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Brandon Sanderson

Tress of the Emerald Sea

Chapter One: The Girl

In the middle of the ocean, there was a girl who lived upon a rock.

This was not an ocean like the one you have imagined.

Nor was the rock like the one you have imagined.

The girl, however, might be as you imagined–assuming you imagined her as thoughtful, soft-spoken, and overly fond of collecting cups.

Men often described the girl as having hair the color of wheat. Others would call it the color of flax, or occasionally the color of honey. The girl wondered why men so often used food to describe women’s features. There seemed to be a hunger to such men that was best avoided.

In her estimation, “light brown” was sufficiently descriptive–though the hue of her hair was not its most interesting trait. That would instead be her hair’s unruliness. Each morning, she heroically tamed it with brush and comb, then muzzled it with a ribbon and a tight braid. Yet still some strands always found way to escape–and would wave free in the wind, eagerly greeting everyone she passed.

The girl had been given the unfortunate name of Glorf upon her birth (don’t judge; it was a family name), but her wild hair earned her the name everyone knew her by: Tress. That moniker was, in Tress’s estimation, the most interesting thing about her.

Tress had been raised to possess a certain inalienable pragmatism. Such is a common failing among those who live on dour, lifeless islands from which they can never leave. When you are greeted each day by a black stone landscape, it influences your perspective on life.

The island was shaped vaguely like an old man’s crooked finger, emerging from the ocean to point toward the horizon. It was made entirely of barren black saltstone, and was large enough for a fair-sized town and a duke’s mansion. Though locals called the island the rock, its name on the maps was Diggen’s Point. Nobody remembered who Diggen was anymore, but he had obviously been a clever fellow, for he’d left the rock soon after naming it and had never returned.

In the evenings, Tress would often sit on her porch and sip salty tea from one of her favorite cups while looking out over the deep green ocean. As the sun set, she’d wonder about the people who visited the rock in their ships.

And yes, I did say the ocean was green. Also, it was not wet. We’re getting there.

As I said, none of the rock’s residents were allowed to leave. A king somewhere claimed the island, and he considered it vital for reasons that involved important military phrases like “strategic resupply” and “friendly anchorage” and “potential vacation home.”

Not that anybody in their right mind would consider the rock a tourist destination. The black saltstone rubbed off and got into everything. It also made most kinds of agriculture impossible, eventually tainting any soil moved to the town from off island. The only food the island grew came from compost vats.

While the rock did have important wells that brought water from a deep aquifer–something that visiting ships required–the equipment that worked the salt mines belched a constant stream of black smoke into the air.

In summary, the atmosphere was dismal, the ground wretched, and the views depressing. Oh, and have I mentioned the deadly spores?

Diggen’s Point lay near the Verdant Lunagree. Lunagrees, you should know, refer to the places where one of the twelve moons hang in the sky around Tress’s planet in oppressively low geosynchronous orbits. In other words, they never move. Big enough to fill a full third of the sky, one of the twelve is always visible, no matter where you travel.  Dominating your view, like if you had a wart on your eyeball.

The locals worshipped those twelve moons as gods, which we can all agree is far more ridiculous than whatever it is you worship. However, it’s easy to see where the superstition began, considering the spores that the moons dropped upon the land.

They’d filter down from the lunagree, visible from the island some fifty or sixty miles away. That’s as close as you ever wanted to get to the lunagree–a great shimmering fountain of colorful motes, vibrant and exceedingly dangerous. The spores filled the world’s oceans, creating vast seas not of water, but of alien dust. Ships sailed that dust like ships sail water here, and you should not find that so unusual. How many other planets have you visited? Perhaps they all sail in oceans of pollen, and your home is the freakish one.

The spores were only dangerous if you got them wet. Which is rather a problem, considering the number of wet things that leak from human bodies, even when they’re healthy. The least bit of water would cause the spores to sprout explosively, and the results could range from uncomfortable to deadly. Breathe in a burst of verdant spores, for example, and your saliva would send vines growing up out your mouth–or, in more interesting cases, into your sinuses and out around your eyes.

The spores could be rendered inert by two things: salt or silver. Hence the reason why the locals didn’t terribly mind the savory taste of their water or their food. It meant they were safe, and they’d teach their children this ever so important rule: salt and silver halt the killer. An acceptable little poem, if you’re the sort of barbarian who enjoys slant rhymes.

Regardless, with the spores, the smoke, and the salt, one can perhaps see why the king needed a law requiring the population to remain on the rock. The place was so inhospitable, even the smog found it depressing. Ships visited periodically to do repairs, drop off waste for the compost vats, and take on new water. But each strictly obeyed the king’s rules: no locals were to be taken off of Diggen’s Point. Ever.

And so, Tress would sit on her steps in the evenings, watching ships sail toward the horizon. A column of spores would drop from the lunagree, and the sun would move out from behind the moon and creep toward the horizon. She’d sip salty tea from a cup with horses painted on it, and she’d think to herself, There’s a beauty to this, actually. I like it here. And I think I shall be fine to remain here all my life.

Chapter Two: The Groundskeeper

Perhaps you were surprised to read those last words. Tress wanted to stay on the rock? She liked it there?

Where was her sense of adventure? Her yearning for new lands, her wanderlust?

Well, this isn’t the part of the story where you ask questions. So kindly keep them inside. That said, you must understand that this a tale about people who are both what they seem and not what they seem. Simultaneously. A story of contradictions. Or in other words, it is a story about human beings.

In this case, Tress wasn’t your ordinary heroine–in that she was actually quite ordinary. In fact, Tress considered herself to be categorically boring. She liked her tea lukewarm. She went to bed on time. She loved her parents, occasionally squabbled with her little brother, and didn’t litter. She was fair at needlepoint and had a talent for baking, but had no other noteworthy skills.

She didn’t train at fencing in secret. She couldn’t talk to animals. She had no hidden royalty or deities in her lineage, though her great-grandmother Glorf had reportedly once waved at the king. That had been from atop the rock while he was sailing past many miles away, so Tress didn’t think it counted.

In short, Tress was just a normal girl. She knew this because the other girls would talk about how they weren’t like “everyone else,” and after a while Tress figured the group “everyone else” must include only her. The other girls were obviously right, as they all knew how to be unique–they were so good at it, in fact, that they’d do it together.

Instead of being fashionable or unique, Tress was pragmatic. She was generally more thoughtful than most people, but didn’t like to impose by asking for what she wanted. She’d remain quiet when the other girls were laughing or telling jokes about her. After all, they seemed to be having so much fun. It would be impolite to spoil that, and presumptive of her to request that they stop.

So she just listened. And sometimes the more boisterous youths talked of adventures in far-off oceans. Tress found those ideas frightening. How could she leave her parents and brother? Besides, she had her cup collection to bring the adventures to her.

Tress cherished her cups. As she grew into her teenage years, she began to collect ones from all across the twelve oceans: far-off lands where the spores were reportedly crimson, azure, or even golden. She had fine porcelain cups with painted glaze, some clay cups that felt rough beneath her fingers, and even wooden cups that looked rugged and well-used. She loved them all because of the way the brought the world to her. Whenever she sipped from one of the cups, she imagined she could taste far-off foods and drinks. In this, she thought she could understand the people who had crafted them.

Several of the sailors who frequently docked at Diggen’s Point knew of her fondness, and they sometimes brought cups for her. These were often battered and worn, but Tress didn’t mind. A cup with a chip or ding in it had a story, and she did love imagining those stories. She’d give the sailors pies in exchange for their gifts, the ingredients purchased with the pittance she earned scrubbing windows.

Each time Tress acquired a new cup, she brought it to Charlie to show it off.

Charlie claimed to be the groundskeeper at the duke’s mansion at the top of the rock, but Tress knew he was actually the duke’s son. You didn’t have to be pragmatic or thoughtful to realize that. Charlie’s hands were soft like a child’s, rather than callused, and he was better fed than anyone else in town. His hair was always cut neatly, and though he took his signet ring off when he saw her, it left a slightly lighter patch of skin, making it clear he often wore one–on the finger that marked a member of the nobility.

Besides, Tress wasn’t certain what “grounds” Charlie thought needed keeping. The mansion was, after all, on the rock. There had been a tree on the property once, but it had done the sensible thing and died a few years back. There were some potted plants though, which let him pretend.

Grey motes swirled in the wind by her feet as she climbed the path up to the mansion. Grey ones were dead–even the air around the rock was salty enough to kill spores–but she still held her breath as she hurried past. She turned left at the fork–the right path went to the mines–then wove up the switchbacks to the overhang.

Here the mansion squatted like a corpulent frog atop its lily. Tress wasn’t certain why the dukes liked it up here. They were closer to the smog, so maybe they liked the similarly tempered company. Climbing all this way was difficult–but considering how the duke’s family fit their clothing, perhaps they figured they could use the exercise.

Five solders watched the grounds–though only Snagu and Lead were on duty now–and they did their job well. After all, it had been a horribly long time since anyone in the duke’s family had died from the myriad of dangers a nobleman faced while living on the rock. (Those included boredom, stubbed toes, and choking on cobbler.)

She’d brought the soldiers pies, of course. As they ate, she considered showing the two men her new cup. It was made completely of tin, stamped with letters in a language that ran from up to down, instead of left to right. But no, she didn’t want to bother them.

They let her pass, even though it wasn’t her day to wash the mansion’s windows. She found Charlie around back, practicing with his fencing sword. When he saw her, he put it down and hurriedly took off his signet ring.

“Tress!” he said. “I thought you wouldn’t be by today!”

Having just turned seventeen, Charlie was just two months older than she was. He had an abundance of smiles, and she had identified each one. For instance, the wide-toothed one he gave her now said he was genuinely happy to have an excuse to be done with fencing practice. He wasn’t as fond of it as his father thought he should be.

“Swordplay, Charlie?” she asked. “Is that a gardener’s task?”

He picked up the thin dueling sword. “This? Oh, but it is for gardening.” He took a half-hearted swipe at one of the potted plants on the patio. The plant wasn’t quite dead yet, but the leaf Charlie split certainly wasn’t going to improve its chances.

“Gardening,” Tress said. “With a sword.”

“It’s how they do things on the royal island,” Charlie said. He swiped again. “There is always war there, you know. Even their gardeners have to go about armed, for protection. So if you consider, it’s natural they’d learn to trim plants with a sword. Don’t want to get ambushed when you’re unarmed.”

He wasn’t a particularly good liar, but that was part of what Tress liked about him. Charlie was genuine. He even lied in an authentic way. And considering how bad he was at making them, the lies couldn’t really be held against him. They were so obvious, they were better than many a person’s truths.

He swiped again in the vague direction of the plant, then looked at her and cocked an eyebrow. She shook her head. So he gave her his “you’ve caught me but I can’t admit it” grin and rammed his sword into the dirt of the pot, then plopped down on the low garden wall.

The sons of dukes were not supposed to plop. One might therefore consider Charlie to have been a young man of extraordinary talents.

Tress settled in next to him, basket in her lap.

“What did you bring me?” he said.

She took out a small meat pie. “Pigeon,” she said, “and carrots. With a thyme-seasoned gravy.”

“A noble combination,” he said.

“I think the duke’s son, if he were here, would disagree.”

“The duke’s son is only allowed to eat dishes that have some weird foreign accents over their letters,” Charlie said. “And he’s never allowed to stop sword practice to eat. So it is fortunate that I am not him.”

Charlie took a bite. She watched for the smile. And there it was–the smile of delight. She had spent an entire day in thought, considering what she could make with the ingredients that had been on sale in the port market.

“So, what else did you bring?” he asked.

“Charlie the gardener,” she said, “you have just received a very free pie, and now you assume to ask for more?”

“Assume?” he said around a mouthful of pie. He poked her basket with his free hand. “I know there’s more. Out with it.”

She grinned. To most she didn’t impose, but Charlie was different. She revealed the tin cup.

“Ahhh,” Charlie said, then put aside the pie and took the cup reverently in two hands. “Now this is special.”

“Do you know anything about that writing?” she asked, eager.

“It’s old Iriali,” he said. “They vanished, you know. The entire people: poof. Away they went, gone one day, their island left uninhabited. Now, that was three hundred years ago, so nobody alive has ever met one of them, but they supposedly had golden hair. Like yours, the color of sunlight.”

“My hair is not the color of sunlight, Charlie.”

“Your hair is the color of sunlight, if sunlight were light brown,” Charlie said. It might be said he had a way with words. In that his words often got away.

“I’d wager this cup has quite the history,” he said. “Forged for an Iriali nobleman the day before he–and his people–were taken by the gods. The cup was left on the table, to be collected by the poor fisherwoman who first arrived on the island and discovered the horror of an entire people gone. She passed the cup down to her grandson–who became a pirate, a deadrunner even. He eventually buried his ill-gotten treasure deep beneath the spores. Only to be recovered now, after eons in darkness, to find its way to your hands.” He held the cup up to catch the light.

Tress washed the mansion windows, and had heard Charlie’s parents speaking to him. They berated him for talking so much; they thought it silly and unbecoming of his station. They rarely let him finish.

While yes, he did ramble sometimes, she’d come to understand there was a reason why. It was because Charlie liked stories like Tress liked cups.

“Thank you, Charlie,” she whispered.

“For what?”

“For giving me what I want.”

He knew what she meant. It wasn’t cups or stories.

“Always,” he said, placing his hand on hers. “Always what you want, Tress. And you can always tell me what it is. I know you don’t usually do that, to others.”

A shout sounded from deep within the mansion. It was Charlie’s father, grousing. So far as she’d been able to tell, yelling at things was the duke’s one and only job on the island, and he took it very seriously.

Charlie glanced at the sounds and grew tense, his smile–unfortunately–fading. But when the shouts didn’t draw near, he looked back at the cup. The moment was gone, but another took its place, as they tend to do. Not as intimate, but still valuable because it was time with him.

“I like,” he said softly, “that you listen. Thank you, Tress.”

“I am fond of your stories,” she said, taking the cup and turning it over. “Do you think any of it is true?”

“It could be,” Charlie said. “That’s the great thing about stories. But look here, this writing? It says it did once belong to a king. His name is right here.”

“And you learned that language in…”

“…gardening school,” he said. “In case we had to read the warnings on the packaging of certain dangerous plants.”

“Like how you wear a lord’s doublet and hose…”

“…because it makes me an excellent decoy, should assassins arrive and try to kill the duke’s son.”

“As you’ve said. But why then do you take off your ring?”

“Uh…” He looked at his hand, then met her eyes. “Well, I guess I’d rather you not mistake me for someone else. Someone I don’t want to have to be.”

He smiled then, his timid smile. His “please go with me on this, Tress” smile. Because the son of a duke could not openly fraternize with the girl who washed the windows. A nobleman pretending to be a commoner though? Feigning low station so that he could visit with the people of his realm and learn about them? Why, that was expected. It happened in so many stories, it was practically an institution.

“That makes,” she said, “perfect sense.”

“Now then,” he said, going back to his pie. “Tell me about your day. I must hear about it.”

“I went browsing through the market for ingredients,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “I purchased a pound of fish that Poloni thought was going bad, but it was actually the fish in the next barrel. So I got my fish for a steal.”

“Fascinating,” he said. “They just let you walk around? Nobody throws a fit when you visit? They don’t call their children out and make you shake their hands? Tell me more. Please, I want to know how you realized the fish wasn’t bad.”

With his prodding, she continued elucidating the mundane details of a boring life. He forced her to do it each time she visited. He, in turn, paid attention. That was the proof that his fondness for talking wasn’t a failing. He was equally good at listening. At least to her. Indeed, Charlie found her life interesting for some unfathomable reason.

As she talked, Tress felt warm. She often did when she visited–because she climbed up high and was close to the sun, so it was warmer up here. Obviously.

Except at the moment it was moonshadow, when the sun hid behind the moon and everything grew a few degrees cooler. And today she was growing tired of certain lies she told herself. Perhaps there was another reason she felt warm. It was there in Charlie’s smile, and she knew it would be in her own as well.

He didn’t listen to her only because he was fascinated by the lives of peasants.

She didn’t come visit only because she wanted to hear him tell stories.

In fact, on the deepest level it wasn’t about cups or stories at all. It was, instead, about gloves.

Chapter Three: The Duke

Tress had noticed that a nice pair of gloves made her daily work go so much better. Now, she meant the good kind of gloves, made of a soft leather that molded to your hands as you used them. The kind that–if you oiled them well and didn’t leave them out in the sun–didn’t ever grow stiff. The kind that were so comfortable, you went to wash your hands and were surprised to find you were still wearing them.

The perfect set of gloves was invaluable. And Charlie was like a good set of gloves. The longer she spent with him, the more right their time together felt. The brighter even the moonshadows seemed, and the easier her burdens felt. She did love interesting cups, but a part of that was because each one gave her an excuse to come and visit him.

The thing growing between them felt so good, so wonderful, that Tress was frightened to call it love. From the way the other youths talked, “love” was dangerous. Their love seemed to be about jealousy and insecurity. It was about passionate shouting matches and even more passionate reconciliations. It seemed less like a good pair of gloves, and more like a hot coal that would burn your hands.

Love had always frightened Tress. But when Charlie again put his hand on hers, she felt that heat. The fire she’d always feared. The coal was in there, after all, just contained–like in a good stove.

She wanted to leap into his heat, all logic discarded.

Charlie froze, his hand on hers. They’d touched many times before, of course, but this was different. This moment. This dream. He blushed, but let his hand linger. Then he finally took it back and ran it through his hair, grinning sheepishly. Of course, because he was himself, that didn’t spoil the moment–but instead made it more sweet.

Tress searched for the perfect thing to say. There were any number of lines that would have capitalized on the moment. She could have said, “Charlie, could you hold this for me while I walk around the grounds?” then offered her hand back to him.

She could have said, “Help, I can’t breathe. Staring at you has taken my breath away.”

She could even have said something completely insane, such as “I like you.”

Instead she said, “Huuhhh. Hands are warm.” She followed it with a half laugh that she choked on halfway through, exactly mimicking–by pure chance–the call of an elephant seal.

It might be said that Tress had a way with words. In that her words tended to get in her way.

In response, Charlie gave her a smile. A wonderful smile, more and more confident the longer it lasted. It was one she’d never seen before. And it said, “I think I love you, Tress, elephant seal notwithstanding.”

She smiled back at him. Then, over his shoulder she saw the duke standing in the window just behind. Tall and straight, the man wore military-style clothing that looked like it had been pinned to him by the various medals on the breast.

He was not smiling.

Indeed, she’d only seen him smile once, during the punishment of old Lotari–who had supposedly tried to sneak off the island by stowing away on a merchant ship. It seemed that it was the duke’s only smile–perhaps Charlie had used the entire family’s quota. Nevertheless, if the duke did have only one smile, he made up for it by somehow displaying far too many teeth.

That day, the duke faded back into the shadows of the house, but he seemed to be looming over Tress as she bade farewell to Charlie. On her way down the steps, she expected to hear shouting between them. Instead the mansion was silent, though it was an ominous kind of silence. The tense silence that came after you saw the lightning flash.

It chased her down the path and down the steps and around to her home, where she murmured something to her parents about being tired. She went to her room, and there waited for the silence to end. For the soldiers to knock, then demand to know why the girl who washed the windows had dared to touch the duke’s son.

When nothing like that came, she dared hope that she was reading too much into the duke’s expression. Then she remembered the duke’s singular smile. After that, worries nipped at her all night.

She finally rose early in the morning, wrestled her hair into a tail, then trudged to the market. Here, she’d sort through the day-old goods and near-spoiled ingredients for something she could afford. Despite the early hour, however, the market was abuzz with activity. Men swept dead spores off the path while people gathered in chattering knots.

Tress knew instantly that there was news. She braced herself, deciding nothing could be worse than the awful anticipation she’d suffered all night.

She was wrong.

The duke had sent a declaration: he and his family were going to leave the island that very day.

Chapter Four: The Son

Leave.

Leave the island?

People didn’t leave the island.

Tress knew, logically, that wasn’t explicitly true. The duke left on occasion to report to the king. Plus, he’d earned all those fancy medals by killing people from a distant place where they looked slightly different. He’d apparently been very heroic during those wars; you could tell because a great number of his troops had died, while he lived.

In the past, the duke had never taken his family. This time though, they were going. “The ducal heir has come of age,” the proclamation announced, “and so we shall be presenting him for betrothal to the various princesses of the civilized seas.”

Now, Tress was a pragmatic young woman. And so she only thought about ripping her shopping basket to shreds in frustration. She merely deliberated whether it would be appropriate to swear at the top of her lungs. She barely considered marching up to the duke’s mansion to demand he change his mind.

Instead of these very impractical responses, she went about her shopping in a numb haze, using the familiar action to give her suddenly crumbling life a semblance of normalcy. She found some garlic she was certain she could salvage, several potatoes that hadn’t withered too badly, and even some grain where the weevils were large enough to pick out.

Once, she’d have been pleased with this haul. Today she couldn’t think of anything but Charlie.

It seemed so incredibly unfair. She’d only just acknowledged what she felt for him, and already everything was turning upside down? Yes, she’d been told to expect this pain. Love involved pain. But that was the salt in your tea–wasn’t there also supposed to be a dab of honey? Wasn’t there supposed to be–dared she wish–passion?

She was to receive all of the detriments of a romantic affair with none of the advantages.

Unfortunately, her practicality began to assert itself. So long as the two of them had been able to pretend, then the real world hadn’t been able to claim them. But the days of pretend were over.

What had she thought was going to happen? That the duke would let her marry his son? What did she think she could offer someone like Charlie? She was nothing when compared to a princess. I mean, think of how many cups they could afford!

In the pretend world, marriage was about love. In the real world, it was about politics. A word laden with a very large number of meanings, though most of them boiled down to: This is a matter for nobles–and begrudgingly the very rich–to discuss. Not peasants.

She finished her shopping and started up the path toward her home, where at least she could commiserate with her parents. Unfortunately, it seemed that the duke was wasting no time, for she saw a procession snaking down toward the docks.

She turned around and walked back, arriving just after the procession–which began to load the family’s things onto a merchant ship. Nobody was allowed to leave the island. Unless they were, instead, somebody. Tress worried she wouldn’t get a chance to speak with Charlie. Then she worried that she would, but he wouldn’t want to see her.

Mercifully, she caught him standing at the side of the crowd, searching out through the gathering people. The moment he spotted her, he immediately rushed over. “Tress! Oh, moons. I worried I wouldn’t find you in time.”

“I…” What did she say?

“Fair maiden,” he said, bowing. “I must take my leave.”

“Charlie,” she said softly. “Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. I know you.”

He grimaced. He was wearing a traveling coat and even a hat. He hated hats. “Tress,” he said, softer, “I’m afraid I’ve lied to you. You see…I’m not the groundskeeper. I’m…um…the duke’s son.”

“Amazing. Who would have thought that Charlie the gardener and Charles the duke’s heir would be the same person, considering they’re the same age, look the same, and wear the same clothing.”

“Er, yes. Are you angry at me?”

“Anger is in line right now,” Tress said. “It’s seventh down, sandwiched between confusion and fatigue.”

Behind, Charlie’s father and mother marched up onto the ship. Their servants followed with the last of the luggage.

Charlie looked down at his feet. “It seems I am to be married. To a princess of some nation or another. What do you think of that?”

“I…” What should she say? “I wish you well?”

He looked up and met her eyes. “Always, Tress. Remember?”

It was hard for her, but she found the words, hiding in the corner and trying to avoid her. “I wish,” she said, seizing hold of them, “that you wouldn’t do that. Get married. To someone else.”

“Oh?” he looked up. “Do you really?”

“I mean, I’m sure they are very nice. The princesses.”

“I believe it part of the job description,” Charlie said. “Like…have you heard of the things they do in stories? Resuscitate amphibians? Notice for people that their children have wet the bed? One would have to be rather kindly to do these services.”

“Yes,” Tress said. “I…” She took a deep breath. “I would still…rather you didn’t marry one of them.”

“Well then, I shan’t,” Charlie said.

“I don’t believe you have a choice, Charlie. Your father wants you married. It’s politics.”

“Ah, but you see, I have a secret weapon.” He took her hands and leaned in. Behind, his father moved up to the prow of the ship and looked down, scowling.

Charlie, however, smiled a lopsided smile. His “look how sneaky I am” smile. He used it when he wasn’t being very sneaky.

“What…kind of secret weapon, Charlie?” she asked.

“I can be incredibly boring.”

“That’s not a weapon.”

“It might not be one in a war, Tress,” he said. “But in courtship? It is as fine a weapon as the sharpest rapier. You know how I go on. And on. And on.”

“I like how you go on, Charlie. I don’t mind the on, either. I sometimes even enjoy the on.”

“You are a special case,” Charlie said. “You are…well, this is kind of silly…but you’re like a pair of gloves, Tress.”

“I am?” she said, choking up.

“Yes. No, don’t be offended. I mean, when I have to practice the sword, I wear these gloves and–”

“I understand,” she whispered.

From atop the ship, Charlie’s father scowled again, then shouted for him to be quick. Tress realized then that–like Charlie had different kinds of smiles–his father had different kinds of scowls. She didn’t much like what this one implied about her.

Charlie glanced up at his father, then squeezed her hands, looking back. “Listen, Tress. I promise you. I’m not going to get married. I’m going to go to those kingdoms, and I’m going to be so insufferably boring that none of the girls will have me.

“I’m not good at much. I’ve never scored even a single point against my father in sparring. I spill my soup at formal dinners. I talk so much, even my footman–who is paid to listen–comes up with creative reasons to interrupt me. The other day I was telling him about the story of the fish and the whale, and he pretended to stub his toe, and…”

The duke shouted again.

“I can do this, Tress,” Charlie insisted. “I will do this. At each stop, I’ll pick out a cup for you, all right? Once I’ve bored the current princess to death–and my father has decided we need to move on–I’ll send you the cup. As proof, you see.” He squeezed her hands. “I’ll do it, not just because you listen. Because you know me, Tress. You’ve always been able to see me when others don’t.”

He squeezed her hands one last time, then moved to finally respond to his father’s shouting. Tress held on, clinging to his hands. Unwilling to let it end.

Charlie looked back at her, giving her one last smile. And though he obviously tried to be confident, she knew his smiles. This was his uncertain one. His hopeful but worried one.

“You are my gloves too, Charlie,” Tress said to him.

After that, she had let go and let him jog up the plank. She’d imposed enough already. The duke forced his son below deck. The ship pushed back, slipping off the dead, grey spores nearest the rock into the true spore ocean. This began to shake and vibrate as the vents deep below on the ocean floor began send up bursts of air.

With this agitation, the spores became as liquid. Wind caught the ship’s sails and it struck out toward the horizon, leaving a wake of disturbed emerald dust behind it. Tress climbed up to her house, then watched from the cliff until the ship was the size of a cup. Then the size of a speck. Then it vanished.

After that, the waiting began.

They say that to wait is the most excruciating of life’s torments. “They” in this case refers to writers, who have nothing useful to do, so fill their time thinking of things to say. Any working person can tell you that having time to wait is a luxury.

Tress had windows to wash. Meals to cook. A little brother to watch. Her father never had recovered from his accident in the mines, and though he tried to help, he could barely walk. He helped Tress’s mother sew socks all day, which they sold to sailors, but with the expense of yarn they turned only a meager profit.

So Tress didn’t wait. She worked.

Still, it was an enormous relief when the first cup arrived. It was delivered by Hoid the cabin boy. (Yes, that’s me. What tipped you off? Was it perhaps the name?) A beautiful porcelain cup, without even a single chip in it. It came with a letter and a card with a little drawing: two gloved hands holding to one another.

The world brightened that day. Tress could almost imagine Charlie speaking as she read the letter, which detailed the affections of the first princess. With heroic monotony, he had listed the sounds his stomach made when he laid in various positions at night. As that hadn’t been quite enough, he’d apparently explained how kept his toenail clippings and gave them names. That had done it.

Fight on, my loquacious love, Tress thought as she scrubbed the mansion windows the next day, thinking of those words. Be brave, my mildly gross warrior.

The second cup was made of pure red glass, tall and thin, like it was meant to appear as if it contained more liquid than it did. Perhaps it was from a particularly stingy tavern. This princess he’d put off by explaining what he’d had for breakfast–using intricate detail, as he’d apparently counted the pieces of the scrambled egg and had categorized them by size.

The third cup was a good, solid pewter mug with heft to it. Perhaps it was from one of those places Charlie had made up, where people always needed to carry weapons. Tress was reasonably certain she could knock out an attacker by swinging this cup. The princess hadn’t been able to withstand an extended conversation about the benefits of various punctuation marks, including those he’d invented.

The fourth package didn’t have a letter with it, just a cup with a painted butterfly on it with a red ocean underneath. She found it odd that the butterfly wasn’t terrified of the spores, but maybe it was a prisoner butterfly, being forced to fly out over the ocean to its doom.

The fifth cup never arrived.

Tress tried to play it off, telling herself that it must have been interrupted in transit. After all, any number of dangerous things could happen to a ship sailing the spores. Pirates or…you know…spores.

But the months stretched long, each more tedious than the one before. Every time a ship arrived at the docks, Tress was there asking for mail.

Nothing.

She did this for months on end. Until an entire year had passed since Charlie had left.

And then, finally, a note. Not from Charlie, but from his father, sent to the entire town and not individually to her. The duke was returning to Diggen’s Point at long last, and he was bringing his wife, his heir…and his new daughter-in-law.

Chapter Five: The Bride

Tress sat upon her porch, leaning against her mother, watching the horizon. She held the last cup that Charlie had sent. The one with the suicidal butterfly.

Her lukewarm tea tasted of tears.

“It wasn’t very practical,” she whispered to her mother.

“Love rarely is,” her mother replied. She was a stout woman, with a cheerful kind of girth. Five years ago, she’d been thin as reeds. Then Tress had learned her mother was giving up a portion of her food to her children–from then on, Tress had taken over shopping and had made their money stretch further.

A ship appeared on the horizon.

“I’ve finally thought of what I should have said.” Tress pushed her hair out of her eyes. “When he left. I called him a glove. It isn’t so bad as it sounds. He’d just called me one, you see. I’ve had a year to think about it, and I realized I could have said something more.”

Her mother squeezed her shoulder as the ship drew inevitably closer.

“I should,” Tress whispered, “have said that I loved him.”

Her mother joined her as she marched, like a soldier on the front lines facing cannon fire, down to the docks to greet the ship. Her father, with his bad legs, stayed behind–which was good. Tress feared he’d make a scene from how he’d been grumbling about the duke and his son these last few months.

But Tress could not find it in herself to blame Charlie. It wasn’t his fault that he was the duke’s son. It could have happened to anyone, really.

A crowd had gathered. The duke’s letter said he wanted a celebration–and he was bringing food and wine. Whatever else the people thought of getting a new future duchess, they were not going to miss a chance at free alcohol. As it’s ever been, gifts are the secret to popularity. That and having the power to behead anyone who dislikes you.

Tress and her mother arrived at the back of the crowd, but Holmes the baker waved them up on his steps so they could see better. He was a kind man, always saving the ends of used loaves, then selling them to her for pennies.

So it was that Tress had a good view of the princess as she appeared on the deck. She was beautiful. Rosy cheeks, shimmering hair, delicate features. She was so perfect, the finest painter in the seas couldn’t have made improvements in doing her portrait.

Charlie had finally gotten to be part of a story. With effort, Tress was happy for him.

The duke appeared next, waving his hand so the people knew to cheer for him. “I present,” he shouted, “my heir!”

A young man stepped up onto the deck beside the princess. And it was most definitely not Charlie.

This young man was around the same age as Charlie, but he was six and a half feet tall and had a jaw so straight it made other men question if they were. He bulged with muscles–to the point that when he lifted his arm to wave, Tress swore she could hear seams on his shirt begging for mercy.

What under the twelve moons?

“After an unfortunate accident,” the duke proclaimed to the hushed crowd, “I was forced to adopt my nephew Dirk and appoint him as my new heir.” He gave a moment for the crowd to take that in. “He’s an excellent fencer,” the king continued, “and responds to questions with single-sentence answers. Sometimes using only one word! Also, he’s a war hero. He lost ten thousand men in the battle of lakeprivy.”

“Ten thousand?” Tress’s mother said. “My, that’s a lot.”

“We shall now celebrate Dirk’s marriage to the Princess of Dormancy!” the duke shouted, raising his hands high.

The crowd was quiet, still confused.

“I brought thirty kegs,” the duke shouted.

They cheered. And so, a party it was. The townspeople led the way up to the meeting hall. They remarked about the princess’s beauty and marveled that Dirk managed to balance so well while walking, considering his center of gravity must have been located somewhere around his upper sternum.

Tress’s mother said she’d get answers, and followed after. However, when Tress came out of her shock, she found Flik–one of the servants–waving for her from near the bottom of the gangplank. He was kindly man, though he had wide ears that looked as if they were waiting for just the right moment to bolt and fly away, taking to the skies to be with their kind.

“Flik?” she whispered. “What happened? An accident? Where is Charlie?”

Flik glanced up at the train of people walking to the feast hall. The duke and his family had joined them, and were far enough now that any scowls would lose potency due to wind resistance and gravitational drop.

“He wanted me to give you this,” Flik said, handing her a small sack. It tinkled as she took it. Inside where broken pieces of ceramic.

The fifth cup.

“He tried so hard, Miss Tress,” Flik whispered. “Oh, you should have seen the young master. He did everything he could to put those women off. He memorized eighty-seven different types of plywood and their uses. He told every princess he met, at length, about his childhood pets. He even talked about religion. I thought they had ’im at the fifth kingdom, as that princess was deaf, but the young master went and threw up on her at dinner.”

“He threw up?”

“Right in ’er lap, Miss Tress.” Flik looked both ways, then waved for her to follow as he made to carry some luggage off the docks, getting them to a more secluded location. “But his father got wise, Miss Tress. Figured out what the young master was doing. The duke got right mad. Right mad indeed.”

He gestured to the broken cup she was carrying in her sack.

“Yes, but what happened to Charlie?” Tress asked.

Flik looked away.

Please,” Tress asked. “Where is he?”

“He sailed the Midnight Sea, Miss Tress,” he said. “Beneath Thanasmia’s own moon. The sorceress took him.”

Those names sent a chill through Tress. The Midnight Sea? The domain of the sorceress? “Why would he ever do such a thing?”

“Well, I right think it’s because his father forced him to,” Flik said. “The sorceress isn’t married, you know. And the king has long wanted to try to make her less of a threat. So…”

“He sent Charlie to try to marry the sorceress?”

Flik didn’t respond.

“No,” Tress said, realizing. “He sent Charlie to die.”

“I didn’t say anything like that,” Flik said, hurrying off. “If anyone asks, I didn’t say anything like that.”

Numb, Tress sat down on one of the dock pillars. She listened to the spores stirring, a sound like pouring sand. Even on an out-of-the-way island like hers they knew of the sorceress. She periodically sent ships in to raid the borders of the Verdant Sea, and it was incredibly difficult to fight her. Her stronghold lay somewhere hidden in the remote Midnight Sea, most dangerous of them all. And to get to it you had to cross the Crimson Sea, an unpopulated sea that was only slightly less deadly.

Finding out Charlie had been taken by her was basically like finding he’d been taken up to one of the moons. Tress couldn’t just take one man’s word. Not on something like this. She didn’t dare bother others with questions, but she listened as they talked in hushed tones to inquisitive dock workers, eager to get the ship unloaded so they could go join the party. They all got similar answers. Yes, Charlie had been sent to the Midnight Sea. Yes, the king knew–the duke and he had been together when the decision had been made. Well, certainly it must make sense, if the king thought of it. Someone had to try to stop the sorceress from raiding. And Charlie, of all people, was…errm…the obvious choice…for…reasons…

The implications horrified Tress. The duke and the king had realized Charlie was being difficult, and their solution had been to simply get rid of him. Dirk had been instated as heir within hours of word that Charlie’s ship had vanished.

In the eyes of the nobles, this was an elegant result. The duke got an heir he could finally be proud of. The king got an advantageous marriage alliance in Dirk’s bride from another kingdom. And the everyone got to blame another death on the sorceress, building public opinion toward another war.

After three days, Tress finally dared impose on Brunswick–the duke’s steward–with a begged plea for more information. As he liked her pies, he admitted that they’d received a ransom letter from the sorceress. But the duke, in his wisdom, had declared it to be a trick to lure more ships into the Sea of Night. The king had declared Charlie officially dead.

Days passed. Tress lived them in a daze, realizing nobody cared. They called it politics and moved on. Though the new heir had the intellect of a soggy piece of bread, he was popular, handsome, and very good at getting other people killed. While Charlie had been…well, Charlie.

Tress spent weeks gathering her courage, then went to ask the duke if he’d please pay the ransom. Such a bold move was difficult for her. She wasn’t a coward by any definition of the word, but imposing upon people…well, it just wasn’t something she did. But with her parents’ encouragement, she made the long trek and quietly made her request.

The duke, in turn, called her a “caramel-haired strumpet” and forbade her from washing windows anywhere in town. She was forced to begin making socks with her parents for greatly reduced pay.

As the weeks passed, Tress fell into a lethargy. She felt less like a mere human being, and more like a human who was merely being.

Life on the rock for everyone else returned to normal, easy as that.  Nobody cared. Nobody was going to do anything.

Until it was, two months after the duke’s return, that Tress made her decision. There was somebody who cared. Naturally, it would be up to that person to do something. Tress couldn’t impose on anyone else.

She was going to have to go rescue Charlie herself.

JordanCon 2021 ()
#2 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

I am going to read to you from Wax and Wayne 4.

It is always a little bit of a trick to figure out what to read, because I also generally don't want to spoil too much for people who have not read the series. But the Wax and Wayne, it's always been fairly easy because the prologues of each of them are flashbacks to the past. Like I do in Stormlight with flashback characters, we get basically one flashback sequence per book in the Wax and Wayne books. So this is actually going to be from the prologue of The Lost Metal, which is from Wayne's viewpoint as a little boy.

Brandon Sanderson

Wayne knew what beds were. A few of other kids in the settlement had them. Sounded much better than a mat on the ground, especially one he had to share with his mom when nights were cold because they didn't have any coal.

Plus, there were monsters under beds. Yeah, he'd heard stories from the other kids in the settlement about mistwraiths. They hid under your bed and stole the faces of people you knew. So beds sounded real nice; soft and squishy on top, with someone underneath you could talk to. Sounded like rustin' heaven!

The other kids were scared of those things, but Wayne figured those kids just didn't know how to properly negotiate. He could make some friends with something that lived under a bed. You just had to give it something it wanted, like someone else to eat. Maybe he could ask Ma to have a little brother.

Anyway, no bed for him; no real chairs. They had a table built by uncle Gregor, before he got crushed by a billion rocks in a landslide and mushed up into a bloody pulp what couldn't hit people no more. Wayne kicked the table sometimes, just in case his spirit was watching somewhere, 'cause he'd made that table and maybe it'd make him mad. Rust knew there was nothing else in this little one-windowed home that Uncle Gregor had cared about.

Best Wayne had for sitting was a stool, so he sat on that and played with his cards, drawings hands and trying to hide cards in his sleeve as he waited. This was a nervous time of day; every day, he thought, maybe she wouldn't come home. Not because she didn't love him; Ma was a burst of sweet spring flowers in this sewage pit of a world, and he'd punch anyone who said otherwise. No, he worried that, one day, Ma wouldn't come home. Pa hadn't come home one day. Uncle Gregor (Wayne kicked the table) hadn't come home one day. So...

Don't think about that, Wayne thought, bumbling his shuffle and spilling his cards all over the table and floor. And don't look. Not until you see the light.

He could feel the mine out there. Nobody wanted to live next to it, of course, so Wayne and his Ma did. Just under the window was a pile of laundry that Wayne had done for the day. His Ma's old job, what hadn't paid real well. So he did it, while she pushed mine carts. He didn't mind the work; spent half the day trying on all the different clothes, from ones sent by Gramps to the ones sent by young women, pretending to be them. His Ma had caught him a few times and seemed angry, minding why he did it. That exasperation still baffled him. Why wouldn't you want to try them all on; that's what clothes was for! It wasn't nothin' weird; he just liked it, and what harm did it do? None to nobody. Besides, sometimes folks left stuff in their pockets, like decks of cards.

He fumbled the shuffle again as he gathered the cards up, and he did not look out the window. Not until he spotted the light. He'd feel it, anyway, though, the mine, that gaping artery, like a hole in someone's neck, red on the inside and spurting out life like blood and fire. They had to go down, dig at the beast's insides, searchin' for metals, then escape its anger. And you could only get lucky so many times.

Light. With relief, like fire on a frigid night, he glanced out the window and saw someone walking on the path, holding up a lantern to illuminate her way. Wayne scrambled to hide the cards under his mat, then he was certain to lay on his mat with his lamp out, pretending to try to sleep with the door open. She'd have seen his light go out, of course, but she appreciated the effort he put into pretending.

She settled down on the stool, and Wayne cracked an eye. His Ma wore trousers and a buttoning shirt, her hair up, clothing and face smudged. She sat just staring at the light in the lantern, watching it flicker and dance, and her face seemed more hollow than it had been before, like someone has taken a pickaxe to her cheeks, digging away like rock in the wall. That mine's eatin' her up, he thought. Even if it hasn't gobbled her all whole like it did Pa, it's gnawing on her like rats on a barn wall.

Ma blinked, then fixated on something: a card he'd left on the table. Ah, hell. She picked it up and looked right at him. He didn't try to pretend to be asleep no more; she'd dump water on him. She'd done it before.

"Wayne," she said, shifting on the stool to look at him. "Where did you get these cards?"

"Don't remember."

"Wayne..."

"Found 'em," he said.

She waved her hand toward him, and he reluctantly dug the rest out from under his met and handed them over. She tucked the one she'd found into the box. He knew from experience she'd look all day through the settlement for the one who'd lost them. She didn't have time for things like that; he wouldn't have her losing more sleep on account of him.

"It's <Tarn Vestingdow>," Wayne mumbled. "It was in a pocket of his overalls.

"Thank you," she said softly.

"Ma, I gotta learn cards. See, that way, I can earn a good living for carin' for us."

"A good living?" she asked. "With cards?"

"Don't worry," he said quickly. "I'll cheat. Can't make a livin' if you don't win, see?"

She sighed, rubbing her temples.

Wayne looked at the cards in the stack. "Tarn," he said. "He's Terris, like Pa was."

"Yes," she said.

"Terris people always do what they're told," he said, "so what's wrong with me?"

"Nothing's wrong with you, love," she said. "You just haven't got a good parent who can help you."

"Ma," he said, scrambling off the mat. He took her arm. "Don't talk like that, Ma. You're a great ma!"

She hugged him to her side, but he could feel the tension in her. Ah, hell. What had they found?

"Wayne," she asked softly, "Did you take <Demmy's> pocketknife?"

"He talked?!" Wayne said. "Rust that rustin' little bastard!"

"Wayne, don't swear like that!"

"Rust that!" he said in a rail worker's accent instead. "The rusting bastard!" He looked at her innocently and was rewarded with a smile she couldn't keep in. Silly voices always made her grin. Pa had been good at them, but Wayne was better, particularly now that Pa was dead and couldn't say them no more, anyway.

But then, her smile faded. "You can't take things what don't belong to you, Wayne. That's somethin' thieves do."

"I don't wanna be a thief," Wayne said softly. "I wanna be a good boy. It just... happens!"

"She hugged him closer. "You are a good boy. You've always been a good boy." When she said it, he believed it. "Do you want a story, love?" she asked.

"I'm too old for stories," he lied, desperately wishing she'd ignore the objection. "I'm eleven. One more year, and I can drink at the tavern and prove how old I am."

"What? Who told you that?"

"Doug."

"Doug is nine!"

"Doug knows stuff."

"Doug. Is. Nine!"

"So you're sayin' I'll have to snitch booze for him next year, because he can't get it himself yet?"

He met her eyes, then started snickering as she smiled. He helped her get dinner; cold oatmeal with some beans in it. But at least it wasn't only beans, and there was some oatmeal. Then he snuggled into his blankets on the mat, pretending he was a child again to listen. It was easy to feign that; he still had the clothes, after all.

"This is the story," she said, "of Blatant Barm, the Unwashed Bandit."

"Ooooh," Wayne said. "A mean one?"

His mother grinned, then leaned forward, wagging her spoon toward him as she spoke. "He was the worst of them all, Wayne: baddest, meanest, stinkiest bandit. He never bathed, you see."

"'Cause it takes too much work to get properly dirty," Wayne said.

"No, because he... wait, it's work to get dirty?"

"Gotta roll around in it, you see," Wayne said.

"Why in Harmony's name would you do that?"

"To think like the ground."

She smiled again. "Oh, Wayne. You're so precious."

"Thanks!" he said. "Why ain't you told me about this Blatant Barm, if he was so bad? Wouldn't he be the first one you'd told stories about?"

"You were too young," she said, sitting back, "and the story too frightening."

"Ohhhhhhhh this is gonna be a good one!" Wayne bounced up and down. "Who got him? Was it a lawman?"

"It was Allomancer Jak."

"Him?" Wayne said with a groan.

"What?"

"Jak brings them in," Wayne complained. "He never shoots a single one.

"Not this time," Ma said, digging into her oatmeal. "He was young this time. He knew Blatant Barm was the worst killer to the core. Even his two sidekicks, Gug the Killer and No Ways Joe, were ten times worse than any other bandit ever walked the Roughs."

"Ten times?" Wayne said.

"Yeah."

"That's a lot; almost double!"

His Ma paused, then leaned forward and got back into it. "They robbed the payroll, taking not just the money from the fat men in Elendel, but the wages of the regular folk."

"Bastards!" Wayne said.

"Wayne."

"Fine. Regular old turds, then!"

Again, she hesitated. "Do you know what the word 'bastard' means?"

"Yeah, it's a real bad turd. The kind when you really got to go, but you hold it in too long!"

"And you know that because...?"

"Doug told me."

"Of course he did. Well, Jak wouldn't stand for stealing from the common folk of the Roughs. Being a bandit is one thing, but everybody knows you take the money what goes toward the city. The trick is, Blatant Barm, he knew the area real well, so he rode off into the most difficult part of the Roughs to reach, and he left one of his men to guard each of the spots along the way. So Jak, he was gonna have to fight his way through all three."

"Why's it always three in stories, Ma?" Wayne asked. "Three bandits, three guns, three mines."

"Well, how high do you think most bandits can count?"

"Probably not that high," Wayne agreed. Ma always had good answers to such things.

"Fortunately, Jak was the bravest," she said, "and the strongest."

"If he was the bravest and the strongest, " Wayne said, "why was he a lawman? He could just be a bandit, and nobody could stop him, right?"

"Well, what's harder, love?" she said. "Doing what's right? Or doing what's wrong?"

"The right thing."

"So who gets stronger? The fellow what does the easy thing, or the fellow what does the hard thing?"

"Huh." He nodded. "Yeah, I can see that."

She leaned forward, grinning in the light. "Jak's first test was the River Human, the vast waterway marking the border with what had once been Koloss land, but now was controlled by bandits entirely. The swift waters moved at the speed of a train; the fastest river in the whole dang world! And it was full of rocks. Gug the killer had set up there across the river and watched for lawmen. He had such a good eye and a steady hand with his rifle that he could shoot a fly off a man at three hundred paces!"

"Why'd you ever wanna do that?" Wayne asked. "Better shoot men right in the fly, right? That's gotta hurt somethin' bad!"

"Not that kind of fly, love," Ma said.

"So, what did Jak do? Did he sneak up? Not very lawman-like to sneak. I don't think they ever do that ever. I bet he didn't sneak."

"Well..." Ma said. Wayne clutched his blanket, waiting. "Jak was an even better shot," she whispered. "When Gug the Killer sighted him, Jak shot him, right across the river."

"How'd Gug die?" Wayne whispered.

"... by bullet, love."

"Right through the eye?"

"I suppose."

"And so Gug took sight, and Jak took sight back and shot him right in the eye! Right in the eye, right, Ma?"

"Uh..."

"And his head exploded!" Wayne said. "Like a fruit, the crunchy kind, all ripe so the shell is tough but it splats anyways. Is that how it happened?"

"... yes."

"Dang, Ma. That's gruesome! You sure you should be tellin' this story to me?"

"Should I stop?"

"Hell, no. How'd he get across the water?"

"He flew," Ma said. She absently set the bowl aside, oatmeal finished, and made a flourish with both hands. "He had powers, Jak did. Allomancy powers. He could fly, and talk to birds, and eat rocks."

"Woah... eat rocks?"

"Yep. And he flew right over the river, but the next challenge was even worse. The Canyon of Death."

"Ohhhh. Bet that place was pretty."

"Why'd you say that?"

"'Cause no one is gonna visit a place called Canyon of Death unless it's pretty. But someone visited it, right, because we know the name. So it's pretty, right?"

"Beautiful," Ma said. "A canyon carved through the middle of a bunch of scattered, crumbling rock spires, the broken peaks lined with colors. But the place was deadly; as deadly as it was beautiful."

"Yeah," Wayne said, "that figures."

"But Jak couldn't just fly over this one, for the second of the bandits hid within the canyon: No Ways Joe. He was a master of pistols, and could also fly, and turn into a dragon, and eat rocks. So if Jak tried to sneak past, Joe would shoot him from behind."

"That's the smartest way to shoot someone," Wayne said, "on account of them not being able to shoot back."

"True," Ma said. "So Jak didn't let that happen. He had to go right into the canyon. But it was filled with snakes."

"Bloody hell!"

"Wayne..."

"Regular old boring hell, then. How many snakes?"

"A million snakes."

"Bloody hell!"

"But Jak, he was smart," Ma said, "as well as bein' a great shot and able to eat rocks, too. So he thought to bring some snake food."

"A million bits of snake food?"

"Nah, just one, but he got the snakes to fight over it, so they mostly killed each other. But the one that was left was the strongest, naturally."

"Naturally."

"So Jak talked it into biting No Ways Joe."

"And Joe turned purple!" Wayne said, "and bled out of his ears, and his bones melted on account of the poison being so bad, so the melty bone juice leaked out his nose while he was bleeding, and he collapsed in a puddle of deflated skin, all while hissing and blubbering 'cause his teeth was meltin' too."

"Exactly."

"Dang, Ma. You tell the best stories."

"Wait," she said softly, leaning down on the stool, their lantern burning low. "Because the ending has a surprise."

"What surprise?"

"Wait and see," she said. "Because once Jak was through the canyon, what now smelled like dead snakes and melted bones, he spotted the final challenge: the Lone Mesa. A giant plateau in the center of an otherwise flat plain."

"That's not much of a challenge," Wayne said. "He could fly over the top."

"Well, he tried to," she whispered, "but the mesa was Blatant Barm!"

"What?"

"That's right! He joined up with the Koloss, the ones that could change into big monsters; not the normal ones, like old Mrs. <Gnaw>. They showed him how to turn into a monster of humongous size, so when Jak tried to land on the mesa, the mesa done gobbled him up."

Wayne gasped. "And then?" he said. "It mashed him between his teeth? Crunching his bones like--"

"No," Ma said. "It tried to swallow him. But Jak, he wasn't just a good shot, and he wasn't just smart; he was somethin' else."

"What?"

"A big damn pain in the ass!"

"Ma, that's swearin'!"

"I meant it in a good way, though, love."

"Oh, well, that made it all right, then."

"He," Ma said, "was always goin' about doin' good, helpin' people, makin' life tough for the bad ones. Pokin' his nose into things, askin' questions. He knew exactly how to ruin a bandit's day, he did. He stretched out his legs and pushed and made himself a lump in Blatant Barm's throat what so the monster couldn't breathe. 'Cause monsters like that needs lots of air, you know, and right then Allomancer Jak done choked him from the inside. Then, when the monster was dead on the ground, he sauntered on out down his tongue like it was some fancy mat set down outside the carriage for a rich man."

"Woah. That's a good story, Ma." She smiled, stepping over and kissing Wayne on the forehead. "Ma," he said, "is the story about the mine?"

"Well," she said, "I suppose we all gotta walk into the beast's mouth now and then, so maybe, I guess.

"You're like the lawman, then?"

"Anyone can be," she said, blowing out the lantern light.

"Even me?"

"Especially you." She kissed him on the forehead. "You are my love, Wayne. You are a whatever-you-want. You're the wind, you're the stars, you are all endless things." It was the poem she liked; and he liked it, too, because when she talked, he believed her. Ma didn't swear, and she didn't lie.

So he snuggled into his blankets and let himself begin to drift off. Because a lot was wrong in the world, but a few things were right. And as long as she was around, stories meant something. They was real.

Until, one day, there was another collapse at the mine. And that night, his Ma didn't come home.

RoW Release Party ()
#3 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

I'm going to read to you from the sequel to Sixth of the Dusk, which takes place during the space age of the cosmere. So there are going to be some fun things in here that you're not gonna get to see in-depth for a while. So if you are worried about space age of the cosmere being spoiled for you, I might recommend waiting for fifteen years before you read this.

This is not yet canon, because I haven't released it. It's entirely possible that I'll change some of this.

But for now, this is from the sequel to Sixth of the Dusk, which I haven't named. (It's not Seventh of the Dusk.)

Brandon Sanderson

MASSIVE FUTURE OF THE COSMERE SPOILERS

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ones Above were human.

Dusk had imagined them as strange and terrible creatures, with faces full of fangs. Artists' renditions of them from the broadsheets tended to err on the side of mystery, showing beings with dark pits where faces should be, as if representing the darkness of space itself confined, somehow, into their strange outfits and helmets.

Truth was, nobody had known until this moment when, attempting to inspire trust, the two aliens from another world retracted their helmets and displayed shockingly human features.

Dusk stepped forward in the observation chamber, which overlooked the landing pad. The chamber was supposed to be secret, with reflective glass on the outside, but Dusk had never trusted that to hide him. The Ones Above had machines that could sense life, and he suspected they could see him, or at least his Aviar, regardless of the barrier. He'd have preferred to be out on the landing platform with the diplomats; but he supposed he should be thankful that they even let him attend. There were many among the politicians and company leadership who were baffled by Vathi's continued reliance on him.

The governing officials in the room with him gasped as they saw the faces of the aliens. One male, one female, it seemed; with pale skin that looked like it had never seen the sun. Perhaps it hadn't, considering they lived out in the emptiness between planets. Their helmets retracted automatically, but left stylized metal portions covering the sides of the head, reaching out and covering the cheeks. From the look of the delicate metal, ribbed like ripples of waves, those portions didn't seem like armor. More like ornament.

On his shoulder, Sak squawked softly. Dusk glanced at the jet-black Aviar, then looked around the room, seeking signs of his corpse. The bird could show him glimpses of the future, revealing as visions his own dead body. Ways he could (or perhaps should) have died.

It took him a moment to spot the death. It was out on the launchpad. One of the two aliens stood with their foot on Dusk's skull, the face smoldering as if burned by some terrible alien weapon. What did it mean?

Sak's visions had been... off, ever since that event five years ago, when the alien device had been activated on Patji. Once, seeing the corpse would have warned Dusk of immediate danger; a biting insect with deadly venom, or a hidden predator. Now the warnings often felt more abstract. The Ones Above were unlikely to kill him today, no matter what he did, but that did not mean they were safe or trustworthy.

"Toward a new era of prosperity!" One of them said out at the launchpad, extending a hand to Vathi, who stood at the head of the diplomats. "Between our peoples and yours, President!"

She took the hand, though Dusk personally would rather have handled a deadly asp. It seemed worse to him, somehow, to know that the Ones Above were human. An alien monster, with features like something that emerged from the deepest part of the ocean, was somehow more knowable than these smiling humans. Familiar features should not cover such alien motives and ideas. It was as wrong as an Aviar that could not fly.

"To prosperity!" Vathi said. Her voice was audible to him as if she were standing beside him. It emerged from the speakers on the wall, devices developed using alien technology.

"It is good," the second alien said, speaking the language of the homeisles as easily as if she had been born to it. "You are finally listening to reason. Our masters do not have infinite patience."

"We are accustomed to impatient masters," Vathi said, voice smooth and confident. "We have survived their tests for millennia."

The male laughed. "Your masters? The gods who are islands?"

"Just be ready to accept our... installation when we return, yes?" The female said. "No masks, no deception." She tapped the side of her head, and her helmet extended again, obscuring her features. The male did the same, and together they left, climbing aboard their sleek flying machine, which was in the shape of a triangle pointed toward the sky. It soon took off, streaking toward the air without a sound. Its ability to land and take off baffled explanation. The only thing the Dusk's people knew about the process was that the Ones Above had requested the launchpad be made entirely out of steel.

The smaller ship would supposedly meet with the larger one that was in orbit around the planet. A ship larger than even the greatest of the steam-powered behemoths that Dusk's people had used here on First of the Sun. Dusk had only just been getting used to those creations, but now he had to accustom himself to something new. But even calm light of electric lights, the hum of a fan powered by alien energy. The Ones Above had technology so advanced, so incredible, that Dusk and his people might as well have been travelling by canoe like their ancestors. They were far closer to those days than they were to sailing the stars like these aliens.

As soon as the alien ship disappeared into the sky, the generals and company officials began chatting in animated ways. It was their favorite thing, talking. Like Aviar who'd come home to roost by the light of the evening sun, eager to tell all the others about the worms they had eaten.

Sak pulled close to his hand, then pecked at the band that kept his dark hair in a tail. She wanted to hide, though she was no chick capable of snuggling in his hair as she once had. Sak was as big as his head, though he was comfortable and accustomed to her weight, and he wore a shoulder pad that her claws could grip without hurting him. He lifted his hand and crooked his index finger, inviting her to stretch out her neck for scratching. She did so; but he made a wrong move, and she squawked at him and pecked his finger in annoyance. She was grouchy, as usual; he felt the same way, honestly. Vathi had said it was because city life didn't agree with him. But Dusk claimed different source. It had been two years since they lost Kokerlii to disease. Without that colorful buffoon around to chatter and stick his beak into trouble, the two of them had grown old and surly.

Sak had nearly died from the same disease. And then: alien medicine from the Ones Above. The terrible Aviar Plague, same as those that had occasionally ravaged the population in the past, had been smothered in weeks. Gone, wiped out, as easy as tying a double hitch.

Dusk ignored the generals and their chattering, eventually coaxing Sak into a head scratch as they waited. Everything about this new life in the modern city full of machines and people with clothing as colorful as any plumage seemed so sanitized. Not clean; steam machines weren't clean. But fabricated, deliberate, confined. This room, with its smooth woods and steel beams, was an example. Here, nature was restricted to an arm rest, where even the grain of the wood was oriented to be aesthetically pleasing.

Soon, with the coming of the Ones Above and their ways, he doubted there would be any wilderness left on the planet. Parks, perhaps. Preserves. But you couldn't put wilderness in a box, no more than you could capture the wind. You could enclose the air, but it wasn't the same thing.

Soon, the door opened, and Vathi herself entered, her Aviar on her shoulder. Vathi had risen high these last few years. President of the company, one of the most powerful politicians in the city. She were a colorful, striped skirt in an old pattern, and a businesslike blouse and jacket. As always, she tried through everything she did (dress included) to embrace a meeting of old ways and new. He wasn't sure you could capture tradition by putting its trappings on a skirt any more than you could box the wind. But he appreciated the effort.

"Well," Vathi said to the group of officials. "We've got three months. But they're not going to stand any further delays. Thoughts?"

