ezan’s story, Denni began telling the tale of how he had earned his subcadre command in a long-running campaign against outlaws in the Soha Hills. Afterward the well‑to‑do landowners who had suffered most under the outlaws’ depredations had set out a three days’ feast. The rice wine flowed freely, the lovers were eager, the music ran like a mountain stream, as it said in the tale. Best of all, their company had gotten a commendation from King Anjihosh himself, who had ridden out with his officers and his son to meet with the local council.
“I will say this,” said Denni, “Prince Atani has a shine to his face. The king is an impressive man, truly, but the gods themselves have touched the boy, for he has that look about him. A thoughtful gaze more like that of a full-grown man than a lad just sixteen.”
“Never saw the king’s son myself,” Kellas lied. “Looks like his sire, does he?”
Not much, the others agreed, except maybe about the eyes and hair. Maybe he resembled his mother, but since no one had ever seen her face in public, her being a Sirni outlander with her bizarre outlander custom of remaining behind the palace walls, it was impossible to say. But they all agreed the king’s son possessed an essence of special strength and brightness.
“What is it the Sirniakans say of their god?” Denni said. “The Shining One? Like that.”
Ezan waved a hand dismissively. “Those southerners can keep their Beltak god on the other side of the mountains. No call for an outlander god to come traveling here.”
“I wouldn’t say so, not where Chief Jagi can hear you,” said Denni.
“Aui! He’s not Sirni. He’s Qin. None of the Qin worship that shining god, do they? It’s those hidden palace women with their peculiar ways who brought Beltak to the Hundred. I’ve never heard Chief Jagi say one thing about gods, except setting flowers on a rock dedicated to the Merciful One one time, and then because he was with his wife. She is a proper Hundred woman and cursed pretty even for being a few years older than our elderly Kel here, if I may say so.”
“I wouldn’t, and especially not where the chief can hear you,” said Denni.
Having to pretend to be something so his own comrades would not suspect he was spying on them was getting cursed tangled. He changed the subject. “When I was a lad we never called Hasibal the Merciful One. Hasibal is the Formless One. I don’t know where this Merciful name came from. Do any of you?”
Naturally Ezan had an opinion. “It comes from the south of the Hundred, from Olo’osson and Mar—”
A horn’s cry split the quiet. Three blats, a long blast, three blats, a long blast, three blats. As one, they shifted to a run. Soon after they heard hooves and saw a gleam of lamplight off to their right. Riders were moving through the countryside.
“The hells!” cried Aikar, stopping dead in his tracks.
“A demon!” shouted Ezan. “Eihi! When I’m off duty! My chance for glory, spoiled!”
Abruptly Ezan cut off the road to tear madly across a recently harvested field. Kellas hesitated for only one breath, then raced after him. Crop stubble scraped his calves and crunched under his boots. His eyes had adjusted. He measured the shadows that marked the irregularities of ground and thus kept to his feet when Ezan stumbled and crashed to his knees in a shallow ditch.
A flutter of movement crossed before them like the pale wings of a bird trying desperately to get off the ground with an injured wing. A face flashed into view: a woman, running.
A cloak flowed and rippled around her. The fabric bore a disturbingly bone-white sheen.
With a grunt of effort, Ezan lunged up from his knees and grabbed for her ankle. His fingers grasped the hem of the long cloak. Blue sparks sizzled along the fabric as it wrapped over Ezan’s face. He screamed in agony and pitched forward.
She staggered, dropped to a knee to steady herself, and looked up directly at Kellas.
Her gaze devoured him, for that was the particular sorcery of cloaked demons. It was the same as being clouted over the head with a hammer and then having knives driven in through your eyes to leak your thoughts into the air.
Her voice was cool and clear. “You are one of the king’s silent wolves. Let me see what you know.”
So easily she tore through his mind to discover his secrets: the modest wine seller’s shop in Toskala where silent wolves like him went to get their orders; the face of the nameless man who had given him his orders for this assignment; Esisha, who had been his partner in several missions and died two years ago; a safe house on the Gold Rose Canal in Nessumara where he had slept for three days in hiding after sinking a ship laden with a cargo bound for Salya . . .
