It was all falling apart.
There was a flaw in the artifact which they had run into early on. When someone with a link placed their hand inside it, the artifact would draw that link out, taking the domain and standing with it, an ephemeral connection to the stories and interest of the masses. Once the artifact contained the link, it would be dispensed to whoever reached inside it next. The problem was that it was indiscriminate in what it gave and took; a person with two links would have both taken. Lothaire had confided in Faye that this would be trouble. He had talked at great length about how rules would invariably determine results, even before he had birthed the group that was now calling themselves the Allunio — the Reshapers. Lothaire thought that simple rules were the heart of society. Understanding what emerged from those rules was the difficult part.
Lothaire had been full of stories. Before he was one of the secret leaders of the Iron Kingdom, he had been a scholar and an adviser to the king. In Quishto, to the far east, a supposedly wise king had wanted to stop people from stealing. He’d made a law that if you stole something, you would have your hands cut off before being trussed up like a pig and left to die in the hot sun. The king thought that would solve things, because no one would be so foolish as to risk the punishment. Instead, the criminals became more violent. If a guard was chasing after them, they would attack with sharp knives, because they knew that the penalty for theft was just as bad as for killing a guard. That wasn’t to say that this aggression was successful all the time, but a few guards were seriously injured, and some died. After some weeks had passed, the guards didn’t chase after the thieves anymore, or they ran at a jog instead of a sprint. That made it easier for thieves to steal without facing any consequences. All of this might have been predicted in advance, if you thought about what the rules were setting up.
Lothaire had loved games. He would bring out a wooden board with a grid marked on it to play games with new sets of rules. He didn’t play himself. He would explain the setup to members of the Allunio and watch them as they explored what those rules meant in terms of strategy. Sometimes the rules resulted in what Lothaire called a disordered game. One particular setup was eventually solved such that the white player could always win by following a specific pattern of moves which would result in black’s defeat. The metaphor was a powerful one, all the more so because Lothaire rarely stated it outright. If the rules had been set up improperly, the outcome might be undesirable, even if there was nothing wrong with the rules on first blush. When Faye wanted a happy memory, she would think back to those days, of playing games while Lothaire’s wise eyes looked on, listening to him hold forth on some subject of great importance.
Of course, laws and games were only the most obvious systems of rules. Lothaire believed that rules governed the world, in one form or another. Man needed food and water every day, which meant that cities grew in places with arable land and a source of fresh water. If you looked at a map of the Iron Kingdom, stripped of all information except the topological, Lothaire thought you would be able to make a good guess at how the population would be distributed, so long as you knew the rules of fluid movement and human biology. If humans could be untethered from the need for food and water, cities would naturally move to some other place which would be predicated on some other aspect of how humans function. Society was built on rules.
The artifact had rules. Lothaire had predicted those rules would have bad results. The artifact would allow power to consolidate more than it ever had under the reign of the illustrati. In fact, because of the rules which governed the artifact, this hypothesized disorder was what Lothaire had called the default state of society. Once there were multistrati, they would be able to take the artifact with them in order to steal from weaker illustrati. The powerful would grow more powerful, using power to gain more power, until eventually power would be concentrated in the hands of either a single individual or a small cabal which was capable of resisting the urge to devour itself like a pack of ravenous wolves. There had been an argument for burying the artifacts where they’d been found, a strong argument made among Lothaire and the others, lasting for days. Yet for all that Lothaire had believed it was the rules that gave rise to the nature of the world, he also believed that man was fully capable of creating new rules, those with the capability of enduring just as long as any of the rules of nature. The artifacts would allow them to forge a new path. Society was already in a state of disorder; there seemed to be no other way to change it.
Faye could imagine someone looking in on the meeting of the Allunio in Parance and being just as baffled as someone in Quishto watching a seemingly apathetic guard strolling after a thief.
“It should be mine,” said Boniface. The artifact sat on the table in the center of the room. Boniface had taken to wearing the armor of his domains, steel and copper braided together. There were feathers woven into it, black and white ones hanging down from the pauldrons, and a rolling steam of cold air where he walked. Faye could remember when Boniface had been simply dressed, when his curly black hair hid a round, pleasant face. Now there was something mean about him.
“I brought it here,” said Gauthier. “I should have just taken it then and there, if I had imagined there were any question of where it would go.”
There were five of them now. Two months before they had been three score. They were concentrated in Parance, where once they had been spread out across the nations of the Calypso. The Iron Kingdom was suffering as a result of the civil war, but there was little that could be done about that. Most of the illustrati had fled to distant lands, or to hidden places where they might lay low until the war was over. Others had gone to Castle Launtine, to join Welexi’s side.