Everyone had an idea. Ways to stall further. Plans to feign ignorance of the deadline, or to plausible pretend that something had gone wrong with the Aviar delivery. Silly little plans. The Ones Above would not be delayed this time, and they would not simply trade for birds upon the whims of the homeislers. The aliens intended to put a production plant right on one of the Outer Isles, and there begin raising and shipping their own Aviar.

"Maybe we could resist somehow?" Said <Tuli>, company strategist, who had a colorful Aviar of Kokerlii's same breed. "We could fake a coup and overthrow the government. Force the Ones Above to deal with a new organization. Reset the talks." Bold idea. Far more radical than the others.

"And if they decide simply to take us over?" said General Second of Saplings, rapping his hand on a stack of papers that he held in his other hand. "You should see this projections. We can't fight them! If the mathematicians are right, the orbital ships could reduce our grandest cities to rubble with a casual shot or two! If the Ones Above are feeling bored, they could wipe us out in a dozen more interesting ways, like shooting into the ocean so waves wash away our infrastructure."

"They won't attack," Vathi said. "Six years or more, and they've suffered our delays with nothing more than threats. There are rules out there in space that prevent them from simply conquering us."

"They've already conquered us," Dusk said softly.

Strange, how quickly the others quieted when he spoke. They complained about his presence in these meetings. They thought him a wild man, lacking social graces. They claimed to hate how he'd watched them, refusing to engage in their conversation. But when he spoke, they listened. Words had their own economics, as sure as gold did. The ones in short supply were the ones that, secretly, everyone wanted.

"Dusk," Vathi said, "what did you say?"

"We are conquered," he said, turning from the window to regard her. He cared not for the others. But she didn't just grow quiet when he spoke. She listened. "The plague that took Kokerlii. How long did they sit in their ship up there, watching as our Aviar died?"

"They didn't have the medicine on hand," said Third of Waves, the company officer of medical industry, a squat man with a bright-red Aviar that let him see colors invisible to everyone else. "They had to wait to fetch it."

Dusk remained quiet. "You imply," Vathi said, "that they deliberately delayed giving us the medicine until Aviar had died. What proof do you have?"

"The darkout last month," Dusk said. The Ones Above were quick to share their more common technologies. Lights that burned cold and true. Fans to circulate air in the muggy homeisle summers. Ships that could move at several times the speed of the steam-powered ones. But all these ran on power sources supplied from Above, and those power sources deactivated if opened.

"Their fish farms are a boon to our oceans," said the company's Secretary of Supply. "But without the nutrients sold by the Ones Above, we wouldn't be able to keep the farms running."

"The medicine is invaluable," said Third of Waves. "<Infant> mortality has plummeted. Literally thousands of our people live because of what the Ones Above have traded us."

"When they were late with the power shipment last month," Dusk said, "the city slowed to a crawl. And we know that was intentionally, from the accidentally leaked comments. They wanted to enforce to us their power. They will do it again." Everyone fell silent, thinking as he wished they'd do more often.

Sak squawked again and Dusk glanced at the launchpad. His corpse was still out there, laying where the Ones Above had left, burned and withered.

"Show in the other alien," Vathi said to the guards.

The two men at the door, with security Aviar on their shoulders and wearing feathers on their military caps, stepped out. He returned shortly with an incredibly strange figure. The other aliens wore uniforms and helmets; unfamiliar clothing, but still recognizable. This creature stood seven feet tall and was encased entirely in steel. Armor of a futuristic cast, smooth and bright with a soft violet-blue glowing at the joints. The helmet glowed at the front with a slit-like visor, and an arcane symbol, remind Dusk vaguely of a bird in flight, etched the front of the breastplate.

The ground shook beneath this being's steps as it entered the room. That armor, it was surreal, like interlocking plates that somehow produced no visible seam. Just layered pieces of metal, covering everything from fingers to neck. Obviously airtight, with a rounded cast to it. The outfit had stiff iron hoses connected helmet and armor.

The other aliens might have looked human, but Dusk was certain this alien was something frightful. It was too tall, too imposing, to be a simple human. Perhaps he was not looking at a man at all, but instead a machine that spoke as one.

"You did not tell them you had met me?" the alien said, projecting a male voice from speakers at the front of the helmet. The voice had an unnatural cast to it; not an accent, like someone from a backwater isle. But a kind of... unnatural air.

"No," Vathi said. "But you were right. They ignored each of my proposals, and acted as if the deal were already done. They intend to set up their own facility on one of the islands."

"You have only one gem with which to bargain, People of the Isles," the alien said. "You cannot withhold it. You can merely determine to whom you offer it. If you do not accept my protection, you will become a vassal to these Ones Above. Your planet will become a farming station, like many others, intended to feed their expansion efforts. Your birds will be stripped from you the moment it becomes possible to do so."

"And you offer something better?" Vathi asked.

"My people will give you back one of a hundred birds born," the armored figure said, "and will allow you to fight alongside us, if you wish, to gain status and elevation."

"One in a hundred!" Second of Saplings said, the outburst unsettling his gray-and-brown Aviar. "Robbery!"

"Choose. Cooperation, slavery, or death."

"And if I choose not to be bullied?" Saplings snapped, reaching to his side, perhaps unconsciously, for the repeating pistol he carried in a holster.

The alien thrust out his armored hand, and smoke or mist coalesced there out of nowhere. It formed into a gun; longer than a pistol, shorter than a rifle, wicked in shape with flowing metal along the side like wings. It was to Sapling's pistol what a shadowy deep beast of the oceans might be to a minnow. The alien raised his other hand, snapping a small box (perhaps a power supply) into the side of the rifle, causing it to glow ominously.

"Tell me, President," the alien said to Vathi, "what are your local laws regarding challenges to my life? Do I have legal justification to shoot this man?"

"No," Vathi said, firm, though her voice was audibly shaken. "You may not."

"I do not play games," the alien said. "I will not dance with words like the others do. You will accept my offer, or you will not. If you do not, if you join them, then I will have legal right to consider you my enemies."

The room remained still, Sapling carefully edging his hand away from his sidearm. "I do not envy your decision," the armored alien said. "You've been thrust into a conflict you do not understand. But like a child who has found himself in the middle of a war zone, you will have to decide which direction to run. I will return in one month, local time."

The colored portion of the creature's armor started to glow more brightly, a deep violet that seemed far too inviting a color to come from this strange being. He lifted into the air a few inches, then finally pulled the power pack from his gun, dismissing the weapon to vanish in a puff of mist. He left without further word, gliding back up the hallway past the guards, who stepped away and didn't impede him. This alien had arrived without a ship, but didn't seem to need one to travel the stars. He had flown down out of the sky under the power of, they assumed, his strange and magnificent armor. Once he had gone, the two guards took up positions at the door, sheepishly holding their rifles. They knew, as everyone in the room knew, that no guard would stop a creature like that one if he decided to kill.

Vathi pulled a chair over to the room's small table, then sat down in a slumping posture, her Aviar crawling anxiously across her back from one shoulder to the other. "This is it," she whispered. "This is our fate. Caught between the ocean wave and the breaking stone." This job had weathered her. Dusk missed the woman who had been so full of life and optimism for the new advances of the future. Unfortunately, she was right. There was no sense in offering meaningless aphorisms. Besides, she had not asked a question, so he did not respond.

Sak chirped. And a body appeared on the table in front of Vathi. Dusk frowned. Then that frown deepened, because the corpse was not his.

Never in all his time bonded to Sak had she shown him anything other than his own corpse. Even during that dangerous time years ago, when her abilities had grown erratic; even then, she'd shown Dusk his own body, just many copies of it. He stepped across the room, and Vathi looked up at him, seeming relieved, as if she expected him to comfort her. She frowned, then, when he mostly ignored her to look down on the body on the table.

Female. Very old. Long hair having gone white. The corpse wore an unfamiliar uniform after the cut of the Ones Above. Commendations on the breast pocket, but in another language.

It's her, he thought, studying the aged face. It's Vathi. Some forty years in the future. Dead, and dressed for a funeral.

"Dusk?" the living Vathi asked. "What do you see?"

"Corpse," Dusk said, causing some of the others in the room to murmur. They were uncomfortable with Sak's power, which was unique among Aviar.

"That's wonderfully descriptive, Dusk," Vathi said. "One might think that after five years, you might learn to answer with more than one word when someone talks to you."

He grunted, walking around the vision of the corpse. The dead woman held something in her hands. What was it?"

"Corpse," he said, then met the living Vathi's eyes. "Yours."

"Mine?" Vathi said, rising. She glanced at Sak, who huddled on Dusk's shoulder, feathers pulled tight. "Why? Has she ever done this before?"

Dusk shook his head, rounding the corpse. "Body wears a uniform. One of theirs, the Ones Above. There are symbols on some of the patches and awards. It appears as if prepared for burial at sea. I cannot read the alien writing."

One of the generals scrambled to give him paper and pen. After handing it over, the general backed away, regarding the table as one might a nightmaw that was ready to pounce.

Dusk copied the letters on the uniform's most prominent patch. "Vathi," read the Secretary of Supply, "Colonial Governor of the occupied planet First of the Sun." All eyes in the room toward toward Vathi. All but Dusk's. He knew what she looked like, so he kept writing, then nudged the Secretary of Supply again.

"Looks like a commendation for valor," the woman replied, "for putting down what was called the Rebellion of '05. The others are similar."

Dusk nodded. So if this was a glimpse of the future, it was what Vathi would be when she died, a servant of the Ones Above, apparently having turned his people's military against rebels who didn't agree.

Well, that made sense. He nodded to himself and tried to get a closer look at what the corpse was holding. A small disk; a coin of some sort, with a drawing on it.

"Dusk, you don't seem as horrified as you should be," the living Vathi said to him.

"Why would I be horrified?" he said. "This makes sense. It's what you would do. Probably what you will do."

"I'm no traitor," she said.

He didn't reply. It hadn't been a question, even it was an incorrect statement.

"Leave us," she said to the others. "Please. We can discuss this 'prophecy' later. I need to confer with the trapper."

They didn't like it. They never liked it when Vathi listened to him. Perhaps they'd understand if they listened more themselves. Still, they filed out at the request, leaving two humans and two Aviar alone. Vathi's bird, Mirris, hunched down and raised her wings while staring at the table. It seemed that she could sense what Sak was doing. Curious.

"Dusk," Vathi said, "why do you think I do these things?"

"Progress. It is your way."

"Progress is not worth the blood of my people."

"Progress will come anyway," Dusk said. "The dusk is past. This is the night. You will presume to find a new dawn and do what you must to guide us there." He looked at her and tried to smile. "There is a wisdom to that, Vathi. It is what you taught me many years ago."

She wrapped her arms around herself, staring at the table. "Must it be?"

"No. I am not dead, am I?" She shook her head.

"I want a way out, Dusk. A way to fight back against them, or something. A way to control our own destiny. They're both so confident that they own us. What I wouldn't give to be able to surprise them."

"You're holding something," Dusk said, leaning down. "A coin. A large one. Maybe a medallion. Not money. Engraved with a man on a canoe, wearing feathers and holding aloft a board with wave patterns on it. Some kind of trapper?"

"Tenth, the Finder," she said, and frowned. "Seriously, Dusk? He's one of the most famous explorers and trappers who ever lived!"

"My trainer didn't tell me of him."

"You could read a book, or something. The past is important."

"If it was important, my trainer would have told me about it. So, this man must not be important."

Vathi rolled her eyes. "He was the first man to explore Patji."

"Then he likely died quickly," Dusk said, nodding. "Means he must not have known much. The first explorers were stupid. Not because of themselves; they just didn't have experience yet." He looked to her, cocking an eyebrow.

"He vanished," she admitted, "on his second trip there. But we still use some of his exploration routes, these shipping channels, to reach the Pantheon islands. He was important."

Dusk didn't reply, because why would he contradict her? She liked believing this, and she always seemed fond of the stories of old trappers. She fancied herself an amateur one, even still, despite the fact that she had been one of the ones who ended the entire profession.

As Dusk was looking at the medallion, the vision finally vanished. Sak chirped, as if apologetic; and when Dusk looked at her, the bird's eyes were drooping, as if she were exhausted.

"I'm going to investigate stepping down," Vathi said. "A fake coup is silly, but if I simply quit, it could cause political unrest that justifies giving us an excuse to delay negotiations. Plus, it would remove me from a position where I could do damage."

Dusk nodded. Then felt himself growing uncomfortable. For once, he found that he couldn't remain silent. He looked at her.

"Another will do worse, Vathi. Another will cause more death. You are better than another."

"Are you sure?"

"No." How could he be? He could not see the future like Sak could. Still, he crouched down beside Vathi's seat, then held his hand toward her. She clasped it, then held tight. He nodded to her. "You are stronger than anyone I know," he said, "but you are just one person. I learned five years ago that sometimes one person cannot stand before the tide."

"Then there's no hope."

"Of course there is. We must become more than one. We must find allies, Vathi. Two peoples have come to bully us, to demand that we give up our resources. There must be others. Perhaps those who are weak like we are, with whom together we might be strong. A trapper cannot fight a shadow alone, but a battleship with a full crew... that is something else."

"How would we find anyone else, Dusk? The Ones Above have forbidden us from leaving the planet. We're decades, well... maybe centuries away from building flying machines."

"I will go into the Darkness," he said.

She looked into his eyes. Though she'd objected each other time he suggested this, today she said nothing. At times, she had become like him, and he like her. She made him believe that they could adapt to the future. He just needed to make her believe that he could help.

"We sent entire crews into the Darkness, Dusk," she said. "Scientists. Soldiers."

"No trappers."

"Well, no."

"I will go," he said. "I will find help."

"And if you fail?"

"Then I will die," he said. "Like your explorer man. Tenth the Finder, you called him." Dusk touched his forward, then pressed his finger against hers. "I gave up Patji for the planet, Vathi, but I will not give up the planet to those men from the stars, no matter how brilliant their weapons or amazing their wonders."

"I will gather you an expedition. Some guards, a crew..." she met his eyes. "You're going to insist on going alone, aren't you?" He nodded. "Fool man!"

He did not respond, because she might be right. But he was going to go anyway.

Secret Project #4 Reveal and Livestream ()
#4 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

The Sunlit Man

Chapter One

Nomad woke up among the condemned.

He blinked, prone, his right cheek to the dirt.  Then he focused on the incongruous sight of a plant growing in front of him.  Was he dreaming?  The fledgling sprout quivered and shook, heaving up from the earth.  It seemed to stretch with joy, the pods of its seeds parting like arms after a deep sleep.  A stalk emerged from the center, testing the air like a serpent’s tongue, then stretched to the left.  Toward the dim light shining from that direction.

Nomad groaned and lifted his head, mind fuzzy, muscles sore.  Where had he Skipped to this time?  And would it be far enough away to hide from the Night Brigade?

Of course it wouldn’t be.  No place would hide him from them.  He had to keep moving.  Had to…

Storms.  It felt good to lay here.  Couldn’t he just stop for a while?  Stop running for once?

Rough hands grabbed him from behind and hauled him to his knees.  The jolt shook him from his stupor, and he became more aware of his surroundings: the shouting, the groaning.  Sounds that had been there all along; he’d just been numb to them in his post-Skip grogginess.

The people here, including the man who grabbed him, wore unfamiliar clothing.  Long trousers, sleeves with tight cuffs.  Shirts with high collars, all the way up to the chin.  The man shook him, barking at Nomad in a language he didn’t understand.

“Trans…translation?” Nomad croaked.

I’m sorry, a deep voice said in his head.  I have insufficient Investiture to establish a local Connection.

Damnation.  Nomad wouldn’t be able to understand the local tongue yet.  He winced at the breath of the shouting man.  He wore a hat with a wide brim, tied under the chin, and thick gloves.

It was dark out, though a burning corona of light rose from the horizon.  Just before dawn, he guessed.  And by that light, sprouts were growing all across this field.  Those plants…their movements reminded him of home.  A place without soil, but with plants that were so much more vigorous than on other worlds.

They weren’t the same, though.  They didn’t dodge as the men stepped.  The plants were merely growing quickly.  Why?

Nearby, people wearing long white coats pounded stakes into the ground—then others chained down people who didn’t have those coats.  Both groups had a variety of skin tones, and wore similar clothing.

Nomad couldn’t understand the words anyone was shouting, but he recognized the postures of the condemned in those being chained down.  The cries of despair from some, the pleading tones in others.  The abject resignation in most.

This was an execution.

The man holding Nomad shouted at him again.  Nomad just shook his head.  That breath could have wilted flowers.  The man’s companion—dressed in one of those long white coats—gestured to Nomad, arguing.  Soon, the first of his two captors made a decision.  He grabbed a set of manacles off his belt, moving to cuff Nomad.

“Yeah,” Nomad said, “I don’t think so.”  He grabbed the man’s wrist, preparing to throw him and trip the other men.

But Nomad froze.  His muscles, they locked up—like a machine that had run out of oil.  He stiffened in place, and the men pulled away from him, surprised by his sudden outburst, calling out in alarm.

Nomad’s muscles unlocked and he shook them, feeling a sudden and sharp pain.  “Damnation!”  His Torment was getting worse.  He glanced at his still-frightened captors.  At least they didn’t seem to be armed…

A figure emerged from among the others.  Everyone else was swathed in clothing—male or female, they showed skin only on their faces.  Even their sleeves were tight, and their gloves thick.  But this newcomer was bare chested, wearing a diaphanous robe that was split at the front, over thick black trousers.  He was the only person on the field not wearing gloves, though he did wear a golden set of bracers on his forearms.

And he was missing most of his chest.

Much of the pectorals, rib cage, and heart seemed to have been dug out—burned away, leaving the remaining skin seared and blackened.  Inside the cavity, the man’s heart had been replaced by a simmering ember.  It pulsed red when wind stoked it—as did similar pinpricks of crimson light among the char.  Black burn marks spread out from the hole across the man’s skin—as far as a few specks on his face, which occasionally glittered with their own much smaller cinders.  It was like the man had been strapped to a jet engine as it ignited—somehow leaving him not only alive, but still burning.

“Don’t suppose,” Nomad said, “you fellows are the type who enjoy a comical misunderstanding made by a newcomer to your culture?”  He stood and raised his hands in a non-threatening way, ignoring the instincts that told him—as always—that he needed to be running.

The man pulled a large bat off his back.  Like a police baton, but more begrudging in its non-lethality.

“Didn’t think so,” Nomad said, backing up.  A few of the chained up people watched him with the strange, yet familiar, hope of a prisoner—the one that was happy someone else was drawing attention for once.

The embered man came for him, supernaturally quick, the light at his heart flaring.  He was Invested.  Wonderful.

Nomad dodged to the side, barely.

“I need a weapon, Aux!” Nomad snapped.

Well summon one then, my dear squire, said the voice in his head.  I’m not holding you back.

Nomad grunted, diving through a patch of grass that had sprung up in the minutes since he’d woken.  He tried to make a weapon appear, but nothing happened.

It’s your Torment, the knight helpfully observed to his moderately-capable squire.  It has grown strong enough to deny you weapons.

Nomad dodged back again, while the ember man slammed his baton down in another near miss—making the ground tremble at the impact.  Storms.  That light was getting brighter.  Covering the entire horizon in a way that felt too even.  How…how large was the sun on this planet?

“I thought,” Nomad shouted, “that my oaths overrode that aspect of the Torment!”

I’m sorry, Nomad.  But what oaths?

The ember man prepared to swing again, and Nomad took a deep breath, then ducked the attack and body-checked the man.  As soon as he went in for the hit, though, his body locked up again.  Muscles freezing.

Yes, I see, the knight mused.  Your Torment even appears to prevent physical altercations now.

He couldn’t even tackle someone?  It was getting bad.  The ember man cuffed Nomad across the face, throwing him to the ground with a grunt.  Nomad managed to roll and avoid the baton and, with a groan, heaved himself to his feet.

The baton came in again, and by instinct, Nomad put up both hands—catching it.  Stopping the swing cold.

The ember man’s eyes widened.  Nearby, several of the prisoners called out.  Heads turned.  Seemed like people around here weren’t accustomed to the sight of a person going toe-to-toe with one of these Invested warriors.  The ember man’s eyes widened further as—with teeth gritted—Nomad stepped forward and shoved him off balance, sending him stumbling backward.

Behind the creature, blazing sunlight warped the horizon, molten, bringing with it a sudden, striking heat.  Around them, the strangely fecund plants started wilting.  The lines of people chained to the ground began to whimper and scream.

Run, a part of Nomad shouted.  Run!

It’s what he did.

It was all he knew, these days.

He turned to start dashing away, but found another ember man behind him, preparing to swing.  Nomad tried to catch this attack too, but his storming body locked up again.

“Oh, come on!” he shouted as the baton clobbered him right in the side.  He stumbled.  The ember man behind finished Nomad off by decking him across the face with a powerful fist, sending him down to the dirt again.

Nomad gasped, groaning, feeling soil and rocks on his skin.  And heat.  Terrible, building heat from the horizon.

Both ember men turned away, and the first thumbed over his shoulder at Nomad.  The two timid officers in the white coats hastened over and—while Nomad was in a daze of pain and frustration—manacled his hands together.  They seemed to contemplate pounding a spike into the earth and pinning him there, but rightly guessed that a man who could catch the bat of an Invested warrior would just rip it out.  So they hauled him over to a ring that had been affixed to a section of stone, instead locking him there.

Nomad fell to his knees in the line of prisoners, sweat dripping from his brow as the heat increased.  His instincts screamed at him to run.

Yet another piece of him…just wanted to be done.  How long had the chase lasted?  How long had it been since he’d stood proud?

Maybe just let it end, he thought to himself.  A mercy killing.  Like a man mortally wounded on the battlefield.

He slumped, soreness in his side pulsing, though he doubted he’d broken anything.  His body didn’t respond to hits the same way other people’s did.  When others broke, he bruised.  Fire that would fry others only singed him.  And his body could heal from most secondary wounds in a matter of hours.

He was Invested enough to keep him alive through a great deal of punishment.  At times, he wondered if that was blessing, or just another part of the Torment.

The light continued to increase, almost blinding.  That smoke in the distance…was that the land itself starting on fire?  By the light of the sun?

Damnation.  Damnation itself was rising over the horizon.

The nearby officers—including the ember men—finished locking down the prisoners and started running to a line of machines.  Hoverbikes, maybe?  Nomad had seen enough of those on various worlds to recognize the general shape, even if this specific architecture was unfamiliar to him.  So he wasn’t surprised when fires blasted underneath the first of these, raising it in the air a half dozen feet or so.  They were large machines, capable of seating six people, so maybe “bike” wasn’t the right term, despite the open top.

What did it matter?  He looked toward the ever increasing light as the plants—vibrant only minutes ago—browned and withered.  He thought he could hear the pops of the fires in the distance as full-on sunlight advanced, like the front of a once familiar storm.

Thing was, even though he hated much about his life, he didn’t want to die.  Even if each day he became something more feral…well, feral things knew to struggle for life.

A sudden frantic desperation struck him, Nomad began pulling and railing against the chains.  The second of the four hoverbikes took off, and he knew—from the speed of the advancing sunlight—that they were his only hope of escape.  He screamed, voice ragged, flailing against the steel, stretching it—but unable to pull it free.

“Aux!” he shouted.  “I need a Blade!  Transform!”

I’m not the one holding you back on that count, Nomad.

“That light is going to kill us!”

Point: it is going to kill you, my poor squire.  I am already dead.

Nomad screamed something primal as the third hoverbike took off, though the last one was having troubles.  Perhaps he—

Wait.

“Weapons are forbidden to me.  What about tools?”

Why would they be forbidden to you?

Idiot! he thought to himself, summoning Auxiliary—a shapeshifting metal tool that, in this case, became a crowbar upon his request.  It formed in his hands as if from white mist, appearing out of nothing.  Nomad got it hooked into the ring on the stones below, then threw his weight against it.

SNAP.

He lurched free, hands still manacled, but with two feet of slack between them.  He stumbled to his feet and dashed toward the last of the hoverbikes right as the fires finally ignited underneath it.

In that moment, he summoned Auxiliary as a hook and chain—which he immediately hurled at the back of the bike.  It hit as the machine took off.  By his command, once Auxiliary locked on, the hook fuzzed briefly and sealed—making a solid ring around a protrusion on the back of the bike.  The other end of the chain locked onto Nomad’s manacles.

Sunlight reached him.  An incredible, intense, burning light.  People in the line burst into flame, screaming.

But in that moment, the slack on the chain pulled tight.  He was yanked out of the sunlight before he was more than singed—the speeding bike towing him after.

He was taken away from certain death.  But toward what, he had no idea.

Chapter Two

Nomad slammed to the ground side-first, dragged with frightening speed after the bike.

He ripped through barriers of withered plants, slammed repeatedly against rocks, dirt grinding against his skin.  But again, Nomad was built of strong stuff.  Where another man’s arms might have been twisted free of his sockets—their skin flayed as plant detritus became like razors in the high speed—he stayed together, and managed to even turn and put the brunt of the damage on his thighs and shoulder.  Though the clothing of his rough jacket got ripped away, his skin held.

He wasn’t immortal.  Most modern weapons—storms, even many primitive ones—could kill him with enough effort.  But he didn’t wear out quickly, didn’t scrape easily.  So, while the flight wasn’t particularly comfortable for him, neither was it deadly.  Plus, any complaint he might have had about the jarring treatment was burned away by the sweltering heat behind.

He closed his eyes, trying to banish a greater pain.  The memory of the yells of the unfortunate people from moments ago, when the sunrise had hit.  Turning them to the ash in moments.

Some of them had been screaming at him for help.  Once he’d never have been able to ignore that.  Eyes closed, he tucked in, protecting his face from the jolting chaos of his flight.  Millions, perhaps billions, of people died each day around the cosmere.  He couldn’t stop that.  He could barely keep himself alive.

It hurt, regardless.  Even still, after years of torment, he hated watching people die.

Still, he had survived the light—and he was moving again.  Motion made him feel stronger, better.  More in control.  Soon, the sky darkened again, and the sunlight vanished behind the horizon—sinking as if at dusk, though in this case, nomad was the one moving.  Fast enough to round the planet ahead of the rising sun, staying ahead of the dawn.  An enormous planetary ring rose from the opposite horizon—a wide disc that reflected the sunlight.

Planet must have a slow rotation, the knight observed to his sometimes erratic squire.  Note how these ships can outrun it easily.

Nomad had little opportunity to enjoy the return to safe darkness, though he did catch a few glimpses of the people on the bike looking back at him with befuddlement.  Several tried to pry loose his chain, but at such speeds—and with him as a weight on the end—they would have had difficulty even if he hadn’t sealed the loop.  He wondered if perhaps they’d stop to deal with him, but they just kept on flying after the other bikes, never more than a few feet off the ground.

Eventually, the ships slowed, then stopped.  Nomad came to rest in a patch of wet soil, appreciating the sensation of something soft for once in his life.  He groaned and flopped over, clothing a mess of rips and tatters, skin beaten and battered, hands still manacled.  After a moment of agony—spent trying to appreciate the fact that at least no new pains were being added—he turned his head to see why they’d stopped.

A floating city moved through the twilight landscape just ahead.  An enormous plate, lifted by hundreds of engines burning underneath it.  Nomad had been on flying cities before, even one on a planet near his homeland, but rarely had he seen one so…ramshackle.  A mottled collection of single story buildings.  Like an enormous slum, somehow raised up—but only thirty or forty feet high above the ground.  Indeed, it seemed like getting that much lift was straining the city’s engines, barely giving it enough height to navigate the landscape’s features.

This wasn’t some high-flying, soaring edifice of modernity.  It was a desperate exercise in survival.  He looked back, into the distance, where the light had faded on the horizon to be almost invisible.  Yet, he could see it peeking, the preglow of dawn.  Looming.  Like the date of your execution.

“You have to remain ahead of it, don’t you,” he whispered.  “You live in the shadows because the sun here will kill you.”

Storms.  An entire society that had to keep moving, outrunning the sun itself?  The implications of it set his mind working, and old training—the man he’d once been—started to worm through the corpse he’d become.  How did they feed themselves?  What fuel powered those engines, and how did they possibly have time to mine it while moving?

And speaking of mines, why not live in caves?  They had metal, obviously, to spare.  Otherwise they wouldn’t have chained those poor sods to the ground.

He’d always been inquisitive.  Even after he’d become a soldier—and turned pointedly away from the life of a scholar—he’d asked questions.  Today, they teased him until he beat them back with a firm hand.  Only one of them mattered.  Would the power source that ran those engines be enough to fuel his next Skip?  Get him off this planet before the Night Brigade found him?

The bike engines roared to life again, and they rose upward this time slowly.  Climbing toward the city—leaving him to dangle under the last of the four, weighing it down, the engines underneath throwing fire his direction and heating his chain.  Auxiliary could handle it, fortunately.

Once the bikes reached the surface level of the city, they didn’t park in the conventional way.  They moved in sideways and locked into the side of the city, their engines remaining on, adding their lift to that of the main engines.

Nomad dangled by his hands and chain, his pains fading as he healed.  From this vantage, he could see lumps of barren hills and muddy pits, like sludge and moors.  The city had left a wide trail of burned, dried out dirt behind it.  Probably wasn’t difficult for those bikes to track their way home, with a scar like that to follow.  He found it odd how well he could see.  He blinked, sweat and muddy water dripping into his eyes, and looked up at that ring again.

Like most, it was actually a collection of rings.  Brilliant, blue-and-gold, circling the planet—sweeping high in the air, extending as if into infinity.  They pointed toward the sun, and tipped at a faint angle, reflecting sunlight down onto the landscape.  Now that he had a chance to study it, a part of him acknowledged how stunning the sight was.  He’d visited dozens of planets, and had never seen anything so stoically magnificent.  Mud and fire below, but in the air…that was majesty.  This was a planet that wore a crown.

His chain started rattling, then shook as someone began to haul him upward.  Soon, he was grabbed by his arms and heaved up onto the metallic surface of the city, into a crooked street lined with small, squat buildings.  A collection of people chattered and gestured at him.  He ignored these, though, and studied the five others at the back—people with embers in their chests.

They stood with heads bowed, eyes closed—embers having cooled.  Two were women, he thought, though the fire that had consumed their chests had removed any semblance of breasts…leaving behind just that open hole stretching two handspans wide, bits of the ribs poking through the charred skin, embers where the hearts should have been.

The rest of the people were dressed as he’d seen below: high collars that reached all the way to the chin, swathed in clothing, each wearing gloves.  A dozen or so of them wore the white coats, formal, with open fronts but insignias on the shoulders.  Officers or officials.  The rest wore muted colors, and seemed to be civilians, maybe?  Some of the women had on skirts, though many preferred long, skirt-like jackets, the fronts open and revealing trousers underneath.  Many—both men and women—wore hats with wide brims.  Why did they wear those when there was barely any light?

Don’t think about it, he thought, exhausted.  Who cares?  You’re not going to be here long enough to pick up anything about their culture.

Many of them had pale skin, though some had darker skin like him. The crowd soon stilled, then lowered their eyes and backed away, parting to make way for some newcomer.  Nomad settled back on his heels, breathing in and out deeply.  The newcomer proved to be a tall man in a black coat—and eyes that glowed.

They simmered a deep red color, as if lit from behind.  The effect reminded Nomad of something from his past, long ago—but this was less like the red eyes of a corrupted soul, and more like something that was burning inside the man.  His black jacket glowed as well, but only on the very edges, with a similar red-orange color.  Looked like he had one of those embers at his chest as well, though that was covered over with thin clothing.  It didn’t seem to have sunk as deeply into the skin as with those other ember people, etiher.  He still had the shape of his pectorals.

His glow was mirrored on many of the buildings: the rims of walls glowing as if by firelight.  It gave the city a feel like it had been aflame just recently, and these were its ashes.

The man with the glowing eyes raised a thick gloved hand to quiet the crowd of people.  He took in Nomad, then nodded to two officers and pointed, barking an order.  The officers fell over themselves to obey, scrambling to undo Nomad’s manacles.

They backed away, nervous, as soon as the manacles were off.  He rose to his feet, making many of the civilians gasp, but didn’t make any sudden moves.  Because storms.  He was tired.  He let out a long sigh, pains having become aches.  He told Auxiliary to stay in place as a chain; he didn’t want them to realize he had access to a shape-changing tool.

The man with the glowing eyes barked something at him, voice harsh.

Nomad shook his head.

The man with the glowing eyes repeated his question, louder, slower, angrier.

“I don’t speak your tongue,” Nomad said, voice rough.  “Give me a power source, like one from the engines of those bikes.  If I absorb that, it might be enough.”

That depended on what they were using as a fuel—but the way they managed to keep an entire city floating, he doubted their power source was conventional.  Fueling a city like this with coal seemed laughable.  They’d be using some kind of Invested material.  If he could get some, he could maybe start accomplishing something here.

The leader, finally realizing that Nomad wasn’t going to respond to him, raised his hand to the side—then carefully pulled off his glove, one finger at a time.  People gasped, though the move revealed an ordinary, if pale, hand.

The man reached forward and seized Nomad by the face.

Nothing happened.

The man seemed surprised by this for some reason.  He shifted his grip, taking Nomad by the side of the face.

“If you lean in for a kiss,” Nomad muttered, “I’m going to bite your storming lip off.”

It felt good to be able to joke like that.  His distant, once master would be proud of him.  In his youth, Nomad had been far too serious, and had rarely allowed himself levity.  More because he’d been too embarrassed, and frightened, by the idea of possibly saying something cringeworthy.

Get dragged through the dirt enough times—get beaten within the inch of your life, to the point that you barely remembered your own name—well, that did wonders for your sense of humor.  Basically all you had left at that point was to laugh at the joke you had become.

People were really amazed by the fact that nothing happened when the glowing-eyed man touched him.  The man took Nomad one final time by the chin, then let go and wiped his hands on his coat before replacing his glove, his eyes—like the burning light of firemoss—illuminating the front brim of his hat and the too-smooth features of his face.  He might have been fifty, but it was hard to tell, as he didn’t have a single wrinkle.  Seemed there were advantages to living in perpetual twilight.

One of the officers from before stepped up and gestured at Nomad, speaking in hushed tones.  He seemed incredulous, pointing toward the horizon.

Another of the officers nodded, staring at Nomad.  “Sess Nassith Tor,” he whispered.

Curious, the knight said.  I almost understood that.  It’s very similar to another language I’m still faintly Connected to.

“Any idea which one?” Nomad growled.

No.  But…I think…Sass Nassith Tor…  It means something like… One who Escaped the Sun.

Others behind repeated the phrase, taking it up, until the man with the glowing eyes roared at them to stop.  He looked back at Nomad, then kicked him square in the chest.  It hurt, particularly in the state Nomad was in.  This man was definitely Invested, to deliver a kick so solid.

Nomad grunted and bent over, gasping for breath.  The man seized him in gloved hands.  Then smiled, realizing—it seemed—that Nomad wouldn’t fight back.  The man enjoyed that idea.  He tossed Nomad to the side, then kicked him again in the chest, his smile deepening.

Nomad would have loved to rip that smile off with some skin attached.  But if fighting back would make him freeze, then the best thing to do seemed to be to play docile.

The leader gestured to Nomad.  “Kor Sess Nassith Tor,” he said with a sneer, then kicked Nomad again for good measure.  A few officers scrambled forward and grabbed him under the arms to drag him off.

He found himself hoping for a nice cell.  Someplace cold and hard, yes, but at least some place he could sleep and forget who he was for a few hours.

Such blissful hopes were shattered as the city started to break apart.

Chapter Three

The entire city began to vibrate and shake.  Cracks appeared in the metal street beneath Nomad, though as he panicked, his captors just calmly stepped across them and pulled him to a building by the side.

The city continued to shake and split.  It…it wasn’t breaking.  It was disassembling.  It shattered into hundreds of pieces, each chunk raising up on its own jets.  And each chunk having a single building on it.  Each chunk…was a ship.

Earlier, he’d remarked on how the hoverbikes had locked into place along the street, adding their thrust to the city.  In a daunting moment, he realized that every section of the city was similar.  It wasn’t one big flying city; instead, hundreds of ships had joined together to make it.

Most of them were modest in size; the “single family home” version of a starship.  A great number were smaller than that, built like tugboats, with wide decks and a single cab on top.  Some few were larger, carrying buildings that were wide like audience halls or warehouses.  They all had fairly wide, flat decks that could be joined together to make the streets.  As they flew off, railings rose out of those decks and walls opened up to reveal windshields and control cabs.

He got the impression that this city hadn’t been built as a cohesive whole that could also be disassembled—rather, this was a hodgepodge of individual vehicles that could work together.  That helped explain the city’s eclectic nature.  The place was like…like a caravan that, for sake of convenience, could combine its separate pieces to form a temporary city.

The fact that it worked so well together was incredible.  Responding to shouts and instructions Nomad couldn’t understand—and Auxiliary failed to translate—many of the ships flew off into the distance, about some activity.  Nomad squinted, and noticed that several were spreading something out to the sides.

Seeds, he realized.  They’re planting seeds.  Or…dusting the ground with them.  A piece of this bizarre world began to fall into place.  That sunlight itself must be Invested, like on Taldain.  That would explain the fast-growing plants, maturing almost instantly as they absorbed the highly-potent pre-dawn light.

This society had a harvest every day.  They would sew crops and reap them mere hours later, before fleeing back into the darkness.  Was that light from the rings sufficient, or did they need to get in close, run the edge of the deadly sunlight?

He had to fight back his curiosity with a bludgeon.

You make, he thought at himself, a terrible cynic.

The ship he was on didn’t join those sowing for the harvest; it joined a large group of ships that flew down toward the ground.  Several others here had “buildings” that reached up two or three stories, largest he had seen.  They landed in a wide ring on the muddy ground.  His ship came down and locked in next to a domineering one with several tiers of balconies on the front.

The man with the glowing eyes stepped up onto one of these, settling into a seat.  Nomad inspected the muddy ring as lesser ships moved to lock in on top of one another, creating tenement-like structures, four or five ships tall.  He felt a sinking feeling he recognized this setup.  It was an arena.  While the farmers went out to work, the privileged were setting up on the front decks of their ships to enjoy some kind of display.

He groaned softly as his captors affixed his forearms with a golden set of bracers, just like the ones that the ember people wore.  Once these were in place, his captors hauled him to the front deck of their ship.  When he tried to resist—taking a swing at one of them by instinct—he locked up.  They tossed him down some twelve feet below into a patch of rancid, waterlogged earth.

It wasn’t the first arena he’d been in, but as he pulled his face from the muck, he decided it was almost certainly the dirtiest.  Several larger, shipping-container-like vessels landed and opened their front doors.  Officials in white coats forced out three tens or so people in ragged clothing, forcing them down into the mud of the ring.  Nomad sighed, pulling himself to his feet, trying to ignore the stench of the mud.  Considering what he’d been through the last few weeks, he figured the mud was probably trying to do him the same favor.

These people cast into the ring did not seem like the fighting type.  Poor souls looked almost as tattered as he felt.  They stumbled and tripped as they tried to walk through the thick mud, which stained their clothing.

No weapons were offered.  So, Nomad thought, not a gladiatorial arena.  They weren’t here to fight…but they might be here to die.  Indeed, another door opened, and three of the ember-hearted people strode out, carrying whips.  A ship floated down overhead—the heat of its engines uncomfortable—and dropped down several large crates and other detritus, each hitting with a thump in the mud.  Obstacles.

The ember-hearts came in running.  The crowd cheered.  The unarmed peasants scattered, frantic.

Delightful.

Nomad jogged through the mud.  It only came up to his ankles, but it was treacherously slick, and had a habit of sticking to his feet with a surprising suction.  He skidded toward one of the larger boxes, fully six feet tall.  Peasants scattered like hogs before a whitespine, but Nomad heaved himself up onto the box by his fingertips.

He figured that if he made himself the most difficult target of the bunch, the ember hearts would chase easier prey first.  That might give him time to figure out some storming way out of this situation.  But as soon as he got onto the box, a pair of white-knuckled hands appeared behind him, and a figure hauled itself up after him.  Ember burning at the center of her heart, eyes fixed solely on him, her lips snarling.  She had short black hair streaked with silver, and her face was scored along the right cheek with a long, thin line of blackness that glowed in the center.

While the other two ember hearts carried whips, this one held a long, wicked machete.  Damnation.  Why come after him?  Nomad glanced up toward the throne above.  Where the man with the glowing eyes watched with interest.

Do you think, the knight asked his faithful squire, he wants to see what you can do?

“Maybe,” Nomad whispered, backing away from the ember heart. Except…the look in those glowing eyes earlier.  The way he’d been upset when the others talked about Nomad…

No.  This wasn’t a test.  The man with the glowing eyes wanted Nomad to be killed in public.  Wanted him humiliated and defeated in full display of everyone.

The ember woman came in swinging at Nomad, so he turned and ran, leaping from the top of the enormous crate toward a smaller one.  Here, he rolled purposefully off and down into the mud, pretending to scramble and find something there.  As the ember woman came leaping down toward him, he heaved upward with a newly-formed crowbar—deliberately not trying to hit the woman, but only deflect the machete.

His body didn’t lock up.  So long as he was focused only on a defensive posture, it seemed that he could resist.  He shoved the ember woman aside, causing her to lose her balance and slide in the mud.  She was up a second later, glaring at him in a feral way.  She didn’t seem shocked by the sudden appearance of his weapon, and he’d tried to hide how he’d obtained it with his roll and fall.  He hoped that those watching above would assume he dug it from the mud somehow; that it was some piece of junk left by some other passing group.

Growling, half her face covered in mud, the woman came scrambling for him.  Behind, one of the poor peasants had been backed into a corner.  An ember man had grabbed her and hauled her aloft toward the sky with one arm.  The crowd yelled in delight while the woman screamed in a panic, though she didn’t seem to have been hurt.

Nomad dodged back, once, twice, three times—narrowly avoiding strikes from the ember woman, who moved with supernatural speed and grace.  He had more trouble than she did with the mud.  Despite being on the run for years, soil still felt unnatural to him.  It was wrong to not have solid stone underfoot.

A second person was caught, Nomad blocked another blow from the machete—then barely stopped himself from hitting at the woman with a backswing.  Storms, it was hard to restrain himself from actually fighting.  But he also couldn’t just dodge forever.  Eventually, those two other ember people would come for him.

He hit the woman’s machete extra hard on the next clash—knocking the weapon free from her muddied hand.  As she howled at him for that, he turned and ran, hooking his crowbar on his belt—covertly making a small loop to secure it.  He didn’t look to see if she followed, instead leaping up a set of smaller boxes, then hurling himself up toward the tallest one, some fifteen feet high.

He barely grabbed the top with the tips of his fingers.  He tried to haul himself up—but unfortunately, his hands were slick with mud, and he started to fall free.

Until a gloved hand caught him by the wrist.  There was a man on top of the box already, one of the peasants, a fellow who was a tad heavyset, with pale skin and dimpled chin.  With a determined expression, the man heaved, pulling, helping Nomad get the rest of the way up.

Nomad nodded to the mud-covered man, who gave him a gap-toothed smile in return.  He glanced at Nomad’s weapon, then asked a question—sounding confused.

Something about…you killing? Aux said. I’m sorry.  I can barely make out any of this.  You need to get me some Investiture.

“Sorry, friend,” Nomad said to the man, “can’t answer.  But thank you.”

The man joined him in watching the arena.  Another captive was giving the ember people some troubles, dodging well, scrambling through the mud.  It took two, eventually, to capture the poor woman.

The ember woman who had been fighting Nomad—however—still ignored all other prey.  She strode carefully around the large box, planning her ascent.  As one more person was captured, the rest of the peasants gave up running, falling to their knees or leaning against a wall, puffing in exhaustion.

The ones who had been captured were herded toward a different ship, screaming and crying—though notably, not fighting back.  Curious.  From the way they acted, Nomad got the sense that…

“That group who were caught first are another set of condemned, Aux,” he guessed.  “To be left for the sun.”

So… Auxiliary said in his head.  This was some kind of elaborate game of tag?  To determine who’s next in line to be executed?

“That’s my best guess,” Nomad said.  “Look how relieved the others are not to have been caught.”

Relieved, yes, the knight said to his squire.  But also…sad.

Auxiliary was right.  Many of the survivors turned pained eyes toward the ones who had been taken.  One man even screamed in a begging posture, falling to his knees, gesturing.  As if offering himself instead.  These captives all knew each other.  The ones who had been taken were friends, maybe family members, of those who had survived.

Nomad’s ally started to climb down.  But the contest wasn’t completely over.  Not yet.  Though the two other embers had moved off after corralling the condemned, the third one—the woman with the silver in her hair—-began leaping up the set of blocks toward Nomad’s vantage.

She wouldn’t stop until he’d been killed, he was certain of it.  Well, then.  Time to see if he could trick his  Torment.  He waited, tense, as the ember woman approached.

Nomad? Auxiliary asked.  What are you doing?

“How heavy an object can you can become?” he asked.

Currently?  Mass of metal weighing about a hundred pounds or so.  I can’t get heavier unless you deliver appropriate Investiture.  But why?

He waited until the ember woman was nearly upon him—leaping for his box from the next perch over.  At that moment, Nomad hurled himself right toward her.  He raised Auxiliary over his head—worrying that he’d have to reveal his secret—and created a barbell of the appropriate weight.  Nomad held it right in front of him, as if to swing it.

In response, his  Torment sensed he was trying to do harm.  His arms locked up.  But the ember woman still slammed right into the large chunk of iron, gasping as the two of them smashed together mid-air.

He became, essentially, another dead weight.  They both plummeted to the mud below, and he landed on top of her, his barbell hitting her in the chest, his elbow smashing her in the neck.  The twin weights drove her down into mud.

When Nomad stumbled to his feet, she remained down, eyes open—but stunned.  Her ember fluttered, like an eye blinking from exhaustion.

The crowd grew deathly soft.

“Doesn’t happen often, does it?” Nomad shouted, turning toward the leader with the glowing eyes, seated on his balcony at the head of the arena.  “Someone defeating your soldiers.  Why would it ever happen, though?  These are Invested warriors, and you pit them against unarmed peasants!”

The man didn’t reply of course.  Storms, Nomad hated bullies.  He stepped forward, as if to challenge the bastard.  As he did, however, a shocking coldness swept through him, originating at his wrists.

He looked down at the bracers he’d been given.  They were leeching his body heat straight out.  Leaving him cold, his muscles lethargic.  He breathed out, his breath misting.  He looked up at the glowing-eyed man—who held a device with several buttons on it.

“B-bastard,” Nomad said through chattering teeth.  Then fell over face-first into the mud, unconscious.

Chapter Four

When Nomad woke this time, he found himself manacled to a wall.  No…it was the side of a ship, one of those still forming the arena.  It seemed he hadn’t been out for very long, though it was impossible for him to tell with no sun in the sky.  Just those dramatic, sweeping rings.

He tried to move, but was held tight against the side of the ship by both wrists and both ankles.  The crowd was still in place, rowdy, though a small ship with a podium and four ornate columns on the sides had settled into the center of the arena.  Glowing Eyes stood upon it, addressing the people, stoking their enthusiasm.

“Auxiliary,” Nomad growled.  “Did I miss anything relevant?”

They moved the boxes out of the way, he replied.  Then strapped you here.  I’m trying to make sense of that speech, but I haven’t caught more than a word or two.  Some of this is about you.  And…an “example?”

“Lovely,” he said, struggling against the chains.

I don’t think they realized or saw what you did with me, Auxiliary continued.  With the barbell, I mean.  The angle was wrong.  So I turned into a crowbar again when they picked you out of the mud.  They took me, then tossed me aside, assuming I was nothing important.  I’m still out in the mud, off to your left.

Well, that was something.  Those bonds on his wrists were tight, but Auxiliary could become all kinds of odd shapes.  He might be able to work something out with the tool.  But if he wasn’t in immediate danger, then there was no reason to reveal what he could do.  So for now, Nomad considered other methods.  Perhaps if he broke his thumb, he could get his hand out, then let it heal.  Unfortunately, he healed fractures much more slowly than bruises.

The ember man’s voice rose to a crescendo, gesturing to Nomad.  Damnation.  Even if he could get out, he still had those bracers on that froze him.  And he was still surrounded by enemies, and couldn’t fight.  What good would it do to get a hand free in such a situation?  He growled, struggling at his bonds.

You might be in trouble this time, Auxiliary said.

“You think?

Do I think?  I’m not sure.  Depends on your definition.

“You know, I liked you much better when you were alive.”

And who is to blame for that?

Nomad snarled and raged against the chains.  His attention was finally drawn away from his predicament, however, as several officials led a ragged captive up to the podium ship.  One of the white coats carried a long spear, but the other had a rifle.

Nomad’s eyes lingered on that.  A rifle?  The first modern weapon he’d seen here.  Were those rare?  He finally thought to inspect the captive, and realized it was the woman who had been doing so well earlier avoiding escape.  The one that had taken two ember people to catch.

“That woman…” Nomad said.  “She was one of the better fighters—or at least, better dodgers—in the arena earlier.  Perhaps because she fought well, they’re going to reward her?”

Glowing eyes gestured to the woman, and the crowd roared.  He slapped her on the shoulder in an almost congratulatory way, smiling.  But then, the captive woman started to struggle harder, and Nomad got a sinking feeling.

Not my problem, he thought to himself.

Glowing Eyes waved to the side, and one of the guards handed him the spear.  Glowing Eyes whipped off a sheath, revealing that the spearhead itself had a glowing ember at the tip—so bright, it left a trail in Nomad’s vision.

The captive screamed.

Glowing Eyes rammed the spear into the woman’s chest.

Nomad had just the right angle to see what happened next.  Glowing eyes yanked out the spear, leaving the ember behind.  The officials scattered in a panic, though Glowing Eyes remained, unconcerned.  The beleaguered captive fell to her knees, screams intensifying as glowing heat flared at her core.  Sparks and jets of flames sprayed out, like from a fire suddenly stirred up, individual motes scoring the skin of her arms and face—leaving streaks that continued to glow even after the central fire in her chest quieted.

The woman finally slumped to the side, eyes not closing.  She just lay there, staring sightless, a quiet flame at her chest lighting the floor of the podium in front of her.

Well, Auxiliary said, I guess we know where those cinder-hearted people come from now.

“Agreed,” Nomad said, feeling sick.  “My guess is that they picked the captive who was most agile—most skilled at avoiding capture—to be elevated like that.”

A stretch, perhaps, but logical enough.

Nomad took a deep breath.  “That might give us an opportunity.  You think whatever powers those spears would be enough to let us Skip off this planet?”

He hungered to get ahead of the Night Brigade for once.  If he jumped from this planet quickly, then to another, he could build up a lead on them.  He might finally be able to catch a breather.

No, I’d say it isn’t powerful enough for a Skip, Auxiliary said.  Should be powerful enough to establish you a Connection to the planet, though.  You’d finally be able to understand what people are saying.  Might power me up a little as well.  Let me get bigger, heavier, for a little while at least.

As the guards returned to drag off the newly-made ember woman, glowing eyes strode back onto the podium and someone approached with two more spears.  Glowing Eyes took one and whipped the sheath off, revealing a second glowing tip—like metal heated super-hot, but somehow never cooling.  The crowd shouted and cheered even louder.

“I’ll bet,” Nomad said, “he’s going to use one of those on me.  He tried to get me killed, but his people failed.  So now he’s going to try something else.”

Ah, Auxiliary said.  Yes, that’s reasonable.  Why isn’t he worried that you’ll turn against him once you’re given powers?

“I suspect he counts on the freezing bracers to control the others, and he just proved to himself they work on me.”

Seems dangerous.

“Agreed,” Nomad said.  In this case, the situation wouldn’t play out as Glowing Eyes wanted.  If he touched the spear tip to Auxiliary, or even Nomad potentially, they’d be able to absorb the power from it.  One of the few valuable sides of his Torment—Nomad had an unusual ability to metabolize nearly any kind of Investiture, though he often needed Auxiliary to facilitate.

Right.  But why are there two spears?

“They’ll want to do me last,” Nomad said.  “As the big finish.  So I assume there is another poor captive to be…”

He trailed off as they pulled a second person up onto the podium.  It was the gap-toothed man who had helped Nomad earlier.  As soon as he saw the poor fellow, Nomad realized it made sense.  He’d just been theorizing that they turned the best fighters into ember-people.  This fellow might be a little overweight, but he’d managed to elude the ember people better than the others—and had even gone out of his way to help Nomad who was aggressively being targeted.

The man’s grit had earned him a terrible reward.  The crowd cheered as Glowing Eyes raised the second spear.  The poor captive screamed a piteous sound, pulling against his captors, trying desperately to escape.

Not my problem, Nomad thought, closing his eyes.

But he could still hear.  And somehow, in shutting out the light—there within the blackness of his own design—he felt something.  Of the person he’d once been.  And words he’d once spoken.  In a moment of glorious radiance.

Damnation, he thought as the man’s terrified shouts shook him to the core.

Nomad forced his eyes open and ripped his right hand out of the bonds—down through the manacle, his supernatural strength shattering the thumb and ripping the skin along the sides of his hand.  He raised his bleeding hand above his head to the side, then summoned Auxiliary from the mud.

He whipped his hand forward then, throwing Auxiliary to spin—flashing and glorious—through the air.  Aux slammed into one of the pillars on the podium right next to Glowing Eye’s head: a six-foot long, glittering sword.  Auxiliary’s truest form.  It sank into the pillar up to Auxiliary’s hilt, then hung there, quivering.

The crowd hushed.

Huh, Auxiliary said in his head.  I thought you couldn’t do that anymore.

He intentionally hadn’t aimed for Glowing Eyes, as to not be a threat—and not trigger the Torment.  But it had been a while since Nomad had seen the full Blade, been able to access it in its glory.  The crowd hushed, and as Nomad hoped, Glowing Eyes gaped at the sword—forgetting his captive.  The gap-toothed man huddled in the grips of the officers, but hadn’t been touched by the spear, not yet.

Nomad resummoned Auxiliary, and tried to form the Blade again.  He failed.  The Torment seemed to have slipped that once, but now it was adamant.  No weapons.  Instead, Nomad raised Auxiliary high in the form of a tall poll—his thumb screaming in pain, but a bracer formed at the bottom of the tool holding it in place and letting him grip it with his unbroken fingers.  He formed a wrench next, then a crowbar.

Glowing Eyes watched the weapon, a visible hunger in his wide, glowing eyes.  He stumbled off the platform, carrying the spear.  Fixated on Nomad.

“Good,” Nomad whispered.  “Good.  You want this.  Come, try to take me as one of your embers.  Then you can command me to give you the weapon, right?”  He met those glowing eyes, daring them forward.

The man approached, then paused, then held the spear in front of him threatening as he got closer.

“You…can absorb that, right?” Nomad asked.

Yes, Auxiliary said.  Just form me as a receptacle—or even just a standard shield—on your chest as he stabs, and I’ll recycle the energy.

Glowing Eyes hesitated a few feet from Nomad.

“Come on, you!” Nomad shouted.  “Stab me!”

Instead, the man put the white hot spear tip near Nomad’s eye and demanded something.

“I don’t speak idiot,” Nomad said.  “Just stab me!”

The man waved at Nomad’s hands, speaking again, more stern.

He wants you to show him—the knight explained to his sometimes-dense squire—how you summon the tools.

So instead, Nomad summoned a nice dollop of spit—spiced by the mud that crusted his lips—and delivered it right into the bastard’s glowing eye.  The spittle hissed, as if on a hotplate, and the man stepped back, growling.  He lowered his spear, causing the crowd to cheer.

Here we go, Nomad thought.

At that moment, one of the nearby ships exploded.

Chapter Five

Nomad cried out in frustration as Glowing Eyes turned around toward the sound, then began shouting as he strode—tall and unflinching—back toward the podium.

Weapon fire—blasts with a distinctly red-white heat—rained from the sky.  Glowing Eyes shouted something else, and ember people—a good two hundred of them—came running out of holds onto the rims of ships.  Then, as one, their embers began to dull—their bracers, it seemed, activating. Even Nomad’s did something, buzzing a little bit and shaking. Then, the ember people began dropping like toddlers at nap time, falling off of perches down into the mud, or just slipping down where they were.  It didn’t affect him, he wasn’t sure why.

But Glowing Eyes spun, obviously shocked by this turn of events.  He’d summoned them but had not expected them to all suddenly fall unconscious.  The image of that happening to them would have been comical.  However, Nomad couldn’t bask in the moment, as the ship he was chained to began moving, hovering up and away from the arena floor.  It got just about five feet before a blast hit it from above.  A violent explosion ripped it apart, ejecting the part with Nomad on it off of the rest of the disintegrating vessel.

On the plus side, Nomad dropped back to the ground.

Unfortunately, a small chunk of the ship—smoking and throwing sparks—came with him.  He hit the ground, still mostly chained in place, and the metal chunk fell right on top of him.  He grunted, body protesting the treatment.  Invested or not, he suspected if he hadn’t fallen into soft mud—able to squish around him beneath the weight—he’d have been crushed.

As it was, he got stuck there in the muddy darkness, a huge weight on top him—his thumb still broken and healing slowly—as a firefight broke out above.

Oh, come on, he thought.  He could hold his breath for practically forever—with his highly Invested soul renewing his cells much in the same way that sun made the plants grow in quick speed.  But his chances at stealing not only that spear, but the rifles he’d seen, seemed to be fleeing by the moment.

Nomad, the knight said to his exceptionally lazy squire, this is no time to take a rest.

Nomad gurgled an annoyed reply through the mud.

Yes, that was a joke on my part, Auxiliary said.  Proof that I’m not completely mirthless since my death.  But…to be more serious…you should probably try to get out of this.  That sunrise is going to arrive eventually.  I tasted the strength of it earlier.  Stay long in that light, and you’ll be vaporized.  And I don’t have the strength to make a shield that could resist that kind of punishment.

Some kind of explosion shook the ground, vibrating Nomad.  One hand, unfortunately, was still manacled to the chunk of wall.  He could pull it free, maybe, but would probably break his thumb or wrist at the same time.  Which seemed like a bad idea.  His right hand was still kind of useless, though starting to heal.

Fortunately, he could feel air on his legs, as well as move them.  His ankles were sore.  He got the impression that the bonds there had been ripped free in the blast, and that the chunk of metal holding him down was covering only his top half.

Right then.  Time for some complex visualizations.  He could summon Auxiliary in practically any shape he could imagine.  He tried a knife, first—but that wouldn’t work, even though Nomad insisted he was making a tool, not a weapon.  So he needed something else.  He thought back to his days as an aspiring scholar—that seemed like so, so long ago—and imagined a jack for lifting something heavy.

Auxiliary appeared next to his right hand in the appropriate shape, with the front of the jack just underneath the piece of metal.  Though Nomad didn’t have much maneuverability, he was able move his free hand onto the specifically-designed crank and move it a few times.  Not much different than doing weight lifting at the gym.  It was enough to inch the metal up a little to the side.

Clever, Auxiliary thought at him.  Glad to see some of the old you shining through.

Fresh air flowed in as he turned the fallen piece of metal into—essentially—a lean-to, with him underneath.  That gave him some increased maneuverability, allowing him to slide both knees underneath him.

With supreme effort—barely managing in the mud—he gave an extremely powerful heave and flipped himself (and the chunk of metal) over onto his back.  The maneuver planted the chunk of metal down into the mud behind him, and left him lying on top of it—one manacle still in place—staring upward.

Ships buzzed around.  There wasn’t as much weapons fire as he’d imagined—these ships didn’t seem to have on-board guns.  The blasts that were happening were from dropped bombs, and the gunfire he’d seen was all from people on the decks bearing rifles.  The ships also couldn’t get very high; the highest he saw them flying was fifty or sixty feet.  These weren’t jet fighters—more like hovercraft with a little extra oomph.

