The final novel in the Empire of Storms trilogy – a blisteringly paced epic fantasy perfect for fans of Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson and Scott Lynch
They say he spawned from the blackness of night itself, and that he oozes in and out of the dark like he was part of it.’
Old Turnel the mason put down his tankard of ale, wiped the foam from his bushy mustache, and fixed the other three wags at the table with a knowing look. They all nodded into their own tankards. They’d heard similar things.
The Wheelhouse Tavern was crowded that night, as it had been nearly every night the last few weeks. Folks in Stonepeak didn’t feel safe lately, so it was natural for them to gather. And yet they couldn’t stop talking about the thing that filled them with such dread.
‘Someone told me that he makes no sounds and has no mouth,’ said Mash the ink maker.
‘No, I heard he had three mouths,’ disagreed Trina the cobbler. ‘One mouth spits acid, one spits poison, and one screams so loud, it makes your ears bleed.’
‘I seen some of his handiwork myself, and them poor gafs weren’t burned or poisoned or anything like that,’ said Old Turnel. ‘Every last one of them had the life choked out of ’em, but without no finger marks on their necks.’
The people had given this new killer the nickname Stonepeak Strangler. His victims had been turning up every night, from Artisan Way all the way down to the docks. Not just men and women, but children, too. That Shadow Demon from a few months back had been bad enough. But he’d always targeted dissidents and troublemakers. This Stonepeak Strangler seemed to have no motive or pattern, and he was all the scarier for that. Parents had started keeping their children indoors at night, and even the mildest mollies carried a knife with them when they were about town. Over the course of the last month or so, the capital city of the Empire of Storms had become gripped in a fear that seemed very close to boiling over into citywide panic.
‘I heard he can’t abide the sun, though,’ said Mash. ‘That’s something, ain’t it?’
‘If it’s true,’ said Trina.
‘My tom heard a funny thing down at the docks,’ said Hooper, the dressmaker. He was a quiet wag, but greatly respected by the others as the most successful among them. He’d even made dresses for Lady Hempist and Archlady Bashim, two of the most fashionable nobles in the empire. ‘You know that old warehouse along the west bank of Trader’s Fork?’
‘The one slowly falling in on itself these past ten years?’ asked Trina.
‘That’s the one,’ said Hooper. ‘Anyway, my tom was down there bartering with Jacklow the fisherman. You know him?’
‘He’s my cousin!’ Mash said, always eager to impress Hooper any way he could.
Hooper gave the youngest member of their group a steady look, then said, ‘Be that as it may, my tom and I have known Jacklow to be a truthy wag who always speaks crystal. And he said someone’s been lurking down in that warehouse for the last month or so. Someone who ain’t entirely . . . natural.’
‘That’s about the same time these killings started,’ observed Old Turnel.
Hooper nodded gravely as he drank from his tankard.
‘How does he know someone unnatural’s been lurking?’ asked Trina. ‘He seen ’em?’
Hooper shook his head. ‘He only hears him, just around sunset, crying and moaning like some kind of beastly thing. Happens nearly every night, he said.’
Mash shuddered. ‘Like to give me nightmares, we keep talking in this direction.’
‘Don’t be a ponce,’ said Hooper.
Mash turned to Trina with an appealing look. ‘Don’t you think so, Trin? This one’s even worse than that Shadow Demon.’
Before Trina could reply, a new voice cut in:
‘You think so?’
The speaker sat at the next table over, leaning back in his chair, his arms crossed. He wore the fine jacket and cravat of a lord, which made him a little out of place in the Wheelhouse. But even stranger, he wore glasses that were tinted so dark, they hid his eyes. ‘And who would win in a fight, do you think?’
The artisans all looked at each other.
‘Between the Strangler and the Shadow Demon?’ asked Hooper.
‘Personally, my money would be on the Demon,’ said the newcomer.
‘Why would they fight?’ asked Mash.
‘Like as not, they’d be in league,’ agreed Trina.
The newcomer shrugged. ‘I suppose that’s possible.’
‘But see now,’ said Old Turnel, finger and thumb rubbing his mustache thoughtfully. ‘They could be competing, you know. For territory.’
‘Could be,’ said the newcomer. ‘Or maybe they’d fight because the Shadow Demon wants to make amends for his past crimes.’