“We should find someone to give it to,” said Faye. “We all have too much power.”
The others stared at her as though she were mad.
“Who would you find?” asked Boniface. He was holding his tongue; normally every other word was a curse. The incredulity on his face spoke volumes on its own. “We are beset by traitors. The Ministries only care about ensuring their own survival, no matter what they might say. You’ve seen the increasingly anemic response of Legends. You’ve heard the issues that we’ve had with Trade. People are angry with us for poaching the illustrati they depended on, even though what’s really happened is that those illustrati have been driven away by the conflict. We have allies of convenience, people tentatively betting on our success, putting forward only enough that when the dust is settled, they can claim they were stalwart in their support — or if we fail, they might claim that they only did what they had to out of fear and coercion. You would give this power to one of them.”
“We have become too few,” said Faye. “We had said that we would take no more than the power of two men each.”
“Who was the first to violate that?” asked Cherise. She had beautiful hair now, with sculpted, arched eyebrows. The vanity was unbecoming on her, in the same way that Faye had always found the vanity of the illustrati unpleasant.
“It was necessary in Torland,” said Faye.
“It is necessary now,” said Gauthier. “I know you have your hesitance, but if there were anyone we could trust with the power we would already have drawn them into our inner circle.”
Faye had no response. She felt hollow inside. Lothaire would have known what to say. He would have given a grand, eloquent speech about how they needed to not lose sight of their goals. She could imagine the speech that he would give, but she knew that if it passed her lips it would come out sounding as hollow as she felt, just as it had been the few times she’d tried to paint a scene she could see vividly in her mind.
Even if they won, what would they be? Multistrati replacing illustrati was no improvement. Lothaire had seen that path clearly laid out, engraved into reality by the rules themselves. His mistake had been to think that he was more clever than the rules.
Vidre watched the manor where the Allunio were meeting. She had slipped into a disused attic after following one of the illustrati — multistrati, they called themselves now. They were on the third floor, with the curtains drawn, but Vidre would be able to watch and learn their numbers. There couldn’t be many left, but these would be the survivors, those who she and Welexi hadn’t been able to pick off. Charging in now would give her the element of surprise, but if there were more than two it would be a difficult battle.
Vidre had spent too much time in her armor. She would have stripped down to nothing if she felt like she had the luxury. She smelled offensive and her hair was greasy. What she needed was a hot bath with copious amounts of soap, but she didn’t consider anywhere in Parance to be safe enough for that. All their allies had been extracted to Castle Launtine. Everyone else of importance had fled to the countryside, hiding until the dust of the civil war had cleared. There were perhaps a dozen illustrati left in Parance, fewer than there had been at any time in the last hundred years. Some historian would probably make note of that.
Vidre stretched and looked down at the artifact beside her. The thing still frightened her, even though she’d been carrying this one around for days on end. They had eight in their possession now, though that was more than they would ever need. Welexi held the others back at Castle Launtine, while Vidre kept this one with her.
She had drained three of the Allunio so far. The cumulative standing had made her faster and stronger than she had ever been before, even if her individual control of the new domains was weak. Glass was still what she favored, for reasons she told herself went beyond sentimentality. She’d had a lifetime of experience shaping glass, making it do her bidding, and thinking up new ways that she could use it. If she ever had some downtime, she would have to think seriously about whether daggers of glass still made sense. From the perspective of a bard, a single theme was ideal, but it was possible that she could change her costume to incorporate some of her new aspects. Crafting stories seemed far away now, as it often did when she was at war.
There was a slight chill in the air that bothered her for a moment before she realized that she no longer needed to worry about cold. Heat was the strongest of the new domains she had taken. All it took was a mere thought for her to warm up. She hadn’t had time to converse with the multistrati she’d taken it from, so Vidre had no clue who it had originally belonged to. More likely than not, it had been one of the illustrati who worked the forges of the Iron Kingdom, or heated water to boiling for the steam engines. Without knowing whose it had been, Vidre had no way to keep the legend going; the power would fade with time. It already seemed weaker than it had been a few days before. If the legend had been built artificially by the Ministry of Legends, it would erode quickly. For now though, it kept her pleasantly warm.
It was nice to imagine that this adventure in the Iron Kingdom would fade away as well, just another story among the many that littered her past. That seemed improbable. The artifact was too powerful. It might have been one thing if Welexi intended to collect every copy of it and throw them in the ocean, but he had displayed only a single-minded fascination with what the Harbingers had created. It was trouble. Perhaps more trouble than the civil war.