All through the arena, plants had started sprouting.  Just weeds, but it was dramatic how quickly this barren pit of mud was becoming a field.  Most of the ships forming the arena had launched into the air, and Glowing Eyes was nowhere to be seen—though many of his ember hearts still lay in the mud, where they’d fallen.

Nomad formed Auxiliary as a pair of bolt cutters, and tried to maneuver to get his other hand free.  But he couldn’t get leverage with his broken thumb.  If he made the bolt cutters large enough to work on the manacle, they were too big for him to grip in one broken hand.  But if he made them small enough to hold, he couldn’t make enough force to to cut through the metal.  And the Torment continued to forbid him a knife or a sword, even though it had worked just earlier.

As Nomad slipped in the mud, a sleek hover-bike-like ship came roaring down, frying plants with its jets.  Two people jumped free, a man and a woman.  The man carried a rifle, and the woman wore skirts, but neither had the uniform coat of the guards he’d encountered before.  They were the aggressors, it seemed.  The ones who had attacked Glowing Eyes and his group.  Enemies of his enemies, dared he hope?

“Hey!” Nomad shouted as they dashed past.  “Hey!”

The woman glanced at him, but the man continued searching the ground for some reason.  Nearby, a ship went roaring past, the small “deck” crowded with people in dirty clothing.  It made off into the distance.

It’s a rescue, Nomad realized.  Those were captives from earlier.  That’s what’s happening here.  These ships are here to save these people.

Hey!” he shouted louder.  “Help me!”  He held up the bolt-cutter, waving for them.

The two people continued to ignore him, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what they were looking for in these weeds.  Though nearby, someone sat up out of the grass.  One of the ember men.  He looked lethargic, still, but…

“Whatever you did to them is wearing off!” Nomad shouted.

The rescuers continued—frantic—searching through the growing grass until…  The man shouted.  His companion joined him, and together they heaved something up from the grass.  A muddy figure.

The ember woman that had hunted Nomad during the game earlier.  He recognized her easily, with that silver mixed into her hair, the single glowing mark on her cheek.  She looked dazed, disoriented as the two hauled her back toward their hover bike.  They walked right past Nomad.

“Storm you!” Nomad said, struggling again in his bond, pulling at.  “At least look at me!”

They didn’t, instead loading their captive onto their bike.  He didn’t miss some manacles there, too, which they used to lock her in place.  They didn’t trust this ember woman.  Perhaps they were taking a captive for some kind of ransom?

Well, Nomad would need to break his other hand to get free.  Damnation.  He was already handicapped enough.  He didn’t fancy being trapped her without the ability—

The man among the two rescuers suddenly screamed, a blast of energy hitting him on the shoulder.  He stumbled back, and the next shot vaporized his entire head.

The body slumped to the weeds as the woman cried out in anguish, barely thinking to take cover behind her bike.  Overhead, a ship lowered down—the one with a large podium on the back.  Four Pillars.  Glowing Eyes—face lit by the heat inside of him—stood on the edge, a rifle in hand, sighted.  He fired again at the woman, blasting off a small part of her long, four-seater hoverbike.

She huddled in the shadow of the vessel, facing Nomad.  She managed to grab her companion’s fallen rifle, but when she ducked up to try firing, Glowing Eyes almost took her head off with an expert shot.  She, in turn, only got a few wild shots off that came nowhere near to hitting.  She tried firing again, and was even further off.

“You need my help,” Nomad said, gesturing to the bolt cutters.  “Come on.”

She glanced back at him.

“Come on,” he said, wiggling his fingers. “Come on!”

She said something unintelligible.  Then, noticing he didn’t understand, she held up the rifle.

“Yeah, I know how to fire one,” he said, nodding.  “I’m better at aiming than you seem to be.”

Liar, Auxiliary said.

“It’s not a lie,” he said.  “I am a good shot.”

You’ll lock up the moment you touch a gun.

“She doesn’t understand anyway,” he said, nodding eagerly to the woman.

On the other side, Glowing Eyes was forced to turn and deal with some other ships buzzing him—dropping explosives to try to catch his ship.  In that distraction, the woman rescuer finally scrambled over to him and took the bolt cutters.  She struggled with them though, throwing her weight onto them.  But the manacle was made of strong stuff.  And before she could get him free, Glowing Eyes turned his attention back toward them from his hovering platform in the near distance.

“Go!” Nomad said, pointing at him.

The woman ducked back under cover, and Nomad twisted, dismissing Auxiliary—then immediately summoning him again as a shield on his arm.  That intercepted the shots Glowing Eyes fired.  Nomad huddled to his knees, taking shelter behind his shield, one hand still trapped beneath him.

The woman huddled beside her own ship as—on top of it—the ember woman groaned.  She was waking up.

“The gun,” Nomad said, pointing and waving.

Hesitant, eyes distrustful, the woman tossed it to him as another barrage of fire came down from above.  He didn’t dare dismiss the shield, but he could alter its shape—giving it a long set of spikes on the bottom, which he could ram down into the earth and let go.  He huddled beside this and then awkwardly moved the rifle—broken thumb screaming in pain—around toward the lock holding his hand on the wall.

You’re going to blow your hand off, Auxiliary warned.

“Eh,” Nomad said.  “I’ve got two.”

He fired.  And, as he’d hoped, it blew apart the device and let him pull his hand free.  He grabbed the shield and moved up close to the woman’s ship, huddling beside her.

“Hey Aux,” he said.  “How hard would it be for me to steal this thing?  Have you seen how they start the engines?”

You’re despicable, he said.  This woman just saved you.  And you’d steal her ship?

“Engines.  How do I start them?”

I haven’t seen.

Blast.  Well, he needed to get rid of Glowing Eyes.  Nomad set up with the rifle right beside where the ember woman was strapped.  She glared at him and growled as he deliberately told himself he was going to fire the rifle not at any person in specific, just kind of randomly.

It worked, though only if he aimed very far away.  He blasted the air, and it was enough to frighten Glowing Eyes back for a moment.  Still, the woman who had saved him glared at Nomad, shouting something and waving her hands.

I believe she’s mad, Auxiliary said, about your bad aim.

“Lady,” Nomad said, “I’m having a really bad day.  If you’re going to scream at me, could you at least do it a little softer?”

She grabbed the gun back from him, then fired, keeping Glowing Eyes at bay for now.  Then she gestured at the ship and spoke.

I believe she’s offering to take you, Auxiliary said, if you use the shield to protect her from behind as she flies.

That would do.  Except…

Nomad paused, scanning the field full of quickly growing tall grasses.  The podium had been right over there, hadn’t it?  He thought he saw something in the grass there.

Damnation.  Cursing himself for a fool, Nomad held up Auxiliary for cover and dashed that direction—ignoring the woman’s cries of surprise.  There, in the muddy ground near where the center of the arena had been, he found the gap-toothed man.  Mostly buried in the mud, leg twisted the wrong direction, bleeding from the face from what looked like it might have been a kick.  Perhaps delivered by the soldiers who had thrown him free when the fighting had started.

The poor man looked up, seeing Nomad.  And as bombs fell and a line of glowing automatic rifle fire hit the ground nearby—tossing up soil and burned grass—something sparked in the man’s eyes.  Hope.

Nomad seized the man by the arm and heaved, ripping him out of the muddy soil and throwing him across his shoulders.  Unable to keep Auxiliary up with that weight, Nomad dropped the shield and dashed through the battlefield, the weight of forgotten oaths on his shoulders.  He Somehow avoided being shot as he reached the hoverbike and threw the man into one of the seats.

The man, tears in his eyes, whispered something.  Nomad didn’t need to know the language to sense the gratitude in them.

That was uncharacteristic of you, Auxiliary said as Nomad summoned him again as a shield.

“He reminds me,” Nomad said, “of an old friend.  That’s all.”  He looked to the woman, who was still taking cover beside the bike, and gestured toward his shield.

She growled something at him, then held up three fingers, counting down.  At zero, he leaped up onto the top of the hover bike and expanded his shield, getting it around himself and her.  He also watched, with care, as she fired the machine up.  Unlike the others, which doubled as buildings, this was one of those that seemed intended only to be a vehicle.  It had two seats on each side of a large fuselage in the center.

The top left position seemed to be the driver’s seat.  She pulled a lever and hit a button, then paused, looking toward the corpse of the man who had gotten his head shot off earlier.

“Fly!” Nomad said, nudging her as more blasts hit his shield.  Another enemy ship was coming in around, having noticed them.  Worse, the other ember people were all getting up, rising from the field of grass like Awakened corpses.  Several turned toward them—particularly as the one they had tied to the back left seat of the hover bike began shouting and raving.

Finally, the woman lifted them off and sent them in a low flight just above the grass, following others of her group that—together—were fleeing with their rescued captives.

For a moment, Nomad thought they’d escaped.  He saw Glowing Eyes watching from a distance, standing tall on his podium ship, apparently fiddling with the device that should have frozen nomad by his bracers.  It still didn’t work.

The man didn’t need to give chase personally, though.  Because in moments, several ships landed to gather people with embers in their chests. Those gave chase.  Most of the friendly ships that had performed the hit-and-run were far ahead, almost out of sight.  But Nomad’s vessel was the lone straggler, trailing far behind the others.

So, of course, those ships of ember people targeted him.

Chapter Six

Nomad tapped on the pilot’s shoulder and thumbed backwards.  She said something he was quite certain was a curse, then leaned down lower.  He reached for her rifle, but she put a protective hand on it and glared at him.

Great.  He could just kick her free and take the machine; he was relatively certain he could fly it.  But then she pulled up, gaining elevation.

Something about getting away from the dirty ground, up into the sky toward those rings… It had an effect on him.  Wind against his face, landscape shrinking down below.  That reminded him of better times.  Pure crisp air acting like a moral decongestant.

He smiled at that thought.  It was wordplay like his former master would have liked.  And maybe there was something to be said for the thinner air up here.  Maybe he had been, after all, a little bit airsick…

Nah.  That was absolutely going too far.

Still, he kept his shield in place, and didn’t try to steal the bike.  Instead, he focused on the enemies behind.  They crowded onto two sleek war vessels.  Long and flat, with small cabs, the machines resembling actual fighter jets—though they had decks on the front, where ember people hung on to poles, standing otherwise in open air.  Their embers stoked in the wind, growing brighter, like headlights.  Their postures seemed determined, eager.

And they were gaining.  How had these rescuers expected to pull off their raid when flying inferior ships?  They had to know they’d get chased down eventually.

A sharpshooter in a white coat leaned out of the cab of one of the warships, then took aim.  Nomad raised Auxiliary as a shield noticing that the sharpshooter wasn’t one of the ember people.  Those seemed to only be given melee weapons.

The sharpshooter fired.  Not at Nomad or the pilot, but just behind them, at the fuselage of the bike itself.

The pilot cursed, looking back past him.  Nomad made his shield turn transparent to let her see—because the sharpshooter fired again in the same spot, blasting off a piece of the bike.  Exposing something underneath, glowing bright.  Nomad, sensing the pilot’s panic, scrambled back a little and blocked the next shot—which exploded into sparks against the shield.

Nomad glanced at where the sharpshooter had been firing.  A housing that contained a brightly glowing chunk of stone…or maybe glass?  Roughly the size of a grenade, it had the same red-orange glow as the embers, the engines, and the very blasts of the guns were firing.

“Power source?” Nomad guessed, blocking another shot.

Almost assuredly, the knight said almost assuredly.

“Think that is powerful enough to get us off of here?

Not even close, the knight said with flat disbelief at his squire’s lack of perceptive abilities.  But you should absorb it anyway.  Well, once we land.  Unless you’d rather said landing be a little more abrupt than is normally desirable.

“Noted,” he said.

Ahead of him, the pilot leaned down even lower behind a short windshield, the throttle—least, that was what he guessed the lever was—smashed forward as far as it would go.  The gap-toothed man that Nomad had rescued clung to his seat, eyes wide, hair fluttering the wind.

Nomad glanced ahead of them, hoping to see some kind of defensive force up there.  A fortress, or a line of fighters waiting for them to arrive.

Instead, he picked out a deep blackness.  Above, the rings of the planet had moved in the sky, away from them.  Rather, by flying this fast forward, Nomad’s ship was getting behind the rings.  The back sides were dark, not reflecting sunlight.  And those shadows ahead…

That was the full dark of the planet, perhaps?  True night.  Away from even the frail light of the rings.  Storms.  How small must this planet be, if flying such a short time could round them so quickly?  They were not only outpacing the rotation of the planet, but dramatically changing their orientation compared to the rings.  That indicated small rings, but an even smaller diameter of the…

Eh, who cared.

The sharpshooter had pulled back, but the enemy ships were pulling up even closer—and the ember people on them were hooting and shouting.  They crowded the front of their platforms, preparing to jump as soon as their ships got close enough to Nomad’s.

So, the knight asked, how are you going to survive this without fighting?

“I’m hoping the  Torment will relax a little,” he said.  “Maybe it will have pity on me?”

Good luck with that, the knight replied with an exhaustive amount of skepticism.

Nomad grunted, still keeping his shield in place.  The transparent metal let him watch the approaching ember people as four prepared to leap.  Even if he could fight, he’d have had trouble handling four at once—particularly with four more coming up on the second ship behind.

Fortunately, he had one advantage.  Everything he’d seen so far indicated that these beings didn’t expect resistance.  Especially not from someone as strong as they were.

So Nomad took a deep breath, then stood up, dashed along the length of the hover bike, and jumped.

Wind against his tattered clothing.

An infinite expanse above.

Distant land below, looking up, aspirational.

It felt familiar.  Nomad and the sky weren’t currently on speaking terms.  But they’d been intimate for some time in the past, and he still knew his way around her place.

He felt…stronger now.  Where he’d struggled to make the leap onto that box earlier in the day, this time he soared.

Even the ember people seemed amazed by the distance he got with that leap, soaring over their heads, hitting their platform right behind them with enough force to shake the vessel.  He turned with a grin, summoning Auxiliary as a sword…

Oh, right.  No swords.

…summoning Auxiliary as an extra large wrench.  He pointed it at the four ember people.  Then charged them.  They made way for him, sidestepping and surrounding him.  He didn’t swing, though.  He spun toward one of them and formed Auxiliary as a shield right as they attacked.  He blocked the blow, then threw the ember-heart back, before spinning and blocking the next attack.

He anticipated each attack with alacrity—though having a huge, transparent, moldable shield was a tad of an advantage.  He had to be careful not to push them back too aggressively, though, lest his Torment activate.

Nomad, the knight warned, check the other ship.

He glanced to the side, seeing that the second vessel had almost caught up to the escape vessel.  He blocked a final blow, then turned and shoved between two ember people, leaping the distance to that other ship, just barely grabbing it on the side.

He formed Auxiliary as a ladder, hooked to the side of the vessel, then quickly scrambled up the face the surprised ember people on this one.  The pilot turned in shock as well, causing the platform to veer to the side—toward its companion ship.  That, in turn, let the four ember people there—now wholly focused on Nomad—jump the distance between the two ships.  Putting all eight in position to fight him.

Perfect.

In a battle of one against many, chaos favored him.  A trained military squad might have easily surrounded and pinned him, but these didn’t fight with coordination.  They each came at him, shouting and angry.  They were quick and strong, but their general advantage over others had taught them the wrong lessons.  They felt they felt they didn’t need to fight as a team.  He’d seen it dozens of times.

He rolled to the ground, skidding and coming up with his shield blocking the machetes and maces that managed to track him.  Other ember-people stumbled or tripped one another in their eagerness to get to him.  He jumped to his feet, throwing one man back into several others, then leaped over closer to the cockpit at the back of the long deck.

Through the open window, he saw the driver in her white coat—watching him with a panicked expression.  She hit a button, and a blast shield went up between them, sealing the cab off.  Fortunately, he wasn’t after the pilot.  Because, set into the floor of the deck, Nomad spotted a similar hatch to the one that had been blown off the hover bike.

He rammed Auxiliary as a crowbar into the locking mechanism, and popped off the hatch—revealing the power supply.

Ah…the knight said with begrudging admiration.  That’s nasty.

Nomad reached in and ripped the power cell out as the ember people tried to rush him from behind.  But the ship—now without power—dropped beneath them.  Nomad got off one last good jump, hurling himself toward the second of the warships.

Behind, the ember people howled as they fell.  The unfortunate ship plowed into the wet, muddy ground below right as Nomad landed on the companion warship.  He leaned out over the side, looking down.  Here, the ground seemed as muddy and wet as it had been at the arena.  Maybe rain fell in the darkness.  Then, as the planet rotated that landscape toward the sun, the reflected light—and Investiture—of the rings made things grow.  Finally, the sunrise approached, burning it all away.

What a strange life these people had, always a few hours from total annihilation.  No wonder they didn’t trust one big, indivisible ship to carry them.  He too would have preferred a lot of little engines—that much more redundancy.  Not to mention the chance to eject your home from the others and move on ahead if something went wrong with the community.

Remarkably, down below, ember people seemed to be climbing from the wreckage of the other ship.  Damnation.  Those things were hard to kill.

He raised his shield and turned toward the cab of his particular ship, where the driver was accompanied by a sharpshooter.  She had raised the gun at him, and he just smiled, stepping toward them.  She fired, and each blast bounced off his shield.  Then, predictably, they tried to raise their own blast shield.  So he tossed Auxiliary at the window—jamming him into the mechanism as it tried to cover up the window.

Nomad advanced.  Completely unarmed, of course—and worse, completely unable to harm these two.  But they didn’t know that.  He pointed at their gun, then glared at them.  It seemed that people on this planet were, on average, shorter than ones from his homeworld.  For while he’d often felt short there compared to towering Alethi, here he was the tall one.

Intimidated by the strange man holding an energy core in his fingers, the sharpshooter obeyed Nomad’s demand.  She lowered the gun, then—in response to his miming—opened the side door of the cab and tossed it out.

She stepped back, raising her hands.  The pilot kept at his controls, but as Nomad seized the gun, the man tried spinning his ship.

When they came back up, the sharpshooter was in a jumble on the floor.  The pilot had kept his place.  Nomad stood where he had before, Auxiliary having formed a boot on his foot with gripping portions melded into the natural holes between plates in the steel.  His heart thumped quickly in his chest, as he hadn’t been certain that would work.  But he covered his discomfort with a smile and raised the energy core to his face, then breathed in.

It had taken him months to get the trick of that.  He was certain that the “breathing in” part was psychological, and he didn’t need it.  But he’d learned, with time, how to feed on Investiture.  An after-effect of the burden he’d once carried, the thing that had given him his Torment.

Either way, he easily absorbed the energy of that fragment of the sun—a ball of molten light, which wasn’t the least bit hot in his fingers.  As he took the Investiture in, the entire core went to slag, its energy drained.

Inside of his head, Auxiliary sighed in satisfaction.  That’ll do, the knight told his unwashed companion.  Give me a few minutes, and I’ll have you Connected to this land.  Their words should start making sense then.

Nomad nodded.  He raised his gun at the driver, covering the way his arms locked up by making it seem like he was standing there, stoic, ready to fire.  The pilot grew even more pale at the sight.  Nomad lowered the gun as soon as his muscles relaxed, then nodded to the side.

The pilot obediently took him in close to the fleeing hoverbike.  Nomad nodded, then pointed at the pilot and gestured dramatically backward with as much of an ominous expression as he could form.  He tried to make the implication as clear as possible.  I’d better not see you following.

Nomad jumped between ships, and it seemed the pilot had understood.  Because he immediately turned and fled back toward the other ships that were giving chase in the distance.  Those were, as Nomad had hoped, too far to reach them in time.  The landscape was growing even darker, and ahead, he saw rainfall masking the air further.

Up here, speeding toward it, that sheet of rainfall reminded him of another tempest back home.  A place he missed dearly, but he could never visit again, lest he lead the Night Brigade to people who loved him.

The gap toothed man was staring at him in awe. The woman flying the ship glanced back.  Then paused. Her eyes went wide as she saw the one ship fleeing, the other one nowhere in sight.  Storms.  Hadn’t she been watching?  Had she only now just noticed what he’d done?  Judging by her expression, that was indeed the case.

He sighed.  By this point, he had gotten accustomed to the way many outsiders looked.  He didn’t think they were “child-like” because of their odd eyes; in fact, he had come to see that there were nuances in all kinds of ethnicities.  He knew Alethi with eyes as open and wide as a Shin, while he’d met offworlders who could have passed for Veden—even within a population of people who otherwise wouldn’t have.

Still, he couldn’t help thinking they looked a little bug-eyed when they made expressions like she did at seeing what he’d done.  Well, to each their own.  He moved forward to the seat to her right.  Once there, though, he stumbled—foot catching—and dropped his rifle over the side of the vessel.

He scrambled and reached for it, then came up empty-handed and shrugged.

She said something to him, sounding frustrated.

“Yeah,” he said, settling down in the seat across from hers, “I bet you’re annoyed I lost a gun.  Those don’t seem plentiful around here.  Ah, well.”  He sighed and shook his hand, where his thumb—during the minutes of fleeing—seemed to have finally knit back together.  It was working fine, and the pain had faded, the scrapes on the sides of his hand healed.  “Don’t suppose, you’ve got anything good to drink?”

He said this in Alethi on purpose.  His own language was about to get intermixed with the Connection to this planet—and he’d learned from previous experiences that he should train himself not to speak in his own tongue, lest it slip out in the local dialect.  That was how Connection worked; it would make his soul think he’d been raised on this planet, so its language came as naturally to him as his own once had.

Since he had a habit of talking to himself—and since he generally didn’t want people listening in on him and Auxiliary—it was better to just get into the rhythm of speaking Alethi to her and to himself.

Regardless, the pilot of his ship could only stare at him as they hit the darkness of the planet’s true night.

Chapter Seven

The rain in here wasn’t nearly as bad as that of a storm back home.  Just a quick wash of cold water, and then into the darkness.  The sprinkle lasted less than a minute, though they soon passed through another one.  He guessed that those omnipresent clouds made for near-constant showers in this dark zone.

“Must be quite spectacular,” he said to Auxiliary, “when the sun rolls around and vaporizes all of this.  Superheated water, coursing through the air, until suddenly—bam.  Darkness.  No light.”

Indeed, the knight replied to his squire’s strange rambling.  It’s been a long while since we’ve been on a planet with a persistent storm.  Remind you of home?

“In all the wrong ways,” Nomad said.

The ship had consoles with lights to let the driver know what she was doing, so they weren’t completely blind.  But there didn’t seem to be headlights on the thing, and the lack of even a token canopy or roof made him think that people didn’t fly these things into the darkness often.

That made sense.  This woman’s force attacked a presumably more dangerous power in a rescue mission.  He’d joined some sort of guerrilla force, perhaps—one that hid in the darkness others feared to enter.  A small nation of raiders, perhaps?

But how had their people been taken in the first place?  And if they were consistently doing this kind of work, why hadn’t they devised lights for themselves or altered their ships to fly in the darkness and rain?

So he walked back his assumptions, returning to what he knew for certain, then working forward again.  Thinking methodically, logically.  That part of him was still inside, the part that had pushed for evidence and statistics even when his friends had laughed.  He was still the same person, all these years later.  Just like a hunk of metal was, technically, the same substance after being forged into an axe.

They’re not raiders, he decided.  They’re refugees.  They were attacked by that larger group, then went into hiding.  Now, they’ve dared strike back to rescue their friends.

A working theory only, but it felt right.  What he couldn’t figure out was the reason they’d kidnapped an ember person.  To experiment on, or perhaps…

Or, yeah.

I’m an idiot, he thought, looking at the pilot—who was flying by the light of her instruments—and noting her black hair, going silver prematurely.  The shape of her youthful features, which mirrored those of the woman tied up behind.

The ember woman was a family member.  Probably a sister, judging by their relative ages.  He should have seen it earlier.  These people had been attacked, captives taken, and some of them had been subjected to terrible torment.  This pilot next to him had rescued one.  Dangerous business, judging by how the ember woman—still chained up in the back—continued to howl and growl, light from her chest glowing blood-red in the darkness.

But who was he to judge?  He was just here to steal a ship, then find a power source strong enough to get him off this planet.  Though first, he figured he’d let this woman feed him and give him something to drink for saving her hide.

He felt the Connection happening as they soared further into the darkness.  But the confirmation came as the woman spoke on her radio.  “Beacon?” she said.  “This is an outrider, requesting signal alignment.”

“Rebeke?” a man’s voice asked.  “Rebeke Salvage, that you?”

“If it is agreeable,” she said, “it is me.  Code for admittance is thankfulness thirteen.”

“Good to hear your voice, girl,” the voice replied, words nearly lost to Nomad in the howl of the wind.  “Is Divinity with you?”

Rebeke’s voice caught as she replied.  “No.  He fell.”

Silence through the line.  Finally, the man continued, “May his soul find its way home, Rebeke.  I’m sorry.”

“My brother chose this risk,” she said, voice still catching.  “As did I.”

Nomad glanced across the center of the ship, toward her.  This Rebeke looked young to him, suddenly.  Barely into her twenties, perhaps.  Maybe it was the tears.

“Zeal,” Rebeke said.  “I’m…bringing someone.  If it pleases you to respond with temperance, I would appreciate it.”

“Someone?” the voice said.  “Rebeke…is that why you fell behind?  Did you go for your sister, explicitly against the will and guidance of the Greater Good?”

“Yes,” Rebeke whispered.

“She’s dangerous!  She’s one of them.”

“We exist because of Elegy,” Rebeke snapped, voice growing stronger.  “She lead us.  She inspired us.  I couldn’t leave her, Zeal.  She’s no danger to us as long as she remains bound.  And maybe…  Maybe we can help her…”

“We’ll talk about this when you return,” Zeal replied.  “Signal to Beacon has been granted.  But Rebeke…this was reckless of you.”

“I know.”  She glanced at Nomad, who was making a great show of leaning back, eyes closed, pretending he didn’t understand.  “I’ve got someone else too.  A…captive?”

“You sound uncertain.”

“I rescued him from the Cinder King,” she said.  “But something’s wrong with him.  He can’t speak right.  I think he might be slow in the head.”

“Is he dangerous?”

“Maybe?” she said.  “He helped rescue Thomos, who I had missed spotting in the grass.  Tell his family we have him.  But before that, this stranger pretended to be a killer to get me to free him, then wasn’t much use in the fighting.”

Not much use?

Not much use?

He’d brought down two enemy ships without being able to even fight back.  He forced himself not to respond, but Damnation.  Was she lying, or…  Well, she hadn’t seen him back there, maybe?  But she’d noticed him carrying a rifle after the other ships vanished.  Where did she think he’d gotten that?

Have you noticed the names, the knight asked curiously?

“Elegy,” he said in Alethi, “Divinity. Zeal. Yeah, I did notice.  Do you think…”

Threnodites, the knight replied, modestly confident in his wise assessment.  An entire offshoot culture.  Didn’t expect that.  Did you?

“No, but I should have,” he said.  “The clothing, it’s similar.  Wonder how long ago they diverged?”

Did you guess that the captive was this woman’s sister?

“That I did pick out,” he said, thoughtful.  “Threnodites.  Don’t they…persist when they’re killed?”

They turn into shades, under the right circumstances, the knight explained to his dull-minded squire.  Who really should remember almost being eaten by one.

“Right,” he said.  “Red eyes.  Complete lack of memories.  I feel like we would have seen those, though.  Shades come out in the darkness, and we’ve been in nothing but darkness since getting here.”

Perhaps this group split off before the Shard’s death—and the event’s after-effects—took them.

Nomad nodded thoughtfully, though the persistent night of this region—without even the rings glowing in the sky to orient him—felt more pernicious now.  As if he were soaring through space itself, with nothing below or above.  Eternal darkness.  Perhaps populated only by the spirits of the dead.

He was pleased, then, when some fires appeared up ahead—the light of blazing engines underneath a city.  In this darkened, rain-filled landscape—with misty showers and tall black hillsides—they had to be practically upon the place before it became visible.  All things considered, it was fairly well hidden in here, even with those blazing engines.

Rebeke flew the ship up and locked it into place at the side of the city—the place known as Beacon, he assumed.  Despite its name, it was running impressively dark.  He spotted a few lights here and there, but only small ones, always soft red.  The engines underneath would be masked so long as they kept low, among the hills.  And if they didn’t shine lights on the top, there was a chance people searching for them could pass overhead and never spot the place.

He didn’t get a good sense for Beacon’s size, though the way their ship just settled in and became another part of its surface made him think it probably had the same architecture as the one he’d been on before.  A few people waited for them in the blowing drizzle, lit by the deep red hand-lantern the lead man carried.  Stern and dour, Nomad pegged him immediately as the man named Zeal, the one they’d spoken to the radio.

He was surprised, then, when Zeal’s voice came from the mouth of the very short man at his side.  Not even four feet tall, the small man had a normal sized head, but shorter arms and legs than your average person.

“Rebeke,” he said.  “What you’ve done is dangerous.”

“More dangerous than your plan?” she said.  “Did you recover it, Zeal?”

He seemed thoughtful as he, instead of responding, studied Nomad.  “Is this the stranger?  What is his name?”

“I was not graced with such information,” Rebeke said.  “He doesn’t seem to be able to understand the words I speak.  As if…he doesn’t even know language.

Zeal made a few motions with his hands, gesturing at his ears, then tapping palms together.  He…thought maybe Nomad was deaf?  A reasonable guess, Nomad supposed.  No one else on this planet had tried that approach.

So, Nomad spoke to him in Alethi, trying to act confused and gesturing while he talked.

The tall man with Zeal had moved to help Thomos, the man with the gap toothed expression.  By now the poor fellow was listing, semi-conscious, held to the bike by only his belt.  Several others rushed him off, presumably for medical attention.

“Take good care of him,” Nomad said in Alethi.

“What is that gibberish?” the taller man said, moving back to Zeal’s side and raising his lantern.  The fellow was so thin, so tall, he kind of resembled a light post.  Particularly in that long black raincoat, closed at the front.

“He’s always making such noises from his mouth,” Rebeke said.

“Curious,” the tall man replied.

Zeal looked toward the locked-in hover bike, then approached slowly.  The tall man joined him, as did Rebeke, all three standing and staring at the ember hearted woman tied there, growling.

“Elegy,” Zeal said.  “Elegy, it’s us.

This provoked only more growling.  Zeal sighed.  “Come.  We must petition to the Greater Good, and supplicate them for your sake.  Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually shall see to her, best he can.”

The tall man nodded.

Wait.

His name was Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually?  That was the best one he’d heard yet.  Nomad really needed to keep a list of these Threnodite names.

“Oh,” Zeal added, “and find quarters for Rebeke’s guest, if you would, Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually.  Grant unto him one of the tacships without local access controls, if it pleases you to do this task.  He looks as if he would savor a bath and a bed.”

Zeal and Rebeke started off together down the street, and Zeal turned on a red flashlight to lead the way.  A bed and a bath did sound good.  But knowing what was going on here sounded better.  So Nomad started off after the other two.

Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually, of course, hastened over to take his arm and gently try to lead him away.  Nomad smiled calmly, then pried his fingers free and continued.  When the man tried harder, Nomad yanked free more forcibly.

It was belligerent, yes.  Maybe a great way to get into trouble.  Perhaps they’d attack him, and he’d have an excuse to steal that hoverbike.  He probably should have just done that, but…well, he was feeling charitable.  So he just continued after the other two, tailed by a nervous Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually.

Rebeke and Zeal entered a building—well, a ship with a larger building on the deck—along the roadway.  Nomad stepped in after them, not letting the door close.  He found a small antechamber with simple black walls, and Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually crowded in after.

“My greatest repentance, Zeal,” the tall man said, chagrined.  “He just…won’t go with me.”

“Maybe we should present him to the Greater Good,” Rebeke said.  “It could be agreeable to them to see him, and perchance they might know what manner of person he is.”

“It is agreeable to me,” Zeal finally said.  “You can trust him to us, Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually.”

“What if he’s dangerous?” the tall man whispered.  “Rebeke said…he might be a killer.”

“Those are frorens on his wrists, Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually,” Zeal said.  “Presumably, ones that the Cinder King hasn’t yet had chance to reset.  I think we shall be well.”

Nomad had almost forgotten the bracers he was still wearing.  He managed to keep from looking down at them as they were mentioned.  This all but confirmed his earlier assumption—that these people had been able to take out the ember-hearted with some kind of hack or system exploit in the manacles.

After Adonalsium-Will-Remember-Our-Plight-Eventually left to go deal with the chained-up woman, Rebeke pushed open a door at the front of the small antechamber—and finally, he entered a properly lit hallway.  It was almost blinding, though the electric lights in the ceiling were turned relatively low.

There were no windows, of course.  That small antechamber had been a lightlock.  Meant to keep people from spilling the building’s light out onto the street, allowing them to keep moving invisibly in this darkness.  A quick glance showed him that the wall into the lightlock was made of less sturdy wooden material, when the floor and ceiling were metal.  That antechamber had been added recently.

The windows covered over with thick cloth agreed with that assumption.  Yes, they were almost certainly a people who’d recently gone on the run, hiding in this darkness.

He joined the other two in crossing the hallway, and didn’t miss that Zeal kept a close eye on him—with hand in pocket, perhaps on a device intended to freeze Nomad again.  Right then.  He wasn’t sure how these things worked on his wrists, but he’d have to be careful not to push the boundaries too much.  They led him into a room at the end of the hallway, and he entered eagerly, to meet the ones they called the “Greater Good.”

It turned out to be three elderly women.

Chapter Eight

Old women?  That wasn’t as exciting as he’d hoped.  But, hey, maybe one was secretly a dragon.

The three ladies sat at a table, taking a report from a burly man with a beard that could have hosted a fine topiary, if it had been trimmed.  He had a blast mark on one arm, the jacket there burned.  Obviously, another member of the raid.  Nomad could tell from the actions of the others that these women were in charge, though they weren’t wearing anything regal—just common black dresses, with gloves like everyone else, and hats even when indoors.

“Confidence,” Rebeke said to the first and tallest of the women.  “Compassion.”  This was the shortest of them, and most frail in appearance.  “Contemplation.”  A woman thicker of girth, with black hair—obviously dyed—curled up on the top of her head in underneath her hat.  “I have recovered my sister.”

“So we’ve been told,” Contemplation said, rubbing her chin.  “I believe you were told not to.”

“I was.”

“And you lost your brother,” Confidence said.  “One sibling sacrificed for the rescue of another?”

“We couldn’t—” Rebeke said, though the short woman they called Compassion had risen.  Walking on unsteady feet, she stumbled over and grabbed Rebeke in a hug.

Rebeke lowered her head, stray locks of silvery hair falling around her face, and held on.

The room fell silent.  It was probably heartwarming or something.  Nomad was more interested in the kettle of tea on the table.  He grabbed a chair and pulled it over, then got himself a drink.  He dripped water on the floor from his sodden clothing as he did so.

The tea was cold.  But otherwise, not bad.  Little too sweet, maybe.

Everyone in the room stared at him.  So he leaned back and put his boots up on the table.

The fellow with the beard pushed them off.  “What manner of person is this, with such terrible manners?” he demanded.

The man trailed off as Nomad stood.  He’d grown accustomed to being taller than people, now that he’d left home.  There, he’d often felt dwarfed by his companions—but traveling the cosmere had taught him that people from his homeland were practically giants by the standards of others.

Even as a shorter man from his homeland, he had a good half a foot on anyone in this room.  Granted, they didn’t seem a particularly tall people, but still.  With his clothing ripped, they undoubtedly could see his muscles—earned, not simply a result of his Invested status.

The bearded man took him in.  Then backed off, letting Nomad settle down.  He pointedly put his feet back up on the table, rattling the teacups of the three older women.

“As we took Thomas to the healers,” Zeal said, pulling over his own chair.  “He kept muttering something, delirious.  That he’d seen a man touch the sunlight, and live.”

He’d seen that, had he.  Nomad had almost forgotten his moment of feeling the sunlight before being yanked out of it. He would have assumed Thomas hadn’t seen, but perhaps the prisoners had been forced to watch the executions.  Nomad’s estimation of that man with the glowing eyes went down even further. That was a distinctive act of cruelty.

“Sunlit,” Contemplation said.  “A sunlit man.”

“If it pleases the Greater Good, I disagree,” Rebeke said getting her own seat at the increasingly crowded table.  “Accept this observation: if he were the sunlit one, he’d be helping us, not acting like…this.

“He speaks gibberish,” Zeal said.  “Like a baby, not yet weaned.”

“Does he now,” Contemplation said.  “Curious, curious…”

“If it pleases you, I thought perchance you’d be able to say what manner of man he was,” Rebeke said.  “And honestly…he insistently followed us in here.  We’d probably have to freeze him to get him to leave.”

“Maybe he’s a killer!” the bearded man said, grabbing his own chair and settling in, leaning forward.  “Our own killer!  Did you see how he glared at me!”

That…was not how Nomad had expected this man to respond to his presence.  The bearded fellow was smiling, eager.

Rebeke shook her head at the bearded man.  “If he was a killer, I think I’d know it, Jeffrey Jeffrey.”

Jeffrey Jeffrey?  He liked that one too.  “Hey Aux,” he said in Alethi, “what do you…”

Oh, wait.  Right.  Auxiliary wasn’t around.

Everyone stared at him.

“Such odd words,” Compassion said.  “I offer this thought: do you suppose he’s perchance from a far northern column?  They speak in ways that, on occasion, make a woman need concentrate to understand.”

“If it pleases you to be disagreed with, Compassion,” Contemplation said, “I don’t think this is a mere accent.  No, not at all.  Regardless, before these newcomers entered, we were Discussing Jeffrey Jeffrey and his frustration that his rescue mission was co-opted not by one, but two separate operations.  We will deal with Rebeke and her recklessness later.  For now, Zeal, can I…be granted the blessing of seeing the object your team recovered?”

The short man reached into his pocket and withdrew something wrapped in a handkerchief.  Outside, the wind seemed to be picking up, rain beating more furiously.  Rapping on the metal ceiling like nervous fingers on a bell, demanding service.  All of them ignored this, however, as Zeal unwrapped a metal disc—almost as wide as a man’s palm—with an odd symbol on the front.

One that Nomad could read, but which he absolutely hadn’t expected to find on this planet.  Storms.  What were Scadrians doing here?

“It’s real…” Contemplation said, resting her fingers on it, feeling at the grooves in the metal.

“If it is not offensive,” Confidence said, “let me speak with bluntness.  Do we know this is actually real?”  The tall, elderly woman took the disc.  “It could be a replica.  Or the legends could be false.”

“If it is not bold of me to say,” Zeal replied, “I offer  dissent.  It would not be fake.  Why would the Cinder King have cause to think anyone would steal it?  Few even know about his pet project.”

“But can we operate it?” Compassion asked.  “Can we find our way in, past the ancient barrier?”

“We don’t even know,” Confidence said, “if the legends are real.  Yes, perhaps the Cinder King believes them.  But I offer this contrast: what proof is there that these mythical lands beneath the ground exist?  A place untouched by the sun?  I will speak with firm conviction: I will not lead this people in confidence without evidence.

“Sometimes,” Contemplation said, “no evidence can be found.  I offer that we must move by faith alone, for a time.”

“I find that offering difficult and strange to mark your tongue, Contemplation,” Confidence said.  “What of science and reason?  Your callings?”

Contemplation took the disk and held it reverently, her face—though aged—was marked with lines of joy, her eyes alight and dancing as if with a fire of their own.  Her deep black hair might have been seen as vanity by some, but Nomad—instead—found it a token of self-confidence.  She knew how she liked to look.  And didn’t care that others knew it was artificial.  Because in expressing herself, the artificial became more authentic than the original.

“Even in science,” Contemplation said, “faith plays a role.  Each experiment done, each step on the path of knowledge, is achieved by striking out into the darkness.  You can’t know what you will find, or that you will find anything.  It is faith that the answers exist that drive us.”

She looked to the others in the room, skipping Nomad, but including Rebeke, Zeal, and Jeffrey Jeffrey.  The heed she paid them proved that not only just the leaders were important to this society.

“It is a wild hope, these stories of a land untouched by the sun,” Contemplation admitted.  “But we must ask ourselves.  How long will we survive in this darkness?  Elegy was right to move us here, but it was an act of desperation.  And even now, our people wilt.  We cannot grow food.  We lose more ships and laborers every time we try to venture into the dawnlands.

“I offer this grim truth: we will die out here.  Yet, undoubtedly, if we return to our previous column, we will be consumed by the Cinder King.  We haven’t the knowledge of warfare and killing to fight him; we have not been graced by such brutal and carnal instincts.

“Yet, I offer further grim insight: he will never be taken by surprise again in a raid like this one today.  His cinder killers will stand alert, prepared in wisdom against our further antics of malfeasance.  The Cinder King will nary again allow a clever hack of their frozen bands, and his people will nary again let themselves become so distracted by their games that they relax their guard.

“Today is our greatest victory as the People of Beacon.  But I offer, in contrast to that peak, today is the day that we begin to fade.  We will die without a solution.  And so, I ask.  Confidence, is a little faith—a little time spent chasing a mythical reward—not worth the chance that we can avoid our fate?”  She turned the disc over.  “We should, by duty of our current accomplishments, test this key.  And Zeal’s team should be commended in his willingness to steal it for us.”

“I offer this:” Confidence warned, “the Cinder King will chase us for this.”

“If it pleases you to be contradicted,” Compassion said softly, “he would chase us anyway.  He desires greatly to destroy us.  And that sense of purpose will have been bolstered by today’s events.  He must destroy us, now.  Lest more of his people question how far his authority actually extends.”

Nomad listened with interest to the exchange.  They seemed to know that the key-seal could open a door.  Even, they seemed to understand a little of what they might find beyond.  The winds raged stronger, rocking the city.  He wondered if, in their need to hide from pursuit, they’d let themselves move closer to the edge of the storm, nearer where the sunlight first vanished, leaving a tempest of humidity and air pressure.

How odd, to think of a land where instead of being chased by a storm, the people snuck up on its tail and hid among the edges of its cloak.

Regardless, Nomad’s earlier arrogance—his barbarity in shoving his way into this room—suddenly seemed shameful.  Yes, he had moved on from the man he’d once been, a man who had been overly concerned with propriety and the right way of things.  He knew that, like a teen leaving home for the first time, that he went too far in asserting himself.  He rebelled against the man he’d once been, and in his selfishness, became a man who would blunder about like a blind chull.

Nomad moved his boots off the table, feeling a loathing for himself that—remarkably—even he couldn’t blame on his circumstances.  Not this time.  He stood up and—surprising the people in the room—strode to the door and pushed his way out.  Through the hallway, through the lightlock.

And into the storm.

Chapter Nine

Walking into a storm wasn’t something commonly done on Nomad’s homeworld.  Yet, he’d traveled the cosmere enough by this point to know that in most places, even a violent storm on other planets was nothing compared to what he’d once known.

Indeed, the wind buffeted him here—but did not lift him from his feet.  The rain pelted him, but not threaten to scour away his skin.  Lightning rumbled in the sky, but did not strike with such frequency that he feared its touch.  He did wish he had something more than this ragged clothing, stolen from the cavern planet where he’d been most recently.  That did little to keep away the chill.  But then again, most of the coldness he felt right now came from within anyway.

He started down the cold street, metal floor slick beneath his boots.  At least those were holding up.  He’d learned long ago during his travels: skimp on shirts if you have to, but never on footwear.  He made his way vaguely in the direction of the edge of the city, though he had to go slowly, waiting for rumbling lightning to illuminate the path.

The frail lights he’d seen earlier had vanished.  People were inside, locked up, hunkered down before the rain.  That was universal.  Whether on a planet where the rainfall could dent metal plates, or on one where it barely left you damp, people fled a storm.  Perhaps they didn’t like being reminded that no matter how grand their cities, they were motes in the grand expanse of planetary weather patterns.

He’d come out here hoping he’d feel better in the rain.  Hoping that it pelting him would feel like the embrace of an old friend—that the wind’s howl would, instead, sound like the chatter of men having stew at fireside.  But today, those memories came harsh into his mind.  The winds made him remember who he had been.  A man who would have died before treating people as he’d done so today.

No, the storm did not offer him refuge.  As much as he liked the rain—as much as it felt right to him—memories were too painful right now.

He finally arrived back at the place where they’d left their hover bike, attached to the city’s side and lending its thrust to the rest.  Bold, to keep this place in the air during a literal thunderstorm.  Still, the air didn’t seem as electric as it might have in another storm—and he didn’t see any strikes.  Just a general rumbling in the air, with clouds glowing here and there.

By that light, he saw that the ember-hearted woman had been removed from her bonds in the back seat.  And cleverly, the ship had been altered, panels placed above each seat, protecting the leather from the elements and making the bike fit in to the surface of the city.  With the windshields folded down and the panels in place, the oversized bike resembled a thick rectangle of steel, bolted to the edge of Beacon.  Like how a multitool might look like a box before the implements were folded out.

That made him worry as he crawled to the edge of it—careful not to be swept off into the darkness by the wind, and he felt around the bottom of the side.  Fortunately, there, he found the rifle he’d stowed.  Masked by a stumble to convince Rebeke that he was clumsy, he’d dropped it—then used Auxiliary as a metal bracket to latch it into place underneath the hover cycle.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder, hand slick with rainwater.  The mechanism he’d formed from Auxiliary to hold the gun in place vanished.

And so, the knight said dramatically, his clever plan was fully executed.  And his dull-minded squire was now armed with a weapon he couldn’t fire.  For some reason.

“They’d have disarmed me when we arrived,” he said.

And again…such a clever plan…to get a weapon that one can’t use.  All it took was stranding me alone in the rain, to be soaked all the way through—then doing the same to yourself, by the looks of you.

“I needed a shower anyway,” Nomad said, wiping the water from his face, then running his fingers through the tight curls of his hair.  He knelt, rifle in hand, feeling with his free fingers at the panels covering up the seats of the cycle.  Could he get these off?

Did he want to?

The lightning flashes left after-images in his mind of a man he’d once been.  A man that, in all honesty, he didn’t want to go back to being.  Naive.  Overly concerned with rules and numbers.  Locked down by responsibility in a way that had slowly constricted him with anxiety, like barbed wire on his soul.

He didn’t like who he’d become.  But he didn’t miss who he’d been either, not really.  He’d lived, grown, fallen, and…well, changed.  There had to be some kind of third option.  A way not to hold up his former life on a pedestal, but also not to be a personified piece of garbage.

What if he did climb onto this cycle and vanish into the darkness?  What would that get him?  Here, he had people that seemed—in a small way—willing to trust him and let him in.  Maybe because they were desperate.  Probably because he hadn’t given them much choice.

Beyond that, though, he got a sense that they weren’t practiced in fighting or killing.  Yes, they’d pulled off a daring rescue.  For that, he commended them.  But he’d seen the panicked way the captives had responded to the ember people—and the same sense mirrored in the way that everyone treated him.  This was not a people accustomed to violence.

In many places, struggle for survival brought out the most brutal in people.  Yet here, he saw something remarkable.  Was it possible that being forced to always move—being forced to work together for survival—had forged this people into a society that didn’t have time to kill one another?  That perhaps this planet had created people who weren’t weak—that sun wouldn’t abide weakness—but also who were not brutal?

If he wanted a power source strong enough to get him off-world, he would need allies.  And he got the feeling that going to the Cinder King for help wasn’t gong to turn out well.

He stepped back from the cycle, putting the rifle to his shoulder.  And then, he felt something.

A tugging on his insides.  A kind of…strange warmth.  The storm seemed to slacken, the rain falling off.

Damnation.  It wasn’t possible.  Not here, on this world.  This was a common storm, not a mythical tempest his homeland.  Things didn’t happen in the darkness of common storms like they did…

Hey, the knight asked confusedly, what are we doing?  Nomad?  What’s our next step?

He saw a light to his left.  Further along the rim of the city.  Drawn to it, like he was a weary traveler and it a welcome cookfire, he started walking.  That…was a figure, wasn’t it.  Holding something that glowed in his fingers, a sphere.  Wearing a uniform, facing away from Nomad, standing and looking out through the darkness.

Storms.  It couldn’t be.  It couldn’t.

Ignoring Auxiliary’s second prompting for an explanation, he walked further.  Haunted by what he might find.  Worried that he was going mad.  Yet desperate to know.  Could it…

“Kal?” he asked into the storm.

The figure turned, revealing a hawkish face and an eminently punchable grin.

“Aw, Damnation,” Nomad said with a sigh.  “Wit?  What the hell are you doing here?”

Chapter Ten

“What?” Wit said, dusting off his blue uniform—which seemed untouched by the rain.  “A master can’t check in on his favorite student now and then?”

Nomad was certain the man wasn’t really there.  This was an illusion, but why now?  How had he…

“Auxiliary?” Nomad demanded.  “Did you reinforce my Connection to Wit when you were playing with my soul earlier?”

Since I am dead, the knight replied with a huff, I don’t really have to care if you’re angry at me or not.

Oh, storms.  That’s what had happened.  Auxiliary had reached through the distance between and let Wit Connect to Nomad again.

“So,” Wit said, looking him up and down, “that’s a…curious outfit.”

“It’s what you get,” Nomad said, “when you’re dragged behind a speeding hover-cycle for a half hour.”

“Chic,” Wit said.

“I don’t have time for you, Wit,” Nomad said.  “The Night Brigade is out there.  Hunting me.  Because of what you did to me.”

“You may have saved the cosmere.”

“I absolutely did not save the cosmere,” Nomad snapped, finding a pebble in his pocket—mud washed away—he threw it through Wit’s head.  The illusion rippled then restored.  “I might have saved you though.”

“Same difference.”

“It’s not,” Nomad said.  “It’s really not.”  He stepped closer to Wit’s projection.  “If they catch me, they’ll be able to connect the Dawnshard to you.  And then, they’ll be on your tail.”

Wit didn’t respond.  He clasped his hands behind his back and stood up straight, a trick he’d taught Nomad years ago to convince an audience you were thinking about something very important.

“You’ve had a hard time of it lately,” Wit said, “haven’t you, apprentice?”

“I’m not your apprentice,” Nomad said.  “And don’t pretend to care now.  You didn’t do anything when my friends and I were dying to arrows all those years ago.  I went to Damnation then, and you sat around playing a flute.  Don’t you dare presume to imply you care about me now!  I’m just another tool to you.”

“I never did get a chance to apologize for…events on Alethkar.”

“Well, it’s not like you had opportunity to,” Nomad said.  “After frequently talking to my superior officer, asking him to pass messages to me.  After living together in the same city for years, and never stopping by.  You left me to rot.  And it ate you away from the inside, didn’t it?  Not because you care.  But because someone knew what you really were, then had the audacity not to die and simplify your life.”

Wit actually looked down at those words.  Huh.  It wasn’t often that one could stab him with a knife that hurt.  Took familiarity.  And truth.  Two things that Wit was far too good at avoiding.

“There was a boy, once,” Wit began.  “Who looked at the stars and wondered if—”

Nomad deliberately turned and walked away.  He’d heard far, far too many of this man’s stories to care for another.

“I was that boy,” Wit said from behind.  “When I was young.  On Yolen.  Before this all began—before god died and worlds started ending.  I…  I was that boy.”

Nomad froze, then glanced over his shoulder.  The rain had slowed to a drizzle, but droplets of it still interrupted Wit’s figure.  He glowed softly, visible even in the darkness, and his substance rippled at the rain’s interference.  Like he was a reflection on a puddle.

He didn’t often speak of his past.  Of…those days, long ago.  He claimed, often, to not remember much about his childhood.  A time spent in a land of dragons and bone-white trees.

“Are you lying?” Nomad called to him.  “Is this a fabrication?  The perfect hook designed to reel me in?”

“No lies, not right now,” Wit said, looking up at the sky.  “I can remember…sitting on a rooftop.  Looking up into the sky, and wondering what the stars were.  And if people lived on those points of light.

“I assumed I’d never know.  The town philosophers had talked themselves hoarse arguing the matter, as was often their way.  Talk until you can’t talk any more, and then hope someone will buy you a drink to keep the words flowing.”  He looked to Nomad, eyes twinkling.  “Yet here I am.  Eons later.  Walking between the stars, learning each one.  I got my answers, eventually.  Yet…I’d guess that by now, you’ve seen more of the cosmere than even I have.”

“So it’s a blessing?” Nomad asked, gesturing.  “This Torment you’ve given me?”

“Every Torment is,” Wit said, “even mine.”

“Wonderful.  Very comforting.  Thanks for the chat, Wit.”  Nomad continued his way.  As he walked, he found Wit appearing further along the rim in front of him, turning to watch him pass.

“You always wanted the answers,” Wit said to him.  “That’s why I took you on.  You thought you could find them, tease them out, write them down and catalogue the world.  So certain you could find every one, if you just tried hard enough…”

“Yes, I was an idiot, thank you.  Appreciate the reminder.”

Wit, of course, appeared just ahead of him again.  Though he was fading, his form becoming transparent.  The little burst of connection Auxiliary had used to make this meeting happen was running out, blessedly.

“It’s a good instinct,” Wit said, “to look for answers.  To want them.”

“They don’t exist,” Nomad said with a sigh, stopping to look to Wit.  “There are too many questions.  Seeking any kind of explanation is madness.”

“You’re right on the first point,” Wit said.  “Remarkable to think that I discovered the secret to the stars themselves.  But then found questions abounding that were even more pernicious.  Questions that, yes, have no answers.  No good ones, anyway.”  He met Nomad’s eyes.  “But realizing that changed me, apprentice.  It’s not—”

“It’s not the answers but the questions themselves,” Nomad interrupted.  “Yes, blah blah.  I’ve heard it.  Do you know how many times I’ve heard it?”

“Do you understand it?”

“Thought I did,” he said.  “Then my oaths ended, and I realized that destinations really are important, Wit.  They are.  No matter what we say.”

“Nobody ever implied they lacked importance,” Wit said.  “And I don’t think you do understand.  Because if you did, you’d realize: sometimes, asking the questions is enough.  Because it has to be enough.  Because sometimes, that’s all there is.”

Nomad held his eyes.  Fuming for reasons he couldn’t explain.  Exasperated, though at least that part was normal when Wit was involved.

“I’m not going back,” Nomad said, “to who I was.  I don’t want to go back.  I’m not running from him.  I don’t care about him.”

“I know,” Wit said softly.  Then he leaned in.  “I was wrong.  I did the best with the situation I had, hoping it would prevent calamity.  I ruined your life.  And I was wrong.  I’m sorry.”

How…odd it was to hear him be so forthright, so frank.  Sincere.  Completely sincere.  Storm that man, how did he keep being surprising?  Even after all this time.

Nomad turned to go, for real this time, as Wit was vanishing.  He stopped, and waited for the final word.  Wit always had some kind of final word.  This time, though, the man just gave Nomad a wan, sorrowful smile, then faded to nothing.  Perhaps he knew there was nothing more useful he could say, and so had fallen silent.  If so, it was probably the first time that had happened in Wit’s life.

Nomad sighed.  He expected a wisecrack from Auxiliary, but the spren stayed silent as well.  He usually did when Wit was around—he knew Nomad often felt double-teamed in situations like that.

“Damnation,” Nomad said, “we need to get off this planet.  And I know how we can do it.”

How? the knight asked, wondering if Nomad had missed the entire point of an important conversation.

“The people running this place found an access disc that looks very familiar.  Scadrian writing on it.  And you can bet, if there’s a power source on this planet powerful enough to get me off world, it will be with them.”

Ahhh… Auxiliary said.  So what do we do?

Nomad stalked back to the building he’d left behind, picking it out easily because he’d left the door cracked on accident.  He stomped back inside, trailing water, rifle under his arm.  He burst in on the people, still in conference, his arrival causing them to stumble back in surprise and worry.  Not a single one reached for a weapon.

Yeah, they were doomed.  But maybe they could get him where he needed to go before they fell.  He grabbed the access disc off the table, holding it up, and spoke in their tongue—perfectly, without accent.

“I know what this is,” he said.  “Key to a large metal door, probably buried somewhere, right?  With similar writing on it?”  He tossed the key onto the table, where it hit and flipped, clattering against the wood.  “I can get you inside.”

Prologue to Stormlight Book Five ()
#5 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

This is a very rough draft. I only have been working on this this very week. These prologues to the Stormlight books, they require some really intricate Tetris in making all the pieces lock together. And I’ve already found one mistake I actually made in Rhythm of War to get the timeline to align perfectly. So if you’re looking at this and saying, “Wow, the timeline minutia of the prologues isn’t quite locking together,” we will make that work. So don’t worry about that. Otherwise, things in this are subject to change. There are tweaks I’m going to make. But I figured, since the book is more than a year away, this would be fun to give the community so that they could have something to talk about and to read and to plan for. This does not have any major spoilers for Stormlight Five, obviously, and only minor spoilers, really for the rest, just because all these prologues take place on the same day.

This is the first draft of the prologue to Stormlight Book Five. It’s called: To Live.

Brandon Sanderson

Prologue: To Live

Gavilar Kholin was on the verge of immortality.

He merely had to find the right Words to say.

He walked in a circle around the nine Honorblades, driven point-first into the stone ground. The air smelled of burned flesh—a sickening, charred scent made all the more nauseating by the body’s hunger response to it. He’d been to enough death pyres to know that scent intimately, though he got the sense that in this battle, bodies hadn’t been burned after the fighting—but during it.

“They call it Aharietiam,” he said, trailing around the Blades, letting his fingers linger on each one. When he became a Herald, would his Blade become like these, imbued with power and lore? “The end of the world. Was it a lie?”

That depends, the Stormfather said in his mind, upon your definition of lies. Many who name it such believed what they said.

“And these,” he said, gesturing to the Blades. “The Heralds. What did they believe?”

If they had been entirely truthful in their lives, the Stormfather said, then I would not be seeking their replacements.

Gavilar nodded. “I swear this oath: to serve Honor and the land of Roshar as its Herald. Better than these did.”

Those are not the Words, the Stormfather said. You will never arrive at them by random attempts, Gavilar.

He would continue to try, nonetheless. He had not achieved his current status—as the most powerful man in the world—without doing things others thought impossible. Fortunately, he didn’t need to rely too much on guesswork. He had other, more promising leads.

He rounded the ring of Blades again, alone with them in the shadow of monolithic stones. By now, after dozens of times in this particular vision, he could name each and every blade and its associated Herald. The Stormfather, however, remained cagey about what he could do with these visions. Each day, it seemed like Gavilar discovered something new, and the Stormfather claimed it was not the way things were supposed to go. How much could he have accomplished if the spren would work with him instead of against him?

No matter. He would have his prize. He seized a sinuous, curved Blade. Belonging to the Herald Jezrien. Gavilar ripped it from the stone and swung it, enjoying the sound of it cutting the wind.

“Nohadon knew the Heralds,” he said. “He knew them well, during a Return during his time, before their deaths.”

Yes, the Stormfather admitted.

“It is in there, isn’t it?” he said. “The right Words are somewhere in The Way of Kings?”

Yes.

As he’d suspected. Gavilar had the entire book memorized by now—he’d taught himself to read years ago, of course. It had been worth the effort to experience the undertext alone. If he had known how much fun the women were having with those commentaries, he’d have insisted on learning to read years before. But the actual reason to read learned was more important: being able to search for secrets without revealing what he was doing to the women in his life.

He tossed the Herald’s blade aside, letting it clang against the stone—which made the Stormfather hiss in annoyance. Gavilar mentally chided himself. It was just a vision, and these slivers of it were nothing to him, but he had to keep up appearances for the spren. He needed to be seen as pious, and worthy, until he achieved his prize. The Stormfather’s opinion of him might be relevant to the transformation.