They all looked at each other again.
‘Ain’t seen you around here, stranger,’ said Old Turnel finally. ‘You got a name?’
The man grinned. ‘You can call me Red.’
* * *
Red went down to the docks the next evening. The sky had that peculiar gold color of twilight that made things seem not quite real as he walked past small, one-masted sloops being loaded or unloaded. He wore the soft gray clothes the biomancers had given him when they’d forced him to be the Shadow Demon. His lacy clothes would have stood out in the dockyards, and if he ran into trouble, they would have hindered his movements.
He’d always considered the docks of Paradise Circle big, with over twenty piers, and upward of fi fty ships coming and going at any given time. But the docks of Stonepeak stretched all the way down the Burness River from the heart of the city, through the remains of the Thunder Gate, to the coast. There were even piers built up on some of the larger tributaries that fed into the Burness. And where the Burness met the sea, docks stretched for miles along the southern coast. All told, there were nearly eighty piers and over a hundred warehouses. Red couldn’t even guess the number of ships that came and went.
Thankfully, Trader’s Fork was one of the smaller tributaries, mainly used as a trading post between artisans for items unrelated to the needs of the nobility. That meant it wasn’t well policed, or nearly as crowded. It was, Red decided, a perfect place for a monster to hide. Red hoped that Jacklow the fisherman had been right about hearing something ‘unnatural’ coming from the abandoned warehouse. Lady Hempist had assigned the mission to him weeks ago, and this was his first promising lead.
He made his way along the riverbank, skirting the people still working on the docks. There were more than he’d expected this close to sunset, and that worried him a little. Merivale had made it crystal that this mission was to be carried out unobtrusively, like a proper spy mission should be. He wasn’t supposed to draw any unnecessary attention or increase the panic of a city already on edge. He also had to hide his identity by wearing a gray scarf over the lower half of his face. Apparently, it wouldn’t do if anyone recognized the lord of Pastinas Manor out hunting monsters. At first it had seemed silly to keep his mouth and nose covered, yet leave his eyes visible. They were by far his most distinguishing trait. But Merivale had pointed out that, as Lord Pastinas, he was hardly ever seen without his tinted glasses, so most people didn’t even know his eyes were red.
Red finally reached the warehouse around sunset. That cobbler hadn’t been exaggerating when she said the place was collapsing. Most of the roof was gone, and the walls were beginning to cave in on one another. There were two entrances. One at the riverbank, where goods had likely once been loaded into the warehouse from boats. The other entrance was on the opposite side, where those same items might have been loaded onto wagons for transport into the city. Given the fact that all of the victims had been inland, Red decided to approach from the landward entrance, cutting off the escape route that led directly to innocent people.
Red had been trying to construct an image of what this creature might look like in his mind, but the various descriptions he’d heard had all been so conflicting, he still had no idea what he would find inside. The only thing he was fairly certain of was that it had been made by a biomancer, with their usual lack of compassion or basic decency.
As he drew closer to the warehouse, he heard an unsettling keening sound from inside. It was somewhere between the cry of a child and the whine of a wounded animal.
He saw a large window above the entrance. The glass had already been broken, and he decided it would be a little better than just walking in through the door. He climbed up the wall, his heightened sense of touch allowing his fingers and softshoed toes to find any crack or ledge that would help his ascent.
He perched on the window ledge and surveyed the inside of the warehouse. His red, catlike eyes worked especially well in the dim light. It was a large, open space cluttered with rusted boating equipment, coils of rotting rope, and chunks of roofing that had already fallen. There were windows near the ceiling that let in the last faint rays of sun, drenching everything in crimson.
The painful cries came from beneath an upturned rowboat by the wall. There was enough space under that boat to allow for a fairly large creature, but whatever it was would have to flip the boat over to get out. That would leave it vulnerable for a moment, giving Red the perfect moment to strike. So he settled in to wait.
It wasn’t the most comfortable thing, perched up there on that ledge. He had to shake his legs several times to keep the circulation going. And when the last rays of sunlight did finally disappear, the boat didn’t flip at all. Instead, Red watched with sick fascination as something pale and veiny oozed out through the small gap between the boat and the floor. It spread across the wooden floorboards like a lumpy pool of flesh, only occasionally pushing the edge of the boat up as one of the larger chunks passed through.