The wait was interminable. She wished that she had picked up the domain of sound so that she might be able to hear through the windows and find out what they were saying. The idea of a truce had been floating around Castle Launtine the last time Vidre had been there, but Welexi was firmly against it. He saw the detente in Torland as a resounding failure that couldn’t be allowed to happen again. Without being able to listen in on their conversations, Vidre had no way of knowing whether the Allunio might be amenable to a truce in return, and she didn’t want to push back against Welexi.
She perked up slightly when she saw someone approaching the manor. He had darker skin than was usual in the Iron Kingdom, but he would have passed a cursory look from the guards — those that were still at their posts, at any rate. He was wearing peasant’s clothing, with dark, curly hair was was cropped close to his skull. It wasn’t until he turned to the side that she recognized him as Dominic.
Their small party had landed on the coast to the north, anchoring the yacht out to sea before taking a small boat to shore. The yacht itself was sailing away by the time they had their boat flipped over on the sand; Tellula, one of the three illustrati that the Bone Warden had sent with him, took a half hour to cover it with a thick layer of rock.
“What if something happens to you?” Dominic asked her. “How will we return?”
“We have resources,” replied Finola. Her domain was ink. She had tattooed herself from wrists to throat, though she now had leather armor on that covered most of it. Neither of these women had shown a particular desire to talk to him, in part because they were something approaching family. The man didn’t seem to talk at all.
They had ventured south to Parance, moving slowly and stopping often, especially to converse with the locals. They heard stories as they went, though Dominic didn’t credit most of them. Quill was the new king of the Iron Kingdom, an illustrati of ink who would usher in a new era of peace through diplomacy, wielding the pen just as his father had wielded the sword. It was an overwrought narrative that Dominic thought was likely to be Welexi’s work. There was another story about the day the Minister of Legends had been killed, mostly involving the innocents that had lost their lives as a result of the frantic escape. The Minister of Legends himself was given short shrift in the story as it was relayed, but Dominic couldn’t tell if that was how the conspiracy wanted it or if that was just how it had been filtered by the common folk. It made sense that they would care less about an important man; it was difficult to imagine yourself as a hand of the king but easy to imagine walking past one of those tall buildings and being sliced open by falling glass. The conspiracy had a name now — the Allunio, the Reshapers, an unimaginative callback to some of the oldest stories about the making of the world.
The worst thing Dominic listened to was the story of how Lightscour had betrayed Welexi.
“They stood on top of Castle Launtine,” said the innkeeper. “They’d just found out the Iron King was dead, having routed those Allunio bastards right quick, tearing through them together, a team, like Darchere and Lummi, light and shadow playing across that grand courtyard. Together there was nothing that could stop them, but they couldn’t put the Iron King back together, could they? So they went up to the top of the castle together and stood there on the ramparts, looking out on the kingdom and trying to figure out their next move. Only, Lightscour knew that it was now or never. His ego had been growing the whole time they’d been traveling companions. He’d coveted Welexi’s fame from the start. He stepped back, just a touch, and drove his blade forward to stab Welexi. It was cowardice, hubris, and betrayal all rolled into one. For all that he thought he was cock of the walk, his aim wasn’t true. He slid that sword of inky black shadow straight through Welexi, but did no more than pierce a lung.”
The innkeeper was watching the stony faces in front of him and smiling like they were egging him on. “They fought with swords clashing, back and forth across the parapets. Welexi could have killed him in an instant, even with only one working lung, but the boy was like a son to him. Welexi never had children, he was always traveling and too much of a gentleman to leave any bastards behind. Lightscour was supposed to be the Sunhawk’s legacy, his rightful heir, if only he could have waited. They fought for a half hour with neither landing a decisive hit, the Sunhawk because he didn’t want to and Lightscour because he couldn’t. Finally the Queen of Blades comes up to see what’s going on and begs them to stop fighting. Once she saw how it was going, she started begging for Lightscour’s life, openly weeping for the first time in years.” He grinned at Dominic. “Of all the men she’d had, it was a boy not much older than you that broke through the hard mask she’d made for herself.”
“In the end it came down to exhaustion. Lightscour couldn’t score a hit. His sword work became sloppy. He spent more energy than Welexi did, until eventually Welexi knocked him to the ground and put the tip of that spear of light right at the traitor’s throat. ‘Surrender,’ he said. ‘We might still repair things between us.’ But the street rat they’d picked up in Gennaro was too hot-blooded for that, too consumed with the image of himself. He turned to his domain and beckoned it forward, until the shadow touched his very soul. He gave himself over to it, until his physical body began to melt away. When Welexi saw what was happening he tried to blast it away with light, but by then it was too late and the transformation was complete. They say he’s still out there, a man made of shadow, ready to exact his misguided revenge.”