Next, he took up Chanarach’s blade. He was fond of this one. It had ornamentation like the others—this one focused on a large arrowhead design near the hilt—but went beyond that, even. The blade was bifurcated, with a slit down the center. That long hole in the center would be impossible—or at least highly impractical—for a normal sword. A foolish design for a common weapon. Here, it was a symbol that this blade was something unnatural, impossible.

“Chanarach,” he said, “was a soldier. I believe it; this is a soldier’s Blade. Solid and straight, but with that little impossibility missing from the center. I should liked to have seen her in battle. Lore often claims she has flaming red hair. Is that true?”

Yes.

“I feel I know them each so well,” he said, holding the Blade in front of him, then turning it to its edge. “My colleagues. Yet I could not pick them out of a crowd.”

Your colleagues only if you can find the Words.

Those Words. The most important ones Gavilar would ever say. When he found the right ones, he would be accepted into the Oathpact, and ascend beyond mortality. He had not yet asked which Herald he would replace; it felt crass, and he did not want to appear crass before the Stormfather. He suspected, though, he would replace Talenelat, the one who had not left his Blade before striking into the world, then dying. After all, it seemed his actions—being out of line with the others—were most in danger of breaking the Oathpact.

Gavilar stabbed the sword back down into the stone. “Let us return.”

The vision ended immediately and he found himself back in his study on the third floor of his palace. Books in shelves on the wall, a quiet desk for reading, tapestries and carpets to keep the echo of voices down. He wore his finery for the upcoming feast, regal clothing more archaic than was fashionable—to match his beard, which also stood out among the Alethi lighteyes. He wanted them to think of him as something older, almost something ancient, beyond their petty games.

Technically, this room had been assigned to Navani, but this was his palace. Everything in it belonged to him. People rarely looked for him here, and after the confusion lately—full of little people with little problems—he had needed a place where he could be settled with his thoughts.

His guards had not knocked to warn of his guests arriving; if they had, the Stormfather would have told him in the vision. So Gavilar took from his pocket a small book, which listed the latest surveys of the region around the Shattered Plains. Yes...he was increasingly certain that place held an ancient Oathgate—and things the Stormfather said made him think it might actually be unlocked. Through that, he could find mythical Urithiru, and there, records the ancient Heralds might have written.

Just another avenue, among dozens, he was pursuing. He would find the right Words. He was close. So tantalizingly close to the thing all men secretly desired, but only ten had ever achieved. Eternal life. A legacy that spanned millennia—because you were there to shepherd it.

It is not so grand as you think it to be, the spren said. Which gave him pause. He looked around the small room, but the Stormfather was invisible today, not appearing as a shimmer as he sometimes did.

The Stormfather couldn’t read his mind, could it? No. No, he’d tested that. It didn’t know his deepest thoughts, his deepest plans. For if it did know Gavilar’s heart, it wouldn’t be working with him.

“What isn’t?” Gavilar asked, slipping the book back into his pocket.

Immortality, the Stormfather said. It wears on men and women. It weathers them and their minds. Most of the Heralds are insane now—with unnatural ailments of the mind, unique to the circumstances of their ancient natures.

“How long did it take?” Gavilar asked, “until the symptoms started to arrive?”

Difficult to say. A thousand years, perhaps two.

“Then I will have that long to find a solution,” Gavilar said. “A much more reasonable timeline than the century—with luck—afforded a mortal. Wouldn’t you say?”

And you are willing to accept the cost? Everyone you know will be dust by the time you return.

And here, the lie. “A king’s duty is to his people,” he said. “By becoming a Herald, I can see to Alethkar’s needs in a way that no previous monarch ever has. I can suffer personal pains in order to accomplish this.”

The Stormfather seemed to mull this over. Gavilar wasn’t sure if it believed him when he said things like that or not.

“If I should die,” Gavilar said, quoting the Way of Kings, “then I would do so having lived my life right. It is not the destination that matters, but how one arrives there.”

Not even close, the spren said. Guessing will not bring you to the Words, Gavilar.

Yes, well, the words were in that volume somewhere. Sheltered among the self-righteous moralizing like a whitespine in the brambles. It wasn’t any of the obvious quotes, so Gavilar had begun to say ones that were less obvious. And if this didn’t yield fruit, and the quest for Urithiru proved to be a dead end...well, he had other avenues.

Gavilar Kholin was not a man accustomed to losing. That was how the greatest men lived their lives. They didn’t accept failure or loss. People got what they expected. And he expected not just victory, but divinity.

The guard knocked softly. Was it time already? Gavilar called for Petinor to come in, but he didn’t lead Restares or any of the others Gavilar had meetings with today.

“Sire,” the man said. “Your brother is here.”

“What? How did he find me?”

“Spotted us standing watch, I suspect, your majesty.”

Bother. “Let him in,” Gavilar said.

The guard bowed and withdrew. A second later, Dalinar burst in—as graceful as a three-legged chull. He slammed the door and bellowed, “Gavilar. I want to go talk to the Parshendi.”

Gavilar took a long, deep breath. “Brother, I warned you to stay away from the creatures. This is a very delicate situation, and we don’t want to offend them.”

“I won’t offend them,” Dalinar grumbled. He wore his takama, an old-fashioned warrior’s garb, with open-fronted robe showing a powerful chest—but with some grey hairs. He pushed past Gavilar and threw himself down into the seat by the desk.

That poor chair.

“Why, Dalinar,” Gavilar said, hand to his forehead. “Why do you even care about them?”

“Why do you?” Dalinar demanded. “This treaty, this sudden interest in their lands. Why? What are you planning? Tell me what it is. I deserve to know.”

Dear, blunt Dalinar. As subtle as a jug of Horneater white. And equally smart.

“Tell me straight,” Dalinar continued. “Are you going to go conquer them?”

“Why would I be signing a treaty if that were my intent?”

“I don’t know,” Dalinar said. “I just... I don’t want to see anything happen to them. I like them.”

“They’re parshmen.”

“I like parshmen.”

“You’ve never noticed a parshman unless he was too slow to bring your drink,” Gavilar said.

“There’s something about these,” Dalinar said. “I feel something about them. A kinship.”

“That’s foolish.” Gavilar walked to the desk, leaning down beside his brother. “Dalinar, what’s happening to you. Where is the Blackthorn?”

“Maybe he’s just tired,” Dalinar said softly. “Or blinded. By the soot and ashes of the dead, constantly in his face...”

For a moment, Gavilar thought he was referencing the vision. That was silly, of course. Dalinar was talking about the event at the Rift. The one that he didn’t think Gavilar knew about.

This was an enormous hassle. Restares would be here soon, and then...there was Thaidakar. So many knives to keep, balanced perfectly on their tips, lest they slide and cut him. He couldn’t deal with Dalinar having a crisis of conscience at the same time.

“Brother,” Gavilar said, “what would Evi say if she saw you like this?”

It was a carefully sharpened spear, slipped expertly into Dalinar’s gut. Because Dalinar didn’t think anyone knew what he’d done. Gavilar could tell, however, from the way Dalinar’s finger’s gripped the table, the way he recoiled at the name.

A subtle reminder. With another, delicately applied.

“She would want you to stand as a warrior,” Gavilar said softly. “And protect Alethkar.”

“I...” Dalinar whispered. “She...”

Gavilar offered a hand and heaved his brother to his feet, then led him to the door. “That’s right. Stand up straight. Stop worrying.”

Dalinar nodded, hand on the doorknob.

“Oh,” Gavilar said. “And Brother? Follow the Codes tonight. There is something strange upon the winds.”

The codes. Which said not to drink when battle might be imminent. Just a nudge to remind Dalinar that it was a feast night, and that there was plenty of wine on hand. Dalinar was out the door a moment later, his lumbering, pliable brain likely thinking only of two things.

First, what he’d done to Evi.

Second, how to find something strong enough to make him forget about the first.

When he was out down the hallway, Gavilar waved Petinor the guard close. He was one of the trusted, a member of the Sons of Honor. A group that was yet another knife that Gavilar kept balanced, for they could never know that he had outgrown them and their plans.

“Follow my brother,” Gavilar said. “See that he gets something to drink, but don’t make it overt that you’re offering. Lead him to the secret stores my wife keeps.”

“You’ve had me do that a few months back, sire,” Petinor whispered back. “So he already knows about it. There’s not much left, I’m afraid. He likes to share with his soldiers.”

“Well, find him something,” Gavilar replied. “I can let Restares and the others in when they arrive. Go.”

The soldier bowed and followed after Dalinar. Gavilar shut the door firmly, though was not surprised when the Stormfather’s voice pushed into his mind.

He has potential you do not see, that one.

“Dalinar? Of course he does. If I can keep him pointed the right direction, he will burn down entire nations.” Gavilar just had to keep him plied with alcohol the other times, so that he didn’t burn down this nation.

He could be more than you think.

“Dalinar is a big, dumb, blunt instrument you apply to problems until they break,” Gavilar said. “Best to keep him occupied otherwise—so he doesn’t get ideas and start seeing you as a problem.” Gavilar shivered, remembering a time on a battlefield, watching his brother approach. Soaked in blood. Eyes seeming to glow red with a hunger for the throne, the life Gavilar had...

That ghost haunted him at times. A vision, sure as the ones the Stormfather gave him, of what Dalinar could have been. Fortunately, the man was a kindly drunk. Both his pain and his addiction made him easy enough to control.

Though he should have had time to work on his plans before Restares arrived, Gavilar was soon interrupted by another knock at the door. He answered it himself, and found nothing outside. Until the Stormfather hissed warning in his mind, and he felt a sudden chill.

When he turned around, Thaidakar was there. The Lord of Scars himself, a figure in an enveloping hooded cloak. Storms. How did he do things like that? He couldn’t be an ordinary man.

“I was made promises,” Thaidakar said, hood shadowing his face. “I’ve given you information, Gavilar, of the most valuable denomination. My payment was to be a single man, delivered to me as requested. But now, I hear you’ve joined his little band of delusional dreamers?”

“I need him in my confidences, Thaidakar,” Gavilar said. “If I’m ever to give him up to you.”

“It seems to me,” Thaidakar said, “that you’re less interested in our bargain, and more interested in your own motives. It seems to me that by asking for him, I only directed you toward something valuable that you’ve decided to keep for yourself. It seems to me that you play games.”

“It seems to me,” Gavilar said, stepping closer to the cloaked figure, “that you’re not in a position to make demands. You need me. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be so desperate. So why don’t we just...keep playing.”

Thaidakar remained still for a moment. Then, with an audible sigh, reached up with gloved hands and took down his hood. Gavilar froze—for despite their several interactions, he’d never before seen the man’s face.

It was blue. Was he...Aimian? Natan? No, this was a softer, glowing blue. Like Thaidakar was made entirely of white-blue light. He was younger than Gavilar had imagined—in his younger middle years, not the wizened elder he’d seemed. And he had a large spike, also blue, through one eye. The point jutted out the back of his skull.

This should have made him seem threatening. But his posture was not one of anger. “Gavilar,” he said, “you need to take care. You’re not immortal yet. While you’ve begun to play in forces that rip mortals apart by their very axi.”

“Do you know what they are?” Gavilar demanded, hungry. “The Words I must speak? The most important words I’ll ever speak?”

“No,” Thaidakar said. “I only want you to take care. Restares is not what you think he is. None of this is what you think it is. Deliver him to my agents, then we’ll give you what you said that you wanted: a return of the ancient days you’ve hungered for. A chance for the powers to come back.”

“I’ve grown beyond that,” Gavilar said.

“You can’t ‘grow beyond’ the tide, Gavilar,” Thaidakar replied. “You swim with it or get swept away. The things we’ve started are in motion. And to be honest, I don’t know that we did that much. I think that tide was coming whatever we did.”

Gavilar grunted. “Well, I intend to—”

He was cut off as Thaidakar transformed. His face melted away, features withdrawing into his head—which became a simple floating sphere. Glowing, with some kind of arcane rune at the center. The cloak vanished into wisps of smoke that evaporated away.

Gavilar growled, hungry. That...that looked a lot like what he’d read of the powers of Lightweavers. Knights Radiant. Was Thaidakar—

“Deliver Restares to me,” the sphere said, vibrating—though it had no mouth. “Or else. That is my ultimatum, Gavilar. You will not like to be my enemy.”

The sphere of light turned nearly transparent, difficult to track as it moved to the door, then shrank, bobbed down and vanished through the crack underneath.

Gavilar rested one hand on his desk, unnerved. “What was that?” he demanded of the Stormfather.

Something dangerous, the spren replied in his mind.

“Radiants?”

No. Similar, but no.

Gavilar had intended to work on his plans before his next meeting, but he found himself trembling. Which was stupid. He was a storming king, soon to be a demigod. He would not be unnerved by cheap tricks and vague threats.

Still, he sat down at his desk, breathing deeply. It held a few scattered notes and diagrams from his wife’s latest mechanical obsessions. Not for the first time, he wondered. Would Navani be able to crack this question? Should he bring this all to her?

He missed the way they’d once schemed together, during the days when they’d been conquering Alethkar. How long had it been since they’d all just laughed together? He, Ialai, Navani, and Sadeas?

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the kind of secret you shared. He knew those three so very well, and the Spren had hinted there was room for only one new Herald. Ialai or Sadeas would take the prize from him if they could—and he wouldn’t blame them for the attempt.

Navani though... He wondered. Could he trust her? Would she try to take the prize? Would she even see its value? She was so clever, so crafty in some ways. And yet, when he spoke of his goals for a greater legacy, she got lost in the details. Refusing to think of the mountain because she worried about the placement of the foothills.

He regretted how things had been between them lately. That coldness growing—well, grown over—their relationship. It was infecting his relationship with his children as well. Thinking of that sent a stab of pain into his heart. He should...

Everyone you know will be dust by the time you return...

Perhaps this way was best.

He had plans to mitigate his absence from this world, but he couldn’t say for certain if they would work. It might take several tries to perfect his management of the Returns of the enemy. So... Fewer attachments seemed better. To allow for a cleaner cut. Like made with a Shardblade.

Forced his mind to his plans, preparing well by the time Restares arrived. The balding man didn’t knock. He just peeked in, nervously checking each of the corners. Then he slipped in. He was followed by a shadow: a tall, imperious Makabaki man with a birthmark on one cheek. Gavilar had heard of his arrival, had told the two to be given rooms and treated as “ambassadors.” But he hadn’t yet had a chance to speak with this second man.

He walked with a certain...straightness. Firmness. Like he wasn’t a man who gave way. Not to wind, not to storm, and most certainly not to man.

“Gavilar Kholin,” the man said, not offering a hand or bow. “It is good to finally speak to you.” They locked stares.

Gavilar was impressed immediately. When Restares had first asked to bring a friend for this trip, Gavilar had expected...well, someone more like Restares himself.

“Have a drink,” Gavilar said, turning to gesture toward the small bar.

“No,” the man said simply. Not even a thank you or a compliment. Interesting. Intriguing.

Restares, instead, scuttled over like a child offered sweets. Even still, after several years knowing the man—even joining this newest incarnation of his organization—Gavilar found Restares to be...odd. The short, balding man sniffed at each of the wines. Then didn’t take one. He had never trusted a drink in Gavilar’s presence, but always checked anyway. As if he wanted to find poison, to prove to himself his paranoia was justified.

“Sorry,” Restares said, wringing his hands. “Sorry. Not...not thirsty today, Gavilar. Sorry.”

He was an odd one to have caused so much concern. Gavilar was close to tossing him aside. To seizing control of the entire organization.

But...why was Thaidakar so interested in Restares. Hunting him? Plus, periodically, Restares would surprise Gavilar.

Who was this man? Surely, he couldn’t actually be someone important. Perhaps his friend was the true power behind all of this. Could that be the case? Could Gavilar have been kept in the dark for two years about something that important?

“I’m glad you were willing to meet,” Restares said. “Yes, um. Because, um. So... Announcement. I have an announcement.”

Gavilar frowned. “What is this?”

“I hear,” Restares said, “that you’re looking to, um, restore the Voidbringers? To the land?”

“You founded the Sons of Honor, Restares,” Gavilar said, “to recover to men their ancient oaths. To restore the Knights Radiant. Well, they vanished when the Voidbringers did. So if we bring the Voidbringers back, the powers might return to men. It was a logical next step.”

More importantly, he thought, the Heralds will appear. Return from the land of the dead to lead us again.

Letting me usurp one of their positions.

“No, no, no,” Restares said, uncharacteristically firm. “That’s not how you were supposed to do this! I wanted the honor of men to return! I wanted us to explore what made those Radiants so grand. Before things went wrong.” He ran his hand through his thinning hair. “Before...I made them...go wrong...”

Gavilar glanced at Restares’s friend—who waited by the door, arms folded, stern. Like a father who had found his child testing at the adult wines.

Restares wouldn’t meet Gavilar’s eyes. “We...we should stop trying to return the powers at all,” Restares said, voice wilting. “It...it’s dangerous. Too dangerous. We can’t...afford another Return...”

Gavilar felt a sudden jolt of annoyance at this line of argument. Again, he considered simply being rid of the man. But...no. There were secrets here. Besides, Restares was still important to the organization. Amaram respected him, for example, as did many of the others.

“Restares,” Gavilar said, advancing on the little man. “What is wrong with you? You’re talking about betraying everything we believe?” Or at least pretend to believe.

Restares shrugged. “I’ve...been persuaded of the dangers...”

“There are so many more dangers than you know about,” Gavilar said, subtly placing himself so he loomed over Restares, the sniveling man’s back to the corner. “Have you heard of a man named Thaidakar?”

Restares looked up, eyes widening.

“He wants to find you,” Gavilar said. “I have protected you so far. But he makes demands. Do you know why? What is it he wants from you, Restares?”

“Secrets,” Restares whispered. “The man...can’t abide...someone having more secrets than him.”

“What secrets?” Gavilar said firm, causing Restares to cringe down before him. “What is it you know Restares? I’ve put up with your games long enough. Your lies long enough. If you want my support, you need to talk to me. What is going on? What does Thaidakar want?”

“I know where she is hidden,” Restares whispered. “Where her soul is. Ba-Ado-Mishram. Granter of Forms. Their other god. The one who could rival Him. The one...we betrayed.”

Mishram? The unmade? Gavilar frowned, trying to connect that to what he knew. Why would Thaidakar care about an unmade? It didn’t seem to fit. A piece of the puzzle so oddly shaped, he wasn’t even certain how to use it.

“I’ve ruined it all,” Restares said. “You, Gavilar. You’re ruining it all too. Worse. I’ve done it again. I’m...feeling so much worse....”

Gavilar opened his mouth to speak, but a hand took him by the shoulder, firm, each finger like a vise. He turned to see Restares’s Makabaki friend standing behind.

“What have you done?” the man asked, voice like ice. “Gavilar Kholin. What actions have you taken to achieve this goal of yours, the one that my friend mistakenly set you upon?”

“You have no idea,” Gavilar said, holding a hand up toward his shoulder, meeting the stranger’s eyes. The man finally released his grip.

Gavilar took from his pocket a pouch, then casually spilled a group of spheres onto the table. “I’m close,” he said, “to achieving what we want, what we need. Restares, you must not lose nerve now!”

The stranger took in the spheres, eyes wide. He reached toward one of the ones that glowed with a dark, almost inverted, violet light. Impossible light; a color that should not exist. As soon as the stranger’s fingers got close, he pulled them back, then looked with wide eyes to Gavilar.

“You are a fool,” Restares’s friend said. “A terrible fool of a man charging toward the highstorm with a stick, thinking to fight it. What have you done? Where did you get Voidlight?”

Gavilar smiled. “It is set into motion. All of it.” He looked to Restares. “The project was a success.”

The man perked up. “It...it did? Is that...” He looked to his friend. “This could work, Nale! We could bring them back, then destroy them. It could work.”

Nale. Oh, storms. Gavilar knew—but tried to ignore—that Restares pretended to be a Herald. As if to try to make Gavilar and others impressed. Never knowing that Gavilar himself had become familiar with the Stormfather, who had told him the truth. That the Heralds had all long since returned to fight on Damnation.

So was this man, called Nale, pretending to be Nalan, Herald of Justice? He...had the look. Many of the depictions painted him as an imperious Makabaki man. And that birthmark...it was strikingly similar to one on several of the older paintings.

But no. That was ridiculous. To believe that, he’d have to believe that Restares—of all people—was a Herald.

Though...he could almost believe it of this newcomer. Gavilar watched the man. He had hoped that the display with the spheres would persuade them to move froward. Instead, the stranger looked as if he’d locked up. Becoming a monolith, as if made of stone, instead of a man.

“This is too dangerous,” he said. “Far too dangerous. What you do.”

Gavilar continued to hold his gaze. The world would move to his desires. It always had before.

“But you are,” the man eventually said, stepping back and changing his posture, leaning against the bookcase “the king. Your will...is law...in this land.” His expression calmed. Or, rather, became masked.

“Yes,” Gavilar said. “That is right. My will is law. I am the law.”

And he would soon be so much more.

“Restares,” he said. “I’ve more good news. These experiments are working—-all of them. We can move Voidlight from the storm here. Move it between here and Damnation. As you’ve wanted.”

“That’s a way,” Restares said, looking to Nale. “A way...maybe to escape...”

Nale waved to the spheres. “So that’s it? Well, being able to bring them back and forth from Braize doesn’t mean anything. It’s too close to be a relevant distance.”

“It was impossible only a few short years ago,” Gavilar said. “This is proof. The Connection is not severed, and the box allows for travel. Not yet as far as you’d like, but we must start the journey somewhere.”

He wasn’t certain why Restares was so eager to be able to move Light around in shadesmar, from different realms to another. It was one of the things he’d been most eager to know, and Thiadakar...well, he seemed to want this information as well. A way to transport Stormlight, and this new Voidlight, long distances. Safely.

There was a value here. Did it have to do with his quest? Was this how he’d get the Heralds to Return? Trap their souls in gemstones, but them in an aluminum box, and transport them to Alethkar? It might work. Restares talked about Heralds souls as being like spren that could work this way...

As he was contemplating that, however, Gavilar saw something. The door was cracked. And an eye peeked through.

Damnation. It was Navani. How much had she heard?

“Husband,” she said, immediately pushing into the room. “There are guests missing you at the gathering. You seem to have lost track of time.”

She acted as if she hadn’t been spying. He smothered his anger at that for now, turning to Restares and his friend. “Gentlemen, I will need to excuse myself.”

Restares again ran his hand through his wispy hair. “I want to know more of the project, Gavilar. Plus, you need to know that another of us is here tonight. I spotted her handiwork earlier.”

Another one? Another Son of Honor.

No, he was speaking of a Herald. He was growing more delusional. He’d found himself a man to be “Nale.” Who else had he decided he’d found?

“I have a meeting shortly with Meridas and the others,” Gavilar said, calmly soothing Restares. “They should have more information for me. We can speak again after that.”

“No,” the Makabaki man growled. “I doubt we shall.”

“There’s more here, Nale!” Restares said, though he followed as Gavilar ushered the two of them out. “This is important! I want out. This is the only way . . .”

Gavilar shut the door. Then turned to his wife. Damnation, she should know better than to interrupt him when in meetings with his visitors. She...

Storms. The dress was beautiful, her face more so. Even when angry. Staring at him with brilliant eyes, a fiery halo almost seeming to spread around her.

Again, he considered.

Again he rejected the idea.

If he was going to be a god, best to sever attachments. The sun could love the stars. But never as equals.

#

Some time later—after he’d seen to Navani and made an appearance at the feast—Gavilar finally slipped away to be by himself again. In his chambers this time, rather than her study. A moment of peace.

To confront what he’d learned.

“Tell me,” he said, walking across the springy carpet to the map of Roshar on the table. “Why would Thaidakar be so interested in Ba-Ado-Mishram?”

As he sometimes did, the Stormfather formed a rippling in the air beside Gavilar. Vaguely in the shape of a person, but indistinct. Without color or really form. Like the wavering in the air made by great heat on the stones.

She created your parshmen, he said. On accident. Long ago, after the Heralds’ final visit but before the Recreance, Mishram tried to rise up and replace the God of the Voidbringers. She gave the common voidbringers forms, Voidlight, abilities. To fight for themselves.

“Curious,” Gavilar said. “And then?”

And then...she fell. She was too small a being, not strong enough, to uphold an entire people. It all came crashing down, and so some brave men and women—Radiants—did something that had to be done, trapping Mishram in a gemstone to prevent her from destroying all of Roshar. The side effect of that event created the parshmen.

Simple parshmen. As Voidbringers. A delicious secret he’d pried out of the Stormfather some weeks ago, but he hadn’t known—until just now—what had caused the transformation. Gavilar strolled to the bookcase, where one of the new heating fabrials had been delivered to him by the scholar Rushur Kris just earlier in the day. He took it from its cloth casing, weighing it.

He had found a way to ferry Voidspren through Shadesmar to this world. Using gemstones. Who would have thought, Navani’s pet area of study would be so useful? So he’d begun to invest more into sponsoring artifabrians, learning what they were doing with their art. Because he didn’t just want the Voidbringers here—he wanted them indebted to him. This had to play out the way he wanted. And if that conniving Axindweth eluded his grasp, he’d have to do it without her.

He thought he heard a faint crackling sound from the Stormfather. Lightning? How cute.

“You’ve never challenged what I’m doing,” Gavilar said. “I would have thought that returning the Voidbringers would be opposed to your very nature.”

Opposition, sometimes, is needed, the Stormfather said. You will need someone to fight, should you take the position I am offering you.

“Give it to me,” Gavilar said. “Now. I need it.”

The Stormfather turned a shimmering head his direction. That was almost them.

“What, those?” Gavilar said. “Those were almost the words? A demand?”

So close. And so far.

Gavilar smiled, hefting the fabrial, thinking of the flamespren trapped inside. He was going to figure those Words out soon, wasn’t he? The Stormfather seemed increasingly suspicious, hostile.

And if things did go poorly...well, could he trap the Stormfather himself in one of these?

He determined to have another conversation with those artifabrians soon.

“Mishram the Unmade,” Gavilar said out-loud. “Yes, I can see how it all played out. Except the Recreance. Why would the Radiants give up such power?”

The Stormfather remained silent.

“Do you regret choosing me, Stormfather?” Gavilar asked.

You are the one I have chosen.

“That’s not an answer to the question I asked.”

It is the one I will give, regardless.

Gavilar contained his anger. Soon, Amaram arrived with a small collection of people—high-level Sons of Honor. The Stormfather vanished, and Gavilar let them in—but spoke quietly, to the Stormfather, a request. “Watch the door for me. Tell me if Navani, or anyone else, comes to spy on me again.”

I am not your errand boy. We have no Bond. You are my tool Gavilar.

Gavilar gave no response, expecting that—from past experience—the Stormfather would do as he asked. Instead, he focused on Amaram, and the people he had brought. Three men, two women. One of the men was one of Amaram’s lieutenants. The other four would be new recruits for the Sons of Honor, invited to the feast, and given time exclusively with the king.

It was an annoyance, but a worthy one. Amaram was careful to pick only the most important of people. Scholars of note, lighteyed leaders of houses in other countries. Gavilar picked out each of them from the notes about them, except the older man, in the robes. Who was he? A Stormwarden? Amaram liked to keep them around, to teach him their script. Something that allowed Amaram to pretend he wasn’t learning to write, preserving some semblance of Vorin devotion. That was important to him.

Gavilar had, of course, grown beyond that. Still, he met each person in turn, and as he reached the older man, something clicked. He did know this man. It was Taravangian, the king of Kharbranth. Famously, a man of little wits. Gavilar glanced at Amaram, hiding his confusion. Surely they weren’t going to invite this one into their confidence—they should find the power who ruled Kharbranth in secret. Likely to be one of two specific women, from Gavilar’s spy reports.

Amaram just nodded to the man again. So, over the next half hour, Gavilar gave his same speech. Talk about the need to return to oaths of the past, talk about the Radiants—who yes, lost their way at the end. He spoke of a return to what they had been, however. Of glories past and futures bright.

It was a good speech. It should be, considering how many times he’d given it by now. Indeed, it was beginning to grate on him to have to give it. Once, the only speeches he’d given had been to inspire troops. Yet now, here he was, spending his entire life in meetings and giving speeches.

Would he have changed his course in life if he’d known, all those years ago, that being king would mean spending far more time in a boardroom than on a battlefield?

After finishing, he let the people get something to drink—and Amaram’s lieutenant chatted to them about the realistic advantages of working together. While they did so, Gavilar watched Amaram, thoughtful.

Amaram was the epitome of a good officer. Honorable when required, but also understanding that the rules of both military and society were means to an end. That said, there was a zealous side to Amaram. While Gavilar had recruited the man into the organization, he’d been surprised by how passionately Amaram had bought into the doctrines.

Would Amaram understand that Gavilar’s true goal, of immortality, was so much more important than the restoration of the Knights Radiant? Or would he side with Restares?

I need a firmer grip on this man, Gavilar thought. I need to bind him to me. If only Jasnah would listen.

So, at the opportune time, he pulled Amaram aside. “Meridas,” Gavilar whispered. “These meetings are growing onerous. My experiment was a success. I have the weapon I have been hunting.”

Amaram started, then spoke softly. “You mean...”

“Yes, we’ll return the Voidbringers to this land,” Gavilar said. “But when we do, we will have a new way to fight them.”

“Or a new way to control them,” Amaram whispered.

Well, that was new. Gavilar considered his friend, and the ambition that his set jaw seemed to imply.

Good for you, Amaram, he thought. Gavilar hadn’t told Amaram much about his experiments with Light. Just enough to hint that they’d have a new way to kill Voidbringers, once they returned. To reassure him, and the others, that their actions wouldn’t be blasphemous—but a necessary step in protecting their people. He thought that Amaram assumed he had a new kind of Shardblade, and had let the man persist in the delusion for now. One had to be careful how one shared weapons.

Regardless, he wouldn’t have considered that Amaram would be willing to use the Voidbringers, instead of simply attacking them. It was an opportunity. Gavilar worried, after the meeting with Restares, that a schism in the Sons of Honor was coming. He needed this man on his side.

“We must return the Desolations,” Gavilar said. “Whatever the cost. It’s the only way.”

“I agree,” Amaram said. “Now more than ever.” He hesitated. “Things did not go well with your daughter, earlier. I thought we had an understanding there.”

“You just need more time, my friend. To win her over.”

Amaram hungered for the throne like Gavilar hungered for immortality. And maybe Gavilar would reward him with it. Elhokar, for certain, did not deserve to sit in it. That was exactly the opposite of the legacy Gavilar wanted.

He sent Amaram back to talk to the others. After they enjoyed their drinks for a short time, Gavilar would give another short speech. Then he could be on to more important...

He frowned, noticing that one of the new recruits wasn’t conversing with the others. The elderly man, Taravangian, instead stood to the side—staring at the wall map of Roshar. The others at something Amaram said as he approached. Taravangian didn’t look away at the sound.

Gavilar strode over. But before he could speak, Taravangian did.

“Do you wonder, ever,” the elderly man whispered, “at lives we’re giving them? The people beneath them?”

Gavilar frowned, unaccustomed to people—particularly strangers—addressing him with an air of familiarity, or imposition. But, then, this man saw himself as a king. And perhaps Gavilar’s equal. Laughable, considering that Taravangian ruled only one small city—but then, the man was said to be unremarkable.

“I worry less about their lives now,” Gavilar said, “and more about what might be to come.”

Taravangian nodded, looking thoughtful. “That was a good speech,” he said. “Inspiring. Do you actually believe it?”

“Would I say it if I didn’t?”

“Of course you would. A king will say whatever needs to be said. Wouldn’t it be grand if that were always what he actually believed? Yes, grand.” He looked to Gavilar, smiling. “Do you actually believe the Radiants can return?”

“Yes,” Gavilar said. “I do.”

“And you are not a fool,” Taravangian said, musing. “So you must have good reasons. I find that more interesting than the words themselves.”

Gavilar found himself revising his earlier opinion. A little king was still a king. And perhaps, in all of the dignitaries in the city tonight, here was one who might...in the least amount...understand demands put on the man pressed between crown and throne.

“A danger is coming,” Gavilar said softly, shocked at the sincerity he felt. “To this land. This world. An ancient danger.”

Taravangian narrowed his eyes.

“The Desolation is near,” Gavilar said. “The Everstorm. The Night of Sorrows.”

Taravangian, remarkably, grew pale.

He believed. Gavilar felt foolish whenever he tried to explain the true things that the Stormfather had told him, for he knew they sounded ridiculous. He worried people would think him mad for speaking them.

Yet this man...believed him? With no persuasion?

“Where,” Taravangian asked, “did you hear those words?”

“I don’t know that you’d believe me if I told you.”

“Will you believe me?” Taravangian asked. “Because ten years ago, my mother died of her tumors. Frail, lying on her bed at home, the scent of too many perfumes in the air, struggling to strangle the stench of death... She looked to me in her lasty moments...”

He met Gavilar’s eyes. “And she whispered something. ‘I stand before him, above the world itself, and he speaks the truth. The Desolation is near... The Everstorm. The Night of Sorrows.’ A few seconds later, she was gone.”

“I’ve...heard of this,” Gavilar admitted. “The prophetic words of the dead. It happens in battle sometimes. The last words of the dying are sacred...”

“How did you hear those words?” Taravangian asked, practically begging. “Please.”

“I see visions,” Gavilar said, frank. “Given me of the Almighty. So that we may prepare.” He looked toward the map on the wall. “Heralds send that I may become the person I need to be to stop what is coming...”

Let the Stormfather chew on that. Let him see sincerity in Gavilar. Storms...he felt it. Like he hadn’t in months. Standing there with a little king, before the map of the world, he felt it. And never before—in all of this—had he ever thought he might be inadequate to the task.

Perhaps, he thought, I should begin encouraging Dalinar to his training again. Begin reminding him that he is a soldier. He had the distinct impression that he was going to need someone, before too long, who knew the battlefield. Better than the boardroom.

He was shaken from the moment of solemnity by a voice in his head. Someone is approaching, the Stormfather warned. One of the Listeners. Eshonai, is her name. There is something about this one...

One of the Parshendi? Gavilar shook himself. Embarrassed of being seen so raw before another, even another king. So he welcomed the distraction made by the parshwoman’s arrival.

He dismissed Taravangian, Amaram, and the others for the time being and invited this Eshonai to enter. Happy to be rid of that strange old man, and his questioning eyes. The fellow was supposed to be so unremarkable. Why did he unnerve Gavilar in such a way?

The conversation with the parshwoman went excellently, with him setting her in motion to help him manipulate her people. To prepare them for the roles they’d play in coming years. After sending her off—and placating Amaram further afterward—Gavilar found himself tired, in his rooms, contemplating his vast number of plans.

He'd considered every avenue, put every possible idea into motion. He would obtain the prize. He was sure of it.

But today, he was starting to feel worn down by it. He even had another meeting or two today; Sadeas would be on his way even now. It all felt like so much. Perhaps...there was something more, too. A lingering emotional drain from his odd conversation with Taravangian.

Gavilar sank into a deep, plush chair by his balcony, releasing a long sigh. Early in his career as a warlord, he’d never have allowed himself this luxury of softness. He had mistakenly assumed that liking something soft meant he, himself, was soft.

A common failing among men who wished to appear strong. By being so afraid, they gave simple things power over them. It was not weakness to relax. To think.

The air shimmered in front of him.

“A full day,” Gavilar said.

Yes.

“The first of many such. I will be mounting an expedition back to the Shattered Plains soon. We can leverage my new treaty to obtain guides, promises, a way to forge inward to the center. Toward Urithiru.”

The Stormfather did not reply. Gavilar wasn’t certain if the spren could be said to have human mannerisms. Sometimes, it seemed so—and others, it seemed completely unfathomable. Today, though... That posture turned away, hinted at in the warping of the air. That silence.

“Do you regret,” Gavilar asked again, “choosing me?”

I regret, the Stormfather said, the way I have treated you. I should not have been so accommodating. It has made you lazy.

“This is lazy?” Gavilar said, forcing himself to sound amused, and not reveal his annoyance. “I’ve made grand plans.”

You do not consider with reverence the position you seek, the Stormfather said. I feel...you are not the one that I need. That I decided to find.

“You said that you were charged with this task,” Gavilar said. “By Honor. Finding someone to show the visions, to prevent calamity. You didn’t decide anything. You were instructed to do all of this.”

That is true. I do not speak in human ways. But still, once you are a...Herald, you will need to leave everything you know. You will be given up to torture between Returns. Why is it this doesn’t bother you?

Gavilar shrugged. “I will just give in.”

What?

“Give in,” Gavilar said, heaving himself out of his seat. “Why stay in that other place, to be tortured and potentially lose my mind? I give up each time and return immediately.”

The Heralds stay in Damnation to keep the Voidbringers away. To prevent them from overrunning the world. To lock them and seal them away. They—

“They are the ten fools for that,” Gavilar explained, pouring himself a drink from the carafe near his balcony. “If I cannot die, I will be the greatest king this world has ever known. Why lock my knowledge and leadership away on another world?”

To stop the war.

“Why would I care to stop a war?” Gavilar asked, this time genuinely amused. “War is the path to glory, to training our people to recover the Tranquiline Halls. I will never die, and never know that place, but my people...well they should be properly trained, don’t you think?” He turned back to the shimmer, taking a sip of orange wine. “I don’t fear these Voidbringers. Let them stay and fight. If they are reborn, well, we will just never run out of enemies to kill.”

The Stormfather did not respond. And again, Gavilar tried to read into the thing’s posture. Was the Stormfather proud of him? Gavilar thought this an elegant solution to the problem; he was uncertain why the Heralds had never realized it. Perhaps they were all cowards.

Ah, Gavilar, the Stormfather said. I see. I see my miscalculation. Your entire religious upbringing...created from the lies of Aharietiam... It pointed you toward this conclusion. Terrible though it is.

Damnation. The Stormfather wasn’t pleased. Gavilar recalculated. He couldn’t afford to let the Stormfather seem him as anything but devout. It suddenly felt terribly unfair. Here, he was drinking this awful excuse for wine to follow the ridiculous codes, he gave every possible oblation of piety—and yet, it wasn’t enough?

“What should I do,” Gavilar said. “To serve?”

You don’t understand, the Stormfather said. Those aren’t the words, Gavilar.

“Then what are the storming words!” he said, slamming the cup down on the table—shattering it, spilling wine across the wall. “You want me to save this planet? Then help me! Tell me what I’m saying wrong!”

It’s not about what you are saying. That is not what is wrong.

“But—”

Suddenly, the Stormfather wavered. Lightning pulsed through his shimmering form, lighting Gavilar’s room with an electric glow. Blue frost on the rugs, pure light reflecting in the glass of the balcony doors.

Then, the Stormfather cried out. A sound like a peal of thunder, agonized.

“What?” Gavilar said, backing up. “What happened?”

A Herald... A Herald has died... No. I am not ready... The Oathpact... No. They mustn’t see. They mustn’t know...

“Died?” Gavilar said. “Died. You said they were already dead! You said they were in Damnation, being tortured!”

The Stormfather rippled, then a face emerged in the shimmering. Two eyes, like holes in a storm, clouds spiraling around them and leading into the depths.

“You lied,” Gavilar said. “You lied?”

Oh, Gavilar. There is so much you do not know. So much you assume. And the two never do manage to meet. Like paths to opposing cities.

Those eyes seemed to pull Gavilar forward, to overwhelm him, to consume him. He’d never seen anything like this before. He... He saw storms, endless storms, and a world so frail. A tiny speck of blue in against an infinite canvas of black.

The Stormfather could lie?

“Restares,” Gavilar whispered. “Is he...”

Yes.

Gavilar felt cold, as if he were standing in the highstorm, ice seeping in through his skin. Seeking his heart. Those eyes...

“What are you?” Gavilar whispered, hoarse.

The biggest fool of them all, the Stormfather said. And the thing that has miscalculated. Goodbye, Gavilar. I have seen a glimpse of what is coming. And I will not prevent it.

“What?” Gavilar demanded, stepping forward. “What is coming?”

Your legacy.

The door slammed open. Sadeas, puffing, face red from exertion. “Assassin,” he said. “Coming this way, killing guards. We need your armor.”

Gavilar regarded him, stunned.

Then one word cut through.

Assassin.

I’ve been betrayed, he thought, and found that he was not surprised. He’d been expecting this. It had been in the balance for weeks. One of them was bound to come for him.

But which one?

“Gavilar!” Sadeas shouted. “Your armor?”

“Tearim wears it.”

“Damnation,” Sadeas said, throwing open the door. “Mine is nearly here.”

“You brought your armor to the feast?”

“Of course I did,” Sadeas said, looking back at him. “I don’t trust those Parshendi. You’d do well to emulate me. Trusting too much could get you killed someday.”

Screams sounded in the distance, but just outside the room, Gavilar saw the Sadeas armorers hurrying forward—carrying his Shardplate. Unpacked. Ready.

“Hold off the assassin,” Gavilar said. “I’ll run for Tearim and return when I have my plate.”

“I have a better idea,” Sadeas said. “Give me your cloak.”

Gavilar hesitated, then met his friend’s eyes. “You’d do that?”

“I worked too hard to put you on that throne, Gavilar,” Sadeas said, grim. “I’m not going to let that go to waste.”

“Thank you,” Gavilar said.

Sadeas shrugged, pulling on the cloak as the armorers ran—by his command—to suit up Gavilar instead. Whoever this assassin was, he’d find himself outmatched by a Shardbearer.

As he was armored, Gavilar glanced toward where the Stormfather had been standing—but the shimmer was gone.

Gavilar had been betrayed, but by whom?

Spren couldn’t lie. They couldn’t. He’d learned that from...the Stormfather.

Blood of my fathers, Gavilar thought as the Plate locked onto his legs. What else did it lie to me about?

And why, on all of Roshar, would it have done so?

#

Gavilar fell.

And he knew, even before he hit, this was it. The ending.

A legacy interrupted. An assassin who moved with an otherworldly grace, stepping on wall and ceiling, commanding light that bled from the very storms.

Gavilar hit the ground—surrounded by the wreckage of his balcony—and he saw white in a flash. But his body didn’t hurt. That was an extremely bad sign.

Thaidakar, he thought as a figure rose before him, shadowed in the night air. Only Thaidakar could send an assassin who could do such things as this.

He coughed as the figure loomed over him. “I . . . expected you . . . to come,” Gavilar forced out.

The assassin moved and knelt before him, though Gavilar couldn’t see anything more than shadows. Then...something changed, and the being in front of him—doing something Gavilar couldn’t make out—started to glow like a sphere. Like he’d been doing before...

Blood...blood of his fathers. “You can tell . . . Thaidakar,” Gavilar whispered, “That he’s too late. . . .”

“I don’t know who that is,” the assassin said, the words barely intelligible. The man held his hand to the side. Summoning a Blade.

This was it. Behind the assassin, a halo, a corona, of shimmering light. The Stormfather.

It was not me, the Stormfather said in his head. I did not cause this. I do not know if that brings you peace or not in your last moments, Gavilar.

But...

“Then who . . . ?” Gavilar forced out. “Restares? Sadeas? I never thought. . . .”

“My masters are the Parshendi,” the assassin said.

Gavilar blinked, focusing on him again as the man’s Blade formed. “The Parshendi? That makes no sense.”

I warned you, Gavilar, the Stormfather said. This is my failure as much as yours. If I try again, I will do it differently. I thought...your family...

His family. In that moment, Gavilar saw his legacy crumbling. He was dying.

Storms. He was dying.

What was left to him? What did anything matter if he was dying. He couldn’t. He couldn’t...

He was supposed to be eternal...

You’ve invited the enemy back, he realized. The end is coming. And your family, your kingdom, will have no recourse. No way to fight. Unless...

Hand quivering, he reached toward his pocket and pulled out sphere. The weapon. They needed to have this. His son... No, his son could not handle this... They needed a warrior. A true warrior. One that Gavilar had been doing his best to suppress for years. Out of a fear he barely dared acknowledge, even as he drew his last, ragged breaths.

Dalinar. Storms help them, it came down to Dalinar.

He handed the sphere toward the Stormfather, his vision fuzzing. Thinking...was...difficult.

“You must take this,” Gavilar whispered to the Stormfather. “They must not get it.” He seemed dazed. “Tell...tell my brother... He must find the most important words a man can say...”

No, the Stormfather said, though a hand took the sphere. Not him. I’m sorry, Gavilar. I will never trust your family again. I made that mistake once. I will not do so again.

Gavilar exhaled a whine of pain, not from his body, but from his soul. He had failed. He had brought them all to ruin. That, he realized with horror, would be his legacy.

And in the end, Gavilar Kholin, heir to the Heralds, died. As all men, ultimately, must.

Alone.

Secret Project #2 Reveal and Livestream ()
#6 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook For Surviving Medieval England

Part One: Seriously, Fish Suck

Chapter One

I hated fish.

Standing in the burned-out field, surrounded by charred stalks of grain and smoldering ash, I could safely say this single fact: I hated the taste of fish. The pungent flavor, the texture of the flesh, which shreds like something rotten. The sharp jab of the needle bones, which always seem to be hiding in the meat, no matter how hard you search.

Yup. Fish. Disgusting.

That was, at the moment, the sum total of what I could remember about myself. No name. No background. Just…a latent hatred of fish.

Damn. What driven that point into my brain so forcefully? Had a flounder killed my parents or something? I turned around, hand to my head, trying to make sense of the black void that had consumed my entire self-identity.

I was in a field. Stalks of…something grew around me. Plants a few inches tall. My utter inability to distinguish the variety indicated I probably wasn’t a farmer. So why was I in a field? And a partially-burned one at that?

The burn marks made a circle, maybe ten feet in diameter, with me in the center. Only, just nearest me, the plants hadn’t been burned. My feet stood on green stalks, smashed down into the soil. I glanced behind me, and found that the non-burned portion made a distinctive human shape. My shape. A person stencil.

So…I was fireproof, maybe? That would be nice. I appeared to be male, of average height and build, maybe a tad muscular? Or perhaps I was flattering myself. I wore a pair of sturdy lacing boots that were quite good at stomping down crops. My primary clothing was a long overshirt, a brown tunic on top of that, and a vibrant cloak over that. So I probably wasn’t going to get cold any time soon. Under the tunic…

Blue jeans?

Yeah, blue jeans. With a tunic and cloak? That was odd.

Oh hell. Was I a cosplayer? And why could I remember that word perfectly, but not my own name?

Right, so maybe I’d gone out into a field to take pictures for the local renaissance fair or whatever. I’d brought along pyrotechnics to make for a cooler shot of my character, and I’d accidentally blown myself up. That seemed plausible enough.

So where was my camera? My phone? My, um, car keys?

My pockets turned out to be empty. I hesitantly stepped away from the me-stencil, my feet crunching on crisply charred stalks of once-plants. That was…an uncomfortably round circle my explosion had created. Like, it was perfectly shaped. And some of the stalks were still smoldering; the air smelled of smoke and sulfur.

I did a quick search around burned out circle and I didn’t find anything of note. Dirt, rocks, plants. No pile of belongings; I was beginning to doubt my photoshoot theory. Maybe I was just a weirdo who liked to dress in old-timey clothing and…um…go explode in fields?

You know, as one does.

In the distance, I saw a dirt road leading to a group of old-timey buildings with thatched roofs. They were far enough away that I couldn’t tell much else about them. I shook my head and let out a lengthy sigh. I had to—

Wait. What was that on the ground?

I rushed over and plucked a fluttering piece of paper from between two stones. How had I missed this in my search? The edge was burned, and it only had a few lines of text on it.

The Frugal Wizard’s Handbook for Surviving Medieval England

Fourth Edition

By Cecil G. Bagsworth III

I read the words over three times, then looked into the distance at those old-timey buildings again. The truth began to settle on me. I wasn’t a cosplayer. I was visiting some kind of theme park. Was that…more or less nerdy?

Now that I knew what to look for, I spotted another loose piece of paper fluttering at the edge of the field, near some woods. Maybe it would have a map on it, telling me how to get out of this place—or at least list where I could find a first aid station. I’d obviously hit my head or something.

This page was burned worse than the other one. Two chunks of the text were legible: one on the front side, one on the back.

—can be traumatic, though don’t worry! As part of your package purchase, a suitable location will be chosen for you to recuperate upon arrival. In addition, it is suggested that you use the handy notation guide at the back of the book, where you can write pertinent information about your life.

The transfer process can leave the mind muddied—but often, a few facts about one’s life can jog loose other details. Don’t stress the initial disorientation. It is a common side effect, and all you need to do is—

Well, that seemed an awful place to cut off. I flipped the page over.

—seem that the offerings of more expensive packages, sold by so called premium companies, might be more useful in helping you recuperate. Servants, a luxury manor, and medical staff. But the Frugal Wizard™ doesn’t need to be so extravagant. Indeed, such services might make things too easy! (See the study done by Bagsworth et al, page 87.)

Though we can accommodate such requests as well, don’t fear if you can’t afford them! The Frugal Wizard™ is capable and confident on their own, and does not need coddling. With this handbook, you can navigate easily! Just read on to learn all the tips and secrets you will need for—

All right, so maybe I’d bought some kind of travel package? One that was…really hard on the body, for some reason? I put a hand to my head, and a thought fluttered at the edge of my consciousness. I…I’d chosen this, hadn’t I? I’d chosen to…do what? For a moment, I seemed so close to answering that. Then it was gone.

Regardless, it didn’t look like I’d arrived at a “suitable location” to recuperate. I’d woken up in the middle of a field. A burning field. The review almost wrote itself. “An ideal experience, if you happen to be a pyromaniac cow. One star.”

Voices in the distance.

My body moved before I registered the sounds, and in seconds I’d slipped into the forest and put my back to a tree trunk. I reached to my side by reflex for…

Hell. Was I reaching for a gun? I was wearing nothing of the sort, but I found myself uncomfortable by how quickly—and silently—I’d dodged for cover. It didn’t necessarily mean anything nefarious, though. I mean, maybe I was just a champion player of hide and seek. Or, um, paintball hide and seek.

I’d just been thinking about finding help, so I should have been happy to be noticed. But something made me stick there, behind that tree, my breathing slow and easy, deliberate. Whoever I was, I had experience at this sort of thing.

I was close enough to hear when the people arrived.

“What is it, Ealstan?” a timid man’s voice said—speaking perfect, modern English, albeit with an accent I couldn’t quite place. It sounded vaguely European. “Landswight?”

“This was no act of wight,” a stronger male voice said. “None that I’ve seen, least.”

“Logna’s flames, maybe?” a woman’s voice said. “Look at the outline of that figure. And there were those incantations, scattered about…”

“It looks like someone was burned alive,” the first voice said. “Fires from heaven consuming him. That clap of thunder, on a sunny, bright day…”

The deeper voice grunted. I stayed in place, and resisted the urge to peek. Not yet, my instincts whispered.

“Call everyone together,” the firm voice eventually said. “We’ll put out sacrifices tonight, as if from a harvest. And Hild…that skop. Did she leave yet?”

“Earlier today, I think,” the woman said.

“Send a boy to chase her down and beg her return. We may need a binding. Or, worse, a loosening.”

“She’s going to like that,” the woman said.

Another grunt. Then footsteps on the soil, retreating. I finally peeked around the side of the tree, and picked out the three people walking back toward the distant buildings. Two men and a woman in archaic clothing. Tunics and loose, baggy trousers on the men—weren’t they supposed to wear hose under those? I could swear I’d seen that in a museum or something. Both were dyed in faded earth tones, though the taller of the two men had a yellow-orange cloak, of a color so vibrant, I had trouble believing it was period authentic.

The woman had on a sleeveless white-brown dress over a darker one of a slightly longer fit. Other than the orange cloak, they looked the part of old-school peasants—at least, better than I did, with my jeans. So…another point in favor of this being a theme park? I mean, they’d been speaking English, after all.

Yet, wouldn’t workers in a theme park would speak with some kind of “old-timey” British affectation? Thees and thous and m’lords and the like. Plus, why would they keep up the act when nobody was around?

I needed more information. And as I peeked after the retreating figures, I noted some others gathering and sifting through the field, picking up something.

Scraps of paper. From the book. It seemed that most of the pages had blown that direction.

All right. Mission accepted.

I needed those pages.

Chapter Two

Part of me wanted to stalk out and demand answers. Play the role of irate customer, make them break character.

Yet… Something about all this… It felt like I shouldn’t do that. It felt like I should stay hidden.

As I considered that, I realized why. A part of me was convinced that, somehow, they weren’t actors. That this was all, insanely, authentic. At least, whatever was going on here, my gut said those people were unwitting participants.

Damn. That sounded ridiculous, didn’t it?

Nevertheless, I felt like I was a person who trusted his gut. So I stayed put, watching covertly from the shadows as the sunlight waned and the peasants began to gather back in town. Soon after sunset, the place went dark.

Like, really dark. Basement from a horror movie dark. Clouds had moved in, obscuring the stars—and there was apparently no moon tonight. Plus, I didn’t see a single light in the town. No electric lights, of course. But I’d expected some torches, some bonfires, for the guests.

I patted the tree I’d been using for cover. “Thanks for the cover,” I whispered. “You’re a good tree. Tall, thick—and most importantly—wooden. Four and a half out of five stars. Would hide behind you again. Half a point off for lack of refreshments.”

Then I paused.

That had just kind of slipped out. But it was the second time I’d done something of the sort. So, was that a clue to who I was? I was some kind of…reviewer? Who rated, um, trees? I wouldn’t have guessed that was a job, but “imitation peasant” seemed to be one, so who knew?

I slipped out from behind the four-and-a-half-out-of-five-tree and found that my skills as a sneak were exceptional. I moved through the rows of partially-grown plants, barely making a sound, despite the darkness. Awesome. Perhaps I was a ninja.

And again, why the hell did I know what a ninja was, but not what I’d done for a living?

Beyond the field, I found the road, which was fashioned of packed earth. I crouched there, looking toward the town, glad that the clouds were opening up a little starlight. It turned the village from “horror movie basement” dark to something more like “horror movie in the woods” dark. So…improvement, maybe?

I wasn’t used to this kind of primal darkness. The shadows seemed deeper, as if strengthened by the knowledge that I couldn’t control them with the flip of the switch. I moved among the silent homes anyway, and found that there couldn’t be more than twenty buildings here. All of a triangular shape, wood and thatch. Two out of five. Probably has terrible wifi.

I thought I heard a river somewhere in the near distance, and there was a large lump of darkness further on. Maybe a much larger building? I skirted the village, and on the other side, found the river—well, the stream. Here, I knelt and scooped up some water to drink. I figured my medical nanites would neutralize any bacteria before it gave me too much trouble.

I froze in place, hands halfway to my mouth.

Medical…nanites?

Yes, tiny machines inside my body that performed basic health care functions. They weren’t cheap, but they would keep me generally healthy. They’d stop toxins, prevent disease, and break down what I ate to provide ideal nutrition and calories. And in a pinch, they could provide emergency wound-healing functions. Last time I’d been shot, I’d been back on my feet within the hour—but my nanites had been knocked completely out for a good two days.

All that came back in a flood. Hot damn! That was a piece of the puzzle. Did I have any other augments? I couldn’t remember, but I did know I’d need more food than an average person. In specific, I needed high-calory food, or…carbon? I mean, technically anything organic would work. It’s kind of the meaning of the word. But some sources were better than others.

I glanced back at the town. Somewhere, a child had started crying. That should have calmed me, as it indicated something was alive back there. Unfortunately, nobody comforted the child, and the solitary wails creeped me out even further.

I controlled my nerves, and crept up along the river until I reached a wooden bridge. After crossing this, I was finally close enough to make out more of the large shadow lump. That was a log wall—a fortification.

It looked sturdy enough, though I’d have expected something tall and stone. Castle-like. To find a wooden one left me a tad disappointed. I withheld my review for now, though. Maybe it was period accurate.

This had to be where I’d find the more important people in the town—like perhaps the man with the deep voice who had spoken authoritatively to the others. Indeed, though I couldn’t tell for certain, it seemed that light was coming from in there.

I scouted around the entire outside of the fortification—it wasn’t terribly big, probably only large enough to enclose a few buildings—but unfortunately, the gate was closed. Could I, perhaps, scale the wall? I looked up at it, and though it was only ten feet high or so, I didn’t fancy my chances. Plus, there was a single tower, which also seemed to be wood, at one corner. A guard post. I’d been quiet when doing my initial inspection, but I’d never climb that wall without drawing attention.

Therefore, I used my entire life’s experience—roughly half a day so far—to devise a plan. I found a nearby tree with a view of the gates, then hid to wait until it opened.

(Tree report: Three out of five. Uncomfortable root network. Not for an inexperienced hider. See my other reviews of trees in the area for more options.)

I’d thought I might need to wait until morning, and was contemplating demoting another half start from the tree, when I saw lights approaching quickly along the road. For a brief moment, my heart leaped. A car? Was the entire façade going to finally collapse? I’d be whisked away to a hospital and treated for amnesia?

Why did the idea of going to the hospital suddenly fill me with a sense of panic?

Well, it didn’t take long for me to determine the lights weren’t on some kind of vehicle—at least, not unless horses counted. Did they? I mean, a chariot is a vehicle—but it only moves when it’s attached to the beasts. So are the horses part of that vehicle? And arguably, a saddle is just a small, wheelless chariot, right? So…

Anyway, the lights proved to be wobbling lanterns hung on horses—and the two beasts were travelling way faster than I thought safe to do at night. Still, it seemed like it might offer an opportunity, as the wooden gates slid open as the horses approached.

I couldn’t tell much about the two riders beneath their hooded cloaks. They slowed their horses and trotted in through the gates. A few lights were lit further inside, illuminating two larger structures—one of stone, the other of the same slightly-ramshackle wood-and-thatch of the village. I couldn’t really call this a castle; it was more two barns with a really big fence.

Those inside didn’t immediately move to close the gates, perhaps anticipating that the riders might leave again soon. The two did have the look of messengers. So, I took my opportunity, slinking forward through the darkness. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t doing anything dangerous, that this was just some extravagant kind of play acting.

And yet, my worry persisted. Why was part of me so certain, against logic, that this was all real?

Well, my sneaking skills got me in through the gate without being spotted. It was still pretty dark, and I just had this instinct for how to stick to the shadows, how to not present a profile, how to move without making noise. The fact that I kept wanting to rest my hand on the non-existent gun made me concerned about where I’d gotten these skills. They didn’t seem the type of abilities that belonged to a law-abiding citizen who spent his days reviewing trees.

I slipped up to one of the buildings, crouching beside some barrels, taking stock of what I could see. In the center of the courtyard was a large black stone, taller than it was wide. It seemed made of obsidian, and had a jagged top. Like a small version of the Washington Monument, only with the top broken off. There was a small stable on the far side of the courtyard; view of it had been obscured by one of the buildings. Here, the two riders had dismounted and handed their horses to a groom.

I couldn’t hear the conversation, but it caused another boy to go running for the stone building. It seemed to be of much finer construction than the others, so perhaps it was the lord’s manner? And that other big building, the wooden one, was perhaps a meeting hall?

Curiously, set in front of the stone building was a series of dishes with lit candles at the sides. It seemed like…bowls of fruit, some saucers filled with cream, perhaps? And…

And a single piece of paper.

The boy soon left the manor and ran back to the two strangers, gesturing for them to follow him. The three entered the building I’d guessed was the town hall, and I thought I heard the word “refreshment” from the boy. Perhaps I should have been interested in those men, but my attention was held solely by that sheet of paper. Was it from my book? Why leave it out in front of the building like that?