Once it was completely free of the boat, Red realized that it wasn’t a blob or pool exactly. There was a shape to it. A human shape. But it was malleable, as if all the bones had been turned soft and pliable. This person lay on their belly, drooping and heavy, arms and legs bowing out to the sides like rubbery insect legs. Then Red saw the mashed-in face.
Red remembered Progul Bon casually mentioning that Deadface Drem’s old lieutenant had been punished after prematurely revealing Red’s vulnerability to high-pitched sounds. Red had assumed it was something terrible, but even so, he hadn’t expected them to keep him alive afterward.
The thing that used to be Brackson turned sluggishly when Red called out his name. Instead of walking, or even crawling, the creature had to squirm and undulate across the floor like some kind of human-octopus hybrid. With such a soft rib cage, the weight of his own flesh must be pressing down on his innards. Red guessed it had to hurt like all hells. And the way Brackson’s head sagged to one side like a deflated pastry suggested his brain wasn’t getting much protection either.
‘Brackson, can you speak?’ Red had always hated Brackson. But nobody deserved this. He pulled down his scarf to show his face. ‘Do you recognize me?’
Brackson made a grunt that didn’t sound particularly friendly. His mouth flapped around. Maybe he was trying to speak, but his jaw was too soft to form the words.
‘Listen. I know we ain’t ever been wags, but what’s been done to you is plain wrong. Let me help you.’ He had no idea how, but he knew the prince and the empress. There had to be something he could do.
Brackson shuffle-slithered toward the door like he was ignoring Red. Or maybe there’d been so much brain damage, he didn’t understand. Either way, he seemed intent on getting out of the warehouse, probably back into town where he could mindlessly strangle anyone he came across with his rubbery arms.
Red sighed and pulled his scarf back up. ‘I should’ve known you wouldn’t make things easy for me even now.’ He jumped down from the windowsill, blocking Brackson’s exit. ‘Sorry, old pot. Your murder spree ends tonight.’
Brackson’s rubbery face stretched into something that might have been a frown, and he gave a low, gurgling growl.
Red drew a throwing blade in each hand. Brackson paused when he saw the gleaming steel and scrunched back into himself.
‘There, now,’ said Red. ‘You may not understand much, but you still know danger when you see it. Maybe we can settle this peacefully after all.’
Brackson scrunched even farther into himself. Then he shot forward like a spring, slamming into Red’s chest and knocking him over.
Brackson trampled over him, and would have escaped, but Red plunged one of his blades into the creature’s soft shoulder and used it as leverage to get on the creature’s back as it passed him. He then stabbed his second blade into the other shoulder and held on tight. He was grateful he still wore his leather fingerless gloves, or the blades might have cut right through his palms.
Brackson made a warbling sound of protest and took off faster than Red thought possible. It was a strange sort of lurching gait in which Brackson compressed himself, then shot forward, his rubbery arms and legs scrabbling at anything in reach for additional purchase. By this point, Red’s plan was to put a blade or two in Brackson’s soft skull, but at their current frantic, uneven speed, he’d get thrown if he let go of even one of the blades planted in the creature’s shoulders. For the moment, it was all he could do just to hang on.
Red and his unwilling ride smashed right through the rickety door and down the wagon path toward town. Town was the last place Red wanted this to go, so he leaned hard on the blades in Brackson’s shoulders, steering them in a wide arc through tall grass back toward the docks along the west bank of Trader’s Fork. Brackson had some trouble moving in the grass, and Red thought he was about to get his opening. But before he could take advantage of it, they reached the docks. Brackson’s rubbery fingers and toes hooked on to the widely spaced planks of wood, and the pair lurched forward with even greater speed.
‘Clear the way!’ yelled Red as they neared a group of dockhands unloading something from a small sloop that, at this hour, was probably smuggled goods.
The dockhands dodged to the side, and Brackson smashed through the crates, sending the fine pink powder of coral spice into the air. ‘No loss there,’ muttered Red. He still held a grudge against the drug that had claimed his mother and nearly killed him as an infant. He was sentimental that way. The dockhands stared incredulously as the bizarre pair raced past them. The dock stretched along the banks of Trader’s Fork for a quarter mile or so. Red saw that there were four or five other groups of workers ahead of them, all blocking the way. He had to end this before every drug runner in Stonepeak saw it. It was time for some risky, and possibly ostentatious, acrobatics.