The Bone Warden had spies in the Iron Kingdom. Dominic shouldn’t have been surprised.
They met their contact in a small cottage outside Parance, one hidden away in a copse of trees. The woman inside had the same dark hair and pale skin of Finola and Tellula. Dominic had no trouble imagining that this woman was another of the Bone Warden’s many descendants. She didn’t seem happy to see them.
“I’m not surprised that she sent someone,” said the woman. No one had given Dominic the courtesy of an introduction. “What I want to know is what aim she had in mind.”
“No aim,” said Finola. “We’re here to advance her interests in whatever way we see fit. She suspected that events might have progressed at a fast clip, fast enough that discretion would be required. We need information.”
“It’s hard to say,” replied the woman. “The Iron King was killed by Welexi, or Welexi found the Iron King just as the Allunio murdered him, or the Iron King had been dead for years, or … well, the stories get wilder and less credible from there. Perhaps there never was an Iron King, or he’s in hiding, or some other such thing. Welexi has gone insane, or revealed an insanity that was there all along, or perhaps Gaelwyn has descended back into his vile experiments, or Vidre is taking every man she can find to bed, or none of that and it’s all lies spread around to discredit them. The Allunio have some artifact that allows them to steal the domain of anyone they touch, or maybe it’s Vidre who has one, or they both do, or it’s all a story that got spun out of control and the Allunio only have some secret techniques they bought from Maskoy. There are too many people telling too many stories to make much sense of it. I’ve been in the city enough to give some credit to the possibility that there’s something involving the Harbingers.”
“What is the disposition of the ministries?” asked Dominic.
The woman stared at him. “You’re not a relative.” She looked to Tellula. “And he’s not hired muscle?”
“This is the man once known as Lightscour,” said Tellula. “Dominic de Luca, this is Etain.”
“The ministries are in holding,” said Etain, as though Dominic’s legend were meaningless. “Everyone is waiting to see who will win, whether they admit it or not. From what I can gather, the Allunio had been using the Iron King’s authority, whether he was already dead or not, but with Welexi saying that the Iron King is no more, that lever’s got nothing supporting it anymore. Parance moved on the Iron King’s authority. Now it’s ground to a halt. It’s terrible for trade; people began to starve a week after the news broke, because no one wanted to ship food into the city when there wasn’t a guarantee that they’d get paid.”
“We need one of the Harbinger artifacts for great-grandmother, at least for a start,” said Finola. “The conspiracy has one. How do we get it?”
“You’re in luck,” said Etain. “One of my informants gave me the location of their hideout just yesterday.”
“Dominic,” said Finola. “This is your part in the plan. You know someone in the Allunio. We’ll try diplomacy first. Talk to them, find out their aims, and find out where we can get an artifact.”
“I know a single person,” said Dominic. “We have no guarantee that she’s still alive. I don’t know whether they’ll give me a warm reception if some terrible fate has befallen her.”
“This is your part in the plan,” repeated Finola.
“I know,” replied Dominic. “Tell me where to go.”
Parance was different. The streets were empty and the posters that had hung on the walls were now mostly torn down. There was a smell that accompanied the emptiness, a lingering, rotting stench that hung over the city. Dominic couldn’t account for the smell; by the account that Etain had given, most people had fled the city to seek refuge elsewhere. The fights had been between illustrati, two or more people with incredible power battling it out but all the same, small in number. There were few signs of these battles, only a charred wall or shattered cobblestones. For the most part, the city looked the same as it had before, only devoid of people. Dominic felt eyes watching him as he walked though. The city was less deserted than it looked.
The Bone Warden’s people were following him. They had escorted him to the edge of the city then sent him on his way, but he wasn’t under the delusion that he was anything but bait. They planned to use him to get inside Faye’s organization, or to force Vidre to make an appearance, possibly both if they could manage it. He was expendable. They’d never treated him as anything but that.
The manor he’d been told to go to had the same haunted feeling that the city did. The curtains were drawn on all the windows and the wrought iron gates were halfway open. Several of the windows were broken as well. If the illustrati had fled or been killed, this house had probably belonged to one of them. If the commoners had been looting, this was one of the first places that would have been hit. If not for the very faint sound of voices drifting through the shattered windows, Dominic might have thought that the manor was abandoned. He steeled himself for a confrontation, knowing that he couldn’t possibly win any physical contest against illustrati, then knocked on the door.
It was Faye who answered.
“Our third meeting,” she said with a sigh. “Do come in.”