This all seemed so bizarre. Was I maybe…part of some ridiculous social experiment? A reality television game?

I forced myself to wait a few tense minutes until, as I’d expected, a man in an orange cloak left the manor, accompanied by two soldiers—at least, they carried long, one-handed axes and round, wooden shields. No armor that I could see. They had a vaguely Viking look to them.

“Hey, Oswald,” one of them shouted toward the wooden watch tower. “Close the gate.”

As the lord and his two men entered the hall, a younger soldier came scrambling down from the tower. He grinned to the others and bowed a little too much to the lord. He crossed over and began to swing the gate back closed. For how big it was, it seemed kind of flimsy.

The lord was inside and the guard’s attention was on the gate. Time to move.

I was out and scuttling across the courtyard before I had time to think it through. My body seemed to know what to do—knew that waiting would make me miss my opportunity, but also knew that I shouldn’t sprint. That would make too much noise. Feeling exposed, I swiftly walked past the large black stone, then past the bowls and the candles, where I snatched the paper.

Within seconds, I had crossed the courtyard and found cover beside the meeting hall. My mind was still trying to catch up to what I’d done, but my heart was thundering. I took a few long, quiet breaths to calm myself, then glanced at my paper. But there wasn’t enough light to read by.

Right. Darkness. Horror movie. All that. Well, there was a window a little further along the meeting hall. The shutter was latched, but light seeped out. I crept up to that, then held up my paper close to the cracks.

It was filled with printed words, matching the other pages I’d found. But this one was barely singed. It read:

Chapter Two: Your Own Dimension

The intricacies of dimensional travel are unimportant, and we recommend you not trouble yourself with them. We here at Frugal Wizard Inc.® have done the hard part for you. All you need to do is pick the package you want, and we will deliver to you one pristine, Earth-lite™ dimension.

I stopped reading, the words blurring as my eyes unfocused. I remembered. Not everything, not even very much—but a tiny piece snapped into place.

I knew where I was. This wasn’t a theme park. It wasn’t some kind of strange social experiment, nor was it a game.

This was another dimension.

And I owned it.

Your Own Dimension

The intricacies of dimensional travel are unimportant, and we recommend you not trouble yourself with them. We here at Frugal Wizard Inc.® have done the hard part for you. All you need to do is pick the package you want, and we will deliver to you one pristine Earth-lite™ dimension.

That said, a little history never hurt anyone. Unless you end up getting stabbed by a knight! (That’s just a little inter-dimensional humor. Our dimensions are perfectly safe1.)

Anyway, though interdimensional travel was discovered in 2084, only recently was the technology declassified and deregulated. This allows not only recreational dimensional tourism, it offers the opportunity of a lifetime! As an Interdimensional Wizard™ you are part of a bold new segment of explorers. Like the ancient homesteaders who rushed to claim the wealth of lands in the American West, you may stake your own claim on a unique dimension!

Frugal Wizard Inc.® has obtained a band of the 305th spectrum of category two, medieval-derivative dimensions. That fancy lingo that just means our dimensions are mostly kind of similar to one another, and are two categories removed from Earth itself. Things will be familiar in there, but not too familiar! We want it to remain exciting, after all.

We spend all our time pouring through the dimensions, selecting only the most favorable for Wizard inhabitation. Act now, before the good dimensions are all claimed, and you are left without2!

(Footnote One.) Legal Disclaimer: This statement is made for entertainment purposes only. The interdimensional traveler takes any and all responsibility for all killings, maimings, injuries, dismemberments, and impalements that might happen to them in their respective dimensions. By signing with us, you agree to arbitration in the event of a dispute, to be adjudicated in the dimension of our choice.

(Footnote Two) Legal disclaimer: This statement is made for entertainment purposes only. Dimensions are, technically, infinite and we cannot “run out.”

Chapter Three

Yes, I owned it.

Like, I owned England. I owned this planet. I owned this entire universe. On paper, at least.

I wasn’t sure about the specifics—my memory was still performing at a decided 0/5 level. But the page I’d recovered indicated this was new technology—or, at least, new to the general public. I didn’t have a ton of experience with this sort of thing; that might explain why it had taken me so long to remember.

Regardless, I did remember some. People could buy dimensions. Well, technically, you bought exclusive access—managed by an unbreakable quantum passcode only you could unlock—and the legal right to do whatever you wanted in that dimension. Courts had ruled that our world’s laws couldn’t be applied to other realities. I mean, in some of these places, the laws of physics (as understood in our dimension) didn’t apply. So why would the UN General Constitution?

I seemed to remember something about how these dimensions weren’t considered quite as “substantial” as our Earth. Whatever the reasoning, this place was mine—it was a playground the size of a planet.

But…what did that make me? Tourist? History buff? Would-be world-emperor? What had been my motives for coming to this place? And why had I woken up in a field, rather than in some pre-prepared stronghold or…some…I don’t know…science…place?

Well, I definitely hadn’t been an academic. But I was pretty sure that in buying this place, I wasn’t supposed to have been sent off to land in a field. Something had gone wrong.

As I considered the implications of all this, voices from inside the gathering hall reminded me to pay better attention to my surroundings. Right. I was unarmed, abandoned, and hiding outside some rural lord’s feast hall. If I were to saunter in, explain that I technically owned all of this, and ask them all to kindly obey me… Well, I suspected they’d saunter over to me, explain that the sword they’d rammed into my gut didn’t care what I claimed, and ask me to kindly avoid bleeding on the rug.

Could I do something to impress them with my fantastical futuristic knowledge? Uh… Did I have any of that? I wracked my brain, but it seemed my “futuristic knowledge” equated to a handful of movie quotes. I also knew that computers, some day, would exist. They involved circuits. And, uh, processors.

I had medical nanites, but that would be difficult show off in an impressive, “Hey, look, I’m a God” sort of way. My most consistent “superpower” was the ability to get coughed on a lot, but not get sick. I could heal once from a larger wound, but that would leave me exposed in case someone decided to see if I could replicate the feat. None of that felt like a good peasant-quelling mechanism.

Maybe I could get bitten by a snake or something, and not die? Where did…one find a snake, anyway?

I had to find the rest of the book. Maybe it would include some kind of help line I could… Send a carrier pigeon to?

I made my way carefully around the back of the building, approaching a closed window closer to where the voices were speaking.

“…I would certainly not wish to offend the earl,” a deep voice was saying. I recognized it from earlier—mister orange cloak, the local lord. “But this is most unusual. We have a skop in town. Perhaps she could—”

Another voice said something, quieter. It sounded threatening, but I wasn’t close enough to hear.

“Now?” Orange-cloak said. “You want to visit the site…now?”

The other spoke, and I wished I’d been close enough to make it out. But footsteps followed, and they left the building. Great. I’d spent so long trying to decide how to prove I had superpowers that I’d missed the entire conversation.

I snuck around the side of the building, hoping to catch something relevant as they left. Indeed, as they stood in the courtyard—waiting for the gate to open—the lord turned to the cloaked newcomers.

“If this man you’re seeking is nearby,” the lord said. “We shall find him. But I must warn you…it looked very much like he had been struck down by act of god or ancient king.”

The messengers didn’t reply. Together, they strode out the front gates, and the lord—seeming distinctly annoyed—followed with wide strides, shaking his head.

Wait.

They were looking for me?

They were looking for me.

Relief surged through me. Something had gone wrong during the transfer to this dimension, so the people who maintained this all had obviously sent rescuers. It seemed I was wrong—I wasn’t the only one who could get to this dimension. Maybe I’d left them with the key and permission to come help.

I stood up from behind the boxes I’d been using as cover, the raised my hand, preparing to call to them. But then, I heard a sound from behind me.

I reached for my non-existent gun yet again as I spun and found two people just behind me, in crouching postures. They’d been creeping up through the shadows behind the hall. As soon as I turned, the person in the back—a twenty-something woman—pointed at me with a panicked expression.

A younger man in front of her carried a knife, which he immediately swung—and which I easily blocked, by instinct, with my forearm.

And…hey, it didn’t hurt.

Why on Earth didn’t that hurt?

The young man had hit hard with a blade, and I’d just stood there, taking it like an utter champion. I hadn’t been harmed, not even a nick. I did have other augments, didn’t I? Platings under my skin? I was a fighter! I could…

Could I…

I heard…shouts. In my memory.

Flashes of light. From a time before.

I felt pain, shame.

The man backed up, then swung again. This time, I was slower to block with my forearm. Doing so, fighting again, I felt a deep, nearly uncontrollable panic.

I… I’d fallen… I’d…

The man blade connected with my exposed wrist, and his eyes widened as his knife didn’t cut me. He backed up a step. I mimicked him, stepping back. Feeling overwhelmed by the fragments of memories.

Those flashing lights. Those angry voices, hating me. I…

I…I blinked and glanced to the side, where the woman had found a wooden board somewhere. She swung it, and I didn’t respond this time. I was too unnerved. But theoretically, my platings would protect me from—

The board connected with my face, and felt a flash of agony before my nanites cut out my pain receptors. I briefly saw stars, but at least I was unconscious by the time I hit the ground, so the terrible memories stopped assaulting me.

FAQ: Have I Time Traveled?

Most Interdimensional Wizards™ are surprised to discover that they have not, in fact, traveled back in time. This might seem counter-intuitive, as you’re probably living in your own castle at the moment, commanding legions of peasants while you engage in a Wizard Better than True Life Experience™ such as inventing electricity, writing Shakespeare’s plays, or attempting to speedrun the conquest of France.

Yes, your surroundings might seem medieval, but Your Personal Dimension™ has seen roughly the same number of centuries as the true world has. The year is going to be the same one you left from—only, our specially cultivated band of dimensions have moved slower through technological and social development. Therefore, you get a semi-accurate experience in Medieval England, but you haven’t time traveled.

Sidebar: A helpful method of visualizing this is to think of Nebraska. Nebraska is a landlocked state in the center of the United States of America. Because of its general lack of importance—and its distance from trendy population centers—it generally lags between the coasts a few years in fashion, music, and distribution of collectible card games.

You might feel like you’ve time traveled when visiting Nebraska, but careful scientific experiments using synchronized timepieces has proven no time dilation is in effect. (See Luddow, Sing, and Coffman, “Nebraska really is just like that” in Journal of Relativistic Studies, June, 2072.)

As Nebraska is a few years behind everyone else, your Personal Dimension™ is behind the true world by half a millennium or so. You have, essentially, just purchased your very own, unique Super-Nebraska™.

Chapter Four

When I woke up, the young woman and man were standing on the ceiling.

Or…wait, I was upside down. Yeah, that made more sense.

My head throbbed from the plank-to-face contact, and my hands and legs had been bound tightly. Was…I tied to the wall? Yeah, it looked like they’d hung me from the ceiling beam, then tied my hands behind me, perhaps using part of the window or shutter to wrap the rope around.

Who ties someone upside down to the wall? I mean, it was an innovative interrogation technique, and so I gave it a point for originality, but…wouldn’t a chair be more effective? It was an old sand-by for a reason. (Three out of five. Watch more spy movies and report back.)

As soon as I opened my eyes, the woman stepped forward. She had blonde hair in tight curls that barely reached to her collar, and a dress that was deep black—over the top of a white one that was a little longer through the cuffs and hem. It had some nice maroon embroidery on the neck, but the white ropes wrapping her waist had a frayed look, as if to give it an intentional, hand-made air.

She stepped close to me, narrowing her eyes.

Right then. How to get out of this? The shame and fear I’d felt before had faded completely, replaced with embarrassment at how I’d frozen. I obviously had physical augments, but I’d just stood there and let a woman plank me in the face? Unprofessional.

“You’ve made a terrible mistake,” I told her.

She didn’t respond, instead cocking her head.

“I’m a very powerful being,” I told her. “And you have just angered me.”

The youth from before hid behind her, peeking out at me. He seemed unremarkable—a shorter fellow with similar blonde curls and a slight build. Upon closer inspection, he looked younger than I’d assumed. Perhaps just fifteen or sixteen.

“Sefawynn,” he hissed, “I don’t think the inversion is doing anything. He still has his powers!”

“Has he eaten you yet, Wyrm?”

“I don’t imagine so.”

“Then the inversion is working,” she said.

“It’s not working,” I said to them. “I’m gathering my powers as we speak. Release me now, or I’ll bring fire and destruction upon your house.”

The woman narrowed her eyes further, then raised both hands, fingers up and thumbs out toward one another. Then she spoke.

“I know my kin / and kiss their palms

I love them well / and live their light-words”

As she finished, both of them leaned closer, as if to see the effect on me.

“Uh…” I said. “That was nice.”

The youth squeezed the woman’s arm. “Try a stronger boast.”

She nodded, and made the same sign with her hands, stepping closer and speaking again.

“I banished the beast / of bastion hill

“I am the skop / who sings strongest.”

I frowned, and both of them shied back further.

“Not even a flinch,” the youth whispered. “That’s bad, isn’t it, Sefawynn?”

“I don’t know,” she said, folding her arms. “I’ve never loosed an aelv before.” She tapped her index finger against her arm. “Fetch the little father, but do it quietly, so the visitors don’t hear you.”

The boy nodded, then paused, as if worried.

“I’ll be fine,” the woman said without looking at him. “The inversion has rendered him helpless.”

“But he said—”

“Once again, Wyrm,” she said. “Have you been eaten?”

Again, he looked down, as if he needed to check.

“If the aelv’s power weren’t bound,” she said, “we wouldn’t be standing here. We’d either be controlled by him, or we’d be puddles of human-juice, mashed to the floor. Go fetch the little father. I’ll be fine.”

The youth bobbed a nod, then hurried out the door. I revised my assessment of his age even further. He seemed to act younger than I’d pegged him, so perhaps he was just big for his age.

“Could you at least,” I said to the woman, “put me right-side up? I’m starting to feel light-headed.”

She didn’t respond, instead standing with arms folded, studying me.

“So…” I said. “You keep calling me an…eelev? I’m not rightly aware of what that is. Maybe you could fill a guy in?”

No response.

“That younger fellow is your brother?” I asked. “And the lord of this place…he’s your father, right? So you’re the lord’s daughter?”

Yeah, she wasn’t saying anything.

“You saw the youth try to hit me,” I said. “And you saw his weapon bounce off of my arm. I’m warning you. I’m a powerful person, and I’m growing upset. We can still work this out, though.”

And… Her eyes were like steel, her face completely expressionless. Zero out of five. Would rather have a conversation with a corpse. At least it wouldn’t be glaring at me the entire time. Would probably listen better too.

In instead turned my attention to my augments. I was fairly certain I had some sort of improvement on my forearms, in fact, as I’d thought earlier, it was called…

Plating. That’s it. I had a micro-filament mesh under my skin, backed up by structural nanites and bone reinforcements. Basically, it would take an industrial strength laser or some kind of military-grade weapon to cut through my flesh—at least, as long as my nanites continued to function. Another augmented person could punch me senseless, with enough time, but I’d be invulnerable to a bunch of medieval peasants.

As I thought of it, by instinct, I brought up a display that hung in my vision, visible only to me. It listed my platings, and their status. Looking at that…I had platings from the tips of my fingers all the way up to my elbows. It also worked for force-redistribution and gave me some strength advantages, mostly in gripping ability.

It was an extremely expensive augment. As I recalled—which, granted, wasn’t saying much at the moment—it wasn’t uncommon to start plating a few body parts, then move on to others. Most people would go for the head and the chest first. That made the most sense.

However, my throbbing skull and nose indicated I hadn’t done that. I frowned at the menu, which listed that I did have skull platings and chest platings—but those were listed as non-functional. What the hell? Why not?

I had the vague impression that I hadn’t paid for the augments. I worked for a living, and didn’t have that kind of money. I’d apparently even bought a budget dimension, rather than going with one of the premium services. So maybe…whoever had purchased my augments hadn’t finished installing my head and chest platings? But why were the ones on the arms functional?

My memory provided no answers, so I tried to wiggle enough to untie myself or something. Unfortunately, the knots were good, and my enhanced grip strength wouldn’t help if I couldn’t reach the ropes. None of the muscles in my chest seemed to be augmented, as a little exploratory flexing didn’t lead to me ripping free or anything. I probably looked silly, though.

Eventually, the door slid open, and the oil lamps on the small room’s table fluttered as two figures entered. One was the youth from earlier—Wyrm, she’d called him? The other was Orange Cloak. Muscular, and a good six-foot-four, this fellow towered over the woman. His beard was streaked with grey, as was his hair, and he looked to be in his mid-forties. But man, he looked like he could have gotten into a boxing match with a boulder, and won.

Weren’t people in the past were all supposed to be much shorter than modern people or something? And the colors of the oranges and yellows on his clothing were much brighter than I’d have thought they could make in these olden days.

“I’ll be frank, Little Father,” said the young woman—what had her name been? “I have no idea what to do with this one.”

“What is he?” the lord asked, eyes narrowing as he studied my jeans—now fully on display, with the bottom of my tunic flopping down to the tie about my waist.

“Not a landswight,” she said, “since obviously we can all see him fully. But look. He’s clean shaven as any woman, with shorn hair, feminine hands—”

“Hey!” I said.

“—and not a particularly muscular build—”

“I’ll have you know I’m considered quite athletic among my people.”

“—plus pale skin and delicate features through the face,” she finished. “Also note the perfect teeth and pristine nails. Though I’ve never seen an aelv, I know the lore, Little Father. This man matches the descriptions perfectly.”

“Not a god, then,” the lord said, relaxing.

“Plenty dangerous,” the woman said. “Perhaps more so. A god would want something natural of us. An aelv…”

“He took one of the offerings, little father,” the youth said. “The incantation. He didn’t care for the food or drink.”

“Written word,” the lord said, stepping closer to me. “Did you bring it to our realm, aelv, or did its arrival draw you? What can we do to appease and loose you?”

“Cut me free,” I said in my most intimidating voice, “and apologize for the treatment I’ve suffered.”

The lord smiled—and I’d been prepared for a mouth full of dingy and rotting teeth. Looked like I’d been wrong about that guess as well, as he seemed to have all of his teeth—and while they weren’t pristine white, they weren’t rotting either. They weren’t exactly straight, but for a guy living in a time before—I assumed—dentists, his smile wasn’t half bad. (Two and a half out of five. Won’t break the camera.)

“Cut you free?” the lord said. “You think I’ve never heard a ballad before, aelv?”

“It was worth a try,” I said. “Very well. I shall require a berry that has never seen the sun, two stones polished by a frog, and one leaf of nightshade—in return I shall leave your quaint village with a blessing and return to my people.”

The lord glanced at the woman, who shrugged.

“I’ll…see what can be done,” the lord told me.

“Or,” I said, “you could tell those two men looking for me that I’m here? Then you could turn me over to them…?”

“Ha!” the lord said. “Again, you think I’ve not heard any ballads? Besides, though I suspect you have the power of glamor when not inverted, you don’t have it now. You aren’t red-haired, nor do you have the features of a foreigner, like the man they claim to be hunting—so they wouldn’t want you.”

Wait.

The men weren’t looking for me?

The lord turned back to the woman—I still thought she might be his daughter. Both she and the boy were dressed better than the others in this town, after all. But why did she call him “little” father?

“I need to attend the earl’s messengers before they find my absence strange,” the man said to her. “Something is odd about them, about this entire day. Will you stay here, or join me?”

“I’ll stay,” she said. “Take my brother; send him to me with word if anything truly unusual happens with the messengers.”

Orange-cloak nodded to her and left, the younger man trailing after. The entire structure shook as he shut the door with force, and—though I was getting light-headed—I found his interaction with the woman curious. She wasn’t bowing or scraping nearly as much as I might have assumed. Barely a m’lord mentioned.

It seemed I really just should throw away everything I thought I’d known about the past.

The woman was still watching me. Great. Was this going to be another “conversation” with a wall?

“Look,” I said, “can we—”

“Let’s cut the lies, stranger,” she interrupted. “I know what you really are.”

Chapter Five

She did?

“You…do?” I said.

“This is a good village,” she said, “with a strong and diligent thegn. Yet, they don’t have much. Why upon the seas would you pick here to run your scam?”

Scam?

“Oil with a stencil to create the burned out figure,” she continued, “which I’ll admit, is more ingenious a creation than I’ve seen in the past. Scattered pages of text is nothing new, though I’m shocked you were brazen enough to take one from an offering. That had me considering for a while. But the demands you just made of the thegn? Ridiculous.”

Ah… She thought I was a grifter, come to pretend to be a creature of mythology in order to bilk the locals. Actually…that was a good guess. It matched events well, and…I mean, I was a grifter, in a way. It was an apt description of a dimensional tourist.

“Next time,” she added, “flinch at my boasts. I find it incredible that you could put so much preparation into your scam, but do so little research. You made yourself up to look exactly like an aelv—even shaved your beard—but you couldn’t do a little play acting? How can you be so incompetent yet capable at the same time?”

Play along, my instincts said. You can ride this.

“The hit to my head,” I said to her. “Did you have to swing so hard? When I woke up, I barely remembered what I’d had for breakfast, let alone what my plan was.”

She grunted, arms still folded, golden curls wobbling as she shook her head at me. “You can’t be alone. Those messengers are with you? They have your accent.”

“Yeah,” I said. “They’d have told your father how to get rid of my haunting. Then I’d have appeared to him in the night, give him a scare, to encourage him along.”

“Why do you think Ealstan is my father?” she asked.

“You called him…”

“Little father? Thegn? Lord of the local lands?” her frown deepened. “How could you make such a mistake as that? It’s like you don’t know words, yet you speak them. My brother and I are not from this town—we were only passing through, then brought back as they needed a skop.”

“Oh,” I said. “Um…hit to the head…”

She sighed. “But why Stenford? Wellbury is just down the road, and they’ve twice the resources to pay you.”

“I’m known there,” I said. “Look, we’re not greedy—we didn’t need much. Just a little to get us on our way. We wanted your lord to get all frightened because he’d seen an eelev, then pay us to leave.” I gave an upside down shrug. “My friends aren’t going to be happy I got caught, by the way.”

She sighed again, rubbing her forehead with thumb and forefinger, eyes closed. “Why do they have your description wrong?”

“I was supposed to put on a wig,” I said. “To look more exotic. But look, we’ve got an easy out. You give me another boast or two in front of the lord. I’ll act however you tell me. Then you can hand me off to my friends, and we won’t demand anything of him. Everybody walks away happy.”

“Huh,” she said.

“What?”

“That’s not an unreasonable ask,” she said. “You know to cut your losses.”

“Of course I do,” I said. “I promise you, I just wanted to grift a little. A warm meal. We weren’t going to scam anyone hard—we’re off for bigger winnings elsewhere, and just were running low on supplies.”

She nodded, as if she expected something similar.

And damn. I… Well, I was actually kind of good at this. Uncomfortably good. Sneaking. Combat augments. Practiced at grifting…. I was building quite the unflattering picture of who I’d been.

But if I had been some kind of thief, why did my stomach immediately turn at the idea? Why did my very instinct resist it so strongly? Surely, if that was me, it would feel right to acknowledge it.

Instead, a piece of me was screaming. No, it said. That’s no you. That’s not who you are.

“Look,” I said to her. “What was your name again?”

“Sefawynn,” she said.

“Right. Sefawynn, you’re obviously not the type who wants to see a guy get hanged because he’s trying to get something to eat. Let’s just do this the easy way. I’ll even let you know how I did the arm trick, if you want.”

“I suspect you’ll find this ridiculous,” she said, finally opening her eyes, but turning her head away from me. “But I’m not like you. I want to help these people.”

I trusted my gut, which said not to reply to that. She’d say more, and anything I could say would reveal my ignorance.

“I know your type,” she said. “Far too well. I know you’ll take whatever you can get. That you’ll turn on me in a second. But don’t try it, all right? I understand you better than you think I do.”

“Sure, all right,” I said. “I’ll play this straight, Sefawynn. Promise. Do we have a deal? After this, I’ll stay far away from this village and anyone in it—you have my word.”

“For what that’s worth.”

I shrugged again. “It’s either that, or you try to convince the Little Father I’m a liar—then I do my best scary eelef imitation, and we see who wins. But in that scenario, someone also has to lose.”

“Aelv,” she said. “Ae-lv. At least say it right.”

“Aylev,” I tried.

“Closer.” She walked up to me, slipping a knife from her pocket. Hey, a pocket in her dress. Funny to find someone living in the Middle Ages who had one of those, when Jen had always complained that her dresses didn’t have any.

Wait. Who was Jen?

Sefawynn cut my hands free, and I thought I saw her posture tense. She was preparing for a fight, just in case. I brought my hands out very slowly in front of me, then rubbed my wrists in a non-threatening way.

“Thanks,” I said in the most reassuring way I could.

“Brace yourself,” she said, then untied the rope holding my feet.

I used my hands to do just that, then performed an instinctive tuck and roll, coming up on my feet, which I kicked free of the ropes. See that, I thought. Athletic. Not feminine. But I kept my actions otherwise calm and non-threatening. I didn’t bolt for the door. My best bet at getting free was to have her turn me in to those messengers.

Except, they hadn’t described me. But she’d said our accents were similar? Hell, I really needed more information.

“Don’t suppose,” is said, “you have the rest of my ‘incantations’ stashed around here? Those were kind of hard to get ahold of.”

“You shouldn’t be playing with written word from other lands,” she said. “You’ll attract the attention of the gods.”

“I’ll risk it.”

She shook her head at my apparent foolishness. “I’ll get them for you—honestly, I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Burning them would draw Logna’s ire for certain, but merely having them will draw Woden’s. So just take them. And carry the wyrd away with you and your foolish aers.”

Aers? Did that mean ears? Whole lot of gibberish there, but I nodded to her in thanks. The papers still seemed my best bet at learning about this place. I was practically a baby here, for all I knew about the Middle Ages. Jen would laugh at me for…

Oh.

Jen…

Jen was dead.

Chapter Six

It was strange to feel that sudden sense of loss, that sudden pain, for Jen. A person whose face I couldn’t remember. But it was there, a knot inside of me—no, like a scream inside of me, suddenly audible, now that the door had been opened.

I missed her terribly. This was raw pain. Like a bruise before it went blue. I’d lost her. Somehow, I’d lost her. It felt it fresh, as if it had just happened again.

I stumbled, putting one hand to the nearby wooden pillar. I put the other to my head. Jen. Hot damn…this had been her dream. This place, this was what I had left of her. She’d have been aghast by how many assumptions I’d made about this people.

Isn’t it incredible, her voice drifted into my mind, to think? Generations upon generations—thousands upon thousands of years—worth of people have lived, but they’re all the same as us. Teleport someone from Ancient Egypt to the modern era, and they’d be indistinguishable. Same passions. Same cleverness. Same biases, if about different things.

You’ll see. Someday, when we can afford it, you’ll see…

I held my head. I didn’t remember much more than that at the moment. Just some words, a…voice, so beautiful. And the pain. Too personal to joke about. Too real to belong to me, the man whose life was a lie, or a joke, alternatingly.

Sefawynn stepped closer, watching me with suspicion. Yeah, this looked like a classic weakness-feint, and she likely worried I’d make a play for the knife. Instead, I forced out a wan smile.

“Sorry,” I said. “Hanging upside down did not help this headache. Again, did you have to swing so hard?”

She rolled her eyes.

“Did you roll just your eyes at me?” I demanded.

“Oh, look,” she said, doing it again. “Cobwebs near the ceiling.”

“You’re lucky,” I told her, “that you caught me surprised. I can be very dangerous in a fight.”

“Careful,” she said. “The spiders in the eaves look for empty, unused spots to build their webs. Keep talking, and they’ll investigate the vacuous spot between your ears. Aelv.” She gave me a flat stare.

“Just saying,” I told her, folding my arms. “What next?”

“We’ll go out and tell the lord I managed to use your ancient name to bind you. If he asks, tell him the craeft has forced you to do my bidding, and I am banishing you.”

“Crayft,” I said. “Got it.

“Craeft,” she said.

“Crayft.”

“Your accent…” she said with a shake of her head. “You’re Waelish, aren’t you?”

“Welsh?” I said, figuring that one out. “Uh, yeah. Totally. And this place is…”

“Weswara,” she said. “Home of the Weswarans? You can’t actually think I’ll believe you don’t know that.”

Uh… Weswara? My British history wasn’t the greatest, granted, but…shouldn’t I have heard of that place?

“Well, come along then,” she said. “We’d best go talk to Lord Ealstan before your friends end up saying something that ruins our plan.”

I followed behind as she took one of the lamps, blew out the others, and we finally left the room. Turned out, we’d been in some kind of side chamber of the great hall, pretty close to where I’d been dropped. I guess that made sense.

We rounded the building to the main courtyard, which was empty for the moment—though the candles still illuminated the bowls in front of the lord’s manor, one full of berries, the other brimming with what appeared to be milk. I had to guess this was some kind of folk superstition. A way to appease these “landswights” I’d heard people mention.

“So,” I said, “you’re a poet. Who performs boasts and ballads? A…skop? Is that the term?”

“No need to act so amazed,” she said, eyes forward as we walked up to the front of the manor, where the young guard from before stood at the door with axe and shield.

“Uh, hey,” he said to her. “Um… I’ll just see… If you can go in?”

She nodded as he went in to check for us. I glanced over my shoulder, a little extra wary. Face-board me once, shame on you. Face-board me twice, and…

Wait.

The milk and berries were gone. The candles were still there, as were the dishes. Their contents—which had been there just moments ago—were gone.

Sefawynn noticed that I’d suddenly gone tense, because she spun, hand going to her dress pocket. “What?” she hissed.

“The berries and milk,” I said, pointing. “They’re vanished.”

“Yes,” she said. “The wights have been staying near you. If you’re nice, I’ll try a loosing for you. I think one of them may be upset about the page you stole.”

“It was mine!”

“Not after it was offered to them, it wasn’t,” she said. “I did warn you about inscriptions…”

All right, that was uncanny. I was sure I’d seen those dishes full. So how had the contents vanished? I scanned the courtyard, and though it seemed empty, those shadows could hide plenty. As I’d proven. By, uh, getting caught.

This has to be some kind of sham, I thought.

I wasn’t given much time to think about it, as the guard returned. He seemed a good-natured fellow, and eagerly held the door open for us. He even bowed to her as she entered. Poets were given a lot of respect here, it seemed. Miss Bushman, my middle school English teacher, would have been proud.

Hey, that was another bit remembered! It seemed to be coming back, if slowly. Grinning, I followed Sefawynn into a small entryway at the front of the manor. It held a pair of oil lamps on the walls and a bright orange-and-red rug on the floor. Sefawynn walked forward with her hand sheltering the flame on the lip of her lamp, which was one of those old-school ones—the kind that looked kind of like a gravy boat.

She turned left and led me through the entryway into a larger room beyond—a big open one, with a firebox in the center and a cauldron above it. It had a high ceiling—didn’t seem the structures here had second floors—and the walls were decorated with shields and spears.

Near the fire, Lord Ealstan and a tall woman—I assumed his wife—were speaking with the two messengers. They were facing him, but I could see them from the side, in profile.

It was actually the first time I’d seen their faces, and as soon as I did, I stopped in place. I knew them. That one on the left—the tall brute whose chin and forehead were trying to outdo one another—was Ulric Stromfin.

A man who absolutely, one hundred precent, no question about it wanted me dead.

RoW Release Party ()
#7 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

In this world, there are two competing ecologies. There's something we call "fain," and something we call "trune." And in this region, humankind, they basically can't live in the fain ecology. There's something called skullmoss that grows over everything and changes the plants; they become poisonous. And the animal flesh, humans can't survive on. We are in a city that is surrounded entirely by fain life. It's grown around, and there's a ring around the city; no one knows why it hasn't taken over the city.

And into this comes Midius, an apprentice Lightweaver who has been tasked with helping the people of this city by a mysterious mentor figure that you're not gonna find out about, but there will be some little clues. And he is brand new at this, barely knows what he's doing, and has been tasked with figuring out the mystery and trying to save the city before it falls to the fain.

He has entered the city, shown off some of his powers, had a different response from what he expected, and now he's found kind of a home in basically a soup kitchen for the poor that is run... they're the people who let him in.

This is from The Liar of Partinel.

Brandon Sanderson

"I want an opportunity to perform a story for these peoples," Midius said.

<Razal> snorted. "Like you performed for the king with that dragon today?"

Midius frowned. They stood in the kitchen, amidst <Razal's> bubbling pots, <Kale> dutifully stirring one to the left. The man hadn't needed to be asked. Already the room was beginning to fill with unemployed people. They sat, staring at their tables, waiting to be fed.

"How do you know about the dragon?" Midius asked.

<Razal> dumped a handful of spices into one of the pots. "It's all over the city, Jesk. I think it was incredibly poor taste to make the image eat an illusionary soldier."

"I did nothing of the sort."

"But you did create an illusion of a monster."

"Yes," Midius admitted."

"And now you want me to let you do something similar in here?"

"Nothing so drastic," Midius promised, "just a simple story."

"Why? I thought you were here to save the city or something."

"I'm working on that," Midius said. "In the meantime, I'd like to tell a story. I think it might help these men, lift their burdens.

<Razal> stopped pouring spices. She folded her arms, looking up at Midius. "Look, Lightweaver," she said, "you think your lies are gonna make these men happy? You think you can feed their children with a story? The Jesks failed us. Your master: he failed us."

"Wait, when was this?"

"Before," <Razal> said, waving a hand. "When <Torag> took control form Theus's father. The Jesks tried to placate the people, tried to tell them that a new age was coming. They spoke of art and beauty. And you know what? Their king couldn't feed us. People starved by the hundreds. Why do you think we turned to Theus?"

Midius's frown deepened. He knew the story, the history, differently. <Torag> had killed Theus's father, true, but it hadn't been the Jesks' influence that had caused the problems during <Torag's> single, tumultuous year of rule. It'd been the lack of alliances, poor trade instincts, and general unsettlement in the city.

And yet, the Jesks had supported him. And that was part of the reason Theus had exiled them. Still, <Razal's> version was skewed. Or perhaps Midius's was. His master had taught him the past was very difficult to pin down. "As fluid as river waters," he'd called history. "What paints on a tapestry, mixing and melding in liquid form, creating images and scents that never remained stable.

"<Razal>," Midius said, "you suffer the philosophers, even though I can tell you think their talk is frivolous. Well, even if you see my stories as frivolous, I ask you to let me tell them."

"Bah. You're as bad as that godspeaker, always pume to do things. Fine. Tell your story. But only after you serve food during the big eating rush."

"Very well," Midius said, "though I do wonder why we even do it this way. Wouldn't it be faster to have the men line up and pass through to get their soup?"

"These men spend all day waiting in line, Jesk," she said. "They wait for hours, standing in the sun and hoping to be one of the few that gets a chance to work. I don't intend to make them wait here, too. Get to work."

Midius took a stack of bowls and moved over to <Kale's> cauldron, filling two of them. "You're good at getting what you want, Jesk," the soldier said. Midius shrugged. "I would have thought that you'd be poor at that, after living so long alone in the forest."

"I wasn't alone in the forest," Midius said, taking the bowls and turning. "I had my master." Wasn't really an answer. But Midius didn't feel like giving the real answer. He'd always been good at making things he wanted happen. It was just the way that life was. The world worked as he wanted. Save for the notable exceptions.

Midius didn't let him indwell on that, however. He'd mourned over his master's death enough.

He moved about, delivering bowls of food to the men. Even after only one day in the kitchen, the work became rote to him. That left him to think and consider, trying to decide the best story for the situation. His opportunity came soon, the tide of hungry men slowing. Midius approached <Razal>, setting down an empty bowl, and met her eyes. Behind him, the sounds of dozens of wooden spoons scraping ceramic bowls echoed in the chamber.

<Razal> turned away and waved an indifferent hand. So Midius turned and felt the increasingly familiar flutter in his chest. He grimaced. A man who had killed as many shouldn't feel such nervousness. And yet, there it was. Perhaps a sign that he was more human than he'd often give himself credit.

"I've tried speaking about history," he announced to the room, "and I was ignored." Some of the eating men paused, glancing at him. It was easy to make his voice carry with so few people talking. "I've tried showing a monster. But I got the wrong reaction from that. I've caused enough fear in my life, and I did not come to Partinel to bring more."

Midius put his hand up to the side and dropped a handful of dust. He wove the light into an image of a beautiful blonde woman wearing a blue crown. "So," Midius said, sitting back on a stool, "today, I'll try a romance."

Many of the men perked up at the appearance, though not a few muttered instead. "I honestly don't know a lot about romance, myself," Midius said, tossing a handful of dust to the other side, weaving the light into the image of a princely man with a copper crown. "But then, neither have I ever met a dragon. But I can craft one from light well enough. Besides, I do know one thing. When it comes to romance, women are fickle, but men are fools."

He smiled to the audience. Most of them watched him. However, they didn't respond as his master had indicated. When he called women fickle, he expected grunts of assent. And when he called men fools, his intonation should have garnered a few chuckles. He got neither.

Midius moved on, throwing a handful of dust behind himself, weaving the light and blocking the sight of <Razal> and her pots, instead creating an image of a richly decorated room, complete with a bronze-rimmed looking glass and deeply dyed rugs.

"Now, this was a time before the coming of the fain," Midius said. "Many of my stories are from that time. It does us good to remember that our lives were once more than they are, now. <Lily> was known in seven cities as the most beautiful to be born in some hundred years' time. Wives spoke of her when they washed clothing in rivers. Laborers passed news while they cut wheat in the field. Even children knew of <Lily>.

"Eventually, news reached Prince <Helius>, heir to the throne of Lion's Hill. Now, <Helius> was not a vain man, nor was he particularly demanding. He was, however, an inquisitive man. This news troubled him. What would the most beautiful woman in the world look like? How would she dress? What color were her eyes? How would she keep her hair? He asked after these things, but no one could give him a detailed answer."

Another handful of dust produced a group of scribes and scholars speaking with <Helius>, who stood to his left. <Lily>, however, continued to comb her hair in the room to his right, looking into her mirror. It was a challenging illusion, and Midius felt himself being drawn into the image, transfixed by it. He found it hard to pay attention to the audience as he continued to speak.

"<Helius> determined that he would have to discover <Lily's> beauty for himself. Though his father, the king, objected, <Helius> left that day to ride for <Nanhell>, the fair woman's reported home." <Helius's> room dissolved in a shimmer, transforming into an image of a prince riding on horseback. Even focused on the illusion as he was, Midius could hear cries of surprise from the men at the tables as they saw the prince riding atop a full-sized horse.

The illusion remained steady, the horse staying in place despite its galloping, and Midius carefully added the faint sound of hoofbeats. "<Helius's> road was long and hard," he continued, giving a slight image of rainfall to the illusion washing over the prince. "And as he approached the city, <Helius> began to encounter crowds and large troops of men. He was not the only one who had come to see <Lily's> beauty. Indeed, from the processions he soon began to pass, he wasn't even the only prince who had come. Though he certainly was the most poor and the most humble. He hadn't even brought a single manservant. His only companion was his trusted and aged bodyguard.

"What's more, so many had come to see this princess that they crowded in tents along the walls outside. Every inn in the city was completely full. But Prince <Helius> was clever as well as inquisitive. He found an empty nook on the street, and there he began erecting a fine, extensive tent. The beggars who lived there were surprised to see one so rich pitching there, but the prince did not acknowledge them, instead chatting with his bodyguard and making up a story about how this street was the perfect location to view the princess when she went on her secret morning rides.

"Within a few hours, news had spread, and all imaginable kinds of people had crowded the streets to stake a claim on space. <Helius> retreated to an inn and was able to get a room from one of those who had left in order to sleep on the street.

"As his faithful bodyguard bedded down down on the floor, <Helius> sat by the window, pondering. Then he spotted an old woman walking among those in the street, saying something that seemed to make people there angry. Her attitude intrigued <Helius>, and he sent his guard out to fetch the old woman."

Midius threw out dust in front of him, creating the image of the old woman. He was completely engrossed in his own telling, prepared to move on to the old woman's warning that Princess <Lily> was cursed. As he began this part, however, the illusion wavered, <Razal> cautiously poking through, causing a shimmering of sparking dust to fall to the ground and shattering the back of <Helius's> room.

Midius blinked, bought out of his own story enough to again become aware of the audience. Many of the men were muttering loudly, and some had left the room, leaving their soup behind. Midius shook his head, coming conscious again, his illusion disintegrating. People, objects, rooms, melting down into bits of dust.

"You've had your chance, Jesk," <Razal> snapped. "Stop frightening these men away."

"But the story..."

"They don't care about your story, Jesk. Lies and fain illusions; what good are they?"

"Fain illusions? You think what I do is fain?"

"Well, it's not natural, I'll say that."

Midius looked around, sensing the hostility in the faces of the watching men. Embarrassed, he stood, last of the illusions exploding into dust behind him. Then he rushed from the room, moving to his chambers. Once there, he threw a handful of dust against the wall, summoning his master's figure. Midius's room was dim, since he'd brought no candle. But yet the ancient Lightweaver formed from the dust, sitting on Midius's bed.

"You lied to me," Midius said.

"Well, I am a liar," the master said. "So are you."

"We don't lie about important things."

"All of our lies are important, you know that."

Midius turned away. "They were supposed to welcome my stories. How often do you mention the joy that men finding in storytelling? How often do you talk of lies and their power to bring emotion? They're supposed to love me, not revile me."

"Is that why you're here, Midius? To find love?"

Midius glanced at his master. "So I should stop? Focus only on the Corrupted?"

"Ah, lad. Saving Partinel involves so much more than simply stopping the Corrupted. These people, they live, but they no longer remember why. They eat with dull stares. They work the fields without laughter. They return home to their families worried and frightened that they'll get sick, or that they will lose a child to the Year of Sacrifice, or that the trune ring will finally collapse and leave them all without a home."

"There is little I can do about that."

"You can remind them that there is more to life than pain, fear, and sorrow. That's the true calling of a Jesk. You look to give them stories that have meaning, but the most important meaning of your lies has nothing to do with a moral. It has to do with the way that it makes people feel, not the way that it makes them think."

"They don't want to feel. If they can't see how it'll feed them or bring them wealth, they don't want it. They revile it and call it superstition or foolishness. They care nothing for what I offer."

"No," his master said. "They do care. But they're afraid. Midius, this thing that you do, this is a noble and grand work. When you tell a story, you make men see through the eyes of someone whom they've never known. When they hear the tale of a widow's pain, for a moment they are that widow. When they hear a child's play, they remember what it was to be a child themselves. When they see a hero win, for a short time they succeed, as well. They may have forgotten what this means, but that is part of being human. Your duty, then, is merely to remind them."

ConQuest 46 ()
#8 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

I have the novella [Adamant] completed but I have no idea when I’ll be able to release it because it needs a lot of attention--in fact I’m going to skip one of the scenes, which is broken right now--and it’s me doing space opera.  So yay.

Brandon Sanderson

Explosions shattered the void of space spraying vibrant reds, yellows, greens.  Each firework made Jeff flinch, but he maintained an even smile.

“Quite the show, eh?” the shuttle pilot asked.  She had a southern accent, which sounded pretty authentic, but who was he to say?  It had been over a century since anyone had heard a real one in the flesh.

“It’s lovely,” Jeff said, hoping she wouldn’t notice his wince as another large series went off near the shuttle.  He couldn’t hear the detonations--not flying through the vacuum of space--but he imagined them. Or were those other explosions, from another time?

“You could say this is all for you sir,” the pilot said, then glanced at him.  She was pretty, with short blonde hair and a prim blue Armada uniform. A silvery sidejack gleamed on her left temple, just back from the eye.  “I’ve never flown a hero before.”

“It’s war, Lieutenant,” Jeff said, “We’re all heroes.”  The shuttle flew through a ring of vibrant red light, sparks bouncing off of its shielding.

No," the pilot said. "Sorry sir but it’s not war.  Not anymore. Not thanks to you,” she smiled broadly.  And she was right, the war had ended.  Those weren’t explosions, they were signs of celebration.  Vigilance and Valor, it was actually over.

A flight of fighters zipped by in battle formation.  Two slower Obstructers on the outside, four Interrupters inside them, carrying a precious Carrier at the very center.  Today that Carrier dropped lines of fireworks instead of bombs. Jeff found himself smiling in genuine appreciation of the festivities.  He didn’t need to give the crawling darkness a place inside of him any longer. It was done; now the fun could begin.

The shuttle banked around the side of a large gunship, finally bringing the Adamant into view.  The massive flagship was a wedge of steel and lights tipping the front lit the enormous wings sweeping backwards, almost like a pair of crashing waves.  Another sequence of fireworks burst around the Adamant, and Valor, their size must have been incredible for him to make them out at this distance.  Through the light show he got a nice view of the ship’s Impeller plate at the back.  The plate stretched long and wide, like a massive radio dish. An EDB detonation in the center would shove the ship directly into Negspace, letting it travel a great distance in a short time.  Of course if the detonation was off, the blast would irradiate the entire ship and kill everyone on board.  That was the risk of modern space travel. Fortunately, mistakes were very, very rare.

“So how’d you do it, sir?” the pilot asked, “If you don’t mind me asking, how’d you know what the enemy would do?  You must be one hell of a strategist.”

“No, actually,” Jeff said, still forward in his seat to get a better view through the shuttle window, “When it comes to tactics I barely know my flanks from my rearguard.  I’m a xenopsychologist.” She gave him a blank look. “I study aliens,” he said. “That’s my life’s work, both the <Shivana> and the <Alkour>.”

“The <Alkour>?  You mean the Knockers?”

“Sure, the Knockers.  I made a study of them. It wasn’t too difficult to decide what the Centurion would do once I teased out the specifics of his race’s psychology.  I passed word from my lab on FS21 to Armada tacticians, and they fortunately accepted my conclusions. So here we are.”

“Wait, you’re a--” she cut off, blushing, “You lived on a station, sir.”

“Yes.”

She glanced at the colonel's insignias on his uniform and then back out the window.  Jeff ignored the slight. He wasn’t surprised that she expected the Hero of Broken Sky, as the <sidecasts> were already calling him, to be some swarthy general and master tactician rather than a short, pale scholar from a remote station.  Armada prejudice against staties was silly, and most of the Armada people he met seemed to know it. In a way, Jeff really didn’t care what this woman thought.  The anticipation of the moment was too thrilling. Decades of war finally over, the Knockers defeated in a resounding final conflict. More importantly, in the fury of the battle the Armada’s forces had accomplished something even Jeff had never thought possible.  They had captured the enemy general.

“Well that seems good,” the pilot said.  Jeff glanced at her; they were in the shadow of the Adamant now, cruising along its side.  Being so close only emphasized how massive the ship was, bigger than some stations Jeff had lived on.

“What was that lieutenant?” Jeff asked.

“Hmm?  Oh I was talking to the docking attendants.  Didn’t they give you authorization to basic Armada side-channels?” She glanced at him and seemed to noticed for the first time the scar on his left temple, and the complete lack of a sidejack there.

Jeff rubbed the scar.  “Jack didn’t take for me.”

“That can happen?”

“It has at least once.  What did they send you?”

“That we are free to dock in 14OB, sir” she blushed again, bringing the shuttle into another sweeping turn toward one of the smallest of the docking cubbies.  “There should be a reception committee there for you sir, though I think you’ve missed a lot of the festivities.”

“I’m not here for the party,” Jeff said, “I’m here for an interview.”

“Debriefing?” the woman asked.

“You could say that.”

The Adamant’s side here was gouged with hundreds of holes, like a field after a heavy artillery bombardment.  Most ships couldn’t enter <Negspace> on their own.  Even the massive gunships would need a transport to carry them interstellar distances.  The flagship, and other transports of its class, were like hives. Each carried its own fleet of tiny fighters, larger shuttles, mid-sized assault-craft, and powerful gunships.  They all floated separately for the moment, arrayed to watch the festivities. Parties would be happening on each gunship, whose crew was like their own smaller borough within the city that made up a transport fleet like this one.  Jeff’s shuttle pulled alongside a boxlike cubby and then slid in like a peg into a hole, locking into place.

“Good luck with the <GAF> sir,” the pilot told him.

“Oh I’m sure Robert and I will have a good time catching up,” Jeff said, noting the look of shock in her eyes when he called the Armada's commander-general by his first name, “but my interview isn’t with him.  It’s with the Centurion.”

She paled even further, “The Knocker general?  We caught him?”

So it wasn’t common knowledge. Good.  Jeff had asked for the information to be kept quiet, despite Robert’s insistence that parading the Centurion about would improve morale.  “Yes,” Jeff said. “That’s classified information by the way.” The lieutenant nodded quickly; he wondered if she’d stay quiet. Well, discovering that his request had been followed was worth the potential leak.  He didn’t really care if people knew, he just didn’t want Robert using the general as a showpiece. A glorified carnival act. During their years of war, taking a Knocker captive had been a rare occasion, and to have the general himself…

The docking process finished, and light above the airlock flipped to green, indicating the seals were in place.  Jeff reached up and put on his stiff, formal service cap and headed toward the door.

“Good luck sir,” the pilot called to him, “With the Knocker, I mean.”

“Aliens are rarely a problem for me lieutenant,” Jeff said, the doors sliding open, “It’s humans that give the trouble.”  He smiled politely, then stepped off of the Adamant.

***

[scrolling past the aforementioned “broken” scene]

So Jeff goes and meets the XO, or no the sergeant, one of the sergeants in charge named Chug and has a little conversation with Robert, the <GAF>, and gets to go meet the Knocker general.  He's wanted to the whole time, and is annoyed that people are not letting him.

So they go and they are now at the prison, where they are keeping him, and they have met a little marine who is sitting outside.

***

The marine looked Jeff up and down with a critical eye.  Tall, lean, and dark-skinned, the man surprisingly wore no armor and carried only a simple handgun as a sidearm.  In fact, he seemed far less imposing than Jeff expected of a marine, the Armada ship-to-ship boarding troops. The only distinctive thing about this man were his eyes.  They were… cracked.  Like a broken window.  Cracks spread across the man’s irises and whites, starkly visible.  Jeff had read about that effect somewhere, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember where.

“So you're him,” the marine said.  Vigilance and Valor, those eyes were disconcerting when they focused on him. It almost made up for the fact that the man was basically unarmed.  This is what they had guarding the most dangerous warrior in the galaxy?

“Jeffrey Salazar,” Jeff said, pulling out his hand.  The marine took it, surprisingly.

“Maddox. Nice work, sir.”

“Thank you,” Jeff said, uncertain how to interpret the pause.  “Why are you here marine, normally the brig isn’t your jurisdiction, is it?”

“There’s a Knocker in there colonel,” Maddox said.

“A prisoner.”

“With all due respect, colonel,” Maddox said, “that thing is the most dangerous monster we've ever faced.  Every step we’ve taken in this war, he anticipated.  We’ve been playthings to it all along.  Now it’s on my ship. So as far as I’m concerned, we’ve been boarded by a hostile force, sir.”

Jeff nodded slowly.  “I’m going to need to go in there and see him anyway, marine.  Can you call your superior and authorize us?” Maddox looked at Chug, and then back to Jeff.  He pulled out a datapad and checked it also.

No sidejack, Jeff thought.  Marines didn’t use them.  The <Shivana> had claimed there was little possibility of the enemy learning anything from one, but it was still Armada protocol to keep them off the marines, who had a much higher than normal chance of being captured.

“I can authorize you myself,” Maddox said, “I can’t open the door from this side though, as a precaution.  It will take me a moment.

“Commander Maddox is head of the Armada’s marines,” Chug noted as Maddox sat down in a chair beside the massive metal door to the brig.

“Commander?  Your uniform says airman.”

“Yeah,” Maddox said from his chair, “This body is my runner.  I need the stripes off in case boarders are watching for officers.”

“This body?”  Maddox went completely limp.  A second later, the blast door revealing... Maddox.  Only a much taller version, well muscled, and wearing full boarding armor and carrying a wicked looking gun.  Jeff glanced at the limp body beside the door. They were the same, only the less muscled body’s eyes were no longer cracked.  In fact, they stared sightlessly like the dead. “You’re a jumper!” Jeff said, finally remembering what the broken eyes indicated.

Maddox nodded, waving for them to follow.  Jeff hurried after, entering a small, narrow metal hallway.  Slits on the side revealed gun placements beyond. Jeff shivered.  Anyone trying to run down this hall could easily find themselves in a death trap, bullets spraying at them at every step.

“I didn’t think there were any jumpers left,” Jeff said, catching up to Maddox, “Didn’t the program get scrapped?”

“Yeah,” Maddox said, each footstep thumping now that he wore his heavily armored body.

“We kept losing soldiers sir,” Chug explained, “They’d jump from one body and never appear in a new one.  They just leave behind empty bodies staring sightlessly. No one ever returned.  Drooled a whole lot though.”

Jeff shivered.  “So each time you jump…”

“I might not arrive,” Maddox said, eyes forward, “But I don’t think about it too much colonel, I am what I am.  I simply make use of it the best I can.”

“I suppose if I could keep two separate bodies,” Jeff said, “I might consider it to be worth the risk.”

They reached the end of the corridor, and Maddox opened a door there and then turned to Jeff and smiled, “What makes you think I have only two, colonel?”

Jeff raised an eyebrow but didn’t press for more information. He was growing excited about what would come next.  Together with Chug and Maddox he stepped onto a large causeway that ran around a steel box of a room two stories high.  Marines in full armor stood at mounted guns here, spotlights shining from the ends and pointing at the floor below.  At least they were taking proper precautions. Jeff counted two dozen marines here, not including the ones hiding behind the kill slits in the corridor.

Maddox stepped up to a female marine who had been guarding the door.  She saluted him. “Any changes?” he asked.

“No sir.”

Maddox waved Jeff to follow him and led him down the causeway.  A row of cells covered one wall below, but there didn’t seem to be anything in them.  If the Adamant had been carrying any other prisoners before today, they had all been shipped out.  That meant their sole prisoner was in the cells underneath Jeff’s feet. He suppressed a shiver, though he couldn’t tell if it was born of excitement or nervousness.  Maddox led him along the causeway as his soldiers shuffled their feet in an odd pattern, several of them stamping while others slid to the side and set up their guns in new positions. To keep the Centurion from knowing where they ended up settling, Jeff realized. If the monster somehow escaped it wouldn’t know exactly where to target its attacks.  How disorienting would it be, gunfire falling on you, blinded by spotlights, trying to escape?

I’m sweating, Jeff realized as they reached the small lift with open sides.  Maddox pointed for Chug to wait above then lowered himself and Jeff down to the floor below.  They hugged the wall and rounded it to stand before the empty cells, facing towards the ones under the causeway they had crossed above.  These were deep and dark, but Jeff could make out a hulking form inside the middle of the three. Something shifted in there. Valor, it was huge.  Maddox made a fist, and one of the soldiers above shined their spotlights into the cell. Jeff got his first in-person look at one of the Knockers. Its head brushed the ceiling of the cell, which had to be seven feet tall. The Knocker probably could have stood taller if it hadn't been forced to stoop.  It’s entire body was covered in silvery bits of metal. They actually grafted it onto their skin somehow, melding with it and creating armor plates that attached to their body. Indeed, as it stepped forward, trailing a ripped cloak that matched its deep red uniform, Jeff could see that it had long, knife-like metal spurs sticking out of the wrists and extending along the backs of the hands.  Its head was enormous, covered in bits of iron plate. It looked vaguely reptilian, with golden eyes and deep leathery skin underneath the grafted on bits of steel. The back of the skull bulged out in five wicked knobs. The hands were big enough they could’ve palmed a watermelon in each. Jeff had to resist taking a step backwards as the Knocker general walked to the bars of his cage, squinting, focusing despite the spotlight on it.

“You,” the creature said softly, “are the Lurker.”  It spoke English well.

“I…” Jeff’s mouth was dry.

“Yes,” the Centurion said, its hands, which had metal bits embedded along the fingernails, scraping the bars as they moved along them, “I can see it, Lurker.”

Time to assert myself, Jeff thought.  He stepped forward, meeting the thing’s eyes.  “I’m Jeffrey Salazar and I’m the one who defeated you.”  Now the creature would either bow before his dominance or rage against him, seeking to destroy him.  He waited for it, curious to see which--

[missing audio]

“I…” Jeff licked his lips.  Why was his mouth so dry? “I challenged your authority, you must respond.”

“My authority?” The alien raised its enormous hands towards the cell.  “This authority?”  He shook his head, “We’ve been bested, you and I both, and so it ends.”  He looked at Jeff, and then, in a distinctly chilling move, he smiled.

That smile, there was so much wrong with it.  Why would a Knocker use a human facial expression?  How much did this creature know, and why was it quoting Shakespeare?  The Knockers were brutes, driven by instinct, that’s what he’d written, that’s what he’d learned, it--  

The alien’s smile deepened, and he closed his eyes again, “The game is done,” he whispered, “Farewell.” Jeff stumbled back, feeling sick.  He’d been wrong. whatever he’d thought he’d known about the Knockers and their society, he’d been wrong. His expertise has supposedly won this war, but it turned out that he had no idea what he was talking about.

“Take me away,” he said to Maddox, “Now.”

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#9 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Dragonsteel: Chapter One

The lumberman’s son was born into a world of magic. Perhaps others would not have thought so, but to a young boy full of curiosity and wonder, the forest was a place of enchantment.

Jerick saw magic in the growth of the great pines, seeds barely as large as a pebble eventually becoming monoliths, with trunks so wide that when he hugged them, pressing his check against the rough bark and stretching his arms to their fullest, his fingertips still didn’t touch at the back.

He heard magic in the wind, which blew whispers through the branches, dropping cones and needles to the ground like a rattling waterfall.

He tasted magic in the fruits of the wilderness, berries both sour and sweet, musty pine scents that tickled the back of his nose.

He felt magic in the forest’s life. A group in which the lumberman’s son included himself. Like the branch rat, the wolf, the rabbit, and the deer, Jerick was a creature of the woods.

His first steps had been taken on a floor of pine needles. His home, a simple hut constructed from those same trees that surrounded it. The lumberman’s son knew other, less fortunate children who lived in a village a short distance down the river, a place where the mountainside tapered and the trees fell away into a broad plain. Here, people lived cramped together, their houses huddled like frightened rodents or birds too young to leave the nest. Other lumbermen lived in this village, taking carts or boats each day to the lumbering camps.

Jerick could not understand these men. They worked with the forest, yet it did not intoxicate them like it should. He did not know how they could leave the beautiful woods each day, instead choosing to live in a place so crowded and suffocating.

Jerick had friends in the village. They didn’t see things the same way he did. When he showed <Cenn> and the others a tree older and stronger than the rest, they would shake their heads, not understanding its strength. When he found a large fish swimming in the river’s sheltered shallows, its bulbous, unblinking eyes regarding him with an unasked question, the other boys would only try to catch it. When Jerick wondered how the clouds could move in the air when there seemed to be no wind, the others would ask him why he cared.

So, though trips to the village were exciting, Jerick was always glad to return home. Home to his mother, who would be finishing the day’s washing. Home to his forest on the mountainside, where he could listen to the pines rustling, <fallow owls> calling, and twigs crackling, as opposed to the silence caused by men yelling to one another.

He loved to accompany his father into the woods. The lumberman was so tall and broad-chested, he seemed almost to be one of the trees. <Ryn’s> arms were thick and rough with hair, his tough axe-calloused fingers like ancient roots, his beard like a thick gathering of pine needles that poked and scratched Jerick’s skin when they hugged. His father had deep, understanding brown eyes and wide lips that were usually parted in a contented smile.