Red jerked his blades out of Brackson’s shoulders and jumped straight up. In midair, he threw the blades, which both sank into the base of Brackson’s soft skull. Red landed on the dock, rolling to cushion the impact. Still sprawled on the dock, he looked up in time to see the lifeless monstrosity carried forward by momentum into another stack of crates on the dock. The angry shouts of the workers quickly turned to yelps of alarm when they saw what it was that had knocked over their cargo.
Red staggered to his feet, hurried over, and shoved Brackson’s body off the edge of the dock into the water, where it quickly sank out of sight.
A proper spy probably would have slipped away right then, silent and mysterious. Well, a proper spy probably wouldn’t have allowed themselves to get into this mess in the first place. But seeing as how he was already in the muck of it, Red couldn’t resist a little flourish.
‘Well, my wags,’ he said to the smugglers, his red eyes gleaming in the moonlight above his gray mask. ‘I think that about takes care of your Stonepeak Strangler problem!’
He gave them a quick bow, and ran off, his laughter trailing into the night.
* * *
‘You certainly have a curious idea of what it means to keep a low profile,’ said Lady Merivale Hempist.
She and Red were in her apartments, which were impeccably neat and minimal to the point of austere. She sat at her glass table, delicately dismantling and eating a roast quail. Despite her cool demeanor and steely gaze, there was a lush allure to Lady Hempist that Red could never quite ignore. It didn’t help that she always favored gowns that showed off her extremely inviting cleavage.
‘My lady, I’m sure I don’t know what you’re re ferring to,’ he said airily as he slouched nearby in a upholstered chair, one leg hooked on the arm.
He idly swirled the last bit of red wine in his glass and then drank it. Merivale really had the best wine. It was one of the things that made these debriefings bearable. He had enjoyed Lady Hempist’s company so much back when she was pretending to woo him. Now that she was his boss, she seemed less inclined to appreciate his humor. He knew this was the real Merivale. A brilliant tactician and spy with an almost frightening lack of empathy. He was one of the few people in the world who got to see her true self, and more often than not, he was in awe of her. But she certainly was less fun now.
‘I’m speaking about your little performance on the docks last night, of course,’ she said.
‘Performance?’ he asked innocently.
‘It’s the talk of every tavern in the southern half of the city.’
‘It was probably a rather heroic sight to behold,’ he admitted. ‘But it couldn’t be helped.’
Merivale patted her lips with her napkin. ‘Heroic. Yes. That reminds me, there is also a rather surprising rumor making the rounds that the person who killed the Stonepeak Strangler is none other than the Shadow Demon.’
‘How strange.’ Red ran his finger around the lip of his wineglass so it gave a light hum.
‘Apparently ,’ continued Merivale, ‘people are saying he wishes to make amends to the good people of Stonepeak. I can’t imagine where they might have gotten such an idea.’
Red flashed his most benign smile. ‘The imaginations of the common folk certainly are vivid, aren’t they.’
She gazed at him for a moment, then stood up from the table, walked over to a nearby window, and looked out into the bright, cloudless blue. ‘You have a great many talents, my Lord Pastinas. But I am coming to believe that spying is not one of them.’
‘Maybe I would be better suited to leading the search for Bleak Hope.’ He said it lightly, as if it had not been the topic of several heated conversations in the past.
‘I told you, it’s being handled,’ said Merivale. ‘Right now, we have more pressing concerns.’
‘Your lack of discretion notwithstanding, I’m deeply concerned by this latest act of the biomancers. Sending you out to kill predetermined targets as the Shadow Demon had been one thing. But releasing a mindless creature to wreak havoc on the general populace?’
‘It does seem reckless,’ said Red. ‘Not something Progul Bon would have done.’
‘Exactly,’ said Merivale. ‘As much as we all loathed Bon, I worry that he was a restraining influence on the other biomancers.’
‘They were restrained before?’
‘Bon’s death has clearly altered their strategy. This creature is not the only indication. They have also apparently decided to allow the emperor to begin treaty negotiations with Ambassador Omnipora.’
‘That is surprising,’ agreed Red.