She seemed to have aged years in the space of two months. She still held that same self-assurance that she’d had in both their prior meetings, but if she was not broken then she was at least bent. There were bags beneath her eyes and she walked with a slight stoop. She wore a tight dress that showed signs of reinforcement. It was halfway to being armor.
Dominic stepped inside, where Faye appraised him.
“They’re telling stories about you,” said Faye. “We have no way of knowing whether it’s a deception. I thought that perhaps you had tried to make your move against Welexi and been killed, but the others thought it more likely that the whole story was a lie concocted to raise your standing to ever greater heights. A rooftop battle, master against apprentice, while the love interest looks on? It was too picturesque to be true, we all agreed on that. We just couldn’t agree on who had created the story.”
“Welexi stole my power,” said Dominic. He considered for a moment before saying more. “They have the artifact. One of them, if Lothaire was telling the truth about there being multiple.” Faye seemed to flinch at the name.
“You’ve come at a fortuitous time,” said Faye. She started down the hallway, then paused for a moment. “If you’re lying to me, or mean to betray me, know that I have more power now than when we last met.”
When they came into the sitting room, he was met with cold stares. There were four people arrayed around a table, with a Harbinger artifact sitting in the middle. Their bodies were all turned towards it, even as they watched Dominic. Their clothing was almost typical for illustrati, though the make of it was less fine than Dominic had come to expect. It was common for the illustrati to be clad in their domains; here, multiple domains were represented. Faye was the only one among them that could pass for a normal citizen of the Iron Kingdom.
“This is Lightscour,” said Faye. “He will be the one taking that power.”
“Hell if he will,” said a man with feathered armor.
“Welexi’s protege?” asked a woman with arched eyebrows.
“It needs to stay within the group,” said another woman.
“We are nothing if we concentrate our power!” shouted Faye. Her voice was enhanced, just as Corta’s had been, loud enough to bring everyone else up short. “We would be no better than the people we’re fighting against! We might as well go join them if this is the path we’ve chosen to take!” The room was deathly silent after her outburst. It was so quiet that it had to be the effect of her domain. Faye slowly let sound bleed back into the room, so that Dominic could hear his own heart beating again. “Am I the only one who remembers why we started this? The iniquity of the illustrati, the problems in the balance of power? Is it I alone who still thinks of Lothaire?”
“You’ve built up a story in your head about him,” said the man in feathered armor. “You listened in on conversations and saw some spark of naivete that you thought mirrored your own, back when this was innocent fun.”
“You don’t know me so well as that, Boniface,” said Faye through clenched teeth.
“Perhaps,” he replied. “Lothaire knew you though. He told me to beware your idealism. There’s a power in those who truly believe, he said, but that’s no argument against practicality.” He lunged forward, toward the artifact on the table.
The other man moved forward at the same time, swinging a fist with a grimace on his face. One of the women, the one with arched eyebrows, moved forward to grab at the artifact as the men grappled each other, but she was kicked to the side by one of the other women. They moved quickly, with the speed of illustrati, using force that would have broken Dominic’s bones if he tried to get between them. The thought crossed his mind as he watched them fight amongst themselves, but Faye laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. Her face had fallen; she made no attempt to stop the melee.
The fight didn’t stop until the artifact began emitting its low tones, four of them in all. Dominic had only heard it do one at once, but from the triumphant way that the illustrati pulled his hand from it, he could guess at what it meant; four links, taken all in one fell swoop. The man had a feral, triumphant look in his eyes, the kind that Dominic remembered seeing on Vidre’s face when her dagger was dripping red with blood.
“Well that’s settled,” he hissed.
“We are ruined,” said Faye. They stood at the entryway of the manor. She held the spent artifact in her hand. Her face was hollow. “We have failed. You came to us too late, but I don’t think it would have been any different if you had arrived earlier. If the pressure on us had been less overwhelming, if you had succeeded in killing Welexi —”
“I never tried,” said Dominic.
“Oh,” replied Faye. She closed her eyes.
“What comes next?” asked Dominic.
“After ruin?” asked Faye. “I have no earthly idea. Mere survival, I suppose, if we can figure out what that entails.” She pursed her lips with her eyes still closed. “You should go.”
“I came here to help,” said Dominic. “To see what could be done.”
“There’s no help needed,” said Faye. She finally opened her eyes. They were limned with tears.
“The Bone Warden sent me,” Dominic confessed. This brought no reaction. “She has an interest in the artifacts. If we could get the artifacts into the right hands, people who wield power softly instead of monsters like the Iron King, maybe we can mitigate the effects of them being unleashed. If we want to change how the world works, it might still be possible, even if the Allunio have failed.”