As if Salya were a beacon and he a moth drawn to the light, his thoughts eddied and trawled him down into a memory from eight years ago. His pride recalled the admiring glance of a beautiful woman on the crowded streets of Salya’s busy port. His skin remembered the salty embrace of the warm waters of the Bay of Messalia as he swam to Bronze Hall on his first serious mission. He would never forget the hot pleasurable rush of triumph he’d felt when he pulled himself over the gunnel and into the waiting canoe with the dispatch pouch wrapped in oilcloth tied to his back, although he doubted he would recognize the beautiful woman now if he passed her on the road.
At last he managed to blink, the effort a stab of pain in his head. The king’s Wolves were honed for exactly such an encounter, trained to fight demons. With the blink he ripped his gaze away from hers. To keep free of the power of her magic, he forced his gaze to follow the swells and eddies made by the demon’s skin, which looked like a cloak. Beneath she was wearing leather trousers and a vest, both garments splashed with mud. She had a body made strong through honest work. She might have been any ordinary woman who had just finished a hard day’s labor in a rice paddy somewhere in the Hundred where there was still water in the rice fields at this time of year. That was the glamor with which demons dazzled their prey before they ate out their hearts and stole all their secrets: They made you believe they were just like you.
He drew his sword. The others were calling out, having lost sight of him and Ezan. The troop trotted past some distance away, lanterns swinging.
Sweat broke freely on his brow as the breeze carried away the memories that had seemed so vivid moments before. “Begging your pardon, verea, but I have to kill you.”
He thrust the short blade into her gut. It sank hard and swiftly right into the core of her flesh. She grabbed his arms and tugged him closer until they were face‑to‑face. The cloak whipped across his hair, lighting sparks of pain along his head that made him reel. For all that she had a sword in her belly, she was the one holding him up.
Her eyes were dark with the grip of pain. Yet she mocked him. “Very polite, I am sure, ver. You were well brought up by your mother and aunties. But you will not kill me this night. You have already told me what I need to know. And you’ll find nothing at Broken Ridge because we’ve already cleared out the rice that was being stored there.”
She shoved him back with more strength than any human could possibly muster. His sword was dragged out of her flesh. She slammed him across the chest with the palm of her hand. The blow lifted him off his feet, and he hit full on his back and lay there, stunned, as a vast cloud of wings filled his vision. Ez was still whimpering on the ground beside him, face and hands blistered with a fierce burn, but even so the young soldier was trying to roll over to stand.
Kellas climbed laboriously to his feet, dizzy and stumbling,but it was already too late. The demon mounted a winged horse and flew off into the night.
Hooves pounded. Men shouted. The lights swayed drunkenly. Soldiers approached.
With a curse Ezan threw up on Kellas’s boots.
The noise of his retching brought Denni, Battas, and Oyard racing up. After them came the mounted troops with lanterns bobbing and swaying. They converged as Ezan, doubled over, heaved out more bile. Kel took a step out of its way. As Chief Jagi himself arrived, Ezan straightened up with a grimace of pain that hurt to see.
“This cursed hells-ridden limp noodle had the demon within his grasp after I took these cursed burns stopping her in her tracks. But she got away from him. Ass!”
Chief Jagi glanced at Ezan, then at Kellas. Like all the outlander Qin soldiers who had ridden into the Hundred in the company of King Anjihosh, he rarely showed emotion. A narrowed gaze was brutal enough. Disappoint your Qin chief, and he’d simply deem you useless to him and cast you out of the Black Wolves.
“Which way did she run?” Jagi asked.
“She flew off on a horse,” said Kel, his head aching. Lantern light glittered on the blood and spew that streaked his sword. “I got my blade in her gut. It didn’t make a cursed bit of difference.”
“Stupid fuckwit,” said Ezan, and then he fainted from the pain, thank the gods.
Chief Jagi signaled. The troop broke into four groups and spread out to cover the ground all around, but they all knew they would find no trace of the creature.
“You kept your wits about you,” said the chief to Kellas when they two were standing alone.
“I still failed.”
“Next time you’ll kill one. But you know the rules. Any man who speaks to a demon must return to Toskala to give full particulars to the king. Anything else you want to tell me?”