‘I want to know why this sudden change of policy,’ said Merivale. ‘I also want to know what their plans are concerning this new alliance with the Vinchen.’
‘I’ve been trying to get them to open up to me during training sessions, but they’re a slippery bunch,’ said Red.
She turned from the window to look at him. ‘I think it’s time to utilize your unique connection to them in a more . . . direct manner.’
‘Merivale, you know as well as I do that if I start pushing too aggressively, it could completely destroy that connection. If they figure out that I’m no longer at their beck and call, it’s all over.’
‘I am willing to take that risk,’ said Merivale.
‘You’re that worried?’
‘Do you know the last time the biomancers and Vinchen worked together?’ she asked quietly.
‘The time of the Dark Mage,’ Red said.
‘Yes,’ said Merivale. ‘And centuries later, we are still recovering from that cataclysmic event. If something on a similar scale erupted now . . . it’s entirely possible the empire wouldn’t survive.’
Red stared at his empty wineglass for a moment, then looked at her. ‘What do you need me to do?’
* * *
That night, Red sat in his apartments and painted. He’d been doing it regularly since he got back from Lesser Basheta. Whenever he felt the darkness within him begin to rise up inside like a tide, painting helped drain away the excess. Not that he really thought he’d lose control of himself again. But it was an unpleasant feeling, and Red was generally the sort of wag who liked to feel sunny, even when bad things were happening. He’d never seen a whole lot of point in brooding.
‘Drown it all, but that’s a frightening creature!’ Prince Leston peered over Red’s shoulder at the painting.
The prince had a tendency to come and go as he pleased. Red was fine with that, because it meant he could do the same. And the prince had better food and drink, so it generally worked in Red’s favor. Besides, the casual ease of it reminded him of simpler times when he and Filler shared an apartment.
‘Don’t you like it, Your Highness?’ Red asked as he continued to work on the painting of Brackson emerging from under the boat. He’d thrown aside his jacket and cravat and now worked with his shirtsleeves rolled up.
‘It’s very well done,’ Leston said quickly. ‘But generally speaking, people paint pleasant things, like flowers, or scenery.’
‘Of course,’ said Red. ‘Those people want to sell their paintings, so they paint things people want to look at. But I don’t plan to sell any of my paintings, so I don’t have to worry about what other people want to see. I just paint for myself.’
Leston pulled a stool over and stared at the picture of Brackson.
‘But why would you want to paint such an unpleasant image?’ he asked.
‘If I can get it on the canvas properly,’ said Red, ‘then it doesn’t feel quite so stuck in my head.’
Leston was quiet for a moment. ‘It must be a great and terrible thing to be an artist.’
‘Oh, come on, my wag. I’m sure being prince has its moments.’ Then Red’s expression grew serious and he put his paintbrush down. ‘Listen, I may have to . . . go away for a little while.’
‘What do you mean go away? Leave the palace?’
‘Leave Stonepeak altogether. I’ve got to do something that could get me in a lot of trouble. Like as not, I won’t be too welcome around here for a while.’
Or ever again, but he didn’t say that.
Leston frowned. ‘Lady Hempist is putting you on another assignment already? Something even worse?’
‘The one she hired me for in the first place, I reckon.’
‘Something to do with the biomancers?’ He shook his head. ‘It’s too dangerous. I forbid it.’
‘Sorry, Leston,’ said Red. ‘This is something that must be done. And the order comes from Her Imperial Majesty, so it outranks you.’
‘What about Hope?’ Leston gave him a pleading look. ‘Didn’t you strike a bargain with the biomancers that they wouldn’t harm her as long as you remained here?’
‘Yeah, and they wiggled out of that one by having the Vinchen go after her instead. So even though they technically kept their word, the bargain is as good as broken to me.’
‘But can’t someone else do this?’
‘I’m the only one who can get close enough.’
‘But . . .’ The prince’s face creased with frustration. ‘After everything you’ve already gone through . . .’
In all Red’s life, with all the crazy things he’d dreamed about, he would never have imagined he’d one day become friends with the heir to the imperial throne. And what surprised him even more was how much he truly liked the wag. Sure, the prince was sheltered beyond reason, entitled beyond bearing, and spoiled beyond belief. Yet, somehow, he was still a good person.