Faye shook her head. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t trust a woman like that to wield power justly.” She sighed, long and low. “I’m surprised you’re still talking as though changing the world might be possible, after what we saw in there. Perhaps it’s because you didn’t know those people like I did, didn’t hear the same high-minded speeches, or see the enthusiasm they once had. We were going to be the successors to the old ways. We talked about the line that would be drawn in the history books, how they would separate the old era from the new. Perhaps it’s better that you were never part of it.” She shook her head. “You should go.”
“There’s a cottage to the north,” said Dominic. “Follow the Miller’s Way, it’ll be hidden in a copse. If you want to talk to the Bone Warden’s people, you might find an alliance there.”
“I didn’t say we were ruined lightly,” said Faye. “We cannot recover. In truth, we were doomed from the start, unable to recover from the moment we began. Go.”
He had expected the Bone Warden’s people to leap out of hiding and grill him on what he had discussed the moment he was clear of the manor, but the city was silent and still, just as it had been. He tried to put an argument into order, one that would convince them that something needed to be done about Welexi, but it was looking like his former mentor was only a few days from securing the Iron Kingdom. The Bone Warden seemed unlikely to contest the result; just as the Iron Kingdom’s ministries were, she would sit back and wait for a winner to be declared, playing defensively until then. Dominic heard a sound from behind him and turned, ready to explain, but instead of Tellula or Finola, or even their silent partner, Dominic found himself facing a woman armored in glass from head to toe.
“You’re quite inconsiderate,” said Vidre. “I saved your life and you came walking right back toward danger.”
Dominic stared at her. She seemed taller than he remembered, though perhaps it was the armor. The shards of glass were sharper, each edge reflecting sunlight. She was no less beautiful for the time that had passed, even if she had been slaughtering dozens of people in the meantime, as the stories suggested. Her voice was casual, overly so, as though this were just a matter of happenstance. That had always been a sign of anger.
“You’re still working with him,” said Dominic.
“Yes,” replied Vidre. “And who is it that you’re working with?”
“You were always the cloak and dagger to his shining breastplate and gleaming sword,” said Dominic. “But if he’s not the paragon of heroism, why stay with him? What binds you so closely? In the beginning I thought it was about convenience, that maybe you were just increasing your fame, but … is that all there is to you? You stay with him so that you can share the cost of bards? So that you can remain one of the most powerful women in the world?”
Vidre calmly pulled a glass dagger from her armor. “Tell me who you’re working with.”
“Calligae took me to the Bone Warden. I sailed back here on one of her ships, with a few of her people,” said Dominic. “And if you’re here, then there’s no point in pretending I didn’t meet with the Allunio. I don’t know that either of them would want me telling you, but I’m tired of lying to people. Vidre, the Allunio aren’t bad people. Or at least, I don’t think they started out that way. They just wanted a world were rulers couldn’t live in a narcotic stupor, where kings couldn’t buy young girls to marry —”
“This is where I say they tried to assassinate me and you say that we’re not so different given all the people I’ve killed,” said Vidre with clenched teeth. “We’ve cast our lots. This is pointless. How many of the Allunio were in that house?”
“You saved my life because you knew that Welexi was in the wrong,” said Dominic.
“I’m losing my patience,” said Vidre. “How many? What domains?”
“There’s no audience here,” said Dominic. “It’s just you and me.”
“Better men than you have tried to redeem me,” said Vidre. Her voice had a hard edge to it. “Better men have thought they saw a broken bird that needed mending, or a whore they could somehow purify, or tried to convince me of the one true path to salvation.”
“That’s not what I’m trying to do,” said Dominic. He felt for the patience he’d been forced to cultivate while he was paralyzed. “You’re not pleased with this life. You’re not pleased with Welexi. I’m not even saying that you need to change, just that we can talk to each other as friends. There’s no need for posturing, not with me. I already know who you are.”
“You betrayed us,” said Vidre. The dagger hadn’t left her hand. “The enemy came to you and you said nothing.”
“I know,” said Dominic. “I’m sorry.”
Vidre hesitated. Dominic imagined that she was going to say that an apology wasn’t enough. “I’m sorry too.”
“Then we can find somewhere to sit and talk?” asked Dominic.
“No,” said Vidre. “I’ve got a war to win. After that, I need to talk with Welexi. Maybe afterward, I’ll try to find you.” She turned away and ran, fast enough that calling after her would have been pointless.
