The Skull Throne Page 2

“There is no victor,” she said. “The battle continues below, and only Everam knows how it will end. We must find them, and quickly.”

It took hours to descend the mountain. The darkness did not slow them—all of this elite group could see by magic’s glow—but rock and stone demons haunted the trail now, blending in perfectly with the mountainside. Wind demons shrieked in the sky, circling.

Rojer took up his instrument, coaxing the mournful sounds of the Song of Waning from its strings, keeping the alagai at bay. Amanvah lifted her voice to accompany him, their music enhanced by hora magic to fill the night. Even amidst the despairing wind that threatened to bend the palm of her center to breaking, Inevera found pride in her daughter’s skills.

Wrapped in the protections of the son of Jessum’s strange magic, they were safe from the alagai, but it was slow going. Inevera’s fingers itched to take the electrum wand from her belt, blasting demons from her path as she raced to her husband’s side, but she did not wish to reveal its power to the Northerners, and it would only attract more alagai in any event. Instead, she was forced to keep the steady pace Rojer set, even as Ahmann and the Par’chin likely bled to death in some forgotten valley.

She shook the thought away. Ahmann was the chosen of Everam. She must trust that He granted His Shar’Dama Ka some miracle in his time of greatest need.

He was alive. He had to be.

Leesha rode in silence, and even Thamos was not fool enough to disturb her. The count might share her bed more oft than not, but she did not love him as she had Arlen … or Ahmann. Her heart had torn watching them fight.

It seemed Arlen held every advantage going in, and if she’d had to choose, she would not have had it another way. But Arlen’s tormented soul had found a kind of peace in recent days, and she’d hoped he could force a submission from Ahmann and end the battle without death.

She’d cried out when Ahmann stabbed Arlen with the Spear of Kaji—perhaps the only weapon in the world that could harm him. The battle had turned in that moment, and for the first time her anger at Ahmann had threatened to become hate.

But when Arlen pitched them both over the cliff rather than lose, her stomach had wrenched as Ahmann dropped from sight. The child in her belly was less than eight weeks formed, but she could have sworn it kicked as its father fell into darkness.

Arlen’s powers had been growing ever stronger in the year since she met him. Sometimes it seemed there was nothing he could not do, and even Leesha wondered if he might be the Deliverer. He could dissolve and protect himself from the impact. Ahmann could not.

But even Arlen had his limits, and Ahmann had tested them in ways no one had expected. Leesha remembered vividly the fall, mere weeks past, that had left Arlen a broken spatter on the cobblestones of the Hollow, his skull cracked like a boiled egg struck against the table.

If only Renna had not rushed after them. The woman knew something of Arlen’s plans. More than she was telling.

They doubled back long before reaching the mountain’s base, avoiding the pass watched by scouts from both their armies. Perhaps war was inevitable, but neither side wished for it to begin tonight.

The mountain paths wound and split. More than once, Inevera had to consult the dice to choose their path, kneeling on the ground to cast while the rest of them waited impatiently. Leesha longed to know what the woman saw in that jumble of symbols, but she knew enough not to doubt there was real power in the foretellings.

It was nearing dawn when they found the first of Shanjat’s markers. Inevera picked up her pace and the others followed, racing along the trail as the horizon began to take on a purplish tinge.

They had not been noticed by the Watchers stationed at the base of the mountain, but Inevera’s bodyguards Ashia and Shanvah had crept unseen up the slope and silently fell in with them. The greenland prince glanced at them but shook his head dismissively when he noticed they were women.

At last they came upon Renna and Shanjat, the two watching each other warily as they waited. Shanjat moved quickly to stand before Inevera, punching his chest with a bow. “The trail ends here, Damajah.”

They dismounted and followed the warrior to a spot not far off where a man-sized depression lay, dirt and shattered stone telling of a great impact. Blood spattered the ground, but there were footprints, as well—signs of continued struggle.

“You’ve followed the trail?” Inevera asked.

Shanjat nodded. “It vanishes not far from here. I thought it best to await further instruction before ranging too far.”

“Renna?” Leesha asked.

The Par’chin’s Jiwah Ka was staring at the bloody crater with a glazed look in her eyes, her powerful aura unreadable. She nodded numbly. “We’ve been circling the area for hours. It’s like they grew wings.”

“Carried off by a wind demon?” Wonda ventured.

Renna shrugged. “Reckon it’s possible, but hard to believe.”

Inevera nodded. “No demon could ever touch my sacred husband, but that he willed it.”

“What of the spear?” Jayan asked. Inevera looked at him sadly. It came as no great surprise that her eldest son cared more for the sacred weapon than his own father, but it saddened her nonetheless. Asome, at least, had the courtesy to keep such thoughts to himself.

Shanjat shook his head. “There has been no sign of the holy weapon, Sharum Ka.”

“There is fresh blood,” Inevera said, looking at the horizon. Dawn was minutes away, but she might manage one last foretelling. She reached into her hora pouch, gripping her dice so tightly the edges dug painfully into her hand as she went to kneel by the crater.

Normally she would not have dared to expose the sensitive dice to even predawn light. Direct sunlight would destroy demon bone, and even indirect light could cause permanent damage. But the electrum she had coated them in protected them even in brightest sun. Like the Spear of Kaji, their power would deplete rapidly in the light, but they could be charged again when night fell.

Her hand shook as she reached out. She needed to breathe for several seconds to find her center before she could continue, touching the blood of her husband for the second time this night and using it to seek his fate.

“Blessed Everam, Creator of all things, give me knowledge of the combatants, Ahmann asu Hoshkamin am’Jardir am’Kaji, and Arlen asu Jeph am’Bales am’Brook. I beseech you, tell me of the fate that has befallen them, and the fates yet to come.”

The power throbbed in her fingers and she threw, staring hard at the pattern.

When questioned on things that were, or had been, the dice spoke with cold—if often cryptic—assurance. But the future was always shifting, its sands blowing with every choice made. The dice gave hints, like signposts in the desert, but the farther one looked, the more the paths diverged, until one became lost in the dunes.

Ahmann’s future had always been filled with divergences. Futures where he carried the fate of humanity, and ones where he died in shame. Death on alagai talon was the most common, but there were knives at his back always, and spears pointed at his heart. Those that would give their lives for his, and those waiting to betray.

Many of those paths were closed now. Whatever happened, Ahmann would not return soon, and likely not at all. The thought set a cold fear writhing through Inevera’s gut.

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