As far as Jerick could tell, his father was the only person alive who understood the forest better than Jerick himself. <Ryn> could tell the strength and quality of a tree’s wood simply by rubbing his fingers across the bark. He could see birds nesting high in branches that Jerick had assumed were only shadows. And he could always find sweetberry bushes to sate a growing boy’s appetite.

More importantly, the forest seemed to accept his father. Jerick soon came to understand that this was because his father respected the woods. “Look at the trees around you, my son.”

(By the way, I’m not gonna do the dialect. I had dialect in Dragonsteel. People from the rural areas don’t say the word “the,” they just say “ta.” So, “Look at ta trees” is what they would say. But I’m not gonna do the dialect.”

… his father would instruct as they walked together. “Man can be born, grown, and die in the time it takes one of them to get so high. They’ve seen the likes of us come and go.” That would be all he said for a while. <Ryn> didn’t speak much, not like the other lumbermen, who always seemed to have something to say and not enough people to say it to.

<Ryn> was a King’s Man and cut lumber for the king’s shipping. Like the other lumbermen, <Ryn> used a shiny bronze axe to do his work. The most important possession he owned; bronze was rare. The only other piece of metal Jerick’s family owned was his mother’s bronze cooking knife. Jerick had heard men in the villages speaking of a new, stronger metal that had been discovered recently in the south, something called mountainsteel. They said its name came because it was the same color as mythical Dragonsteel. But to Jerick, it was all the same. He had never seen either one; bronze was good enough for lumbermen.

As soon as he was able, Jerick followed his father to the lumbering camp. After a few weeks, the burly men welcomed his presence, and he was allowed free rein of the camp, where he watched, thinking of questions to ask his father as they travelled home. He wanted to know what made the men’s arms so big. Why the trees fell the way they did. And what the lumbermen did with all the branches they cut off the trunks. He wanted to know why the King needed so much wood. And how long it took to float all the way down the <Trerod> river to the palace.

Some of the questions, his father could answer; others, he could not. Some things, Jerick simply noticed and asked no questions. Most of these had to do with his father. For instance, after felling a tree, his father would dig two holes and drop pine seed into each one. The others did not. Every day when the work was done, his father would start a small fire of green pine needles sprinkled with pungent witherdust and let it burn among the trees slated for the next day’s lumbering. The smoke would trigger a reaction in the pine larks and <cheps>, and they would fly or scamper away, taking their young with them. The other lumbermen would scoff at his father’s precautions. But Jerick watched with pride. Actions like these, and dozens like them, were where the lumberman’s son learned the most important lesson his father ever taught him: all life was precious.

Such was Jerick’s life up until his eleventh year. He wandered the forest, helped his mother with cleaning and baking, ran chores in the lumbering camp. To him, there could be little else to life; he was content, and he wanted nothing else.

His father, however, had other plans.

 (I consciously did a bit more of a storyteller’s style for this. You can see; that first section’s basically omniscient. This was always kind of meant to be a story that Hoid was kind of telling after the fact. You can kind of see hints of that in some of these sections. Other sections go more into the third limited. But you can imagine that sequence that I just read you all being said by Hoid to people who want to know about what happened and how everything came to be.)

“Jerick, son, go fetch your mother some water.”

“Yes, Father.” It was dark outside, and his mother had little need of fresh water, but Jerick complied quickly. His father made few demands; when he did, the lumberman’s son did not question. He did, however, run quickly, so he could return to listen outside the door.

“The boy notices things, <Martle>,” his father was saying. “He’s quick of mind. The other day, <Javick> and Henry hadn’t been watching the angle properly as they cut. That tree would’ve fallen the wrong way and could have killed a man. Jerick saw the error in an instant. He pointed it out to them. A boy barely two hands old speaking lumberin’ to a pair of men who’d been cuttin’ trees their entire lives. He has more questions than I can answer; though sometimes he answers them on his own.”

“And what would you be havin’ us do about it?” his mother asked. Jerick could imagine the slight frown on her face as she asked the question, her broad frame seated on the floor beside <Ryn>. His mother was practical in all respects, evaluating everything on its ability to be used. When Jerick asked her a question, the answer always came in the form of another question, usually asking him what he would do with the answer if he had it.

“There’s that new school in the village,” his father explained. “They say the king himself ordered it built.”

“I’ve heard of it,” his mother said hesitantly. His mother disapproved of anything that broke with tradition.

“I’d take the boy to it once a week. He’d be able to learn.”

“What could he learn that would do him any good to lumberin’?” his mother asked.

“Probably nothin’ at all,” his father admitted.

“’Tis an unnatural thing, <Ryn>. It won’t last long; the people won’t put up with it. Schools are for nobbles and kings.” (I used “nobbles” instead of “nobles.” We had a nice little vowel shift in this.) “Not for lumbermen.”

“I know, <Martle>. There was silence for a moment.

“Well, then,” his mother said, “as long as you understand that, I doubt there’s any harm in it. Just be sure not to let the boy get a wrong thinkin’ about it. Learning could spoil him.”

“I doubt anything could be spoilin’ Jerick,” his father replied.

And so, the lumberman’s son went to school.

The scholar was the most fabulous creature Jerick had ever seen. (No, that’s not Hoid.) His robes were made of cloth, not furs or skins, and they were a red as deep as the colors of the setting sun. More amazing, his hair was a pale yellow, like the mane of a light-colored horse, rather than deep black like everyone else. His beard was not bushy and wide like that of Jerick’s father, but it was straight and stiff, about a handspan long, and only came out of his chin. It was pulled tight and wrapped with thin strings, making it ribbed, like a bale of hay. The beard almost resembled a slice of bread, with the short end glued to the bottom of the man’s face, and made his chin seem like it was a foot long. His head was covered with a tight cowl that stretched across his forehead and hung loosely against the back of his neck. And his eyes were dissatisfied as he stepped from the chariot, a wonder in itself, and regarded the village.

Jaw moved slightly, and his face pulled tight, as if he had suddenly tasted an extremely rotten, bitter fruit. Around his neck, Jerick could make out a gleaming castemark; the mark of a man’s rank in life. It was made of gold, rather than the plain wood of those like the lumbermen.

“Bow, lad,” his father ordered. Jerick complied, joining the rest of the village in bowing for the strange man.

“Why do we bow, Father?” he mumbled as he lowered his head.

“Because the man’s of nobble blood, boy,” <Ryn> explained.

(I’m not gonna do all the accents, but he says “formers” instead of “farmers.” Sound change. The whole idea is that the nobility accent is shifting away from the way that the accents of the lowborn are, which is kind of this fun thing that happens in linguistics. And this is one of the things that causes vowel shifts, where you’ll often see different vowels getting replaced over time. I find that sort of thing very fun. I’m probably not going to read that to you. But you can see it when you read the book.)

“Lumbermen and farmers must bow before anyone higher than them, whether it be a merchant, a noble, or even crafters.”

The idea seemed wrong to Jerick, but he said no more. People were beginning to raise their heads, and, for the moment, he was more interested in viewing the odd, brightly-clothed scholar than he was in asking about the nature of the caste system.

“Classes will begin at noon,” the man declared in a high-pitched voice. The words sounded odd, as if the man couldn’t form them properly. They were sharp and separated; not smooth and comfortable, like what Jerick was accustomed to hearing.

“What’s wrong with his speakin’?” Jerick asked, furrowing his brow in confusion.

“That’s how nobbles are speakin’, boy,” his father explained. “They’re not the same as lumbermen. They think differently. They have learning. You’ll get used to it. Now go play ‘til noon; since we’ve come to town, might as well see about gettin’ my axe sharpened.”

Jerick nodded, his eyes seeking out <Cenn> and <Yon>, two of the boys that he usually played with. However, as his father walked off toward the smith’s, Jerick turned away from the boys. He was still more interested in the scholar than anything else.

The man was speaking softly to <Millen>, head of his father’s lumbering camp. <Millen> was a short man with graying hair. His head bowed practically to waist level, and he was bobbing subseqiously. Jerick had never seen such behavior from the foreman before. Eventually, <Millen> gestured for the scholar to follow him. The man nodded to his several companions: two packmen and younger woman that Jerick hadn’t noticed before. She must have also been a noble, for her hair was light and luxuriously long, not cropped short at the shoulders or pulled up in a bun. The scholar reached up his hand to help the woman from the bronze chariot. She looked distastefully at the ground, though Jerick couldn’t understand what she found wrong with it. It was, after all, just ordinary mud.

<Millen> led the four to a house at the center of the village. Jerick had noticed the building earlier; it had been a storehouse, but that had been emptied and its walls washed unnaturally clean by the efforts of a dozen workmen. He’d wondered what it would be used for. Not the school; a building on the other side of town had been prepared for that. It couldn’t possibly be a place for the scholar to live; it was far too large for that. What would one man, even four, do with so much space? It was so silly an idea that Jerick only gave it a passing thought.

As the five people disappeared into the building, Jerick made a decision. He ignored the calls of the other boys, waving for them to go on without him, and wandered over to the structure, looking as if he were interested in the pile of stones beside the front path. His interest soon changed to a small beetle, a large leaf, and several other objects that progressively brought him closer to the building, until he was standing just beneath the window, admiring a snail as it climbed up the whitewashed wooden wall.

Though his eyes followed the snail, his ears stretched to catch more of the noble’s strange words. He jumped in surprise as the door opened and <Millen> and the two packmen left. Determined not to run away, Jerick focused his eyes on the snail and tried to look engrossed. The men paid Jerick no heed, and he congratulated himself on his strong nerves, then thanked the snail for remaining so calm, as well. The small creature continued to slide along, completely oblivious to Jerick or its own part in the subterfuge.

Calming himself with a few breaths, Jerick concentrated again. His efforts were rewarded, and soon he could make out the whiny, snappish voice of the scholar speaking within. “I spend an entire year training in <Trexados>, the grandest center for learning on the continent, and my reward? Forced exile to an insignificant mud pit on the far side of the kingdom.” His strangely accented words sounded less authoritative than they had before. It almost resembled the voices of the younger boys who pled to be allowed to play with Jerick’s friends.

“Calm yourself, brother,” a second, feminine voice soothed.

“I cannot and I will not calm myself, <Willan>,” the scholar snapped. “You cannot feel what an outrageous appointment it is. Tomorrow, that chariot will carry you back to <Emory>, leaving me to be forgotten. He must hate me.”

“Perhaps he simply wants someone to teach the people here.”

The scholar snorted loudly. “Teach lumbermen and farmers? <Willan>, be rational. What purpose could that serve?”

“I do not know,” the woman confessed. “It seems ridiculous. But he did appear sincere when he gave you the instructions.”

“It must be a move by House <Strathan> to discredit us,” the scholar declared as if he hadn’t heard his sister’s comment.

“Discredit us?” The woman’s voice was now amused. “Brother, no matter how much your trip to <Trexados> inflated your pride, you can’t possibly have deluded yourself into thinking you’re important enough for house politics. You’re the fourth son of a second son. Be glad the family didn’t decide to send you off to the Eternal War and be rid of you.” (That’s where the Shattered Plains are in this book.)

There was no reply to that comment, but Jerick could feel the dissatisfaction seething through the wall.

“So, what will you teach them?” the woman eventually asked.

“As little as possible. The philosophy of the Three Realms of existence is far beyond them. Perhaps I’ll teach them some tricks of mathematics or history, things that might actually be practical in a place like this.”

“Reading?”

“By the Lords, no!” the scholar replied. “You know what damage that could do?”

“The king implied that’s why he was sending you,” the woman noted. “How will you get around it?”

“Reading requires materials, <Willan>,” the scholar said with a self-satisfied tone. “Look around this town. I doubt you will find a single scroll of text.”

Jerick waited patiently for the conversation to continue, but either the two had decided not to speak further, or they had moved to another part of the building. Sighing, Jerick realized how little of the conversation he’d understood. None of it made sense to him.

One thing was clear; the scholar had spoken to the king himself. And that made him an important man, indeed. Jerick had heard stories of the king and knew from them that only important people ever spoke to the man directly.

Reaching up, he allowed the snail to slide onto his hand, then rose from a squat to walk away from the building. He placed the snail on a shrub he often saw them eating, then wandered off in the direction the other boys had gone.

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#10 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

<Eelyell> was awakened by the whispering of the dead child who followed him.

“Death and die. Death and die.” The girl’s words were often gibberish, though usually he could make out a few of them. Tonight, what she said felt eerie. It made the whispering in the darkness send a shiver up his spine.

<Eelyell> sat up in his cot, realizing that he had fallen asleep in his uniform again, and looked across the darkened room, seeking out the child. There, she hid in the shadows beside the wooden bin that held his canes. Small, maybe four years old, she had long straight blonde hair that hung down by her face, ears peeking out like rocks in the sand.

She met his eyes, “Death and die,” she whispered. It would be nice when that particular Echo passed.

<Eelyell> rose, tugging at his crumpled jacket, still enough of a soldier to feel ashamed at its state. His father would have had <Eelyell>’s head if he’d seen such a uniform. Climbing from bed <Eelyell> took the cane beside it for support, then walked out onto the balcony. He put his back to the dead child; she was a figment, an Echo, or a side-effect from an Incubation he’d done a few years back. It was so long ago that he was losing hope that the Echo would ever fade. He might be stuck with this hallucination, for good.

He stepped out onto the balcony, using the cane by habit though he was currently strong enough that he didn’t need it to walk. He was recovering from his Incubation two months back. The grind from that one had finally worn off. In fact he was probably too strong; he’d been getting too much sleep lately, he'd been eating too well. He needed to maintain a certain level of physical weakness so he could be open to Incubations, assuming he wanted to remain effective in his duties. And he did want to remain effective, for his own reasons, if not for the Corps themselves.

Outside on the balcony, the sky burned. It smoldered high above, deep red lines, the color of a serpent’s tongue, glowing like rips in the air. The magma cast a warm red light across the city of <Suigmaat>. As always the air smelled faintly of smoke, though he only noticed it when he was first stepping out of the building into the open air. He knew logically that the burning place he saw above was actually the ground. He knew <Suigmaat> flew in the air, a city reversed, one of the few bastions of life left in the burning land. <Eelyell> was the one who was upside-down, as were all of the city’s inhabitants. It didn’t feel that way to him; he’d lived here too long. Upward was towards the burning ground and the land, downward was toward the sky and the sun. Things he never saw except on the rare occasion when he was called upon to visit the farms and orchards on the city’s sunward side.

<Eelyell> stood for a time, holding to the cast-iron railing, staring up at swathes of burning ground high above. Molten rivers, a land destroyed. A warning flag, raised to them all. Omnipresent. Undeniable. The city itself slept beneath that scarlet glare, bathed in red. Sleeping.

“Death and die,” The girl whispered from behind. She’d crawled out onto the balcony and now crouched there, looking up at the air.

<Eelyell> glanced at her, “<Kareem’s> gaze, you’re a creepy one,” he whispered, “What must I do to be rid of you?”

“Death and die,” she whispered

He tapped his finger on the railing, then strode back into his quarters, splashed some water on his face, and checked the sword blade of his walking cane. Seconds later, he was out the door.

The offices of the Corps did not look as a police station should. A police station was supposed to be a box-like thing, stable and functional, designed to indicate to all who visited that this was not a place where nonsense was permitted. Those ornamented columns, etched with the silver serpents of <Mokdeelor>, those golden doors, those soldiers with ridiculous feathered helms. Those were not the symbols of efficient law-keeping. They were quite the opposite.

<Eelyell> walked up the steps and approached the guards, who were at least armed with functional halberds and two flintlock pistols at their belts. They saluted him by raising fists to their sides. As an Incubator, he outranked everyone in this building, except of course the ones who actually mattered. <Eelyell> felt a moment of lightheadedness at the top of the steps and was forced to stop, gripping the railing and leaning on his cane. So he wasn’t completely well. Good. Neither guard stepped to help him. Weakness was expected of Incubators, one of the marks of their station. And being near one of them at the wrong time could be dangerous. One need only look upward at the burning land to be reminded of how dangerous.

With his head cleared, he continued up the steps, cane clicking, and passed the men without returning their salute. He stopped just inside the building, however, coming alert. Motion. Lesser watchmen calling to one another in a large room, aides carrying stacks of paper. Reddened eyes and yawns accompanied both groups. Many of these people had been called up unexpectedly, despite the early hour.

“<Eelyell>?” A woman rushed up to him through the bustle. <Cual> wore the yellow and blue uniform of an Incubator, like his own but better fitting and far better kept. “You look like ash, man,” she said, “Are you still on a grind?”

<Eelyell> looked back at the hall, noticing the motion of the bodies. Nobody was going into the weapons locker, though riot gear had been set out at the side. Large metal shields and larg swords cordoned in rubber from trees on the sunward side. They were getting ready for something, but he didn’t know what yet. A prophecy, he guessed.

“I still can’t believe they called you up,” <Cual> said, “You deserve some relaxation after--”

“I will visit <Patseepa>,” <Eelyell> striding, striding through the room, leaving <Cual> behind. He tried not to let himself be carried away in the chaos. The event that he'd been waiting for would come eventually, but this might not be it. <Patseepa> made prophesies with some frequency; that was why the Corps maintained her, and why she carried her terrible burden.

It was difficult not to feel tense, however, in the room's frenzy. Nearby, a scribe turned and accidentally knocked over an hourglass, smashing it to the floor and spraying sand across it. He spared it a glance; sand always drew his attention. But he otherwise ignored it, focusing on a set of doors at the back of the room. This must have been an alarming prophecy indeed to cause such a fuss. The guards at these doors were even more flowery, with feathers on their shields after an old-fashioned style almost no one used any longer. The murals might depict men in simple wraps and women in nothing above the waist but necklaces. Those days had long ago passed, centuries before <Eelyell's> times. The <Moknee> people were as modern a one as he'd ever known. His own brownish-tan skin and dark hair blended in here well enough that he could have passed for <Moknee> himself, assuming he didn’t open his mouth. That was something he'd been better at when he'd been younger.

These guards let him pass too, and no scribes or watchmen beset the hallway beyond. Only Incubators were allowed in here. Unfortunately, while they presented a more solemn group, it was no less unruly in its own right. Some two dozen of them clumped together at the other end of the darkened hallway, like a clot of hair clogging a drain. <Eelyell> strode forward, passing doors on either side set with glass. The small, well-lit rooms showed in the glass that they weren’t exactly cells, just like their occupants weren’t exactly prisoners. They just couldn’t leave. With the hallway dark and the rooms lit, each window glowed, like they looked into other worlds. Other worlds inhabited by the sick.

It was hard to think of it that way anymore, after so long in this land. The people in those rooms weren't simply ill; they were Lay Incubators. Their job was to live in those little rooms, bearing their afflictions until they started to recover. Whereupon another individual could be brought in to catch their malady and take their place, ensuring the Incubation itself didn’t vanish. It was good money, assuming you didn’t mind the discomfort, which could range from the sniffles to deadly fevers, depending on the Incubation you agreed to receive. And of course there were... other benefits. In one room he passed, the occupant, a young man, hovered in the air reading a book; and in another, an elderly woman tapped on a cup, idly changing the color of its liquid inside with each tap. In <Suigmaat>, indeed upon on this entire land, every disease also granted a special capacity. That ability lasted as long as the ailment did. Many of these blessings were minor, while others were grand. Some few were very, very dangerous. And hence the existence of the Incubators themselves.

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#11 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

What is the Sixth Incarnation of Pandora? You may think Pandora the planet, because of the movie. That's not... I was actually going for the myth. That in this society, we had opened up various Pandora's Boxes, and this was... In philosophy in the far future, the sixth one they'd opened was making people who were immortal. And this was a Pandora's Box that they had philosophically opened.

I often describe it as a cyberpunk. It's not actually a cyberpunk. It's not a true cyberpunk. It deals with some of those same themes. It has the kind of corporations-in-charge, and kind of a dystopian future, and things like this. But it is far future, and not near-future, as most cyberpunk is.

The story is about an immortal soldier who has been made immortal with this new process, which is still very rare and very expensive to do. And he is basically a one-person army, with all of these modifications and things, and is capable of destroying entire armies on his own, and is completely indestructible.

And I'm gonna read to you from Chapter One, which is not a good chapter for introducing that concept.

It has a little epigraph at the beginning, which I thought you guys would find fun, because I use those quite a bit now, and I didn't earlier in my career.

This book is unpublished. This is book number five: The Sixth Incarnation of Pandora.

Brandon Sanderson

From the moment the first primeval Neanderthal picked up a sharp rock and used it to eviscerate his prey, man has sought ways to use his surroundings to augment his own abilities. Not that much has changed over the millennia. Peg legs had become prosthetic limbs, and spectacles had been replaced with cyborg optronics. But the main ideas remained constant: displeased with what fate allots us, we bend nature before our will, becoming more than we were intended. Among all of God's creations, only man takes offense at his lowly state.

Along with our drive to change ourselves, there comes with true human paradoxical form the uncomfortable fear that we have gone too far. Through the ages, we have fabricated horrors to match our increasing supremacy over nature. Monsters, golems, mad robots, and horrors haunt our collective technological unconsciousness. Twisted mixes of flesh and metal, obscene misuses of nature and her creations. We push ourselves to be better and better, more in control and dominant. But at the same time, we sweat and worry that this time, we've gone too far.

We finally have. I'm the final step, the ultimate synthesis of what is natural and what is profane. One last grand adulteration. I'm the culmination of our feats, a Frankenstein's monster for the modern 23rd century. I am without parallel in life or imagination. I am <Xelian>.

Chapter One

The forest's silence was abnormal, almost uncomfortable. <Xelian> could feel the dew in the air. It hung as an unseen mist around him. The humidity was an unfamiliar companion, and he had to fight the impulse to wipe his brow. A damp, sweat-stained hand would do little good in drying a damp, sweat-stained forehead. He could feel the soft film of water on his skin, coating his entire body, making his fingers both slip and stick as he rubbed them together.

Also unfamiliar was the forest's shadowy illumination. Light, he knew. Darkness, he knew. The forest's unchanging twilight, however, was neither bright nor dark. It seemed to flow, rather than shift; live, rather than just illuminate. It was neither day, nor night. It was light, undead.

<Xelian> followed no marked trail. He had left that behind long ago. It was not difficult to move through the brush; tall trunks stood like jealous merchants, catching the golden light long before it hit the ground. What little light did pass through was formless and impotent. Few plants could squeeze enough life out of such meager helpings to survive. There were ferns, weeds, and the occasional sapling. Nothing so thick he couldn't walk through it without trouble.

Occasionally, <Xelian> reached out to brush a patch of soft, damp earth. It was odd that something native to his home planet would feel so alien to him. But it had been a long, long time since he had seen soil.

He continued on, making good time through the realm of the enormous trees and their tiny fungal blooms. Usually, he only noticed his surroundings if something was wrong. The forest was different, somehow. It was pervasive, omnipresent. Even if he closed his eyes, he could feel it around him. When he stepped, he would sense the soft, springy loam. With each breath, he drew in the odors of wood, decaying flora, damp foliage, and bitter earth. He could hear the crackling of leaves and twigs beneath his feet. The forest was not a setting; it was an experience.

No bugs, a voice in his head pointed out.

"What?" <Xelian> asked, opening his eyes.

No insects, <Xelian>. A forest this size should be brimming with them.

"They would be to hard to control here, Wire."

I know. I just think it hurts the authenticity.

"You wouldn't say that if you could feel it," <Xelian> responded, continuing his hike.

Well, I doubt that's likely to happen anytime soon. Wire's voice wasn't sarcastic, or even depressed; it was simply stating a fact. Wire could never feel the forest, as he could never feel anything. The entirety of the AI's physical being consisted of a CPU embedded beneath <Xelian's> left shoulder blade

We're running out of forest, Wire pointed out. <Xelian> nodded. He could see the treeline now, where the forest ended. A few moments later, he passed through it, and the world around him transformed abruptly.

Instead of soft earth, his foot snapped against rigid metal. He stepped out of the land of half-shadows into full daylight. The humidity disappeared, abandoned in favor of a carefully controlled, deliberately comfortable climate. <Xelian> left behind the canopy of leaves, entering a world where dark space extended forever in all directions. He stood on the edge of a sheer dropoff. The metal pathway that ran around the forest was only a few feet thick here where he stood. It also bordered the edge of the Platform.

<Xelian> looked up. High in the sky, he could see another enormous Platform like the one on which he now stood. A floating continent, with people inhabiting all of its six faces. Beyond the second Platform, <Xelian> could make out the tiny pinpricks of stars. Looking down over the edge of the cliff, he could see the exact same thing; hundreds of kilometers below lay the bottom of the Platform, and beyond that was nothing. Cold space, eternity. Fall off this cliff, and one could literally fall forever. It's said that the Platform's builders had tried to make it seem as if one were standing on the surface of a planet, instead of a gargantuan block of metal hanging in the middle of space, a ridiculous distance from any planetary system. They hadn't done a very good job.

<Xelian> took one look back at the forest park. Really, it was one of the few places on <Saj> Platform that was dedicated to reminding its inhabitants of their heritage. As if they hadn't intentionally abandoned such things as forests when they moved into the sterile vacuum of space.

"Remind me to come back here when this project is finished," he asked.

Is that a request, <Xelian>, or are you simply waxing hypothetical?

"No, really. Remind me."

Yes, <Xelian>. Wire would compute a likely date and time for the reminder.

<Xelian> turned away from the organic wall behind him and stepped off the cliff. He could feel the fall begin; the plummet that would carry him down along the side of the platform until he entered oblivion. Gravity would drag him downward, prepared to hurl him into the void.

But then it changed. His foot got caught in an unseen force, a pull that altered his momentum. His body followed, collapsing into the arms of the same force. Instead of plunging into space, <Xelian> swung in an arc around the edge of the cliff, his foot planting itself on the vertical wall below him. He reoriented himself, then pulled his other foot to sit beside its mate.

He now stood on the other face of the cliff. What had once been down was now directly in front of him. And when he turned around and looked down, he saw the space he had left, and it looked like a sheer vertical drop, the forest seeming to sprout from the side of the cliff. The Platform's gravity wasn't going to relinquish its grip on <Xelian> quite so easily. It pulled one down against the Platform, no matter which direction down happened to be at the time. One could walk on each of the Platform's faces and feel as if it were the surface of a planet.

I don't see why you have to be so dramatic about that, <Xelian>, Wire chimed in. What do you find so fascinating about changing gravitational surfaces?

<Xelian> continued to look over the side of the ledge, then tossed a small pebble off, watching it arc normally in the air for a moment, then change vectors suddenly to fall inward, snapping against the pathway and rolling to a stop at the edge of the forest.

"Is there anything we haven't mastered, Wire?" <Xelian> responded. "What is left to dominate? The very laws of nature bend before us. Where is the excitement in the universe that behaves according to our convenience, warping and changing until it twists to the will of the most fickle species?"

If you want excitement, you should try piloting a ship through the center of a star, Wire suggested. As far as I know, no one has managed to conquer that realm, yet.

"Maybe I will," <Xelian> mused.

Just make sure you remove my CPU, first, Wire said.

Brandon Sanderson

That was from 1999.

It is interesting, also, for me to look back and see which ideas I have thrown into the word chipper and recycled. If you've read Starsight, you'll recognize something very similar to those Platforms, which stretch back to a short story that I wrote called Defending Elysium. They showed up, probably first time here. And then I reused them for Defending Elysium. And then wrote the Skyward series in that same universe. So this is like a hypothetical book that could have existed in that same setting.

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Brandon Sanderson

The premise of this is that there is a young man who smells really good to dragons, and always gets used as bait in traps to trap dragons. He has trapped a dragon by being bait, and now he is wandering around that night.

Brandon Sanderson

The first thing Skip noticed was the beating of enormous wings. He knew instantly what they meant; after three or four hundred dragon attacks, you learn to pick up on the signs.

He panicked, of course. He always panicked when a dragon approached. Fortunately, he'd trained himself not to let that get in the way. So while one primal A-Big-Lizard-Is-Going-To-Eat-Me side of his brain started going in circles, the other side went through a list.

Was there water nearby? No.

Could he hide in a cellar with a door? No.

Could he obscure his scent somehow? No.

He'd assumed himself well-protected. He'd doused himself with rose water before leaving the camp, and his pockets were stuffed with garlic cloves. People three cities away could probably smell the stench. But he'd been certain he didn't smell like himself.

But that didn't always work. The dragons would find him anyway, particularly if he stayed in one place too long. But he was moving! He should have been safe. Safer, at least.

The two sides of his brain collided back together, and both told him to run. He dashed forward, hoping to find some kind of cave. It was night, but the moon was near full, so he had a good view of the hills around him. The grassy, pleasant, completely unbroken, not-a-cave-in-sight hills.

The wing beats were getting closer. He couldn't outrun a dragon in flight. He suddenly felt himself an idiot for having left the hunters. At least there, he'd have a chance; someone to fight for him, surprise the dragon and...

Skip forced himself to slow. I only have one chance, he realized. He slowed until he was merely strolling. He stuffed his hand in his pocket, beside the garlic, and held his pack over his shoulder with the other. He started whistling, trying not to sound too forced.

"It sure is a good night for a stroll," he said after a good whistle. "Alone. Without anyone to protect or guard me. What a nice breeze, that is approaching from behind."

He felt a chill between his shoulder blades, as if someone had stabbed him with an icicle. The dragon was flying down toward him; it would grab him in its claws, tear him with its teeth. It was so hard not to look!

The beats of the wings changed. Something massive and black flew past about a hundred yards away, red eyes watching him. Dragon eyes glowed. The creature winged to the side and landed on a nearby rock. It seemed wary.

Skip looked at it and tried to feign surprise. That tied his brain in knots, and he ended up just staring. That seemed to make the dragon even more worried; its slender neck looked from side to side in suspicion.

"Your acting is terrible," the monster proclaimed.

"So I've been told."

"I smell no hunters; where are they?"

Skip resisted the urge to exhale in relief. The other dragon had assumed he was bait; it had actually worked! "Uh, hunters?" Skip said, trying to sound nervous. "I don't know what you mean."

"You'd have me believe you were out here alone?"

"Sure am."

"In dragon territory?"

"Oh, this is dragon territory?"

"At night?"

"My, how the time has passed! I didn't notice."

"I realize that humans are often oblivious, but this seems incredible, even for one of you."

"Is is that obvious?"

"Yes. Nobody is so stupid."

"I wouldn't bet on that." The dragon leaned forward on his rock, looking down. Skip stood nervously. "Umm.. I guess you can go now," Skip said.

"What about the hunters?"

"You figured out what we're doing," Skip said, "so we can't surprise you. You might as well fly away; we'll never kill you this way."

"I want to see where you've hidden them."

"Don't be foolish! Do you have any idea how long it takes to dig in the grass and hide fifty armed soldiers? If they climb out now, it'll be hours getting them back in for the next dragon." The dragon's eyes narrowed further, and he leaned forward on his hilltop. Despite the moonlight, it was difficult to make out much regarding him; black-on-black, scales that shone softly, red eyes. Something was odd, though. Skip couldn't put his finger on it.

"I can't let your trap remain here," the dragon said. "My brother is flying in these parts. He might fall into it. In fact, a large number of my kin have gone missing in the last few weeks. We've been told specifically to watch for a group of hunters in the area. You haven't seen my brother, have you?"

"Can't say that I have. What's his name?"

"<Vrogldoklmoklbokloklu'u'u'u'l>."

The word was unlike any that Skip had heard. There were sounds in it, unnatural ones, unexpected ones. Like getting a teddy bear filled with razor blades for your birthday. Hearing the name made Skip's ears want to rebel and maybe take a turn at smelling things, instead. "Nope, never heard of him. We certainly didn't kill him earlier today." I hope.

"I don't care how many hunters you have, little man. You have just sealed your fate. I bring you death this night! Those words will be the last that-"

"Hey, wait."

"Call your hunters, little man. I will best them!"

"No, really, wait. I just realized what's wrong. You don't look maddened by my scent."

"Your scent? Why should I care about that?"

"But... how did you find me?"

"I saw you, little man. Walking draconic lands is asking to be devoured, and so, while I am somewhat full from a taxman I ate earlier, I decided to come down and make a feast of you. It's the principle of the matter, really."

"But... you smell nothing?"

"I can't smell. Inhaled some acidic smoke as a dragonling, burned my nostrils fiercely."

Oh, Skip thought. How wonderful. A dragon who wouldn't, upon smelling him, get driven near insane? It was amazing. Incredible.

And actually ironic. For it seemed that this was the dragon who, at long last, would end up eating him.

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Brandon Sanderson

Long time ago now, years and years ago, I, with my family, went to Fiji. And I always like to just write something inspired by a place I visit. And on Fiji, we went and visited one of the local villages. And that's how they describe them, with a chief; even though it's very modern, they still maintain that structure and society. And one of the cool things that the guide who toured us around this, his title was the Kingmaker. And he explained to us his job was to be the person who picked the next king. The king, or the chief, does not get to pick his successor; the Kingmaker, who is a different family line, picks the successor to the king. Which I thought was so cool. It's like it's a check and balance upon the monarchy that I had never heard of before; it's a really sophisticated system that I just thought was awesome. And so I said, "I'm gonna write a book using that idea at some point." And I only managed to get a few chapters of the way into it. I did set it on First of the Sun, the planet where Sixth of the Dusk takes place.

So I am going to read to you from the prologue and a bit of the first chapter (I didn't get much beyond this) of a book I called Kingmaker.

Brandon Sanderson

Prologue

It begins when the dying man takes his last breath. Death is not uncommon; indeed, it's one of the few universal experiences humans share. It's a pity that we often come to it underprepared, considering it's the singular thing for which, by definition, we have the most time to prepare.

In this story, fortunately, the man was well-prepared. He'd asked all the questions he could think to ask, and gotten all the answers he'd thought he could get out of life. That was preparation for him, being ready to get answers to the questions he couldn't answer. He'd known for years that he would die; and not as everyone knows death is eventually coming. Rather, he knew death was coming for him in a way you might know to expect the 9:14 train. Yes, it could arrive a little later; but you'll be leaving the station before noon, one way or another. Malignant, they called the infestation growing inside of him. Terminal. How odd, to be killed by growth; not decay, not blood loss, not (as he'd assumed would someday be his lot) by being taken during an ocean hunt. But of something growing, living, just doing a little of too much of both. It felt so very modern to be dying of something called colorectal adenocarcinoma. He'd been born in a time when they'd used simpler terms; but modern science had brought more than steam engines and telegraph machines. It had granted many diseases honored promotions, so chiefs no longer had to die in their own filth, but instead could fall prey to gastroenteritus. And he was a chief, our soon-to-be corpse.

Ah, but you must know the scene before we continue. I shall describe it as he would have; for it had been years since he'd seen anything other than a milky white haze. Fortunately, if you were wise, you do not need to be able to see in order to tell people where to go.

He could hear the ocean, first and foremost. Like many of his people, the chief hated places where you couldn't hear the ocean. When he'd been young, he'd worked on the inland <taro> fields by his father's orders. Those were far from the ocean; it took an hour by canoe up the river, away. It had been the worst year of his life, and that counted the ones dying of cancer.

Today, he could smell the sea. Tradition on the island of <Amore> saying that the chiefs never rotted after death. How could they, when they'd been steeped in brine for so long? The chiefs were the mediators between island and sea, and they bled salty blood. The ocean was in their veins, the crusty lava rock in their bones. He thought fondly of laying in the mausoleum near his father, on a slate block of stone quarried from the rim of a dormant volcano. He'd lay there, smiling as corpses do, baked for all eternity by the sallow candles, massaged by the songs played for the dead, just like the chiefs before him.

Chief. Now, that was an interesting term these days. But the Home Isles had always had chiefs; that would never change. Now they also had representatives, elected by direct voice of the people. These traveled to the distant government seat and made policy, while the chiefs remained on their islands. For what was a chief when away from his people, his soil, his seed? Not that the chiefs were impotent; they set island policy and grumbled at the need for interference from the government. The chief represented the tribe, which, in this story, meant all the people living on one small island, some six hundred in total, all related. The representatives led the country, but the chiefs led the families; each one, a tiny king. They were the guardians of tradition and executors of modern policy all at once. As such, the term nestled comfortably between the new and the old, like that spoon that slid off the counter and jammed itself in the spot between wood and wall: stuck, stubborn, and somehow still a perfect fit.

He nestled there now, right between the old and the new. A breeze blew in through the open parlor doors. They built their homes for years in such a way as to invite the breeze in, as an honored guest. But he also felt the blowing fan overhead, rhythmically clicking from its spidery place in the ceiling. A modern convenience the chief's home had, as it needed power to work the telegraph machine. It was the only place in the entire island that was electric, powered by some very large chemical batteries that you'd have called primitive. But here, they were the utmost leading edge of technology, developed proudly by scholars without the help of the Ones Above.

There. Can you feel it? Soft sheets beneath your back, cool breeze on your cheeks, fan counting off the last seconds of your life? Ocean calling to your soul? No pain; but also, few deep thoughts. The drugs prevented both.

Now, add footsteps. They made the rug creak; it was woven of beachfront frond leaves given to him by the chief of <Luma> island, the next one in the chain. The steps didn't click; they sounded from feet unshod, so it wasn't the nurse.

"Coral?" the chief asked. Was it his first son? "Squall?" The second, perhaps. No response. "I need a drink," the chief said, reaching limply toward his nightstand. "It no longer hurts to drink. It no longer hurts at all."

No response. The chief had to wonder if he'd hallucinated the sounds. His brain seemed to be floating in soup these days. He drew in a long, ragged breath.

That's the one. His last. This is where it begins. Because, before the chief could release that breath, a pair of gloved hands locked around his throat and squeezed.

Strangely, it didn't hurt, either. Someone is killing me! The thought reached his brain slowly, as if by a bird messenger, rather than telegraph. Someone is killing me... before I can die. He fought, because he was a chief, and because he didn't like someone taking what the gods had claimed. But he couldn't even relieve himself these days without help, so fighting back an attacker was impossible. Those hands just squeezed tighter. The white that was his world began to grow dark, and he realized, prepared though he thought he was, one more question had shown up last minute. Demanding. Confusing.

Who murders a man that has days, maybe mere hours, left to live?

 

Chapter One

The steamship cut across the ocean like a hunting knife crossed the skin of a beast: straight, unconcerned, leaving a scar behind in the waves. <Tulaku>, the Kingmaker, loved standing at the ship's rail, feeling the wind beat her face, watching the impotent waves break against the hull. It felt so modern to be able to impose human will upon both wind and wave. It had been an eternity since she'd enjoyed modern conveniences like this. They were so uncommon out here in the Scattered Isles, the backwaters of a land with, admittedly, quite a lot of water. But her time here was done; the ship steamed inward with clocklike precision. The Kingmaker had duties at <Tory>, the grand island where the government and corporations were run. So the steamship would carry her there. It wouldn't wait until the tide turned; it wouldn't wait for favorable winds. It would go now.

She was a young woman, this Kingmaker, and if you'd been from her world, you'd immediately have noticed something off about her. Something unusual, other than the youth. That, at least, was evident only when you looked at her face. Everything about her served as an intentional distraction from her youthful figures. The traditional clothing, shrouding her in a cloak of Aviar feathers. The posture, so carefully cultivated to project strength, confidence, and authority. The ceremonial oar, held like a staff with its arrowhead-shaped paddle toward the sky, crowned with the jagged teeth of a mature ocean shadow beast. Everything about her proclaimed aged wisdom.

But the face. That embarrassingly youthful face. <Tulaku> had learned to deal with the looks. She no longer glanced down in embarrassment when introducing herself, no longer winced visibly when people expressed surprise at her age. Yet there was something about her expression; the way she'd meet her eyes, then draw her lips to a line. The gesture seemed to admit: "We apologize for the inconvenience of sending a teen in the place of your expected wizened elder. Please wait while we remedy the situation. Note: this process may take forty years." She hoped, as she put the Splintered Isles behind her, she'd also escape those experiences. She'd rarely felt them at home; senators and company presidents there could be young and vibrant, so why not Kingmakers? There, you wouldn't be judged by your age, but by your ambition, and perhaps the quality of the names in your personal address book.

As she contemplated this, a large man shuffled down the steps from the bridge, his Aviar flapping wings to balance on his shoulder. The captain didn't wear a uniform; he was a company man, not a soldier. Though the distinction and authority between those two roles was subtle, the distinction in costumes was not. Captain <Hatchi> wore a thick woolen coat, a scarf, and a captain's hat. He rested hands on rail, fingers wrapped in thick workman's gloves. His Aviar, Chipper, had plumage of radiant green and red: one of the species that protected a ship and its crew from the questing minds of beasts that lived beneath the waves. Those had been exterminated from these populated shallows, of course, but it was a lucky Aviar breed nonetheless, one you often found accompanying sailors.

"Do you ever feel like a god out here, Captain," <Tulaku> said, "cutting across the waves, unencumbered by mortal concerns like current or wind?"

"Once in a while," he said, "until a storm comes. Then, well, I remember my mortality right fast, Kingmaker. Right fast." He kissed his fingers and held them to the wind, which was blowing in from the east. The direction to the Pantheon islands and the gods they represented.

"But surely," <Tulaku> said, "we can weather even storms, now? Only modern society has designed machines that can ignore the wind. We go where we want!"

"Yes, yes," he said, "but doesn't that make the machines the gods, Kingmaker? I'm not stronger than my ancestors. They crossed the seas, too, against the waves and in canoes. Doesn't take steam to manage it; just power." He glanced at the puffs coming from the boiler. "One type or another. But now, I shouldn't contradict you, wise one. Forgive me."

The ship continued through the ocean, belching confident black smoke, undaunted by both still wind and storm. Steered by compass, not by the lapping of waves. Indeed, the captain often thought about his father, who'd been a captain during a different time. His father's ship had once run aground on a deserted island, but the crew had patched it up and then been on their way. If the steamship were to break down, <Hatchi> knew he wouldn't be able to repair it. Then again, there were specialists for that sort of thing. And so, the more men progressed collectively, the less it seemed like the individual had anything to know. Ignorance was its own kind of luxury.

The Kingmaker frowned, consumed by her own thoughts, which sailed a different direction from <Hatchi>. As she got to more cosmopolitan areas, she'd gladly put behind the questioning eyes, the doubts that her age caused. Yet she'd also leave behind some of the reverence that people like <Hatchi> showed her. That had been one nice aspect of these rural islands and those who sailed them.

"You should know, Kingmaker," the captain said, "that a telegraph is arriving for you. It should be ready and interpreted shortly. That's why I came looking for you."

A telegraph. Now there was a modern innovation, and one all their own, not a gift from those Ones Above. Messages traveled the islands invisibly though the air, almost like a bird.

The Kingmaker winced, looking down at the ocean. If you'd known the people of this land, you'd likely have been surprised at the sudden pain she felt, thinking of birds. Then you'd look at her shoulder, see what was missing, and realize at last what had seemed off about her all along.

"The telegraph will be my mentor," she said to the captain, "with some words of encouragement." Please let it be that, she thought. And only that.

There had been a time when every island had its own Kingmaker. Someone to watch the chief and act as a balance to his ambition. The Kingmaker couldn't, of course, unseat a chief. The gods had placed the chief where he was, after all, and mortals should not intervene. Yet everyone agreed there should be some check upon the chief's power. Even the chiefs themselves tended to agree, something you might find curious. This is likely because you're familiar with large kings of nations, rather than the small kings of the islands. Large kings tend to be gluttons. Give them a mansion, and they'll want two; pay them some taxes, and they'll wonder how high they can get. Grant them a taste of absolute authority, and they'll chug the whole bottle. But, like a remarkable number of things when it comes to human society, monarchy tends to work far better on the small scale. A mansion doesn't feel so necessary when your brother has a hut. Taxes feel different when squeezed out of the man who taught you to fish. And absolute power doesn't feel so absolute when your mother chides you for abusing it. So generally, yes, the chiefs themselves liked having someone to watch over them. You wouldn't believe it, from the way the two offices tended to squabble.

Ah, but I still haven't explained: what is a Kingmaker? Well, it is as it sounds. The Kingmaker chooses the next ruler. They couldn't unseat the current chief, as I said, but they could do something nearly as bad. They could end his dynasty, choosing someone outside his lineage to take the throne. Every chief had to live with a certain fear of that possibility. Rule poorly, and you'll suffer patrimonial emasculation in the form of a rival son being given charge of your throne, and in many ways your legacy, once you were gone. Most Kingmaker interventions in <Tulaku>'s bold, oh-so-modern times, were just for show. Chiefs had to work alongside elected officials, and dynasties were usually preserved in the name of tradition. Chiefs represented tradition; upheld it. It was actually one of the few remaining powers in this day of senates, corporations, and individual suffrage. Because of this, the Kingmaker's job had changed over the years. They watched the kings, not just as it related to their successions. If the king were to break the law, for example, what did one do? In the past, nothing. These days, the king was not the law; indeed, the law carried a ceremonial oar, and sometimes wore too young a face for her station.

These days, there was often just one Kingmaker serving a dozen or more islands, and she didn't even have to attend or even sanction every coronation. If a ruler was liked, and a clear heir existed, the change of power could be sealed by telegraph. But if a succession was disputed, then one would be assigned to see to the matter personally. If one was already in attendance nearby, it would be her job. And if none were in attendance... well, it would fall upon the nearest passing Kingmaker. A tradition that <Tulaku> was now coming to find extremely inconvenient.

Brandon Sanderson

So you can probably tell from that, I was experimenting with some omniscient voice in that. It got really tell-y; I apologize for that. That was me just being whimsical and figuring out the worldbuilding as I wrote. You do that in first drafts, sometimes. I'm still very fond of that piece; I'm not sure if I will ever use it for anything in the future. There was definitely some awkwardness about the voice, but also it had some nice turns of phrases, which were fun.

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Dan Wells

The Apocalypse Guard

Part One: The Plural of Apocalypse

Chapter One

Emma's Instructions for Starting a Book:

1) Start with something exciting, to get the reader's attention.

2) Don't start with a blog post. Like this one.

3) Crap. Let me start over.

Smoke in the air, a red sky, huddling alone in the ruins of a dying world. (See, that's better already.) My name is Emma, by the way. Yes, that Emma, from Emma's Instructions. But unless you're one of the six people who follows me on Snapgram, that probably doesn't mean anything to you. So, let me introduce myself. I'm eighteen years old. I'm from <Idaho>, sort of. And I just realized that I got totally off track again. What happened to the red sky and the dying world? Well, let me tell you.

Remember how I'm only sort of from <Idaho>? I've lived there since I was two, but I was born in a place called <Ard>, which is basically like a different version of <Idaho>, but in an alternate reality? And if you're reading this, you need to know about alternate realities. There's Earth. And then there's an infinite number of different worlds that are kind of like Earth, but also different. Sometimes a little, and sometimes a lot. Like there's one called <Hona> that's mostly the same as the world you know, except instead of continents it's all islands. Even <Idaho> is an island in a giant North American archipelago. Crazy, huh? So there's <Hona>, and there's Terra, and there's <Erodan> and <Pangaea>, and a bunch of others. And there used to be an <Ard>, but it's gone now. Because I called it a dying world before, but that was sixteen years ago. Today, it is all the way dead. Burned to a crisp. And I almost burned with it, except that the Apocalypse Guard swooped in and saved me.

Holy crap, the Apocalypse Guard! Why didn't I start with them?

Emma's Instructions for Starting a Book Correctly:

1) Start with something exciting to get the reader's attention.

2) Like, for example, if your story includes a group of amazing heroes who travel the multiverse saving entire worlds from destruction, maybe lead with that.

3) I mean, come on.

The Apocalypse Guard are based on Earth, but they hop around from world to world stopping Apocalypses. Apocalypsi? Apocaleeps? That word doesn't even have a plural, because why would you ever need to talk about more than one Apocalypse? Most people just get one, and then boom, you're done. That's what an Apocalypse is. But the Apocalypse Guard can actually stop Apocalypses, and they've already stopped a bunch of them and now we're in <Erodan> to stop a giant asteroid and it's AMAZING.

Important Note: did you see how I casually dropped that "we" in there? Now "we're" in <Erodan>? That's because I'M TOTALLY A MEMBER OF THE APOCALYPSE GUARD AND I CAME HERE TO STOP AN ASTEROID! (I know it's kind of lame to type in caps lock like that, but seriously, if you were in the Apocalypse Guard traveling to a different dimension to stop a giant asteroid, you'd totally put it in your Snapgram, too, and I would not say anything about your excited over-use of caps lock because I am a good friend.

Which is also why I am going to stop talking about myself and start telling you the story about how we saved <Erodan>.

Starting right now.

I was standing in the Apocalypse Guard command center, looking up at the screens that showed the giant asteroid hurtling down toward the planet when Commander Visco signalled that it was time for me to do my part.

"Emma," she said, and waved her coffee mug toward me. "I'm empty again."

Okay, so my part is very small.

"Yes, sir!" I seized the Commander's mug and hurried over to the small kitchen beside the command center. I mean, I was only eighteen, and fresh out of high school; it's not like I was gonna be out there flying around in a power rig, draining kinetic energy from an extinction-level space rock. I was a cadet! And this was still very early in my training, so coffee was all they let me do.

One pot of coffee was already brewing on the counter, but we had about forty people in the command center, each with their own station and responsibility. So I got a second pot going, just in case. To tell you the truth, I was a coffee-making genius. Which is weird, because I don't drink coffee. I'm not just from <Idaho>; I'm from <Iona, Idaho>. Population 1,803, approximately 1,802 of whom are in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, including me. So I don't drink coffee, but you know what I can do? I can follow instructions. It's practically a superpower. Though, I guess if you followed me on Snapgram, you already knew that.

Emma's Instructions for Perfect Coffee:

1) Follow the freaking recipe.

2) Serve it way hotter than you think it should be.

3) Never talk about how bad it smells.

I know a lot of people love the smell of coffee, but they're wrong. You call it an acquired taste; I call it Stockholm Syndrome.

"You don't have to read the recipe every single time you brew a pot," said Sophie, jogging up with a few empty mugs of her own. She was a cadet, like me, and was mostly just a coffee girl, like me. "Trust me," she said, "I've been drinking coffee for years and I..."

She caught a whiff of the pot I had just filled, and her eyes closed in aromatic pleasure. "Wow, that smells amazing!"

"Thank you," I said and smiled. What did I tell you? Coffee. Making. Genius. When you read the manual and follow the rules and measure things exactly, it will always turn out better than if you just do something by instinct. Always.

I gave Sophie a fist-bump of cadet solidarity, filled Commander Visco's mug, and rushed back into the command center. I said before that we were on <Erodan>, but that's "we" in the communal sense. We, the Apocalypse Guard, had a presence in <Erodan>. When most think of the Apocalypse Guard, they think of the Power Riggers, and their fantastical abilities. And yes, a bunch of those people were on <Erodan> and up in orbit around it, fighting the asteroid. The rest of us, the operators, scientists, engineers, medics, Commanders, janitors, accountants, and cadets were back on Earth using something called a dimensional tunneler to communicate with the Riggers.

We were doing it from an orbital space station, though, which is still pretty friggin' rad, huh? I love this job.

I gave Commander Visco her steaming mug of coffee and took the opportunity to look over her shoulder at the room's main screen, currently showing a view of the asteroid. One of our technicians had named the asteroid "Droppy." Which was why we didn't usually let our technicians name things.

Manchester signing ()
#15 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

A WARNING FROM BRANDON: This scene gives major spoilers for Words of Radiance. Please don’t continue unless you’ve finished that book. This is a very short sequence of Jasnah’s backstory I’ve been reading at signings. It’s not a polished draft. I often read very rough (and potentially continuity-error filled) sequences at signings as a special treat to people who attend. This scene is even rougher than most—first draft, and shouldn’t be taken as canon quite yet, as I haven’t firmed up or fixed all the terminology or Shadesmar interactions.

Brandon Sanderson

Jasnah Kholin opened her eyes and gasped, fingers rigid, clawing at the obsidian ground. A knife in her chest! She could feel it grinding on her bones as it slipped between two ribs, glancing off her sternum. She spasmed, rolling into a ball, quivering.

“Jasnah.”

No. She could not lay prone. She fought to her knees, but then found herself raking her fingers across the ground, trembling, heaving breaths in and out. Moving—even breathing—was perversely difficult, not because of pain or incapacity, but because of the overwhelming sense of tension. It made her shake, made her made her want to run, fight, do anything she could to not die.

She shouted, stumbling to her feet, and spun about, hand on her chest.

Wet blood. Her blood. A dress cut with a single knife hole.

“Jasnah.” A figure all in black. A landscape of obsidian ground reflecting a bizarre sky and a sun that did not change locations.

She darted her head from side to side, taking in everything but registering very little of it.

Storms. She could sense that knife again, sliding into her flesh. She felt that same helplessness, that same panic—emotions which had accompanied the knife’s fall. She remembered the darkness consuming her, her hearing fading, the end.

She closed her eyes and shivered, trying to banish the memories. Yet the effort of trying to do so only seemed to solidify them.

She knew that she would remember dying for as long as it took the darkness to claim her again.

“You did well,” Ivory said. “Well, Jasnah.”

“The knife,” she whispered, opening her eyes, angry at how her voice trembled, “the knife was unexpected.” She breathed in and out, trying to calm herself. That puffed out the last of her Stormlight, which she had drawn in at the last possible moment, then used like a lash to pull herself into this place. It had kept her alive, healed her.

Ivory said that while a person held enough Stormlight, only a crushing blow to the head itself would kill. She’d believed him, but storms that hadn’t made it any easier to lay there before the knife. Who would have expected them to stab her? Shouldn’t they have assumed that a blow to the head would be enough to—

Wait. Shallan!

“We have to go back,” Jasnah said, spinning. “Ivory, where is the junction?”

“It is not.”

She was able to locate the ship with ease. In Shadesmar, land and sea were reversed, so she stood on solid ground—but in the Physical Realm, Shallan and the sailors would still be in their ship. They manifest here as lights, similar to candle flames, and Jasnah thought of them as the representation of the person’s soul—despite Ivory telling her that was an extreme simplification.

They spotted the air around her, standing up on deck. That solitary flame would be Shallan herself. Many smaller lights darted beneath the ground—faintly visible through the obsidian. Fish and other sea life.

Nerves still taut, Jasnah searched around for the junction: a faint warping of the air that marked the place of her passage into Shadesmar. She could use it return to the ship, to…

One of the lights up above winked out.

Jasnah froze. “They’re being executed. Ivory! The junction.”

“A junction is not, Jasnah,” Ivory repeated. He stood with hands clasped behind his back, wearing a sharp—yet somehow alien—suit, all black. Here in Shadesmar, it was easier to distinguish the mother-of-pearl sheen to his skin, like the colors made by oil on water.

“Not?” Jasnah said, trying to parse his meaning. She’d missed his explanation the first time. Despite their years together, his language constructions still baffled her on occasion. “But there’s always a junction…”

“Only when a piece of you is there,” Ivory said. “Today, that is not. You are here, Jasnah. I am…sorry.”

“You brought me all the way into Shadesmar,” she asked. “Now?

He bowed his head.

For years she’d been trying to get him to bring her into his world. Though she could peek into Shadesmar on her own—and even slip one foot in, so to speak—entering fully required Ivory’s help. How had it happened? The academic wanted to record her experiences and tease out the process, so that perhaps she could replicate it. She’d used Stormlight, hadn’t she? An outpouring of it, thrust into Shadesmar. A lash which had pulling her, like gravitation from a distant place, unseen…

Memories of what happened mixed with the terror of those last minutes. She shoved both emotions and memories aside. How could she help the people on the ship? Jasnah stepped up to the light, hovering before her, lifting a hand to cup one. Shallan, she assumed, though she could not be certain. Ivory said that there wasn’t always a direct correlation between objects their manifestation in Shadesmar.

She couldn’t touch the soul before her, not completely. Its natural power repelled her hand, as if she were trying to push two pieces of magnetized stone against one another.

A sudden screech broke Shadesmar’s silence.

Jasnah jumped, spinning. It sounded a trumping beast, only overlaid by the sounds of glass breaking. The terrible noise drove a shiver up her spine. It sounded like it had come from someplace nearby.

Ivory gasped. He leaped forward, grabbing Jasnah by the arm. “We must go.”

“What is that?” Jasnah asked.

“Grinder,” Ivory said. “You call them painspren.”

“Painspren are harmless.”

“On your side, harmless. Here, harmmore. Very harmmore. Come.” He yanked on her arm.

“Wait.”

The ship’s crew would die because of her. Storms! She had not thought that the Ghostbloods would be so bold. But what to do? She felt like a child here, newborn. Years of study had told her so little. Could she do anything to those souls above her? She couldn’t even distinguish which were the assassins and which were the crew.

The screech sounded again, coming closer. Jasnah looked up, growing tense. This place was so alien, with ridges and mountains of pure black obsidian, a landscape that was perpetually dim. Small beads of glass rolled about her feet—representations of inanimate objects in the physical realm.

Perhaps…

She fished among them, and these she could identify immediately by touch. Three plates from the galley, one bead each. A trunk holding clothing.

Several of her books.

Her hand hesitated. Oh storms, this was a disaster. Why hadn’t she prepared better? Her contingency plan in case of an assassination attempt had been to play dead, using faint amounts of stormlight from gems sewn into her hem to stay alive. But she’d foolishly expected assassins to appear in the night, strike her down, then flee. She’d not prepared for a mutiny, an assassination led by a member of the crew.

They would murder everyone on board.

“Jasnah!” Ivory said, sounding more desperate. “We must not be in this place! Emotions from the ship draw them!”

She dropped the spheres representing her books and ran her fingers through the other spheres, seeking… there. Ropes—the bonds tying the sailors as they were executed. She found a group of them and seized the spheres.

She drew in the last of her Stormlight, a few gemstones’ worth. So little.

The landscape reacted immediately. Beads on the ground nearby shivered and rolled toward her, seeking the stormlight. The calls of the painspren intensified. It was even closer now. Ivory breathed in sharply, and high above, several long ribbons of smoke descended out of the clouds and began to circle about her.

Stormlight was precious here. It was power, currency, even—perhaps—life. Without it, she’d be defenseless.

“Can I use this Light to return?” she asked him.

“Here?” He shook his head. “No. We must find a stable junction. Honor’s Perpendicularity, perhaps, though it is very distant. But Jasnah, the grinders will soon be!”

Jasnah gripped the beads in her hand.

“You,” she command, “will change.”

“I am a rope,” one of them said. “I am—”

You will change.

The ropes shivered, transforming—one by one—into smoke in the physical realm.

TWG Posts ()
#16 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

One thing to note now--I wasn't very satisfied with Glimmer's dialect myself, and DavidB's comments tipped me over the edge.  I'm now thinking of going with something more like this:

Aether. a voice said in her mind.  It was light and airy, like a voice carried on the breeze, and felt lethargic.  King.

Yunmi glanced down at the rose-colored crystal embedded into her forearm just above her wrist.  King Theus? She thought.

Aether. the voice responded, dull, slow.  As always, Glimmer's voice was accompanied by images in her head, filling out the single word.  This time, the image was of a dark black crystal set into a man's hand.  Theus's hand, which had been covered by a glove when Yunmi had met him.

So Theus does have an Aether, Yunmi thought.  Did you speak to it?

Unresponsive, her Aether replied. Old.  In her mind, Yunmi saw the Theus's Aether as Glimmer did--as a thing ancient, barely capable of putting out Aetherpulp.  A thing tired, yet forced to continue living on, attached to the king's flesh.

Also, I don't like Glimmer's name, so consider that a placeholder right now.

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#17 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

Yumi and the Nightmare Painter

Chapter One

The star was particularly bright that night when the nightmare painter started his rounds.