Faye sat at the entrance of the manor, holding one of the artifacts in her hand and only half listening to the ongoing discussion in the other room. They were fighting again, but with words instead of fists. Gauthier had won the battle for the artifact and now he was stronger than any of them. He was going to make a play for a position of leadership over the five of them. It was possible that was what he was doing now. Faye couldn’t bring herself to care. The inner circle would contract sometime in the next few days, following some question of loyalty or personal dispute that escalated quickly towards violence. Five would become four. It was predictable, readily visible in her mind’s eye. They were finished. She had told Dominic that all that remained was survival. She wasn’t sure that she had the will for that. Lothaire would have told her to keep going, to keep her goals in mind and move forward with deliberation, but her goals had been shattered before her eyes. Most likely they had been shattered weeks before and she was only now realizing it.
There was a knock on the door. Faye turned to her first domain, the domain of sound, and listened closely. She expected it to be Dominic, but the rhythm of the heart was different, not to mention positioned lower. She hadn’t been paying enough attention, hadn’t thought to listen for footsteps. There was no sound of armor, but that meant nothing when the person wasn’t moving. It was as Boniface had said; they had no allies, not anymore. Faye placed her hand on the doorknob, ready to speak with whoever it was. She wasn’t in any condition to fight, not with such a deep pit of apathy and despair.
She had only opened the door partway when a gauntleted fist came crashing forward. If it had been properly aimed, she would have died then and there. Instead she was showered with splinters and pushed down to the ground. The bits of wood stung at her skin. It took a dazed moment for her to realize that they were burning.
It was Vidre. She paused only momentarily, long enough for Faye to see that the glass armor was glowing bright orange with waves of heat rolling off of it. Vidre didn’t have her famed daggers in her hand, just molten glass in the form of long claws.
Faye screamed, pouring all the power of her domain behind it. Vidre staggered, but only for a brief second before moving forward. Faye’s bodily domains were useless against molten glass from head to toe; there was no way to grapple, no way to force her fingers through to flesh. All she had was sound, but Vidre didn’t seem to care about that. Her ears were fully covered, permitting no sound to enter, so the only option would be for Faye to amplify her screams so that Vidre’s heart would burst, even beneath the layers of armor.
Faye never got the chance. A long claw of molten glass sank itself into her stomach. There was a plume of acrid smoke as her organs were boiled. The reinforcing steel in her armor was doing nothing for her; the glass had slipped between the ribs of steel and now it was burning ribs of bone. Vidre’s face couldn’t be seen behind the hot glass helm she wore.
There was a noise as a bolt of lightning stuck Vidre squarely in the chest. She shrugged it off as though she were immune, then revealed shortly afterward that she was, as her own lightning began to course and swirl around her molten glass armor. She withdrew her claw from Faye’s midsection and darted towards the others. Faye couldn’t move to look. She could only hear the screams of agony, screams that she would have echoed if her diaphragm and lungs weren’t punctured clean through.
It was Kendrick Eversong that saved her from passing out. His story was still going strong in Torland, even after two months had passed. Access to the domain of blood meant there was no need for her to die from blood loss, no need to endure the dizziness of her blood pressure failing her. She tried to stand up, to move, even through the pain. It took quick, sloppy repairs with the domain of flesh for her to be able to move at all. Vidre was fighting the others in the next room over. That they were still fighting meant that Vidre was winning. At four against one, they should have been able to kill her, but she had domains of her own, standing stacked on top of standing, just as they did. Any one of the Allunio that had fallen in the last eight weeks might have added their strength to hers.
The molten claw had dug deep into Faye. It had touched her spine. She couldn’t move her legs. She had the domain of flesh though, a poor mimic of Gaelwyn’s, but capable of miracles all the same. She didn’t need a spine, so long as she had that domain. She could stand with only that, no need for nerves at all. Her legs kicked helplessly the first time she tried, but then with a push against the wall she was able to lurch to her feet. When she did, hot liquid spilled from inside her and onto the ground, coating the front of her dress. She nearly threw up, but there was no time for that, even with the smell of her own boiled intestines in the air. She spared half a thought toward trying to help the fight, but a single glance showed that Cherise’s head was laying in the hallway, beautiful hair coiled around the burnt stump of her neck. Even if Faye offered her meager assistance, they would not win.
Faye staggered to the door, stopping only long enough to pick up the artifact before heading out into Parance.
They did Dominic the courtesy of pretending that they hadn’t followed him. He was sure that they had heard his entire conversation with Vidre. Tellula asked him for his report nonetheless. Perhaps they thought he was stupid enough to try to lie to them. He repeated his conversations back to them, as faithfully as he could.
“It’s good there’s to be a victor,” said Finola.
“Perhaps,” replied Tellula. “It depends on who ends up ruling here.”