Red squeezed the prince’s shoulder. ‘Thanks, old pot. I’m glad somebody agrees with me. But it doesn’t change a thing.’
‘So . . . when are you leaving?’ Leston looked heartbroken. Red was painfully aware that he was the prince’s only true friend.
‘Tomorrow, most likely.’
‘Are you going to say good-bye to Nea?’
Red gave the prince a wry smile. Even after several months, things between him and Nea were still distant. He didn’t blame her, of course. Biomancer control or not, it was understandable that she might not want to be around the person who nearly killed her. But Nea was not some poncey coward, and Red wondered if she might have also learned that Red was working as a spy for Merivale. If that was the case, her avoidance was more political than personal. In a way, he hoped that was it, because he rather liked the ambassador of Aukbontar.
Regardless, she was the ambassador of a foreign country, and absolutely didn’t need to get wind of something this sensitive.
‘You know what,’ he said at last. ‘Could you do it for me, Your Highness? I’d appreciate that. But not until after tomorrow.’
* * *
The next morning, Red stood alone in his small sitting room and stared at the furniture. It was really nice furniture. There were two chairs and a love seat. The frames were made from the fine dark wood exported from Merivale’s island of Lesser Basheta. The wood had been smoothed and stained until it gleamed almost like glass. Both the seat and back were upholstered with a soft, silken fabric of a dark midnight blue from the island of Fashlament, where, according to Merivale, it came out in threads from the asses of worms. Or maybe she had been joking. It was hard to tell with her sometimes. That was one of the reasons he liked her.
Beside the chairs was a rectangular glass tabletop set in a fine wrought iron frame with little seashell shapes etched into the corners. A silk runner stretched from one end of the table to the other. It was decorated with images of seabirds and fish, and Red had always wondered whether it was supposed to be flying fish, or underwater birds.
Not that Red was complaining. About any of it. He’d never had such fine furniture in his sitting room before. Hells, he’d never even had a sitting room before. And he expected it was unlikely he ever would again.
He sighed and brushed some nonexistent dust from the back of one of the chairs.
‘Well, it was nice while it lasted.’
‘What was that, my lord?’ asked Hume as he walked past with a stack of clean bed linens in his hands.
‘I wouldn’t bother changing the linens, Humey, old pot,’ Red said cheerfully. ‘I won’t be sleeping in that bed tonight. Or any night after, most likely.’
Hume turned to him, his iron- gray ponytail perfectly in place, his posture erect. Only a few folds in his forehead suggested he was genuinely worried. Red had been trying his damnedest over the last year to shake him, and there was a certain rightness that this is what did it.
‘My lord?’ Hume asked carefully.
‘You were good to me, Hume,’ said Red. ‘A pissing angel, really. Better than I deserved. To be perfectly honest, as much of a show as I made about not needing you, I’m going to miss you.’
‘If I may say so, my lord, your words have a certain . . . finality to them.’
Red gave him a wan smile. ‘Merivale needs to know what the biomancers are up to. I’ve always fancied myself a silk talker, but I’ve been trying for months to wheedle something out of them without success. Those cock-dribbles are better at keeping secrets than the owner of the Slice of Heaven in Paradise Circle. And let me tell you, that’s saying something.’
‘I am familiar with the person you are referring to,’ Hume said dryly.
Red’s eyes lit up. ‘See now? What a shame I’m only finding out now that you and Mo were once wags. Ah well. Anyway, Merivale needs results, and it’s my job to get them.’
‘You are about to do something rash, aren’t you, my lord,’ Hume said gravely.
Red grinned. ‘Humey, my wag, it’s what I do best.’
He was fond of dramatic exits, so with that, he turned and headed for the door.
‘One question, my lord,’ said Hume.
Red paused and turned back to him.
‘What would you like me to do with these?’ Hume pointed to the stack of paintings leaning against the wall.
‘Whatever you want, Hume. I paint to keep myself myself. I don’t need them after that.’
‘Perhaps I should give them to Mr. Thoriston Baggelworthy of Hollow Falls? He seems particularly appreciative of the Pastinas inclination toward the arts.’
‘Only if you sell them to him for an outrageous sum of money and buy yourself something nice with it,’ said Red.
A thin smile curled up at the corners of Hume’s mouth. ‘As you wish, my lord.’