The star. Singular. No, not a sun. Just one star. A bullet hole in the midnight sky, bleeding pale light.

The nightmare painter lingered outside his apartment building, locking gaze with the star. It had always felt friendly to him. Many nights, it was his only companion. Unless you counted the nightmares.

After losing his staring match, he turned down the street, which was silent save for the faint hum of the hion lines. Ever-present, they flowed through the air—twin bands of pure energy, thick as a person’s wrist, about twenty feet above the street.

One line was an indecisive blue-green. You might have called it aqua, but if so, it was an electric variety. Or teal, perhaps. Turquoise’s pale cousin, who stayed in listening to music and never got enough sun.

The other was a vibrant fuchsia. If you could ascribe a personality to a simple line of light, this was perky, boisterous, blatant. It was a color you only wore if you wanted every eye in the room to judge you. A tich too purple for hot pink, it was—at the very least—a comfortably lukewarm pink.

The residents of the city of Kilahito might have found my explanation unnecessary. Why put such effort into describing something everyone knows? It would be like describing the sun would be to you. Yet, you need this context for—cold and warm—the hion lines were the colors of the city. Needing no pole or wire to hold them aloft, they ran down every street, reflecting in every window, lighting every denizen. Wire-thin strings of each color split off to each structure, powering modern life. They were the arteries and veins of Kilahito.

And just as necessary, albeit in a different way, was the young man walking beneath them. He’d originally been named Nikaro by his parents—but by tradition, many nightmare painters went by their title to anyone but their fellows. Few internalized it as he had. So we shall call him as he called himself. Simply, Painter.

You’d probably say Painter looked Veden. Similar features, same black hair, paler skin than your average Alethi. He’d have been confused to hear that comparison, as he’d never heard of such lands as those. In fact, his people had only just begun to think about whether or not their planet was alone in the cosmere. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Painter. He was a young man, still a year from his twenties, as you’d count the years. His people used different numbers, but for ease, let’s call him nineteen. Lanky, dressed in an untucked buttoning grey-blue shirt and a knee-length coat, he was the type who wore his hair long enough to brush his shoulders because he thought it took less effort. In reality, it took far more, but only if you do it right. He also thought it looked more impressive. But, again, only if you do it right. Which he didn’t.

You might have thought him young to bear the burden of protecting an entire city. But you see, he did it along with the hundreds of other nightmare painters. In this, he was important in the brilliantly modern way that teachers, firefighters, and nurses are important. Essential jobs that earn fancy days of appreciation on the calendar, words of praise in every politician’s mouth, and murmurs of thanks from people at restaurants. Indeed, discussions of the intense value of these professions crowd out other, more mundane conversations. Like ones regarding salary increases.

Painter didn’t make much as a result; just enough to eat and have some pocket cash. He lived in a single-room apartment provided by his work. Each night, he went out to his task. And he dis so, even at this hour, without fear of mugging or attack. Kilahito was a safe city, nightmares excluded. Nothing like rampaging, semi-sentient voids of darkness to drive down crime.

Understandably, most people stayed inside at night.

Night. Well, we’ll call it that. The time when people slept. They didn’t have the same view of these things that you do, as his people lived in persistent darkness. Still, during his shift, you’d say it felt like night. Painter passed through hollow streets alongside overstuffed apartments. The only activity he spotted was from Rabble Way: a street you might charitably call a “low end merchant quarter.” The long, narrow street lay near the perimeter of town, naturally. Along it, the hion connections had been bent and curved into signs. These hung out from shop after shop, like hands waving for attention.

Each sign—letters, pictures, and designs—was created using only two colors: aqua and magenta. Art drawn in two, continuous lines. Yes, they had another source of light. Light bulbs, as common on many planets. Kilahito often used them indoors. But the hion just worked, no need for machinery or replacement, so many relied on it, particularly outdoors.

Soon, Painter reached the edge of the city. The end of hion. One final street wrapped Kilahito, and beyond that was the shroud. An endless, inky darkness that that besieged the city, and every one on the planet.

It smothered the city like a dome, driven back by the hion—which could also be used to make passages and corridors between cities. Only the light of the star shone through the shroud. To this day, I’m not a hundred percent certain why. But we are close to where Virtuosity splintered herself, and I suspect that has had an effect.

At the perimeter of the city, just in front of the shroud,, Painter folded his arms, confident. This was his realm. Here, he was the lone hunter. The solitary wanderer. The man who prowled the endless dark, unafraid of—

Laughter tinkled in the air to his right.

He sighed, glancing to where two other nightmare painters strolled the perimeter. Akane wore a bright green skirt and buttoning white blouse, and carried the long brush of a nightmare painter like a baton. Tojin loped beside her, a young man with bulging arms and a flat features. Painter had always thought Tojin looked incomplete, as if the Shards had taken an unfinished person and rounded up.

They laughed again at something Akane said. Then they saw him standing there.

“Nikaro?” Akane called. “You on the same schedule as us again?”

“Yeah,” Painter said. “It’s, um, on the chart… I think?” Had he actually filled it out this time?

“Great!” she replied. “See you later. Maybe?”

“Uh, yeah,” Painter said.

Akane walked off, heels striking stone, paintbrush in hand, canvas under her arm. Tojin gave Painter a little shrug, then followed, his own supplies in his large painter’s bag. Painter lingered as he watched them go, and fought down the urge to go chasing after.

He was a lone hunter. A solitary wanderer. An….unescorted meanderer? Regardless, he didn’t want to work in a pair or a group, like a lot of the others did.

It would be nice if someone would ask him. So he could show Akane and Tojin that he had friends too. He would reject any such offer with stoic firmness, of course. Because he worked by himself. He was a single saunterer. A…

Painter sighed. It was difficult to maintain a properly brooding air after an encounter with the Akane. Particularly as her laughter echoed two streets over. Being a nightmare painter might not have been as…solemn a job as he made it out to be.

It helped him to think that it was. Made it feel like less of a mistake. Particularly during those times when he went to bed, and regretted the decisions that had forced him into a life where he’d spend the next six decades on this street every night, backlit by the hion. Alone.

Chapter Two

Yumi had always considered the appearance of the day star to be encouraging. An omen of fortune. A sign that the primal hijo would be open and welcoming to her. In fact, the day star seemed extra bright today—glowing a soft blue on the eastern horizon as the sun rose in the west.

A powerful sign, if you believed in such things. There’s an old joke that notes lost items tend to be in the last place one looks. By converse, omens tend to appear in the first place people look for them.

Yumi did believe in signs. She had to—as though she rarely spent time thinking about them these days, an omen had been the single most important event in her life. The one that had appeared right after her birth. The one that had marked her as Chosen by the spirits.

She settled herself on the warm floor of her wagon as her attendants, Chaeyung and Hwanji, entered. The bowed in ritual postures, then fed her with maipon sticks and spoons—a meal of rice and a stew that had been left on the ground to cook.

Yumi sat and swallowed, never so crass as to try to feed herself. This was a ritual, and she was an expert in those. Though, she couldn’t help feeling distracted. Today was nineteen days past her nineteenth birthday.

A day for decisions. A day for action.

A day to, maybe, ask for what she wanted?

It was a hundred days until the big festival in Torio City, the grand capital, seat of the queen. The yearly revel of the country’s greatest art, plays, and projects. She had never gone. Perhaps…this time…

First, she had duties. Once her attendants finished feeding her, she rose. They opened the door for her, then hopped down out of the private wagon. Yumi took a deep breath, then followed, stepping into sunlight and down into her clogs.

Immediately, her two attendants leaped to hold up enormous fronds to obscure her from view. Naturally, people in the village had gathered to see her. The Chosen. The yoki-hijo. The girl of commanding primal spirits. (Not the most pithy of titles, but it works better in their language.)

This land—Torio—couldn’t have been more different from where Painter lived. Not a single glowing line—cold or warm—streaked the sky. No apartment buildings. No pavement. Oh, but they had sunlight. A dominant red-orange sun, the color of baked clay. Bigger and closer than your sun, it had distinct spots of varied color on it—like a boiling breakfast stew, churning and undulating in the sky.

This crimson sun painted the landscape…well, just ordinary colors. That’s how the brain works. Once you’d been there a few hours, you wouldn’t notice the light was a shade redder. But when you first arrive, it looks striking. Like the result of a bloody massacre which everyone is too numb to acknowledge. It also provides dynamic descriptions for poets telling stories, so there’s that.

Hidden behind her fronds, Yumi walked on clogged feet through the village to the local cold spring. Once at the spring, her attendants slipped her out of her nightgown—a yoki-hijo did not dress or undress herself—and let her walk down into the slightly cool water, shivering at its shocking kiss. A short time later, Chaeyung and Hwanji followed with a floating plate holding crystalline soaps. They rubbed her with the first, then she washed. Once with the second, then she washed. Twice with the third. Three times with the fourth. Five times with the fifth. Eight times with the sixth. Thirteen times with the seventh.

You might think that extreme. If so, have you perhaps never heard of religion?

Yumi’s particular flavor of devotion, fortunately, did have some practical accommodations. The later soaps were only such in the broadest definition—you would consider them perfumed creams, with a deliberately moisturizing component.

(I find them particularly nice on the feet, though I’ll probably need them for more parts of my body once I arrive in the Torish version of hell for abusing their ritual components for bunion relief.)

Yumi’s final rinse involved ducking beneath the water for a count of a hundred and forty-four. Underneath, her dark hair flowed around her, writhing in the current of her motion as if alive. The forced washing got her hair extremely clean—which was important, as her religious calling forbade her from ever cutting it, so it reached all the way down to her waist.

Though it wasn’t required of the ritual, Yumi liked to look up through the shimmering warm water and see if she could find the sun. Fire and water. Liquid and light.

She burst out of the water at the exact count of one forty four and gasped. That was supposed to get easier, she’d been told. She was supposed to rise, serene, renewed and reborn. Instead, she was forced to break decorum today by coughing a little.

(Yes she saw coughing as “breaking decorum.” Don’t even ask about how she regarded calling a someone by their first name.)

Ritual bathing done, it was time for the ritual dressing, also done by her attendants. The traditional sash just under the bust, then the larger white wrap across the chest. Loose undergarment leggings. Then the tobok, in two layers of thick colorful cloth, with a wide bell skirt. Bright magenta, for the ritual day of the week.

She slipped on her clogs again. Then somehow stepped in them, natural and fluid. (I consider myself a reasonably adroit person, but Torish clogs—they call them getuk—always felt like bricks tied to my feet. They aren’t necessarily hard to balance in—they’re only six inches tall—but they grant most outsiders the graceful poise of a drunk chull.)

With all of that, she was finally ready…for her next ritual. In this case, she needed to pray at the village shrine to seek the blessings of the spirits. So, she again let her attendants block sight with their fronds, then walked out around to the village flower garden.

Here, vibrant blue blossoms—cup-like, to catch the rain—floated on thermals. They hovered around two feet off the ground. In Toria, plants never dared touch the ground, lest the heat wither them away. Each flower had wide leaves at the sides, catching the air—like lilies, with fine, dangling roots that absorbed nutrients from the air.

Yumi’s passing caused them to swirl and bump against one another. The shrine was a small structure, wood, mostly open to the air but with a latticed dome. Remarkably, it also floated gracefully a few feet off the ground—this time, by way of a lifting spirit underneath. It took the shape of two statues with grotesque features, facing one another. One vaguely male, one vaguely female, separate parts—thought they’d come from the same spirit. One crouched on the ground, while one clung to the bottom of the shrine.

Yumi approached among the flowers, the soft thermals causing her skirt to ripple. Thick cloth didn’t rise enough to be embarrassing; just enough to give shape and flare to the bell of her costume. She again took off her clogs as she reached the shrine, then she stepping up onto the cool wood. It barely wobbled, held firm by the strength of the spirit.

She knelt, then began the first of the thirteen ritual prayers. Now, if you think this description of her preparations took a while, that’s intentional. It might help you understand—in the slightest way—what it was to live Yumi’s life. Because this wasn’t a special day, in terms of her duties. This was normal. Ritual eating. Ritual bathing. Ritual dressing. Ritual prayers. And more.

Yumi was one of the Chosen, picked at birth by omen, granted the ability to influence the hijo, the spirits. It was an enormous honor among her people. And they never let her forget it.

The prayers, and following meditations, took around an hour. When she finished, she looked out toward the rising sun—slots in the shrine’s wooden canopy decorating her in alternating lines of light and shadow. She felt…lucky. Yes, she was certain that was the proper emotion. She was blessed to hold this station, one of the very fortunate few.

Duties done for the moment, she relaxed—though she thought she probably shouldn’t have—and contemplated the world the spirits provided. The warm sun, of vibrant red-orange, shining through brilliant clouds yellow, crimson, violet. A field of hovering flowers, trembling as tiny lizards leaped from one to the other. The stone underneath, warm and vibrant, the source of all life, heat, and growth.

She was a part of this. A vital one.

Surely this was wonderful.

Surely this was all that she should ever need.

Surely, she couldn’t want more. Even if…even if today was lucky. Even if… Perhaps, for once, she could ask?

The festival, she thought. One day to visit, wearing the clothing of an ordinary person. One day to be normal.

Rustling cloth and the sound of wooden shoes on stone caused Yumi to turn. Only one person would dare approach her during her meditation: Liyun, a tall woman in a severe black tobok with a white bow. Liyun, her kihomaban, a word that meant—in their language—something between a guardian and a sponsor. We’ll use the term warden for simplicity.

Liyun stopped a few steps from the shrine, hands behind her back. Ostensibly, she waited upon Yumi’s pleasure, a servant to the girl of commanding primal spirits. (Trust me, the term grows on you.) And yet, there was a certain demanding air to even the way Liyun stood.

Perhaps it was the fashionable shoes—clogs with thick wood beneath the toes, but long heels behind, with a sleek feel. Perhaps it was the way she wore her hair, cut short in the back, longer in the front—evoking the shape of a blade at each side of her head. This wasn’t a woman whose time you could waste, somehow, even when she wasn’t waiting for you.

Yumi quickly rose. “Is it time, Warden-nimi?” she said, with enormous respect.

Yumi and Painter’s languages shared a common root, and in both, there was a certain affection I find it hard to express in your tongue. They could conjugate sentences, or add modifiers to words, to indicate praise or derision. No curses or swears existed among them, interestingly. They would simply change a word to its lowest form instead. I’ll do my best to indicate for you this nuance by adding the word Highly or Lowly in certain key locations.

“The time has not quite arrived, Chosen,” Liyun said. “We should wait for the steamwell’s eruption.”

Of course. The air was renewed at the steamwell’s eruption, so better to wait a few minutes, if it was near. But that meant they had time. A few, precious moments with no scheduled work or ceremony.

“Warden-nimi,” Yumi said, gathering her courage. “The Festival of Reveals. It is near.”

“A hundred days, yes.”

“And it is a thirteenth year,” Yumi said. “The hijo will be unusually active. We will not…petition them that day, I assume?”

“I suppose we won’t, Chosen,” Liyun said, checking the little calendar—in form of a small book—she kept in her pouch. She flipped a few pages.

“And we’ll be…near Torio City? We’ve been traveling in the region.”

“And?”

“And… I…” Yumi bit her lip.

“Ah…” Liyun said. “You would like to spend the festival day in prayer of thanks to the spirits for granting you such an elevated station.”

Just say it, a part of her whispered. Just say no. That’s not what you want. Tell her.

Liyun snapped her book closed, watching Yumi. “Surely,” she said, “that is what you want. You wouldn’t actively desire to do something that would embarrass your station. To imply you regret your place. Would you, Chosen?”

“Never,” Yumi whispered.

“You were honored,” Liyun said, “of all the children born that year to be given this calling, these powers. One of only fourteen currently living.”

“I know.”

“You are special.”

She would have preferred to be less special—but she felt guilty the moment she thought it. Why would she second guess the spirits?

“I understand,” Yumi said, steeling herself. “Let’s not wait for the steamwell. Please, lead me to the arena. I am eager to start my duties and call the spirits.”

Chapter Three

The most terrifying thing about nightmares is how they transform.

I’m talking about regular nightmares now, not the kind that get painted. Terror dreams—they change. They evolve. It’s bad enough to encounter something frightening in the waking world, but at least those mortal horrors have shape, substance. That which has shape can be understood. That which has a mass can be destroyed.

Nightmares are a fluid terror. Once you get the briefest handle on one, it will change. It fill the nooks of the soul like spilled water filling cracks in the floor. Nightmares are a seeping chill, created by the mind to punish itself. In this, a nightmare is the very definition of masochism. Most of us are modest enough to keep that sort of thing tucked away, hidden.

And on Painter’s world, those dark bits were strikingly prone to coming alive.

He stood at the edge of the city—bathed from behind in radioactive teal and electric magenta—and looked out at darkness. Stiff, like a reflective surface, it shifted and flowed. Like molten tar.

The shroud. The blackness beyond.

Nightmares unformed.

There were trains that traveled the hion lines to other, distant cities. His parents lived in one, less than a day’s travel away from the larger metropolis of Kilahito, where he’d come to take work. So he knew other cities existed, that this one wasn’t alone. Yet, it was difficult not to feel isolated while looking into that endless blackness.

It stayed away from the hion lines. Mostly.

He turned to the right and walked along the perimeter for a short time, passing the outer buildings of the city—built in a line, like a shield wall, with narrow alleyways between. But it was made of buildings, and wasn’t an actual wall. Walls didn’t stop nightmares, so a solid fortification would merely prevent people from stepping out onto the perimeter.

In Painter’s experience, nobody came out here but his kind. The regular people stayed inside; even just one street inward felt infinitely more safe to them. They lived as he had, in his youth. Trying so very hard not to think about what was out there. Seething. Churning. Watching.

Now it was his job to confront it.

He didn’t see anything at first—no signs of particularly brave nightmares, encroaching upon the city. The signs could be subtle, however. So he kept walking on the perimeter. His assigned beat was a small wedge of the city moving inward several blocks, but the outside portion was the widest—and most likely to show a sign of a nightmare.

As he walked the road outside the city, he continued to imagine that he was some lone warrior, doing his rounds. Instead of, essentially, a pest exterminator who had gone to art school.

On his right, in toward the city, he began passing the capstone paintings. He wasn’t certain where the local painters had gotten the idea, but these days—during dull moments on patrol—the painters tended to do some practice work on the outer buildings of the city. The walls facing the shroud, naturally, didn’t have windows. So they made for large, inviting canvases.

Not strictly part of the job—these paintings couldn’t be turned in as proof of work done—each was a certain personal statement. He passed Akane’s painting, depicting an expansive flower. Black paint on the whitewashed wall.

His own was two buildings over. Just a blank white wall, though if you looked closely, you could see the failed project beneath, peeking through. He’d need to whitewash it again, to make sure that wasn’t visible. But not tonight, because finally, he caught signs of a nightmare. He stepped closer to the shroud, but didn’t touch it, of course.

Yes…the black surface here was disturbed. Like paint that had been touched when near to drying, it was…upset, rippling. It was difficult to make out, as the shroud didn’t reflect light, like the ink or tar it otherwise appeared to be. But Painter had trained well.

Something had left the darkness here and started into the city. He got his brush from his large painter’s bag, a tool as long as a sword. He always felt better with it in hand. Then he shifted his bag to his back, feeling the weight of canvases and ink jar inside. Then, he struck inward—passing the whitewashed wall that hadn’t quite covered up his old painting.

He’d tried four times so far. This last one had gotten further than most of his attempts—a painting of the star. He’d started it once he’d heard the news of an upcoming voyage, intended to travel the darkness of the sky. A trip to the star itself, taken by scientists, using a special vessel and a hion line launched to a place incredibly distant.

Because contrary to what everyone had assumed, the star wasn’t just a spot of light in the sky. Telescopes had revealed that it was a planet. Occupied, according to their best guess, by some other people. A place whose light, somehow, cut through the shroud.

The news of the impending trip had briefly inspired him. But he’d lost that spark, and the painting had languished. How long had it been since he’d covered it over? A month, at least.

On the corner of the wall near the painting, he picked out steaming blackness. The nightmare had passed this way, and had brushed the stones here, leaving residue. It evaporated slowly, shedding black tendrils into the night. He’d expected it to take this path, of course; they almost always took the most direct way into the city. But it was good to confirm.

Painter crept back inward, reentering the realm of hion light and its twin colors. Laughter echoed from somewhere down to his right, but the nightmare probably hadn’t gone that direction. The pleasure district was where people went to do anything other than sleep.

There, he thought, picking out some black wisps on a planter up ahead. The shrub grew toward the hion lines, the planet’s source of raw, nourishing light. So as Painter moved down the empty roadway, he walked through plants in boxes that looked as if they were reaching arms up in silent salute.

The next sign came near an alleyway. On the ground this time—an actual footprint. The nightmare had begun evolving, picking up on human thoughts, changing from formless blackness to something with a shape. Only a vague one, at first, but instead of a slinking, flowing black thing, it probably had feet now. They rarely left footprints even with this kind of shape, though, so he was fortunate to have found one.

He moved onto a darker street, where the hion lines were fine and thin as they flowed overhead. In this shadowy place, he remembered his first nights doing this alone. Despite extensive training, despite mentorship with three different painters, he’d felt exposed and raw trying it on his own. Like a fresh scrape, exposed to the air. His emotions, his fear, close to the surface.

That fear was layered well beneath callouses of experience now. Still, he gripped his shoulder bag tightly in one hand and held his brush out like a sword as he crept along. There, on the wall, was a handprint—with too-long fingers, and what looked like claws. Yes, it was taking a form. Its prey must be close.

Further down the tight alley, pressed between two buildings like hands pushing to trap him, he found it. Near a bare wall, a thing of ink and shadow, some seven feet tall. It had formed two long arms that bent too many times, the elongated fingers pressed against either side of the stone wall—and its head had sank through the stone to look into the room inside.

The tall ones always unnerved him, particularly when they had long fingers. He felt like he’d seen such things in his own, fragmented dreams—figments of terrors buried deep inside that only surfaced when he saw one like this. His feet scraped the stones, and the thing heard, withdrawing its head, wisps of formless blackness rising from it. As if it were ash from a fire, still smoldering.

No face, though. They never had faces—at least, not unless something was going wrong. Instead, these just displayed a deeper blackness on the front of the head. One that dripped dark liquid, like tears—as if the head were wax that had been melted from being too close to the fire.

Painter immediately put on his protections, thinking calm thoughts. This was the first and most important training. The nightmares, like many predators that fed on minds, could sense emotions and thoughts. They searched for the most powerful, raw ones to feed upon. So in this case, a placid mind was not of much interest.

The thing turned and looked back through the wall. This building had no windows, which was foolish. In removing them, the occupants trapped themselves more fully in the boxes of their homes. Nightmares, though, paid little attention to walls. This one had stretched through the stone. All people did by giving up windows was feed their claustrophobia, and perhaps make the jobs of painters more difficult.

Painter moved carefully, slowly, taking a canvas—a good three feet by three feet piece of thick cloth in a frame—from his shoulder bag. He sat it on the ground in front of him. His jar of paint followed—black, and runny, like ink. A blend designed to give excellent gradations in the grey and black. For nuance. Not that Painter himself bothered much these days.

He dipped the brush in the ink and knelt above his canvas, then hesitated, looking at the nightmare. The blackness continued to steam off of it, but its shape was still fairly indistinct. This was probably only its first or second trip into the city. It took a good dozen trips before a nightmare had enough substance to be dangerous—and they had to return to the shroud each time between to renew, lest they evaporate away.

So, by the looks of it, this one was fairly new. It probably couldn’t hurt him.

Probably.

And here was the crux of why painters were so important, yet so disposable, all at once. Their job was essential, but not urgent. As long as a nightmare was discovered and dealt with in its first ten or so trips into the city, it could be neutralized. That almost always happened.

Painter was good at controlling his fear with thoughts like these. Another part of his training—very pragmatic. Painter tried to consider what it looked like, what its shape could have been. Supposedly, if you picked something that sparked your imagination, you’d have more power over the entity. But he had trouble with this. Rather, during the last few months, it had seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

So today, he just settled on the shape of a small bamboo thicket and began painting. The thing had spindly arms, after all. Those were kind of like bamboo.

He’d practiced a great number of bamboo stalks. In fact, you could say that Painter had a certain scientific precision in the way he drew each segment—a little sideways flourish at the start, followed by a single long line. Then you let the brush linger a moment so that when you pulled it back, the blot you left formed the end knob of the segment. You could create each efficiently in a single stroke.

It was efficient, and these days, that seemed most important to him. As he painted, he fixed the shape in his mind—a central, powerful image. And as usual, he drew the thing’s attention with such deliberate thought. It hesitated, then pulled its head back out through the wall, turning toward him, face dripping its own ink.

It moved toward him, walking on its arms, but those had grown more round. With knobbed segments.

Painter continued. Stroke. Flourish. Leaves made with quick flips of the brush, blacker than the main body of the bamboo. Similar protrusions appeared on the arms of the thing as it drew closer. It also shrank upon itself as he painted a pot at the bottom. As always, the image captured the thing. Diverted it. So that, by the time it reached him, the transformation was fully in effect.

He never lost himself in the painting these days. After all, he told himself, he had a job to do. And he did that job well. As he finished, the thing even adopted some of the sounds of bamboo—the soft rattle of stalks beating against one another, to accompany the omnipresent buzz of the hion lines above.

He sat back, leaving a perfect bamboo painting on his canvas, mimicked by the thing in the alleyway, leaves rustling softly and brushing the sides of the walls. Then, with a sound very much like a sigh, it dispursed—trapped as it was, it couldn’t flee back to the outskirts of the city and rejoin the shroud to regain strength. Instead, like water trapped on a hot plate, it just…evaporated.

Soon, Painter was alone in the alleyway. He packed up his things, sliding the canvas back in the large bag with three other unused ones. Then went back on patrol.

Chapter Four

The local steamwell erupted right as Yumi was passing—at a safe distance—on the way to the Place of Ritual.

A glorious jet of water ascended from the hole in the center of the village. A furious, superheated cascade which reached forty feet at its highest—a gift from the spirits deep below. That was a decent height for this region.

The homes were built a good distance back, of course. In a ring around the steamwell. Like oh so many things in life, you wanted to be close—but not too close. Steamwells were life in this land. So long as you didn’t fraternize.

The water—the part that didn’t escape as steam—rained down on large bronze trays, set up in six concentric rings around the geyser. Elevated from the ground to keep them cool, the metal funneled the water down the slope toward the nearby homes. There were some sixty of those in the town—with room to grow, judging by how much water the steamwell released.

You needed that water to thrive in the land. Rain was rare, and rivers…well, one can imagine what the superheated ground did to prospective rivers. Water wasn’t rare in Yumi’s land, but it was concentrated, centralized, elevated. The air nearest the Steamwells was humid, nourishing migratory plants and other lively entities. You often found clouds above the steamwells, offering shade and occasional rainfall.

Further out from the city, though, were the searing barrens. Wastelands where the ground was too hot even for plants; the stone here could set clogs afire and kill travelers who lingered. In Torio, you traveled only at night, and only upon hovering wagons—pulled by flying devices created by the spirits. Needless to say, most people stayed home.

The loud pelting of drops against metal basins drowned out the murmurs of the watching crowds. For now Yumi could be seen—bathing finished, prayers proffered—and her attendants followed with fronds lowered, the ritual sign that the gathered townspeople could gawk at her.

She kept her eyes lowered, and she walked with a practiced step—a yoki-hijo must glide, as if a spirit herself. She was glad for the sound of the steamwell, for though she didn’t mind the whispers and murmurs of awe, they did sometimes…overwhelm.

She quickly reminded herself that the people’s awe wasn’t for her, but her calling. She needed to remember that, needed to banish pride and remain reserved. She most certainly needed to avoid anything embarrassing—like smiling. Out of reverence for her station.

The station, in return, didn’t notice. As is the case with many things that people revere.

She passed homes, most of which were in two tiers: one section built against the ground to benefit from the warmth and heat. Another built on stilts, with air underneath to keep it cooler. Imagine two large planter boxes built against one another, one elevated four feet, the other resting on the ground. Most all of them had a tree or two chained to them. Stocky, only about eight feet from tips of branches to bottom of their wide, webbed roots. Of course, these hovered about two feet in the air, riding the thermals.

Lighter plants hovered high in the sky, throwing down variegated shadows. During the daytime, you only found low plants in places like gardens, where the ground was cooler. That, and where humans worked to keep them nearby, so they didn’t float away, or get floated away. Torio is the only land I’ve ever heard of with tree rustlers.

At the far side of the town was the kimomakkin, or—as we’ll use it in this story—the Place of Ritual. A village usually had only one, lest the spirits get jealous of one another. A few flowers floated nearby, and when Yumi entered, her passing caused them to eddy and spin in behind her. They immediately shot up high into the sky. The place of ritual was a section of extra hot stone, though not nearly on the level of the outlands. You’d have found it as hot as walking on sand in the summertime—hot enough to be dangerous, but not in most cases deadly.

Here, heat was sacred. The village people gathered outside, their clogs scraping stone, parents lifting children. Three local spirit scribes settled on tall stools to sing songs that, best I can tell, the spirits don’t even notice. I approve of the job nonetheless. Anything to gainfully employ more musicians. It’s not that we’re unable to do anything else; it’s more that if you don’t find something productive for us to do, we’ll generally start asking ourselves questions like, “Hey, why aren’t they worshipping me?”

Everyone waited at the perimeter of the Place of Ritual, including Liyun. The songs started, a rhythmic chanting accompanying simple percussion of wooden sticks on wooden pans. A flute in the background, all of it growing more audible as the steamwell finished relieving itself and stumbled back off to sleep.

Inside the Place of Ritual was just Yumi.

The spirits deep underground.

And a whole lot of rocks.

The villagers spent months gathering them, setting them out through the city, then deliberating over which ones had the best shapes. You may think your local pastimes are boring, and the things your parents always forced you to do mind-numbing, but at least you didn’t spend your days excited by the prospect of ranking rock shapes.

Yumi put on a pair of knee pads, then knelt in the center of the rocks, spreading her skirts—which rippled and rose in the thermals. Normally, you did not want your skin to brush the ground. Here, there was something almost intimate about kneeling. Spirits gathered in places warm. Or, rather, warmth was a sign they were near.

They were unseen as of yet. You had to draw them forth—but they wouldn’t come to the beck of just anyone. You needed someone like Yumi. You needed a girl who could call to the spirits.

There were many ways that worked, but they shared a common theme: creativity. Most self-aware invested beings—be they called fay, seon, or spirit—respond to this fundamental aspect of human nature in one way or another.

Something from nothing. Creation.

Beauty from raw materials. Art.

Order from chaos. Organization.

Or in this case, all three at once. Each yoki-hijo trained in an ancient and powerful art. A kind of deliberate, wonderous artistry, requiring the full synergy of body and mind. Geological reorganization on the micro-scale, involving gravitational equilibrium.

In other words, they stacked rocks.

Yumi selected one with an interesting shape and carefully balanced it on end, then removed her hands and left it standing—oblong, looking like it should fall. The crowd gasped, though nothing arcane or mystical was on display. This was a result of instinct and practice. She place a second stone on the first, then then two on top at once—balancing them against one another in a way that looked impossible. The two incongruous stones—one leaning out to the right, the other precariously resting on its left tip—stayed steady as she pulled her hands away.

There was a deliberate reverence to the way Yumi moved, positioning rocks, then seeming to cradle them for a moment—stilling them, like a mother with a sleeping child. Then she’d pull her hands away, and leave the rocks as if a breath away from collapse. It wasn’t magic. But it was certainly magical.

The crowd ate it up. If you think their fascination to be odd, well…I’m not going to disagree. It is a little strange. Not just the balancing, but the way her people treated the performances—and creations—of the yoki-hijo as the greatest possible triumphs of artistry.

But then again, there’s nothing intrinsically valuable about any kind of art. That’s not me complaining or making light. It’s one of the most wonderful aspects to art—the fact that people decide what is beautiful. We don’t get to decide what is food and what is not. (Yes, exceptions exist. Don’t be pedantic. When you pass those marbles, we’re all going to laugh at you.) But we absolutely get to decide what counts as art.

If Yumi’s people wanted to declare that arranging rocks surpassed painting or sculpture as an artistic creation…well, I personally found it fascinating.

And the spirits agreed.

Today, Yumi created a spiral, using the artist’s sequence of progress as a kind of loose structure. You might know it by a different name. One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four. Then back down. The piles of twenty or thirty rocks should have been the most impressive—and indeed, the fact that she could stack them so well is incredible. But she found ways to make the stacks of five or three delight just as much. Incongruous mixes of tiny rocks, with enormous ones balanced on top. Shingled patterns of stones, oblong ones hanging out precariously to the sides. Stones as long as her forearm balanced on their tiniest tips.

From the mathematical descriptions, and the use of the artist’s sequence, you might have assumed the process to be methodical. Calculating. And yet, somehow, it felt more a feat of organic improvisation than it did one of engineering prowess. Yumi swayed as she stacked, moving to the beats of the drums. She’d close her eyes, swimming her head from side to side as she felt the stones grind beneath her fingers. Judged their weights, the way they tipped.

Yumi didn’t want to just accomplish the task. She didn’t want to just perform for the whispering, excitable audience. She wanted to be worthy. She wanted to sense the spirits, and know what they wanted of her.

They deserved so much better than her. They deserved someone who did more than Yumi’s best. Someone who didn’t secretly yearn for freedom. Someone who didn’t—deep down—reject the incredible gift she’d been given.

Over the course of several hours, the sculpture grew into a brilliant spiral of stacks. Yumi outlasted the drumming women, who fell off after about two hours. She continued as people took children home for naps, or slipped away to eat, and even long enough that Liyun had to duck away to use the facilities, then hastily return.

Those watching could appreciate the sculpture, of course. But the best place to view it was from above. Or below. Imagine a great swirl made up of stacked stones, evoking the feeling of blowing wind, spiraling, yet made entirely from rock. Order from chaos. Beauty from raw materials. Something from nothing. The spirits noticed.

In record numbers, they noticed.

As Yumi continued through scraped fingers and aching muscles, they began to float up from the stones beneath. Teardrop shaped, radiant like the sun—a swirling orange and blue—and the size of a person’s head. They’d rise up and settle next to Yumi, watching her progress, transfixed. They didn’t have eyes—they were little more than blobs—but they could watch. Sense, at least.

Spirits of this sort find human creations to be fascinating. And here, because of what she’d done—because of who she was—they knew this sculpture was a gift. As the day grew dark, and the plants began to drift down from the upper layers of the sky, Yumi finally started to weaken. By now, her fingers were bloodied—the callouses scraped away by repetitive movement. Her arms had moved from sore, to numb, to somehow both sore and numb.

It was time for the next step. She couldn’t afford a childish mistake like she’d suffered in her early years: that of working so hard that she collapsed unconscious before binding the spirits. This wasn’t simply about creating the sculpture or providing a pious display. There was a measure of practicality attached to this day’s art, like a rider in a contract.

Feeling too tired to stand, Yumi turned from her creation—which contained hundreds of stones, the plies at the side of the yard depleted. Then she blinked, counting the spirits who surrounded her, each in its glory—in this case, looking a little like an series of overly large ice cream scoops that had tumbled from the cone.

Thirty-seven.

She’d summoned thirty-seven.

Most yoki-hijo were lucky to get six. Her previous record had been twenty.

Yumi wiped the sweat from her brow, then counted again through blurry eyes. She was tired. So (lowly) tired.

“Send forth,” she said, voice croaking, “the first supplicant.”

The crowd agitated with excitement, and people went running to fetch friends or family members who had fallen off during the hours of sculpting. A strict order of needs was kept in the town, adjudicated by methods Yumi didn’t know. Supplicants were arranged, with the lucky five or six at the top all but guaranteed a slot.

Those lower down would usually have to wait another year or more for another yoki-hijo to grant their needs. As spirits usually remained bound for five to ten years—with their effectiveness waning in the latter part of that—there was always a grand need for the efforts of the yoki-hijo. Today, for example, there were twenty-three names on the list, even though they’d only expected a half dozen spirits to arrive.

As one might imagine, there had been a fervor among the members of the town council to fill out the rest of the names. Yumi was unaware of this. She simply positioned herself at the front of the arena, kneeling, head bowed—and trying her best not to collapse sideways to the stone.

Liyun allowed the first supplicant in, a man with a head that sat a little too far forward on his neck, like a picture that had been cut in half, then sloppily taped back together. “Blessed bringer of spirits,” he said, wringing his cap in his hands, “we need light for my home. It has been six years, and we have been without.”

Six years? Without a light at nights? Suddenly, Yumi felt even more selfish for her attempt to escape her duties earlier. “I am sorry,” she whispered back, “for failing you and your family these many years.”

“You didn’t—” The man cut himself off. It wasn’t proper to contradict a yoki-hijo. Even to try to compliment them.

Yumi turned to the first of the spirits, who inched up beside her, curious. “Light,” she said. “Please. In exchange for this gift of mine, will you give us light?” At the same time, she projected the proper idea. Of a flaming sun becoming a small glowing orb, capable of being carried in the palm of your hand.

“Light,” the spirit said to her. “Yes.”

The man waited anxiously as the spirit shivered, then divided in half—one side glowing brightly, with a friendly orange color, the other becoming a dull blue sphere. So dark, it could be mistaken for black, particularly at dusk.

Yumi handed the man the two balls, each fitting in the palm of one hand. He bowed and retreated. The next requested a repelling pair, like was used in the garden veranda, to lift her small dairy into the air—and keep it cooler and let her make butter. Yumi complied, speaking to the next spirit in line, coaxing the spirit to split into the shape of two squat statues with grimacing features.

Each supplicant in turn got their request fulfilled. It had been years since Yumi had accidentally confused or frightened off a spirit—though these people didn’t know it, and so each waited in worried anticipation, fearing that their request would be one where the spirit turned away.

It didn’t happen, though each request took longer to fulfill, longer to persuade, as the spirits grew more detached from her performance. And each request took a little…something from Yumi. Something that recovered over time, but in the moment, left her feeling empty. Like a jar of jelly tea, being emptied scoop by scoop.

Some wanted light. A few wanted repelling devices. The majority requested flyers—hovering devices about two feet across. These could be used to help care for crops during the daytime, when they soared high and out of the reach of the farmers—and needed to be watched by the village’s great crows instead. There were some threats the crows could not manage, and being able to interact with them at height was a huge benefit, so a good fleet of flyers was a necessity for most settlements.

One could make basically anything out of a spirit, provided it was willing and you could formulate the request properly. To Torish people, using a spirit for light was as natural—and as common—as candles or lanterns might be among others. You might consider wasteful of the great cosmic power afforded them, but theirs was a harsh land where the ground itself could literally boil water. You’ll just have to forgive them for making use of the resources they had.

Getting through all thirty seven spirits was nearly as grueling as the art itself—and by the end, Yumi continued in a daze. Barely seeing, barely hearing. Mumbling ceremonial phrases by rote and projecting to the spirits with more primal need than crisp images. But eventually, the last supplicant bowed and hurried away with his new spirit saw. Yumi found herself alone before her creation, surrounded by cooling air and floating lilies that were drifting down to her level as the thermals cooled.

Done. She was…done?

Each bound spirit had reinforced her sculpture, the stones of which would now resist tipping as if they’d been glued in place. As the bond weakened, and the stones eventually started to drop over the years, the powers of the spirits would respond in kind. But in general, the more spirits you bound in a session, the longer all of them would last. What she’d done that day was unprecedented.

Liyun approached to congratulate her on the work so well done. She found, however, not a magnificent master of spirits—but an exhausted nineteen year old girl, collapsed unconscious, her hair fanning around her on the stone and her ceremonial silks trembling in the breeze.

Chapter Five

The nightmares had originally come from the sky.

Painter had heard the stories. Everyone had. They weren’t quite histories, mind you. They were fragments of stories that were likely exaggerations. They were taught in school regardless. Like a man with diarrhea in a sandpaper factory, sometimes all available options are less than ideal.

I watched it rain the blood of a dying god, one account read. I crawled through tar that took the faces of the people I had loved. It took them. And their blood became black ink.

Those are the words of a poet who, after the event, didn’t speak or even write for thirty years.

Grandfather spoke of the nightmares, another woman had written years later. He doesn’t know why he was spared. He stares at nothing when he speaks of those days spent crawling in the darkness, that terror from the sky, until he found another voice. They met and huddled, weeping together, clinging to one another—though they had never met before that day, they were suddenly brothers. Because they were real.

And then, this one, which I find most unnerving of them all: It will take me. It creeps under the barrier. It knows I am here. That one was found painted on the wall of a cave, roughly a hundred years later. No bones were ever located.

Yes, the records are sparse, fragmentary, and feverish. You’ll need to forgive the people who left them; they were busy surviving an all-out societal collapse. By Painter’s time, it had been seventeen centuries—and so far as they were concerned, the blackness of the shroud was normal.

But they’d only survived because of the hion: the lights that drove back the shroud. The energy by which a new society could be forged—or, in the parlance of the locals, painted anew. But this new world required dealing with the nightmares, one way or another.

“Another bamboo?” Sukishi said, sliding the top canvas from Painter’s bag.

“Bamboo works,” Painter said. “Why change if it works?”

“It’s lazy,” Sukishi replied.

Painter shrugged. His shift finished, it was time to turn in his paintings at the foreman’s office. The small room was lit by a small hanging chandelier. If you touch opposite lines of hion to either side of a piece of metal, you can make it heat up. From there, you were just a little sideways skip away from the incandescent bulb. As I said, not everything in the city was teal or magenta—though with hion outside, there generally wasn’t any need for street lights.

Sukishi marked a tally by Painter in the ledger. There wasn’t a strict quota—everyone knew that encountering nightmares was random, and there were more than enough painters. On average, you’d find one nightmare a night—but sometimes, you went days without even seeing one.

They still kept track. Go too long without a painting to turn in and questions would be asked. Now, the more lazy among you might notice a hole in this system. In theory, the rigorous training required to become a painter was supposed to weed out the sort of person who would just paint random things without actually encountering any nightmares. But there was a reason Sukishi hesitated and narrowed his eyes at painter after looking at the second canvas, and revealing a second bamboo painting.

“Bamboo works,” Painter repeated.

“You need to look at the shape of the nightmare,” Sukishi said. “You need to match your drawing to that, changing the natural form of the nightmare into something innocent, non-threatening. You should only be drawing bamboo if the things look like bamboo.”

“They did.”

Sukishi glared at him, and the old man had an impressive glare. Some facial expressions, like miso, required aging to hit their potency.

Painter feigned indifference, taking his wages for the day and stepping back out onto the street. He slung his bag over his shoulder—with his tools and remaining canvases—and went searching for some dinner.

The Noodle Pupil was the sort of corner restaurant where you could make noise. A place where you weren’t afraid to slurp as you sucked down your dinner, where your table’s laughter wasn’t embarrassing because it mixed like paint with that coming from the next table over. Though less busy on the “night” shift than during the “day,” it was still somehow loud, even when it was quiet.

Painter hovered around the place like a mote of dust in the light, looking for a place to land. The younger painters from his class congregated here with the sort of frequency that earned them their own unspoken booths or tables. A double-line of hion outlined the broad picture window in the front, glowing, made it look like a futuristic screen. Those same lines rose like vines above the window, spelling out the name in teal and magenta, with a giant bowl of noodles on top.

(Technically, I was a part owner in that noodle shop. What? Renowned, interdimensional storytellers can’t invest in a little real estate now and then?)

Painter stood outside, absorbing the laughter, like a tree soaking up the light of hion. Eventually, he lowered his head and ducked inside, looping his large shoulder bag on one of the prongs of the coat rack without looking. Fifteen other painters occupied the place, congregated around three tables. Akane’s table was in the back, where she was adjusting her hair. Tojin knelt low beside the table, solemnly adjudicating a noodle-eating contest between two other young men.

Painter sat down at the bar. He was, after all, a solitary defense against the miasma outside the city. A lone warrior. He preferred eating alone, obviously. He wouldn’t even have stopped in, save for his tragic mortality. Even solemn, edgy warriors against darkness needed noodles now and then.

The restaurant’s keeper flitted over behind the bar, then folded her arms and kind of hunched over as she stood, mimicking his pose. Finally, he looked up.

“Hey, Design,” he said. “Um…can I have the usual?”

“Your usual is so usual!” she said. “Don’t you want to know a secret? I’ll wrap it up and put it in your noodles if you order something new. But I’ll also tell you, because the paper will get soggy if it’s in the noodles too long, and you won’t be able to read it anyway.”

“Uh…” Painter said. “The usual. Please?”

“Politeness,” she said, pointing at him, “accepted.”

She…did not do a good job acting human. I take no blame, as she repeatedly refused my counsel on the matter. At least her disguise was holding up. People did wonder why the strange noodle-shop woman had long, white hair, despite appearing to be in her young twenties. She wore tight dresses, and many of the painters had crushes on her. She insisted, you see, that I make her disguise particularly striking.

Or, well, I should say it in her words. “Make me pretty so they’ll be extra disturbed if my face ever unravels. And give me voluptuous curves, because they remind me of a graphed cosign. And also because boobs look fun.”

It wasn’t an actual body—everyone kind of learned their lesson on that—but rather a complicated wireframe Lightweaving with force projections attached directly to her cognitive element as it manifested in the physical realm. But as I was getting pretty good at the technical side of all this, you can pretend it functioned the same as flesh and blood.

With Painter there, I could see what was happening—so I’ll admit to some pride regarding way Painter’s eyes followed Design as she walked over to begin preparing his meal. Granted, he did overdo it—his eyes lingered on her the entire time she worked. But don’t judge him too harshly. He was nineteen, and I’m a uniquely talented artist.

Design soon returned with his bowl of noodles, which she set into a circular nook carved into the wood. The hion lines—one connected to either end of bar—ran heat through the element at the bottom of the bowl, to keep the broth warm on chill Kilahito nights.

From behind, laughter and chanting heated up as the noodle-competition progressed. Painter, in turn, broke his maipon sticks apart and ate slowly, in a dignified way, befitting one of his imaginary station.

“Design,” he said, trying not to slurp too loud. “Is…what I’m doing important?”

“Of course it is,” she said, lounging down across the bar from him. “If you all didn’t eat the noodles, I think I’d run out of places to store them.”

“No,” he said, waving to his bag, still hanging from one arm of the restaurant’s curiously-shaped coat rack. “I mean being a nightmare painter. It’s an important job, right?”

“Uh, yeah,” Design said. “Obviously. Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a place with no nightmare painters. Then the people got eaten. It’s a short story.”

“I mean, I know it’s important in general,” Painter said. “But…is what I’m doing important?”

Design leaned forward across the bar, and he met her eyes. Which was difficult for him, considering her current posture. That said, some of you may have heard of her kind. I suggest, if you have the option, that you avoid trying to meet a Cryptic’s gaze. Their features—when undisguised—bend space and time, and have been known to lead to acute bouts of madness in those who try to make sense of them. Then again, who hasn’t wanted to flip off linear continuity now and then, eh?

“I see what you’re saying,” she told him.

“You do?” he asked.

“Yes. Noodles seven percent off tonight. In respect for the service of your brave painting services.”

It…wasn’t what he’d been talking about. But he nodded in thanks anyway. Because he was a young person working a vitally important, relatively low-paying job. Seven precent was seven percent.

Design, it should be noted, only gave discounts in prime number increments. Because, and I quote, “I have standards.” Still not sure what she meant.

She turned to see to another customer, so Painter continued slurping down the long noodles in warm, savory broth. The dish was quite good. Best in the city, according to some people, which isn’t that surprising. If there’s one thing you can count on a cryptic to do, it’s follow a list of instructions with exacting precision. Design had little vials of seasoning she added to the broth, each one counted to the exact number of grains of salt.

Halfway through the meal, he looked to the side as Akane stepped up to the bar to get some drinks. He looked away. She was gone a moment later, carrying cans of something festive to the others.

He ate the rest of the noodles in silence. Finally, Design noticed he was almost done. “Rice?” she asked.

“Yes, please.”

She added a scoop soak up the rest of the broth, and he ate it down.

“You could go talk to them,” Design said softly, wiping at the counter with a rag.

“I tried that in school. It didn’t go well.”

“People grow up. It’s one of the things that makes them different from rocks. You should—”

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m a loner, Design. You think I care what others think of me?”

She cocked her head, squinting with one eye. “Is that a trick question? Because you obviously—”

“How much?” he said. “With the discount?”

She sighed. “Six.”

“Six? A bowl normally costs two hundred kon.”

“Ninety-seven percent off,” she said. “Because you need it, Painter. You sure about this? I could go talk to them, tell them that you’re lonely. Why don’t I go do it right now?”

He laid a ten kon coin on the counter with a quick bow of thanks. Then, before she could push him further to do something that was probably good for him, he grabbed his bag from among the others hanging on the rack. He’d always found the statue coatrack a strange addition to the restaurant. But it was a quirky place. So, why not have a coat rack in the shape of a man with hawkish features and a sly smile?

Unfortunately, I had been quite aware of my surroundings when my ailment first struck. I had screamed inside when Design—thinking me too creepy otherwise—had spray painted me copper. Then, ever practical, she’d added a crown and several large bandoliers with poles on them for holding more bags or coats.

(As I said, I said I owned the restaurant. Part, at least. She ransacked my pockets for the money to build the place. I didn’t run it, though. You can’t do that when you’ve been frozen in time.

For your information, I have it on good authority that I made an excellent coat rack. I prefer not to think of it as an undignified disposal of my person, but rather me pulling off an incredible disguise.)

Painter stepped outside, heart thumping. A faint mist in the air gave the street a reflective sheen—an empty passage, lights hanging above, and then seeming to coat the ground below.

He breathed in, and out, and in again. And there, having fled from Design’s offers, he found it harder to maintain the fabrication. He wasn’t a loner. He wasn’t some proud knight, fighting the darkness for honor. He wasn’t important, interesting, or even personable. He was just one of likely thousands of unremarkable boys without the courage to do anything notable—and worse, without the skill to go underappreciated.

It was an unfair assessment of himself. But he thought it anyway, and found it difficult to stomach. Difficult enough that he wanted to retreat back toward his easy lies of self-imposed solitude and noble sacrifice. Unfortunately, another part was beginning to find those attitudes silly. Cringeworthy. With a sigh, he started off toward his apartment, his large painter’s bag across his shoulder and resting against his back.

At the first intersection, though, he spotted a tell-tail sign: whisps of darkness curling off the stone at the corner. A nightmare had passed this way recently.

That wasn’t too surprising. They were still in the poorer section of town, near the perimeter. Nightmares passed this way with some regularity. Another painter would find this one, eventually. He was off shift. Hands in pockets, absorbed by his personal discontent, he walked on past the corner. If he hurried home, he could still catch the opening of his favorite drama that would be broadcast through the hion viewer.

A light rain blew through the city, playing soft percussion on the street, making the reflected lines of light dance to the beat. Those dark wisps began to fade from the corner of stone. The trail going cold.

Two minutes later, Painter returned, stepping through a puddle and muttering to himself that the first part of the drama was always a recap anyway.

Chapter Six

Yumi awoke on the floor of her wagon, a blanket over her. The chill air of night had won its daily battle, driving back the deep heat of the stones beneath. She had been bathed, dressed in her formal sleeping gown, and placed here. Surrounded by flower petals in a circle, along with a ring of seeds for luck. Starlight cut around her in a square, reaching in through the window to gawk.

Sore, still somehow exhausted despite her hours of sleep, Yumi huddled in her blankets. The stone floor was comfortably warm. They lowered the wagon at nights, to touch the ground and draw forth its heat. You always wanted a home to touch the stones in some way for warmth at night—or for cooking in the day. People on other worlds don’t know what they’re missing; there’s a unique comfort to being able to lay down, drape a blanket over yourself, and bake in the floor’s own radiance. It was almost like the planet itself was feeding you life and strength.

Yumi huddled there for some time, trying to recover. She knew she should have felt pride at her accomplishment, and virtually any other person would have.

But she just…felt tired. And guilty because of her lack of proper emotions.

And more tired, because guilt of that sort is exceptionally difficult to carry. Heavier than the rocks she’d moved earlier.

Then ashamed. Because guilt has a great number of friends, and keeps their addresses handy for quick summons.

Heat seeped up around Yumi, but didn’t seem to be able to enter her. It cooked her, but she remained raw in the middle. She stayed there until the door opened. You might have heard clogged footsteps approaching first, but Yumi didn’t notice.

The figure in the doorway—in the deep of night, it was little more than a drop of ink on black paper—waited. Until finally Yumi looked up, realizing she’d been crying. The tears hit the floor and didn’t immediately evaporate.

“How did I do today, Liyun?” Yumi finally asked.

“You did your duty,” Liyun replied, voice soft, yet rasping. Like ripping paper.

“I…have never heard of a yoki-hijo summoning thirty-seven spirits in one day before,” Yumi said, hopeful. It wasn’t her warden’s job to compliment her. But…it would feel good…to hear the words nonetheless.

“Yes,” Liyun said. “It will make people question. Were you always capable of this? Were you holding back in other cities, refusing to bless them as you did this one?”

“I…”

“I’m certain it is wisdom in you, Chosen,” Liyun said. “To do as you did. I am certain it is not you working too hard, so that the next town in line gets a much smaller blessing, and therefore thinks themselves less worthy also.”

Yumi felt sick at the very thought. Her arms dangled at her sides, because moving them was painful. “I will work hard tomorrow.”

“I am sure you will.” Liyun paused. “I would hate to think that I trained a yoki-hijo who did not know how to properly pace herself. I would also hate to think that I was such a poor teacher that my student thought it wise to pretend to be unable of reaching her full potential, in order to have an easier time of her job.”

Yumi shrank down further, wincing at the throbs of pain from muscles in her arms and back. It seemed that even in great success, she did not do enough.

“Neither is true, fortunately.”

“I will tell Gongsha Town,” Liyun said. “They can look forward to a visit from a strong yoki-hijo tomorrow.”

“Thank you.

“May I offer a reminder, Chosen?”

Yumi glanced up, and kneeling where she was, the perspective made Liyun seemed to be ten feet tall. A silhouette against the night, like a cutout with blank space in the middle.

“Yes,” Yumi said, “please.”

“You must remember,” Liyun said, “that you are a resource to the land. Like the water of the steamwell. Like the plants, the sunlight, and the spirits themselves. If you do not take care of yourself, you will squander the great position and opportunity you have been given.”

“Thank you,” Yumi whispered.

“Sleep now, if it pleases you. Chosen.”

It takes real talent to use an honorific as an insult. I’ll give Liyun that much; it’s professional courtesy, from one hideous bastard to another.

Liyun shut the door with a click, and Yumi looked down, continuing to kneel. But she didn’t go back to sleep. She felt too much. Not just pain, not even just shame. Other, rebellious things. Numbness. Frustration. Even…anger.

She hauled herself to her feet, walking across lukewarm stone floor of the wagon to the window. But from here, she could see the rice bushes, which had lowered from the sky as the thermals cooled. A starlit collection of hundreds of individual plants, spinning and drifting lazily near the stone, their gas pockets slowly reinflating—one under each of the four broad leaves, with a cluster of seeds growing on top. It wasn’t actually rice, as you’d call it on Scadrial. The local word was mingo. But it boiled up close to the same—except for the deep blue-purple color—so we’ll use the more familiar word.

As Yumi watched, a burst of rice bushes jetted into the air, some dozen plants catching a rogue night thermal. Then they drifted lazily back down, where small creatures scurried underneath—looking for something to nibble on, and avoiding serpents. Both prey and hunter slept in trees during the heat. If they were fortunate, or unfortunate depending on the perspective, they picked different trees.

A gust across the field made it shiver and sway to the side, but night farmers moved along, waving large fans to keep the crops contained. Somewhere distant in the town, a giant crow cawed. (They aren’t as big as everyone says; I’ve never seen one the size of a full grown man. More like the size of a seven or eight year old.) A village corvider soon hushed the animal with soothing words and a treat.

Yumi wished she had someone to comfort her. Instead, she rested aching arms on the windowsill and stared out at the placid crops, turning lazily, occasionally jetting into the air. A tree leashed to the side of the building shivered in the breeze, its branches casting lines of shadow across Yumi’s face.

She could maybe just…crawl out of the window, and start walking. No night farmer would stop a yoki-hijo. She should have felt ashamed at the thought, but she was full up with shame at the moment. A cup filled to the top can’t hold anything more. It just spills out the sides, then boils on the floor.

She wouldn’t leave, but that night, she wished she could. Wished she could escape the prison of her ceremonial nightgown. She wasn’t even allowed to sleep as a normal person. She had to be reminded by her very undergarments what she was. Chosen at birth. Blessed at birth. Imprisoned at birth.

I… A voice said in her mind. I understand…

Yumi started, spinning around. Then she felt it, from deep below. A… A spirit. Her soul vibrated with its presence, a powerful one.

Bound… It said. You are bound…

Spirits understood her thoughts. That was part of her blessing. But they very, very rarely responded. She’d only heard of it happening in stories.

I am blessed, she thought toward it, bowing her head, suddenly feeling extremely foolish. How had she let her fatigue drive her to such insane thoughts? She’d anger the spirits. Suddenly, she had a terrible premonition. The spirits refusing to come at her performances. Villages going without light, without food, because of her. How could she reject such a—

No… The spirit thought. You are trapped. And we…we are trapped…like you…

Yumi frowned, stepping back to the window. Something was different about this voice. This spirit. It seemed…so very tired. And it was distant? Barely able to reach her? She looked up to the sparkling sky—and the bright daystar, stronger than them all. Was…the spirit…talking to her from there?

You work so hard, the spirit said. Can we give you something? A gift?

Yumi’s breath caught.

She’d read that story.

Most cultures have something similar. Some are terrible, but this wasn’t one of those places. Here, the boons of spirits were always associated with wonderous adventure.

She didn’t want adventure, though. She hesitated. Teetered, like a stone unbalanced. Then, in what was the most difficult moment of her life, she lowered her eyes.

You have already blessed me, she said. With the greatest gift a mortal can have. I accept my burden. It is for the best of my people. Forgive my idle thoughts earlier.

Very well… the distant spirit said. Then…could you give…us a boon?

Yumi looked up. That…never happened in the stories.

How? she asked.

We are bound. Trapped.

She glanced toward the corner of the room, where a spirit light—the spheres touching to turn the light off for sleep—lay on a counter. It was identical to those she’d made earlier today. One light sphere, one dark. Trapped?

No, the spirit thought. That is not our prison… We…have a more terrible…existence. Can you free us? Will you…try? There is one who can help.

Spirits in trouble? She didn’t know what she could do, but it was her duty to see them cared for. Her life was to serve. She was the yoki-hijo. The Girl of Commanding Primal Spirits.

Yes, she said, bowing her head again. Tell me what you need, and I will do whatever I can.

Please, it said. Free. Us.

All went black.

Chapter Seven

Painter wound through the next set of streets, tracking the nightmare as the rain tapped him on the head. The trail was difficult to follow; the dark whisps seemed to vanish in the haze of the rain. He had to backtrack twice as the streets grew more narrow, more winding, around through the huddled tenements of the city’s outer ring.

Deep in here, the hion lines overhead were as thin as twine, barely giving him enough light to see by. It got so bad that, eventually, he decided that he’d likely lost the trail. He turned to return home, passing a slit of a window he’d neglected to glance through just earlier.

He checked it this time, and found the nightmare inside, crouched at the head of a bed.