“You can’t trust Welexi,” said Dominic. “How many domains do you think he’s claimed for himself? How much has his standing grown by now?”
“We’re not in the habit of murdering people for crimes they might have committed,” said Tellula. “You’re also not in a position to make demands.”
“It’s not a demand,” said Dominic. “I’m only giving advice.”
“Somewhat less advice would be appreciated,” said Finola.
“They’re positioning Quill for king,” said Etain. “I don’t like that. I don’t think our dear great-grandmother would either. He’s an idiot, palatable to the masses but not much more.”
“We were never heavy hitters,” said Finola. “The four of us combined probably wouldn’t have stood a chance against Welexi even before whatever the Harbinger artifacts have done to him.”
“He has my domain,” said Dominic. “Likely others.”
“A civil war is the opportune time to make our own man king,” said Finola. “But I doubt that we have the power to accomplish it. We might be able to talk Welexi around, if he’d listen to reason.”
“Quill will have lost his power,” said Tellula. “That’s why he disappeared. My guess would be he’s a stopgap. Someone to keep attention elsewhere. He might treat with us. The new king will be much better off if he’s got the Bone Warden’s backing.” She looked to the silent man they’d brought with him, the one Dominic had heard perhaps three words from in the entire time they’d been traveling. “All the Iron King had were bastards. Easy enough to claim someone convenient was a bastard, isn’t it?”
There was a knock on the door, the sound of scraped knuckles. The Bone Warden’s people moved into position, ready for a fight, but when the door slid open they stared in shock.
“I am dying,” said Faye. Her hair was wild and matted. One hand clung to her stomach, where viscera had leaked out. The other held a Harbinger artifact, its existence pressing on the mind and announcing itself to anyone whose eyes landed upon it. Her voice sounded strange; she wasn’t using her mouth to speak. “I come with an offer for the Bone Warden.” She stumbled forward, into an empty chair that one of the women had been sitting in. “A trade,” she said. “I give this artifact in return for Dominic’s freedom from whatever scheme he’s wrapped up in. Dominic, I give you my powers in exchange for bringing order to this world.”
“She’s the walking dead,” said Tellula. Her mouth was agape. “She’s keeping herself together with her domains alone, the moment she stops to sleep …”
“Do you accept?” asked Faye.
“Yes,” said Dominic.
The Bone Warden’s people exchanged glances.
“I would ask you to leave,” said Faye, making the noise appear from thin air. She wasn’t breathing; it was possible that she’d permanently lost that ability. Her piercing eyes were on Tellula. “So that you would have no chance to steal from Dominic before I make him more powerful than you. Know that even now I could slaughter you all. Try to steal from me directly and the noise I make will be more than enough to kill you.”
“Not without killing him too,” said Tellula.
“So be it,” replied Faye. The sounds came into the air from around her. “I am in pain. I am dying. I could prolong it by a day, two at most.”
The Bone Warden’s people shared a look again.
“Deal,” said Tellula. “We will take our leave until the transfer is complete. Dominic, you are released from your bond to us, but this development will need to be discussed.”
They filed out of the small cottage without another word. Faye watched Dominic the entire time, holding the Harbinger artifact close to her. When they had closed the door behind her, Faye leaned forward, watching Dominic closely.
“I don’t know that I can bring order to the world,” said Dominic. “Better people than me have tried.”
“I need to believe I have a legacy,” said Faye. “That my life was not a complete waste. Take this power. Go into hiding, become a despot, die in horrible agony when you next cross paths with Welexi, do anything you please. Just lie to me. Tell me in my last moments that I am doing a good thing.”
“Okay,” said Dominic. “I’ll bring order to the world. Or at least I’ll try.”
Faye laid the artifact on the table and slid her hand inside it. By the time it was done beeping five times, Faye was dead. Dominic took her hand from the artifact and replaced it with his own. The surge of power was instant, a feeling of not just health and vitality, not just speed and strength, but a fullness of the senses as well. He could feel his blood thumping in his veins. He could feel every fiber of his muscles. His hearing changed completely, so that every sound was clear and distinct, from the smallest creak of the cottage to the sounds of his own body. He was more powerful than he’d been as Lightscour. He wished that he had asked Faye more questions, gotten some details about the people whose legends now provided him with strength.
The door to the cottage swung open slowly. Tellula and Finola looked in at Dominic.
“The artifact is yours,” said Dominic. “Take it to the Bone Warden.”
“And you?” asked Tellula. “Where should we tell her you’re off to?”
“Castle Launtine,” said Dominic. He looked at Faye. “To try to make the world a better place.”