The room was lit by a faint line of teal hion tracing the ceiling, making shadows of the room’s meager furniture and frameless mattress, which held three figures. Parents that the nightmare had ignored. And a child, who made for more…tender prey.

The little boy was, perhaps, four. He huddled on his side, eyes squeezed shut, holding to a worn pillow that had eyes sewn on it—a poorer family’s approximation of a stuffed toy. The use indicated it was loved anyway.

The nightmare was tall enough that it had to bend over, or its head would have hit the ceiling. A sinuous, boneless neck. A body with a lupine features, legs that bent the wrong way, a face with a snout. With a sense of dread, Painter realized why this one had been so difficult to track. Virtually no smoke rose from its body. Most telling, it had eyes. Bone white, like drawn in chalk, but deep. Like holes going deep down into the skull.

This barely dripped darkness from its face. It was almost fully stable. No longer formless. No longer aimless.

No longer harmless.

This thing must have been incredibly crafty to have escaped notice this long. It took ten feedings for a nightmare to coalesce to this level. Only a few more, and it would be fully solid. Painter stepped backward, trembling. It already had substance. Things like this could…could slaughter hundreds. Things like this had destroyed entire towns in the past, most recently one known as Futinoro, destroyed only thirty years back—the most recent such tragedy.

This was above his pay grade. Quite literally. There was an entire specialized division of painters tasked with stopping stable nightmares. They traveled the land, going to towns where one was spotted.

The sound of a small sniffle broke through Painter’s panic. He ripped his eyes from the nightmare to look back at the bed, to where the child—trembling—had squeezed his eyes closed even tighter.

The child was awake.

At this stage, the nightmare could feed on direct terror just as easily as did the formless fear of a dream. It ran clawed fingers across the child’s cheek, leaving streaks of blood from slicked skin—the gesture was almost tender. And why shouldn’t it be? The child had given the thing shape and substance, ripped directly out of his deepest fears.

Now, the story thus far might have given you an unflattering picture of Painter. And yes, much of that picture is probably justified. Many of his problems in life were his own fault—and rather than try to fix them, he alternated between comfortable self-delusion and pointless self-pity.

But you should also know that right then—before the nightmare saw him—he could have easily slipped away into the night. He could have reported this to the foreman, who would have sent for the dreamwatch. Most painters would have done just that.

Instead, he reached for his painting supplies.

Too much noise. Too much noise! He thought as he slapped his bag down on the pavement and scrambled for a canvas. Lessons he didn’t realized he’d internalized returned to him: he couldn’t wake the people in the room. If the parents started screaming, the stable nightmare would attack and people would die.

Calm. Calm. Don’t feed it.

His training barely held as he, trembling, spilled out canvas, brush, and paints. He looked up.

And found the thing at the window, long neck stretching out through toward him, knife-fingers scraping the wall inside the room. Two white eye-holes seemed to want to suck him into them, pull him through to some other eternity. Before this day, he’d never seen a nightmare with anything resembling a face, this one smiled with bone-white, lupine teeth.

Painter’s fingers slipped on the ink jar, and it hit the ground before him with a clink, spraying ink on the ground. He struggled to keep his calm as he fumbled for it, then frantically dipped his brush right into the spilled ink.

The nightmare stretched forward…but then caught. It wasn’t used to having so much substance, and had trouble pulling itself through the wall. The claws were particularly difficult. The delay, though brief, probably saved Painter’s life as he managed to get his umbrella out and opened to shelter his canvas, then started painting.

He started with bamboo, of course. A…a blob at the bottom, then…then the straight line upward with a swipe. Just the briefest linger then to make the next knob… Like clockwork. He’d done this a hundred times.

He looked to the nightmare, which slowly slid one hand out through the wall—leaving gouges in the stone. Its smile deepened. Painter, in his current state, was most certainly not invisible to it. And bamboo was not going to be enough this time.

Painter tossed aside his canvas and pulled the last one from his bag. Nails ground stone as the thing pulled its second hand through the wall. Rainwater actually connected with its head, running down the sides of its grinning face. Crystal tears to accompany the midnight ones.

Painter began painting.

There’s a certain insanity that defines artists. The willful ability to ignore what exists. Millenia of evolution have produced in us not just the ability to recognize and register light, but to define colors, shapes, objects. I don’t think we often acknowledge how amazing it is we can tell what something is simply by letting some photons bounce off us.

An artist can’t see this. An artist has to be able to look at a rock and say, “That’s not stone. That’s a head. At least, it will be, once I pound on it with this hammer for a while.”

Painter couldn’t just see a nightmare. He had to see what it could be, what it might have been, if it hasn’t been produced by terror. And in that moment, he saw the child’s mother. Though he’d barely glimpsed her face in the bedroom next to her son, he recreated her.

Turn something terrible into something normal. Something loved. Even with a few brief strokes, he evoked the shape of her face. Stark eyebrows. Thin lips, faint brushes of ink. The curve of cheeks.

For the briefest moment, something returned to him. Something he’d lost in the monotony of a hundred paintings of bamboo. Something beautiful. Or, if you were a nearly stabilized nightmare, something terrible.

It fled. An event so incongruous that Painter slipped in his next brush stroke. He looked up, and barely caught sight of the thing running down the alleyway, away from him. It could have attacked, but it wasn’t quite stable yet. And so, it chose to flee, rather than risk letting him bind it into a passive, harmless shape.

He breathed out, and let the paintbrush slip from his fingers. He was relieved, on one hand. Worried on the other. If it could escape like that…it was dangerous. Extremely dangerous. He had basically no idea how to deal with something like that—and doubted his skill would have been enough to defeat it. Only the most skilled painters could actually bring down a stable nightmare, and he’d learned—painfully—that wasn’t him.

But fortunately, he didn’t have to do anything more; he’d done enough to frighten it away. Now, he could go and tell his superiors about the experience, and they’d send for the dreamwatch. They could hunt it before it finished its last two feedings, and the city would be safe.

He left the canvas on the ground beside the umbrella and stepped up to the wall, wrapping arms around himself to try to get some warmth to run through him again. Inside the room, the child had opened eyes and was staring at him. Painter smiled and nodded.

The kid immediately started screaming. That was more violent a reaction than Painter had been expecting, but it had the desired result: a pair of terrified parents comforting the boy, followed by a hesitant father in shorts hesitantly opening the tiny window.

He regarded the supplies on the ground—paintings slowly losing their ink to the rain—and the wet young man standing in the alleyway.

“…Painter?” he asked. “Was it…”

“A nightmare,” Painter said, feeling numb. “A strong one, feeding off of your son’s dreams.”

The man backed away from the window, eyes wide. He searched the room, as if to find something hiding in the corners.

“I frightened it away,” Painter said. “But…this was a strong one. Do you have family in another city?”

“My parents,” the man said. “In Fuhima.”

“Go there,” Painter said, speaking words he’d been taught to say in such a situation. “Nightmares can’t track a person that far—your son will be safe until we can deal with the horror. There is a fund available to help you during this time. Once I register what happened, you’ll be able to access it.”

The man looked back at the child, huddled in his mother’s arms, weeping. Then the man looked back at Painter—who knew what would come next. Demands, asking why he’d let the thing escape. Why he hadn’t been strong enough, good enough, practiced enough to actually capture the thing.

Instead, the man dropped to his knees, bowing his head. “Thank you,” he whispered. He looked back up at Painter, tears in his eyes. “Thank you.

Huh. Painter blinked, stammered a second. Then found his words. “Think nothing of it, citizen,” he said. “Just a man doing his job.” Then, with as much decorum he could manage in the rain—and with hands that were still trembling from the stress—he gathered up his things.

By the time he finished, the family was already packing their meager possessions. You’d forgive Painter for walking a little swiftly, often checking over his shoulder, as he wound back through the narrows of the outer ring. He had the feeling of one who had just been in a crash between two vehicles, or who had nearly been crushed by a falling piece of stone dropped from a construction site. A part of him couldn’t believe he was still alive.

He breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped back out onto a larger road, and saw other people moving through the street. People up for the morning shift, heading to jobs. The star was low in the sky, just barely visible over the horizon, down hanging right at the end of the street.

He looked toward the foreman’s offices. But he suddenly, Painter found himself unnaturally tired. His feet like clay, mushy, his head like a boulder. He teetered. He needed…sleep.

The nightmare would not return to the city tonight. It would run to the shroud, regenerate, then slink in the following…night. He could tell foreman…in the morning…

He sluggishly, mind a haze, turned toward his apartment. It was near, fortunately. He barely registered arriving, climbing the stairs, and walking to his apartment. It took him four tries to get the key in, but as he stumbled into his room, he paused.

Dared he sleep? The family…needed his report…for the funds…

What was happening to him? Why did he suddenly feel like he’d been sucked of strength? He stumbled to the balcony, looking out, at the star. Then, he heard something odd. A rushing sound? Like…water?

He looked up.

Something came from the sky and hit him hard.

All went black.

 

Painter blinked. He was hot. Uncomfortably hot, and something was shining in his face. A garish light, like from the front of a hion-line bus. He blinked his eyes open, and was immediately blinded by the terrible, overpowering light.

What was (lowly) going on? He’d hit his head, perhaps? He forced his eyes open against the light and pulled himself—with effort—to his feet. He was wearing…bright cloth? Yes, a silken kind of nightgown, made of bright red and blue cloth.

Beside him lay a young woman. You’d recognize her as Yumi.

She opened her eyes.

Then screamed.

Idaho Falls signing ()
#18 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

The two woman loaded up their single pack animal. A short creature that looked kind of like a camel, but was more the size of a llama. It eyed me lazily, chewing quietly on its cud. After their packs and bed rolls were tied in place, Echo placed a curious item on top. A long tube, wrapped in cloth. It was almost five feet long. A map tube? If so, those maps would be the size of walls. Once that was done, the camp cleaned, Echo looked me over with a critical eye. I looked down at my ripped slacks. Though my flats were sensible business shoes, they weren't intended for extended hikes. She dug in her pack and came out with an extra pair of boots and a pair of trousers. "Uh," I said, taking the trousers and looking them over. Echo was lean and athletic, and I was... not. She noted my hesitance and said something that sounded like agreement, but I did try on the boots. It took several pair of socks to make them fit, but the end result was better than the flats. I didn't much look the part of a heroic Apocalypse Guard member - my jacket was too big, my business slacks ripped, and poorly matched by a pair of hiking boots. But it wasn't like I needed to appear in any company photos. "I'm good," I told them. "Let's go." Echo looked towards the last thing on the ground, near the center of camp. The shadow rig. Right. I considered putting it on, but was instantly reminded of that melting world where everything became paint. Let's pass on that for now, I thought, packing away the rig beside where Echo had put the trousers. After that, we started walking.

Emma's Instructions for hiking. One, wear comfortable shoes, so when your feet hurt anyway, you can at least feel like you tried. Two, remember tons of bug spray, so you smell like a vat of cleaning liquid. Bonus points if it makes the dirt stick to your skin while walking. If you can, wear a backpack filled with things that you won't end up using, but which will somehow always manage to arrange inside so they can poke you in the gizzard. Four, return to your sweet air conditioned, bug free, shower containing home, renewed and reminded how nice it is not to be a caveman.

People always assume that I'm inexperienced at outdoorsy stuff, just because I tend to throw things at them when they suggest camping. Truth is, I'm very experienced with camping. I spent countless nights with my family, huddled up in the cold by a barely working fire, listening to Father tell stories of when he was a kid in Iona. Shockingly, it had been even more rural back then! Nowadays, we have a stoplight. It's practically cosmopolitan! So yes, I've done lots of camping, and hiking, and canoeing, and backpacking, and skiing. I kind of like that one, but don't tell anyone. Truth is, there's not a lot to do in Iona that doesn't involve pretending to be a caveman. Back when I was little, and apparently brain dead, we kids would spend two entire weeks every summer up at Scoresby's Ranch without even running water, let alone wifi. In my later years, my family and I had even kind of come to a truce on the matter. I pretended to look forward to our yearly camping trip, and they pretended not to notice the phone I always brought along. Or the sets of instructions I may or may not have posted relating to the experience. None of this meant I was prepared for the extended hike through the wilderness with Echo and <Whisprien>, but at least I knew how unprepared I was. I could spot the warning signs of a blister forming, and do something about it. I knew how to pace myself, and how to let others know when I needed a break. These two were obviously experienced survivalists, so even <Whisprien>'s endurance put mine to shame. I tried not to focus on my embarrassment at that, instead studying the landscape. Strangely, it didn't look that much different from Idaho. Mostly filled with scrub grasses and weeds. More of those were brown then back home for some reason, but they seemed healthy anyway. It was a lot more humid than home was, and less dusty. There was real dirt here, not just powdery dried clay and Iona topsoil, also known as rocks. And then there was the sky. Any time I was feeling a sense of familiarity with the hike, I caught a shimmer on the ground, or a shadow passing overhead. Then I'd look up, and my brain would break anew. There was a freaking ocean in the sky. Despite the distance, I could see ripples and waves from passing wind. The things that moved within it were mostly just shadows, but I got a sense of darting schools - not just noble leviathans. Were there sharks? Sky-sharks? The idea made me smile. My adopted brother would have found that incredible; I'd have to tell him. If I survived. Don't be like that, I thought, you'll get out of this. Look, nobody has even tried to kill you all morning.

We stopped for lunch, and they gave me more guard rations while they ate something that looked like beef jerky. Nearby, a strange herd of animals passed through the brush. How to explain them? They were big, almost as tall as a person. And covered in armor that almost looked like a football helmet. Seriously, they had this ball of a body, and a little flat head stuck out the front, with a stumpy tail and flat beak. I'd have called them dinosaurs, except for the face. I was pretty sure they were mammals, like, prehistoric armadillo turtles. Echo didn't seem concerned about them, so I just perched nervously on top of my fallen log and watched them wander by, then felt stupid. I'd faced the <Hex>! I could face an armadillo or two, even if they did seem to be on the wrong side of a radioactive spill.

Echo was obviously a practical woman. She didn't smile often, but it wasn't that she was stern. Maybe just straightforward? Compass in hand, she calmly picked our heading after each break. She would occasionally try to draw her daughter into conversation. <Whisprien> resisted these. The thin girl trudged along in her rugged backpack, eyes down. I never heard her speak in anythingbut  a whisper, and her attitude seemed to be more then your average "sullen tween resents life" sort of thing. But who knows? Maybe she just really hated camping. 

Echo would periodically seek a tree or something to climb so she could check to make sure we weren't being followed. Her voice was always upbeat when she came down, and I could sense a lingering concern from her. She was very worried about those soldiers. One of them had a rig, I thought again. It didn't take a math degree to notice that a lot of things weren't adding up. Part of the secret perhaps lay stowed away in that camel-llama's pack. I walked up beside the animal, who walked placidly beside <Whisprien>, and placed my fingers on the partition that held the shadow rig. I had the distinct sensation of blending realities, of the grass around me melting into colors, like a wet watercolor painting left in the rain. I snatched my hand back. <Whisprien> looked away, and grumbled something, falling back in the line. A short time later, I caught her glaring at my back, eyes narrowed. 

When the sun finally settled beyond the envelope of water, I was exhausted. But it was more a wholesome exhaustion kind of exhaustion than I felt yesterday. It was the exhaustion of having been forced to weed an entire potato field. 

Echo chose a camp that looked like it had been used by other weary travelers. A forested nook beside a weathered section of rock. I heard water gurgling somewhere nearby, which seemed like a good sign that I might actually get to take a bath. Echo unpacked the camel-llama, then grabbed her large water jug and moved off towards the sound of the stream. When she returned with a filled jug, I held out my canteen eagerly, but she shook her head and gestured towards the fire pit. "You have to boil the water first?" I asked, "Probably a good idea."

Fortunately I'd been immunized from all the local viruses, both from here, and from a host of other planets that the Guard was working with. That was standard procedure. I wasn't certain how the Guard prevented themselves from carrying diseases to the worlds they worked on. I hoped I wasn't the latent carrier of, like, smallpox or something. Accidentally harboring the advent of an all-consuming pestilence would be super embarrassing.

<Whisprien> started working on the fire, and she gave me a glance that distinctly seemed to say "Isn't there anything useful you can do?" So I powered up my phone for today's ration of power and snapped a picture of her for my blog. I snuggled back against a comfortable looking log (it wasn't) and ate up a little of my batteries working on some instructions, hoping the whole time my distress beacon would bring a response from those looking for me. No such luck.

About halfway through my allotted half hour, I brought up the map and had Echo point out out current location. She noted a very small distance traveled. Crap on a stick. (I got that one from one of my Iona friends.) Was that really the only progress we'd made? How were we going to reach the Guard outpost in three days? It didn't seem possible. Particularly because we were going the wrong direction. "Echo, isn't that the wrong way?" I tapped the map, then tried to make myself understood by pointing. The outpost was north of where we started, but we'd been walking west. I suppose I could've told that from the sun, if I'd thought about it. Echo said something in her language, then pointed at something on my map. Not a town or an outpost, but a little spot of brown. It was hard to tell what it was on the two dimensional map, only barely touched on topographical features. "Okay...." I said, "I guess I'll trust you know what you're doing." She nodded and went back to working on the fire, which was crackling nicely and boiling our water. She could be leading me into a trap, of course. Perhaps she hadn't saved me out of goodwill, but to gain a potential hostage against the Guard. But it wasn't like I could do anything about that. I'd be laughably ineffective at trying to sneak off. Echo would track me down with little effort, assuming I wasn't immediately devoured by some prehistoric carnivorous elk or something.

I moved to sit on a rock that looked somewhat comfortable (it wasn't) and continued working on my blog, trying not to think too hard about how sore I was going to be from. A harsh whisper hissed from behind me. I jumped, and turned to see <Whisprien> standing behind my seat. She pointed at my screen and hissed something angry. I glanced at what I had been working on. The picture of <Whisprien> I had taken with some handy instructions about living in the wilderness. I switched off the phone, but <Whisprien> reached for it. I barely kept it out of her reach, worried she'd shatter the screen. "Okay, okay," I said, "Sorry, no pictures. I'll delete it, chill!" I tried to do so, but <Whisprien> kept hissing at me and reaching for the phone. The scuffle drew Echo, who barked a question. Finally <Whisprien> backed off, and I reluctantly showed her mother the screen. Echo just nodded. Again, it didn't seem like she was unfamiliar with technology. She didn't demand I delete the photo or anything, but she did pull her daughter over and have her help make what appeared to be an evening soup. Great job Emma, I thought, I apparently needed a set of instructions on not being a giant idiot.

"Hey," I said, walking over to Echo, "is it alright if I go take a bath?" I pantomimed swimming, and washing my hair, then pointed to the water. "Is it safe?" Echo said something, then dug from her pack an old-timey bar of soap and a hairbrush, which she handed to me. I nodded in thanks, then made my way over to the small river. It was more muddy then I'd hoped, but I supposed I couldn't expect something out in the middle of these plains to look like a Grand Teton Mountain spring. I made sure I had line of sight to the other two, just in case, then I stood there, holding the bar of soap, uncertain. Was this a good idea? Taking a bath in the middle of the wilderness on a foreign world, while potentially being chased by mercenaries? I was basically guaranteed to be attacked by, like, a dinosaur or something the moment I stripped down. But what was I gonna do? Go the entire way without ever washing off? I was still bloodied and smudged with ash from the explosion, not to mention caked with sweat. Perhaps taking a bath was tempting fate, but this way if a dinosaur did eat me, at least I'd taste like soap. Truth was, it actually felt empowering to take that bath, like this was my choice. Getting clean was something I wanted, and I wasn't going to let myself be too scared to accomplish it.

That said, I did still watch my surroundings with keen attention as I quickly bathed in the cold water. Unfortunately, once finished, I was left with the same dirty clothing I had taken off. Lance's jacket, my incredibly wrinkled blouse, and the torn slacks. Quite the inspiring uniform. Still, I felt a ton better as I put it all back on. Echo offered me some thread as I rejoined them, and I thankfully started working on sewing up the rips along my leg.

The stew was kinda good. And I turned in feeling kinda clean, kinda full, and kinda not in extreme danger. I woke up the following morning to shouting. Echo called me in her native tongue, and I shook awake, then scrambled to my feet. "What?" I said, "Dinosaurs? It's dinosaurs, isn't it?" I paused. "Do you have dinosaurs here?"

Echo gestured toward the sky. Morning at dawn, and through the branches above, I could see an enormous disturbance in the waters, like ripples of a dropped boulder, only moving inward in a ring. The center of that shrinking ring of waves looked like it was just above our position. Great. I had been starting to feel ignored.

Chapter 13

"The flood can't be happening already!" I shouted as I scrambled back into camp, "We're supposed to have weeks before the apocalypse!"

Echo shouted something back as she grabbed the llama-camel's harness and towed it after her through the trees. <Whisprien> had climbed on its back. "Wait," I called after them. I waved toward the bedrolls and boiling water, "Our stuff! What about..." I trailed off as <Whisprien> looked toward me from the camel's back. The girl's face was still blank of emotion, but her eyes were glowing. They had a ghostly cast to them, pupils melded into the white, shining forth like something bright was behind them. It reminded my of the floodlight eyes of the <Hex>. I stumbled to a stop, gaping, until Echo sent the animal and the girl on ahead, then looked back to me, waving urgently. Above, the sky darkened. The sun faded behind the ocean, as if growing suddenly distant, or as if the water were somehow growing deeper up there, thicker. Echo shouted something at me that sounded a little like "Run", so I ran. I grabbed the shadow rig from inside my bedroll, and left everything else, dashing after the two of them. Once I was past the tree, Echo fell into place beside me. The llama-camel ran on ahead with a loping gait. <Whisprien> clung to it's back.

I wasn't in nearly as good shape as Echo, nor was I, shockingly, a camel. But I made a pretty good showing for myself, and didn't lag behind too much. At least, not until I glanced over my shoulder. The sky rippled, and then broke. Water crashed downwards, the front edge fuzzing, like mist. The enormous column of water seemed to drop in slow motion because of the distance. It wasn't as nearby as I first assumed. Man, it was big. A ring of water the size of a small village just dumping billions of gallons of water down from the sky. I stopped in place, jaw dropping, staring until Echo grabbed my arm and towed me away. What good would it do to flee? We were three little specks before an ocean of destruction. We couldn't outrun the end of the world.

Still, Echo seemed determined. I started running again, but I was built to deliver coffee and the occasional sarcastic quip, not run across the freaking wilderness. Pain seared up my side. I slowed, gasping. A violent crash suddenly washed over us, an engulfing sound that made the very air vibrate. Holy heck. How much water had to fall before it hit the ground with the sound of a bomb going off. Echo looked back at the sound and hesitated in front of me, as if torn between protecting me and running after her daughter. She lingered, urging me on, and I did my best. "What," I said, panting for breath, "What's the use?" Sweat streamed down my face. Echo gestured in front of her, then made a raising motion with her hands. High ground, I thought, She's saying we need to get to high ground. And considering it, the direction we were running did seem to have a gentle slope to it. It wasn't like we were running for the mountains or anything, but maybe this would be enough? If this really is the end though, the high ground won't matter. Most of the planet will end up submerged.

Still, I broke into a weak jog. Ahead, I saw our goal: a rise in the grasslands, a kind of ridge, like a long low hill. <Whisprien> had stopped there with the camel-llama. A cracking sound behind along with the low roar of rushing water made me glance over my shoulder. Water flooded between the trees of our camp, first slow, then in a rush that ripped away branches. Another surge of muddy water engulfed the entire stand, shattering the trees.

I forced myself forward, practically crawling the rest of the way up the hilltop. Water flooded the plain we crossed. It looked deceptively lethargic, like seeping tar, until you focused on something like an individual sapling. On the smaller scale, your mind could comprehend that this was an enormous river, rushing with might and power, pushing debris before it.

I reached the top and collapsed beside <Whisprien>. The waters came, and I realized, I'd just let them swallow me, if it came to that. I couldn't move another step. Blessedly, the rise was high enough. The front of the wave turned aside and fled the other direction. In the distance, the spout of water from the heavens slowed to a mist, then to rain, and finally stopped altogether. This wasn't the end of the world, not yet. More like a warning shot. I lay on the rough grass, listening to the sound of the water growing below. I already felt sweaty and dirty again - so much for my bath. Of course, if I wanted another one, it didn't look like I'd lack for water.

Dragonsteel Mini-Con 2021 ()
#19 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

So what are we gonna read? Well, I have draft number two of Wax & Wayne 4, The Lost Metal.

And as I warned you, if anyone came in late, the prologue is available on my YouTube channel with me reading it, or we sent it out as a newsletter. If you're not on the newsletter ask one of your friends, or go hang out in the 17th Shard and ask them. I give permission that they can send it to you so you can read it if you want to. It might be posted, as far as I know, on there as well. I expect when I read these things that they're gonna get around. So we're going to read chapter 1 of The Lost Metal. And I'm just going to kind of read until we hit to 7:30.

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter 1

Marasi had never been in a sewer before, but the experience was exactly as awful as she'd imagined. The stench, of course, was incredible. But worse was the way her booted feet would occasionally slip for a heart-stopping moment, threatening to plunge her down into the "mud" underneath.

It would be bad, but manageable, if the place was slippery in a consistent way. Inconsistent slippage was far worse. At least she'd had the foresight to wear a uniform with trousers today, along with knee high leather work boots. That didn't protect from the scent, the feel, or, unfortunately, the sound. When she stepped, map in one hand, rifle in the other, her boots would pull free with a squelch of mythical proportions. It would have been the worst sound ever if it hadn't been overmatched by Wayne’s complaining.

"Wax never brought me to a rustin’ sewer," he muttered by her side.

"Are there sewers in the Roughs?"

"Well, no," he admitted. "Pastures smell almost as bad, and he did make me march through those. But Marasi, they didn't have spiders."

"They probably did," she said, holding the map toward his lantern to read it. "You just couldn't see them."

"S’pose," he grumbled, "but it's worse when you can see the webs. Also, there's, you know, the literal sewage."

Marasi nodded to a tunnel to the side, and they started that direction. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"What?" he demanded.

"Your mood."

"Nothing's wrong with my rustin’ mood," he said. "It's exactly the kind of mood you're supposed to have when your partner forces you to stick your front side into a bunch of stuff that comes out the back side."

"And last week," she said, "when we were investigating a perfume shop?"

"Rustin’ perfumers," Wayne said, eyes narrowing. "Never can tell what they’re hiding with those fancy smells. You can't trust a man that doesn't smell like a man should."

"Sweat and booze?"

"Sweat and cheap booze."

"Wayne, how can you complain about someone putting on airs? You put on a different personality every time you change hats."

"Does my smell change?"

"I suppose not."

"Argument won. There are literally no holes in it whatsoever, conversation over." They shared a look. "I should get me some perfumes, eh?" Wayne said. "Someone might be able to spot my disguises if I always smell like sweat and cheap booze."

"You're hopeless."

"What's hopeless," he said, "is my poor shoes."

"Could have worn boots, like I suggested."

"Ain’t got no boots," he said. "Wax stole ‘em."

"Wax stole your boots. Really?"

"Well, they're in his closet," Wayne said, "instead of three pairs of his poshest shoes, which somehow ended up in my closet, completely by happenstance." He glanced at her. "It was a fair trade, I liked those boots."

She just barely kept her balance at another slip. Rusting hell, if she fell, he would never stop talking about it. But this did seem the best way. Construction on citywide underground train tunnels, or just the Tunnels, was ongoing, and two days ago, a demolition man had filed a report warning that he didn't want to blast the next section. 

Apparently, seismic readings had indicated they were near to a cavern of some sort. This area underneath Elendel was peppered with aging caverns, and the seismograph readings the demolition man had found indicated an unknown one was somewhere in this region. The same region where a group of local gang enforcers kept vanishing and reappearing, almost as if they had a hidden exit to an unmarked, unseen lair.

She consulted the map again marked with construction notes and a nearby oddity that the sewer builders had noted years ago which had never been investigated.

"I think MeLaan is going to break up with me," Wayne said softly. "That's why maybe I've been uncharacteristically downbeat in my general disposition as of late."

"What makes you think that?"

"On account of her telling me, 'Wayne, I'm probably going to have to break up with you in a few weeks.'"

"Well, that's polite of her."

"I think she got a new job from the big guy or something," Wayne said, "but it ain't right, how slow it's going. Not the proper way to break up with a fellow at all."

"And what is the proper way?"

"Throw something at his head," Wayne said, "sell his stuff, tell his mates he's a knob."

"You’ve had some interesting relationships."

"Nah, mostly just bad ones," he said. "I asked <Jamie Walls> what she thought I should do. You know her, she's at the tavern most nights."

"I... know her," Marasi said. "She's... a woman of ill repute."

"What?" Wayne said. "Who's been saying that nonsense? <Jamie> has a great reputation! Of all the whores on the block, she gives the best—"

"I do not need to hear that next part, thank you."

"Ill repute," he said, chuckling. "I'm gonna tell <Jamie> what you said about her, Marasi. She worked hard for her reputation. Gets to charge four times what anyone else does! Ill repute indeed."

"And what did she say?"

"Well, she said MeLaan just wanted me to try harder in the relationship," Wayne said, "but I think in this case, Jamie was wrong, because MeLaan doesn't play games. When she says things, she means them. So it's, you know."

"I'm sorry, Wayne," Marasi said, taking him by the arm.

"I knew it couldn't last," he said, "rustin’ knew it, you know? She's like, what, a thousand years old?"

"Roughly half that," Marasi said.

"And I'm not even 40!" Wayne said. "Probably more like 16, if you take count of my spry, youthful physique."

"Or your sense of humor."

"Damn right!" he said, then sighed. "Things have just been rough lately, with Wax being all fancy these last few years, MeLaan being gone for months at a time. Feel like nobody wants me around. Maybe I belong in a sewer, you know?"

"You don't," she said. "You're the best partner I've ever had."

"Only partner."

"Only?" she said. "<Gorglan> doesn't count?"

"Nope, he's not human. I gots papers what prove he's a giraffe in disguise." Regardless, he smiled. "But thanks for asking, thanks for caring." 

She nodded then led the way onward. 

When she'd imagined her life as a top detective and lawwoman, she hadn’t envisioned this part. But at least the smell was getting better, or she was getting used to it. Or maybe the insides of her nose were just dying off. Still, it was extremely gratifying to find, at the exact place marked on the map, an old metal door set in the wall of the sewer. 

She had Wayne hold up the lantern, and one didn't need a keen detective's eye to see the door had been used lately. Silvery scrape marks from the sides of the frame, handle clean from the pervasive filth and cobwebs.

"Nice," Wayne said, leaning in beside her. "Some first rate detectivin', Marasi. Sewer portion notwithstandin'. How many old surveys and building reports did you have to read to find this?"

"Too many," she said. "If I'd known how much of my job would involve searching the documents library..."

"They leave that part out of the stories when they write about us," Wayne said. "All the research."

"You did this sort of thing back in the Roughs?"

"Well, it was the Roughs variety," Wayne said. "Usually involved holding some bloke face down in a trough until he 'remembered' whose old prospecting claim he'd been filching. But it's the same principle really, just with more swearing."

She handed him her rifle and investigated the door. He didn't like her to make a big deal out of him being able to hold guns these days without his hands shaking. She'd never seen him fire one, but he said he could if needed to. He really was getting better.

They'd been working almost six years now, since Wax's retirement following the incident surrounding the Bands of Mourning. Wayne was an official constable, not some strange, barely-inside-the-law deputized citizen. Even wore a uniform once in a while.

Now, this door. It was shut tight, of course, and had no lock on this side. But it seemed the people she was hunting had found it closed too, as there were a bunch of marks on the metal on one side. Looking close, she found that there was just enough room to slip something through the door and frame. "I need something sharp to get through this," she said.

"You can use my razor sharp wit."

"Alas," she said, "you aren't the type of tool that I need at the moment, Wayne."

"Ha!" he said. "I like that one."

He handed her a knife from the backpack, where they kept supplies like rope, along with their metals, just in case they faced an Allomancer. These kinds of gang enforcers shouldn't have access to that sort of thing. They were just your basic "shake down shopkeepers for protection money" types. Yet, she had reports that made her wary. She was increasingly certain this group was funded by the Set, and if she caught them they might finally lead to answers she'd been hunting for years.

With the knife, she managed to undo the bar holding the door closed from the other side. It swung free with a soft clang, and she eased the door open to look at a rough hewn tunnel leading downward. One of the many that dotted this region, dating back to the ancient days before the Catacendre, to the time of myths and heroes, ashfalls and tyrants. Together, she and Wayne slipped inside, then did up the door to leave it as they found it. They dimmed their lantern as a precaution, then started down into the depths.

Brandon Sanderson

Chapter 2

"Cravat?" Steris asked, reading from the list.

"Tied and pinned," Wax said, pulling it tight.

"Shoes?"

"Polished."

"Proof one?"

Wax flipped a silver medallion up in the air, then caught it.

"Proof two?" Steris asked, making a check mark on her list.

He pulled a small folded stack of papers from his pocket. "Right here."

"Proof three?"

Wax reached into his other pocket, then paused looking around the small office, his senator's chamber in the house of proceedings, he'd left that...

"On the desk back home!" he said, smacking his head.

"I brought an extra," Steris said, digging in her bag.

Wax grinned. "Of course you did."

"Two copies, actually," Steris said, handing over another sheet of paper, which he tucked into his other coat pocket. Then she consulted her list again.

Little Maxillium stepped up beside his mother, looking very serious as he scanned his own list, which was mostly just scribbles. At five years old, he knew his letters, but preferred to make up his own.

"Dog picture," Max said, as if reading from his list.

"I could use one of those," Wax said. "Very useful."

Max solemnly presented it, then said, "Cat picture,"

"Need one of those too."

"I'm bad at cats," Max said, handing him another sheet, "so it looks like a squirrel."

Wax hugged his son, then tucked the sheets away reverently with the others. The boy's sister, Tindwyl—as Steris liked traditional names—babbled in the corner, where <Kath>, the governess, was watching her.

Finally, Steris handed him his pistols one at a time. Long-barrelled and nasty looking, they had been designed by Ranette to look menacing, but had two safeties and were actually unloaded. It had been a while since he'd had to shoot anyone, but he continued to make good use of his reputation as the lawman senator of the Roughs. Cityfolk, particularly politicians, tended to be intimidated by small arms. They preferred to kill people with more modern weapons, like poverty and despair. 

"Is a kiss from my wife on that list?" Wax asked.

"Actually, no," she said, surprised.

"A rare oversight," he said, then kissed her, lingering before pulling back. "You should be the one going out there today, Steris. You did more of the work preparing them than I did."

"You're the house lord."

"I could appoint you as a representative to speak for us."

"Please, no," she said. "You know how I am with people."

"You're very good with the right people."

"And are politicians ever right about anything?"

"I hope so," he said, straightening his suit coat and turning toward the door. "Because I am one now."

He pushed out of his chambers and walked the short walk to the Senate floor. Steris would watch from her seat in the observatory balcony. By now, everyone knew how particular she was about getting the same one. Wax instead stepped into the vast chamber, which buzzed with activity as senators returned from their short recess.

He didn't go to his seat. For the last few days, different senators had been given a chance to debate the current bill, and his was the last speech in line. He had positioned it right after the planned break, as he hoped it would set his argument off, give him a final chance to avert a terrible decision.

It had taken a great deal of trading and promising to get this spot in the debate; and not a few of his political enemies were upset that he'd managed it.

He stood at the side of the speaking platform near the center, waiting for the others to sit, hand on his holster, looming. You learned to get a good loom on in the Roughs when interrogating prisoners, and it still shocked him how many of those skills worked here.

Governor <Varlance> didn't look at him. The man instead adjusted his cravat, then checked his face powder. Ghostly, pale skin was fashionable these days, for some arcane reason. Then he set out his badges on the desk, one at a time, as he always did, making everyone wait.

Rusts, I miss Aradel, Wax thought. It had been novel to have a competent governor for once. Like eating hotel food and finding it wasn't awful. Or spending time with Wayne and discovering you still had your pocket watch.

But the governor's job was the type that chewed up the good ones, the ones who tried to swim deep. It was the same type of job that let the bad ones float blissfully along the surface. Aradel had stepped down two years back, and it did make some kind of sense that the next governor chosen had been a military man, considering the tensions with the Malwish right now. Though Wax did question where <Varlance> had gotten all of those medals. So far as he knew, the army hadn't seen any actual engagements. Were they for, perhaps, excellence in shining your shoes?

<Varlance> finally nodded to his vice governor, a Terriswoman, of course. She had curly, dark hair and a traditional robe. Wax thought he'd known her in the village, but it could have been her sister, and he'd never thought of a good way to ask. Regardless, it always looked good to have a Terris on the staff. Most governors chose one. Made you look respectable. Almost like the Terris were another medal to be shown off.

<Adathwyn> stood up and belted to the room. "The governor recognizes the senator from House Ladrian."

Though he'd been waiting for this, looming and whatnot, Wax now took his time sauntering up onto the podium, which was lit from above by a massive electric spotlight. Funny, how ordinary he thought that all was now. If he walked into a room and there wasn't a light switch on the wall, he'd search for it for an embarrassingly long time before remembering there were some buildings that just weren't wired yet.

He turned around in a slow rotation, inspecting the circular chamber. The spotlight was low enough that he could still make out the faces around him. One side held the elected seats, senators who were voted into office to represent a guild, profession, or historical group. The other held the lords, senators who held their position by benefit of birth. The guild system left many people without a representative. As many as twenty percent of the population worked jobs without a senator's seat, by Marasi's estimate. The lords were supposed to make up for that, representing everyone who lived in their assigned region of the city. But when had a group of nobles ever cared about beggars? Maybe in the Last Emperor's time and just after, but people just weren't like that anymore. They were petty and short-sighted.

"This bill," Wax announced to the room, loud and firm, his voice echoing, "is a fantastically stupid idea."

Once, earlier in his political career, talking so bluntly had earned him ire at best. Now, he caught multiple members of the senate smiling. They expected this from him. Many of them seemed to enjoy it, as if they knew how many problems there were in the city and were glad that one man was willing to call them out, ignoring propriety and political necessities.

"Tensions with the Malwish are at an all time high," Wax said. "This is a time for the entire Basin to unite, not a time to drive wedges between ourselves and those who should be our strongest allies."

"This is about uniting," a voice called to him. The dock worker senator, <Maelstrom>. He was mostly a puppet for Hasting and Erikell nobles, who had been consistently a painful spike in Wax's side. "We need a leader for the whole Basin officially."

"Agreed," Wax said. "But how is elevating the Elendel governor, a position nobody outside the city can vote on, going to unite people, <Maelstrom>?"

"It will give them someone to look toward, a strong capable leader!"

And that, Wax thought, glancing at <Varlance>, is a capable leader? We're lucky he pays attention to these meetings, rather than spending the time going over his appearance schedule, <Varlance> had, so far in his one year tenure, rededicated seventeen parks in the city. He liked the flowers.

Wax didn't say anything to this effect. Steris had warned him not to antagonize the governor. There was bluntness, and then there was stupidity. He had to walk a fine line between them. Instead, he kept to the plan, getting out his medallion and flipping it in the air. 

"Six years ago," Wax said, "I had a little adventure. You all know about it. Finding a wrecked Malwish airship, intervening in a plot by the outer cities to find its secrets and use them against us in Elendel. I stopped that. I brought the Bands of Mourning back to be stored safely."

"And almost started a war!" someone muttered in the reaches of the room.

"You'd rather I let the plot go forward?" Wax called back. When no response came, he flipped the medallion up and caught it again. "I dare anyone in this room to disparage my loyalty to Elendel. We can have a nice little duel. I'll even let you shoot first."

Silence. That was one thing he'd earned. A lot of the people in this room didn't like him, but they did seem to respect him, and they knew he wasn't an agent for the outer cities. He flipped the medallion and Pushed it higher, all the way up to the top of the ceiling high above. He caught it again when it came streaking down, glimmering in the light. As he did, he made certain to cast a glance toward Admiral <Jons>, current ambassador from the Malwish nation. She sat in a special place on the floor of the senate, among where mayors from the other cities were given seats when they visited. None had come to this proceeding, a visible sign they considered even a vote on this topic to be ridiculous.

"I know," Wax said, turning the medallion over in his fingers, "better than anyone the position we're in. You want to make a show of force to the outer cities, prove that they have to have to follow our rules. So you introduce this bill, elevating our governor to a presidential position of the entire Basin.  This ignores the reason everyone outside Elendel is so mad at us. The bad faith actors who are leading some of the outer cities wouldn't have gotten so far without support of their people, if the average person living outside Elendel weren't so damned mad at us for our trade policies and general arrogance. This bill isn't going to placate them. This isn't a show of force. It's a maneuver designed to specifically outrage them. We pass this law, and we're demanding war between ourselves and the outer cities."

He let that sink in. They knew it.

They tried to ignore it.

They wanted so badly to appear strong, and if left unchecked, they'd strong-arm themselves right into a war, never realizing this was precisely what their enemies wanted. An excuse to rebel, a justification for war.

Wax pulled out the stack of papers in his left pocket. He held it up and turned around.

"I have 60 letters here from politicians in the outer cities. These are reasonable people, willing, even eager to work with Elendel on policy, but they are frightened, worried about what their people will do if we continue to impose tyrannical, imperial policies upon them. They're worried about war. It is my proposal that we vote down this silly bill, then work on something better. Something that can actually promote peace and unity. A kind of national assembly with representation for each outer city, and and elected supreme official from that body." 

He'd expected boos, and got a few. But most of the chamber fell silent, watching him hold the letters aloft. They were afraid of what he was proposing. Afraid of letting power leave the capital. Afraid that the political ways of the outer cities would change the entire dynamic. They were cowards in that regard, and they were also playing to the hands of the Set, a shadowy organization which included his sister and his late uncle as high-ranking members, who had been pulling the strings for years.

They were still active somewhere. They might even have agents among the senators. They wanted war most of all, though he didn't know exactly why, even still. A way to gain power, certainly, but there was something else. Orders from someone, or something, known as Trell.

Unfortunately, he couldn't pin his arguments on an organization that most people still didn't believe existed. He turned around slowly, still holding up the letters, and felt a little spike of alarm as he turned back to <Maelstrom>. He's going to shoot, Wax's instinct said.

"With all due respect," Senator <Maelstrom said>, "you are a new parent and obviously don't know the proper way of raising a child. You don't give into childish demands. You hold firm, knowing that your decisions are best for them, and they will eventually see reason. As a father is to his son, Elendel is to the outer cities."

Right in the back, Wax thought, turning around. Amusing how those instincts worked here. He didn't respond immediately. You waited to aim well for return fire like this. Thing was, he'd made these arguments before, mostly in private, to many of the senators in this room. He was making headway, but he didn't have enough time. Now that he had these letters—now that they'd all seen them—he needed a chance to go back to each senator, the ones on the fence, and share these words, the ideas, and persuade. His gut said that if the vote happened today, the bill would pass. So he hadn't come here just to make the same arguments again. He'd come with a bullet loaded in the chamber, ready to fire.

He carefully folded up the letters and tucked them snugly into his pocket. Then he took the smaller stack, two sheets from his other pocket. The ones that Steris had made copies of in case he forgot. Actually, she probably made copies of the other ones too. And seven other things she knew he wouldn't actually need, but would make her feel better to have her bag, just in case.

Rusts, that woman was delightful.

Wax held up the sheets and made a good show of getting in just the right light to read it.

"Dear <Maelstrom>," he read out loud. "We're pleased by your willingness to see reason and continue to enforce Elendel trade superiority in the Basin. You will make us all wealthy, and we promise you half a percentage of our shipping revenues for the next three years, in exchange for your vocal support of this bill and eventual vote in favor. From, Houses Hasting and Erikell."

The room erupted into chaos, of course. Wax settled in, hooking his finger around his holster, standing and waiting for the cries of outrage to run their course. He met <Maelstrom>'s eyes as the man sank down in his seat. He had hopefully just learned an important lesson: Don't leave a paper trail detailing your corruption when your political opponent is a trained detective.

Rusting idiot.

Footnote: Brandon initially stated that he would be reading chapter 1, but continued reading until some point in chapter 2.
JordanCon 2018 ()
#20 Copy

Brandon Sanderson

A focused southern breeze made the trees sound like they were chattering. Tiny crisp leaves spreading the news of the Traveler's return. Pure white leaves, clustered along branches like skeletal limbs. Even the bark clinging to the trees was white. In some lands, white meant purity; in others, it meant death. Here, it didn't mean a thing. It was simply, normal. 

The Traveler sat on the mossy white ground, back to the tree, legs crossed idly as he picked at a pomegranate, eating the seeds one by one then spitting out the pits. They fell on the stark moss-covered ground, leaving red juice like blood running across a sterile white floor. To say he wore rags would have be an insult to many a goodwife who kept her washing rags in much better shape than the Traveler's costume. Ragged brown and black canvas, tattered cloak, and scruffy beard, rubbed dark with a black material that might have been soot — or ash. 

The leaves suddenly fluttered excitedly behind him, and a strange puff of wind blew across the trunks. A moment later, a figure in simple gray robes walked into the clearing. Clean-shaven and silver-haired, he had the look of an aged scribe, not haughty, but tired. 

"So, you're back," the elderly visitor said. 

"Did I leave? I am the lingering odor you can never quite locate, my friend. Just when you think I've faded you open your cupboard and find, in an overpowering reveal, that I've merely been… ripening."

"Hmph, that's a new look for you."

The Traveler looked down at his ragged clothing. "I've been learning to blend in. Hard to do that in one of my normal costumes."

"I doubt you'll ever be the type to blend in."

"You'd be surprised!"

"Is that soot in your hair?"

"Maybe."

The elderly man sighed, walking across the short clearing and settling himself down on a large protruding tree root. "You can't keep doing this." The Traveler continued to eat his seeds, though he had started to chew them up rather than spitting out the pits. "You will just make things worse." 

"Ati and Leras are dead," the Traveler said, picking a piece of seed out from between his teeth. The elderly visitor said nothing, and the Traveler eyed him, leaning in closely, studying the man's eyes. The pupils were rimmed with a silver far too metallic to be natural, at least for a human. 

"You sly old lizard!" the Traveler said, pointing. "You already knew! You were watching! And here you were chastising me."

"I did NOT interfere," the elderly man said. "You meddle in things we promised to leave alone. Things that we—"

Traveler held up a finger, interrupting him, then slowly he pointed at the older man. "I. Made. No. Promise."

"You made your choice. Why now seek for things you so eagerly denied? My friend, it's the dangerous desire, the lust for power best untouched, that created the situation in the first place."

The Traveler did not reply. The two sat for a time, listening to the winds through the garrulous trees.

"Did you… find what you were seeking?" the elder man finally asked.  

The Traveler shrugged, picking at another seed and nibbling on it. 

"You will not find a way to restore what you have lost, old friend," the aged man said softly. "It is impossible." 

"You don't know that. The old rules no longer hold." The Traveler turned the pomegranate over in his fingers. "Besides, I've heard of a place… It doesn't matter. I don't care. This isn't about the dead… or it's not JUST about the dead, at least." He dropped the fruit to the ground, wiping his fingers on his riding coat.

"So it's a simple vendetta, then," the aged man said, sighing. "How many years have you lived, and you still can't learn the wisdom of just letting go?"

"A simple vendetta?" the Traveler said. He rose, stalking up to the older man, holding out a finger and touching the man's chest. "You saw what Ati nearly did." The Traveler leaned down, face even with that of his older companion. "I would not think it MY vendetta that should worry you, old friend."

Salt Lake City ComicCon 2017 ()
#21 (not searchable) Copy

Brandon Sanderson

It's not every day you get you get to help save the world. Around here, it only happens about every six months.

I stood in the Apocalypse Guard command center. The screens displayed Erodan, a planet threatened with destruction by a passing asteroid. Today, the Guard would save that planet, and I got to be part of it.

"Emma," Commander Visco said, waving her cup toward me. "This coffee cup won't refill itself."

A very small part.

I seized the Commander's cup and hurried to the small kitchen beside the command station. As painful as it was to miss anything, particularly now that the asteroid was getting close to Erodan, I had a job to do. Commander Visco couldn't spare the time to fill her own cup. That's why you had interns like me.

A pot was brewing on the counter inside the small kitchen. But just in case, I got a second one going in the other machine. Truth be told, I was a coffee-making genius. Everybody said so, and I took their word on it, because... seriously, why would you bother lying to the coffee girl? Granted, I had to take their word for it, as I didn't drink coffee. My skill was due to my secret weapon: I knew how to follow instructions. I flipped through pictures on my phone, finding the instructions. The other interns said they'd been making coffee for years and didn't need instructions... but they then seemed shocked when they tasted how great my brews were. Odd how it was, when you measured exactly and read by the manual, how things turned out better than when you did by instinct.

New batch brewing, I filled the commander's cup, then took the rest of the pot with me as I rushed back into the main room of the command center, which was occupied by some forty people. We weren't actually on Erodan, the endangered planet; our command center was on the space station Charleston, which was in orbit around Terra, my home planet. We used specialized technology to look through at Erodan and manage the operation there.

When most people think of the Apocalypse Guard, they imagine the Riggers and their fantastical powers. Most people forget that the Guard also includes hundreds of scientists, engineers, explorers... and office interns. A magnificent force united by a single goal: save planets from destruction.

I delivered the Commander's cup, glancing at the command center's large main screen, which had shifted to a view of the asteroid. One of the technicians had nicknamed it "Droppy." The people on Erodan called it "Calamity." That was a bad name by our metrics for various reasons. Droppy didn't look that dangerous to me; more majestic. A grand oblong chunk of space rock tumbling quietly in the void, trailing a brilliant line of debris. The Apocalypse Guard had been working to stop it for two years now, ever since first discovering Erodan and making contact. That had been long before I had joined them, but I had read all of the mission briefs. Well, the ones that interns had clearance for, anyway.

Commander Visco barked an order, checking on the Sapphire Riggers who were watching along the Erodan's eastern sea. Because of the Guard's actions, Droppy should miss the planet. But after that, the planet would pass through the debris of the asteroid's tail, and that would cause meteor showers, and some larger chunks of rock might prove dagneorus. The Sapphire Riggers would use their powers to stop any tsunamis.

As the screen switched, I jumped, remembering where I was. Step one of not getting fired, Emma. Do your freaking job. Coffee pot in hand, I turned toward the rows of people seated in cubbies beneath the main screen. These scientists and operators supported the Riggers, who were our field agents. Filling empty cups wasn't glorious work, but it was my work, and dang it, I was gonna do it well. If Erodan fell, it wouldn't be because our command team lacked proper caffeination.

The screen switched to another image of Droppy. From what I'd read, saving planets from asteroids was standard work for the Guard. They'd done it some six times now. I would have expected them to use nukes, or more dramatically, the Steel Riggers, who could shoot bolts of energy from their hands. Instead, the Guard had painted the asteroid bright white. That meant more sunlight bounced off Droppy, which, remarkably, had nudged it off its course. Two years later, it was barely going to miss Erodan.

My pot ran dry, so I went to fetch a new one. On my way back to the kitchen, I hesitantly stopped the room's Firelight Rigger, who sat in a command chair off by himself. The man wore a bright red headpiece, kind of like a futuristic crown, and a similar chestpiece under his loose jacket. I wiggled the coffee pot, but he just stared forward, fingers laced with the index fingers tapping. The air seemed to warm around him. Looking in other dimensions, I thought, shivering. Technically, Erodan wasn't simply another planet; it was an alternate dimension version of Terra. There were technically infinite dimensions, but most weren't stable. They were wild half-realities, full of oddities and bizarre visions. Erodan, however, was what we call a Stable Node, like Terra. Or Earth, the Hidden Node. Erodan was a real world, full of living people, civilizations, and cultures.

"Looking good," Commander Visco said as reports flashed on the main screen. She had a voice that tasted like fudge brownies. Oh, right, I kind of taste sounds sometimes, particularly peoples' voices. It's called synesthesia, and it's a totally cool thing that scientists find super interesting and not weird at all. I don't mention it to people very often. "Emerald Riggers," Commander Visco said, "Report."

I trotted away from the Firelight Rigger (who was, admittedly, very creepy) and started scanning for other people who needed coffee refills. The main screen turned to a shot of a line of Emerald Riggers floating up above Erodan's atmosphere, each surrounded by a protective green forcefield. They were spaced out, watching the asteroid from a safe distance, a line of sentinels between it and the planet. "Asteroid pass is looking clean, Commander," said Captain Choy, an Asian man. His face, shaded green from his forcefield, appeared in the corner of the main screen. His voice tasted like brown beef with onions. "How are the tides?"

"Sapphire Riggers report they are manageable," a scientist replied. "Everything is as projected."

"Doesn't even look like there's much debris in the tail," Choy said. "Emerald Riggers standing by."

I filled a few more cups, moving down a row of operators wearing headsets. Each of these would be in contact with a specific Rigger. I didn't know most of them, though Billy, who was the last in the row, gave me a grin and held up his cup. "Thanks, Emma," he said, pulling off his headset. His voice tasted of mint asparagus. Yes, I know. Billy took a sip of coffee, and then handed me the headset. "Hold this."

"Um... sure."

Billy slipped off his chair. "I'll be back in a sec. Have to hit the restroom. Cover for me."

"Co- co- cover for you?" I just about dropped my coffee pot. "Billy, I'm not trained for this! Billy!"

"It's fine," he said.

"Where are the instructions?" Billy just left me there. He wasn't the only one getting up. Others would occasionally run to the restroom or something. A mission like this could take hours. But none of the others left an intern holding their headset!

I looked around in panic. An Indian man two seats over glanced at me, then shook his head, as if in disapproval. Right, right, cover for Billy. Step one, put on the headset. Step two... look like you know what you're doing? "Hello," I said into the device?"

"Hello, beautiful," a familiar voice said. "Glad Billy finally got your attention. Hovering up here is getting boring."

Lance. Emerald Rigger, and the reason I had gotten this internship in the first place. My boyfriend, a man I could have freaking strangled right then.

***

Lance's voice tasted like my favorite peanut cluster candy bar from home. A familiar, comfortable taste, sweet and salty at the same time. "Lance," I hissed, sitting down. "You're not supposed to be Billy's Rigger!"

"Billy and I got it swapped," Lance said. "If I'm going to spend hours flying up here in a bubble, I can at least have someone fun to talk to."

"You're doing important work," I said, hunkering down. What if the Commander noticed that I was shirking coffee duty to talk to my boyfriend? "Super heroic stuff."

"Boring," Lance said, then yawned audibly into the microphone. At twenty years old, Lance Stoddard was two years my senior, which had caused some consternation on the parts of our parents when we were in high school. He was the Apocalypse Guard's star rookie, having mastered the Emerald Rig after just one year of practice. He'd been on active duty every since, saving planets. That wasn't enough, of course, for Lance Freaking Stoddard. "They refused to put me on the dangerous missions," he said. "I had a chance to be on help of Zima five months ago, but they-" Do I have to listen to his again? "They pulled me for no reason! Now here I am, staring at a rock! Important work. The Hex were on Zima, Emma."

I shivered. The Hex. I wasn't allowed to read about our intervention on Zima. The reports were classified. But I did know we'd failed. The Hex had destroyed the planet. That made four planets so far they'd claimed in the eight years since they'd been discovered. People called them the most dangerous threat to the Knowns we'd ever encountered, a fact that I knew intimately well.

Lance sighed again, loudly. "You're so aggravating," I said, fishing in my pocket.

"You're getting out your phone, aren't you?"

"No I'm not," I said, getting out my phone.

"You're looking for that picture of me. The one you wrote instructions on."

"Don't be silly," I said, pulling up that exact picture."

"Well, if I'm supposed to be offended, I'm not. I think it's very cute, the way you talk. Very Idaho."

"I work for the Guard, now. I've become very cosmopolitan." I lowered my voice, thickening my real accent. "So stop teasin' me, Lance Stardard, you flipping idiot."

"I love the way that sounds! So pastoral!"

"Hush," I said. "You're from Idaho, too."

"I lived there for three years." Lance was originally from New York. He implied to others that he'd grown up in the important part, but I knew he'd lived in a town just as rural as Iona, Idaho. "I'm telling you", he said over the line, "I'm capable of more of this. The Pangaea mission will be even more boring. A flood? Scientists can solve that."

"I'm sure everyone we save on Pangaea will be comforted to know they were almost killed by a boring apocalyse."

On the screen Droppy drew closer and closer to Erodan. Sometimes, it was hard to remember that the screen was looking between dimensions, at another version of our world. Our history deviated from Erodan's some two thousand years ago, so they didn't seem very similar. Erodan's technology was stuck somewhere around the 1980s, and all the nations had different names from ours. They'd never heard of people like George Washington or Joan of Arc. Those people simply hadn't been born on Erodan. That was different from Earth, though, the Hidden Node. Apparently, that planet was so similar to Terra that there were alternate versions of most people living on it. Crazy. Fortunately, nobody could get to Earth these days, so it didn't really matter.

"You're supposed to be keeping me company."

"You're supposed to be staying focused. How long is Billy going to be gone, anyway?"

"Someway, when your internship is done, you'll be my operator. Then we can work as a team! Think of it. Me, risking my life on daring adventures. You, admiring how well I do it."

"You, tripping over your enthusiasm," I said. "Me, saving your heinie at the last minute, like in physics class, and in chemistry class, and in calculus class." I smiled. I did like Lance. He was like a big, barking Labrador. A little loud, maybe a little full of himself, but sweet at the same time.

"Admit it," he said, "You're glad I suggested that you apply."

"Suggested? You practically forced me into it."

"All I did was give you a list of instructions for submitting an application!" His candy-bar voice sounded intentionally innocent.

I sighed. It wasn't that I had minded getting out of Iona. But, well... Riggers gave me the shivers. It's just hard to explain. Our lives had seemed planned out, simply. But then Lance, instead of taking the football scholarship, had applied for the Guard. And he'd gotten in! And then when I graduated two years later, he nagged me until I applied. He pulled some strings, and I was really good at following instructions. So three months later, here I was, serving coffee to the Apocalypse Guard itself. Eh... when Lance let me do my job.

"Do you ever wonder," I said over the line, "why we have to do this in the first place?"

"Talk?" Lance said.

"No, save planets."

"You'd rather just let 'em be destroyed?"

"No," I said, "not that. I mean, have you wondered why? We found like, what, forty different stable nodes?"

"Yeah, something like that."

"And Erodan will be our twentieth intervention," I said. "So, like, half of all the planets we discover need to be saved from some imminent catastrophe. None have their own Apocalypse Guard or their own Riggers."

"Eh, some people from other planets do have weird powers. Jank is from Triveria; he can make things dry by touching them. He doesn't need a rig or anything."

"That's beside the point. Why, Lance? Why are so many planets facing life-ending threats?"

The Guard had a great track record. Of its twenty interventions so far, only six had failed. Four of those to the Hex, but that was still six entire planets we'd lost. with, in most cases, only a small percentage of people escaping to other dimensions.

"Best not to think about stuff like that, Emma," Lance said.

"I wish we had more answers," I said. "It..." I trailed off. A number on my monitor was flashing. The monitor had all kinds of readouts and things I didn't understand, since this wasn't my freaking job.

"Just a sec," Lance said. "Something's happening." That number on my screen, I thought. It's Lance's heartbeat. It skyrocketed. Feeling a growing panic, I looked up to the large main screen, which showed Droppy in all its glory. It seemed to be wobbling in a different way than before. Though the control center, scientists and operators hushed. Commander Visco looked up from her tablet at the back of the room, lowering her coffee mug from her lips. The asteroid wobbled once more, then started breaking into smaller chunks.