Destiny's Casualties

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy

From the memoirs of Syndeeka, Warrior-Astronomer. Denied an astronomer's position at the emperor's palace, Syndeeka agrees to join a team of mercenaries in a dangerous mission to save a lord's daughter from becoming a cult's next blood sacrifice to the god of death. The second Sword & Sorcery Fantasy story in the adventures of Syndeeka of the Ushe.

He is the completion of the circle.
His hands were shorn by Haishtoyflagos.
Below him are the fires of the forge.
Above him are the seeds of spring.
He is the completion of the circle.
His hands were shorn by Haishtoyflagos.
Inside his flesh are our fathers’ fathers.
Beneath his bones are our mothers’ mothers.
He is the completion of the circle.
His hands were shorn by Haishtoyflagos.
Tears from his eyes water our wells.
Blood from his wrists contains our crops.
He is the completion of the circle.
His hands were shorn by Haishtoyflagos.
Now the winter finds his form.
Now the spring splays his seed.
Now the summer heats his hate.
Now the autumn sings his summons.
He is the completion of the circle.
His hands were shorn by Haishtoyflagos.
Now we ask for future’s fortunes.
Now we bleed for life’s rebirth.
Now we slay with the fires of the forge.
Now we rest to dream his return.
He is the completion of the circle.
His hands were shorn by Haishtoyflagos.
 
---Litany of the Death Lord
 
 
 
1.
 
Everyone's face gets lined with age, I thought as I regarded my refection in cold steel, but most people's lines are not scars.
 
The diamond-shaped kite cut the sky ahead of me. I pulled my cloak more tightly about me from where I sat atop the wind wagon. Laying flat over my crossed legs was the blade of my sword. I'd been oiling it with a rag and now its luster shown bloodily in the waning light of the setting sun. In front of me was the wagon-master, Jonu, in the driver's seat, his leathery hands holding steady the wooden lever that could pull in or reel out the kite further, depending on the needs of the driver. So good of the Equoci Empire to offer me a ride in one of their wondrous vehicles as a token of gratitude for my recent services to them.
 
"To the north lie the semi-barbarous lands," Fodineo Quabeno had told me, his olive hand gently resting on my ebony shoulder. "We allow the warlords their petty rivalries with the understanding that they will bow down before my image and pay tithes to me."
 
"Then they are always in need of sell-swords?" I asked.
 
A smile crossed his youngish face. "Always."
 
"What of astronomers?"
 
"That I cannot say."
 
It had been irritating enough that his Excellency had not been able to offer me a job in my science at the court. The old vultures wouldn't hear of me joining their ranks in the Imperial Palace and the Emperor held too great a superstitious fear of them to decree against their wishes. And to think I'd saved him from that clockwork god run amok!
 
"Good luck, Syndeeka. I am sure that one day you will achieve your dream of becoming a renowned stargazer."
 
Oh, such kind words from such a damned fool. Worshiped as a god on three separate continents-- including the one I hail from-- and still reluctant to contradict the wishes of a collection of codgers too blind to measure the heavens without the aid of their adolescent assistants. The Deity Imperator Fodineo III endowed my science with mystical attributes.
 
What difference between him and an ignorant farmer?
 
He'd offered me a position in his personal guard as compensation. But the idea of protecting the well-being of a global tyrant held little appeal to me. To be an astronomer in his court still be to serve his wishes, but at least I'd be furthering the science I so loved. 
 
Too much of my life these past ten years had been in the employment of rulers of various stations, and never as an astronomer. As a mercenary, I could sell my sword to those of my own choosing. This didn’t always bode well, so I’d discovered, as not all my employers’ motives were as benign as I’d initially suspected. But to be a paid thug for someone as powerful and (more than likely) corrupt as the Emperor was too much. I preferred to take my chances with the feuding warlords of the northern lands.
 
We’d been traveling the Imperial highway since morning through the country known as Lashokisha, a loose collection of baronies and estates constantly at war with one another. These bloody rivalries, so I’d been told, had been going on for centuries with no end in sight.
 
The Imperium had once attempted to establish a governorship about two hundred years ago, but the natives were so displeased with all the taxes levied on them in exchange for public works (particularly the paved stone highways that still crisscrossed this lush green land) that tribes had united into rebellious factions which rose up and stormed the governor’s mansion one evening. The governor and his entire family were drawn and quartered and their skins were made into the heads of drums. It was said that you could still hear those drums beaten at night whenever renewed talk of a governorship was in the air.
 
For the most part, the Imperium granted the people semi-autonomy under the condition that the Deity Imperator’s shrine stood higher than those of the local gods. The people themselves had grown out of many of their previous barbaric customs and had replaced the old tribal system with more “civilized” feudal lordships.
 
And lords paid well for warriors.
 
I was headed to the castle of Lord Zounachsech to be part of a team of mercenaries in a life-or-death mission. While crossing his Lordship’s territory, Lady Berkhoy, the daughter of a somewhat friendly rival lord, had been abducted by the Order of Unadi and taken to their Twilight Fortress, where  they were holding her hostage. And no ransom could be paid them for her release, for they had sent word to Lord Zounachsech that she was to be a blood sacrifice at the end of the year (2317 by the Imperial  calendar). Lady Berkhoy’s father, Keifechneshtis, held Lord Zounachsech solely responsible for this turn of events and demanded the safe return of his daughter or, if this proved impossible, the offering up of Lord Zounachsech in the “Consumption”-- I would soon learn the grisly details of that practice.
 
As the sky went from blue, to purple, to black, the chill winds bit into my skin and I re-sheathed my sword so that I could better enshroud myself with my cloak. It was late fall and I knew the snows of winter were not far off. I recalled the warm nights of my homeland far, far to the south and felt an odd pang of nostalgia.
 
Who could I possibly miss from my past life other than my mother and my mentor, Keeshofa? They were long dead and I couldn’t possibly believe that my current profession would have made them proud. It was still less demeaning than what mother and I once did. I supposed I missed Madame Oyoku. She was kind to me and happy when it seemed I would become an astronomer. Who else? Oh, but what did it matter, anyway? They had to all be dead. 
 
Govewda spared no one.
 
I was sure of that.
 
Dark memories dimmed as stars materialized before my eyes. The moon, full and grinning, rose up from a cluster of hills on the horizon. Jonu pulled a small lever at his side and the wind wagon braked to a stop. He depressed a wooden button on the main lever and its reel started pulling the line in. The kite, glowing like mother-of-pearl, eddied down from the sky. The driver caught its wooden cross-frame in his hands and detached it from the line.
 
“May I ask what you’re doing, good sir?” I said.
 
He looked back at me and smiled. “We go no further, madam. Not when a full moon rises.” He pointed east. “Over there on that rise is a shepherd’s cottage.”
 
I followed his crooked finger and saw a small house with stone walls and a thatched roof. Through the slats of the shuttered windows came a faint red light.
 
“We should ask the people living there to let us stay the night,” Jonu said, placing the kite in a compartment under his seat.
 
“Why?”
 
“It’s not safe at night under a full moon.” He locked the compartment door with an iron key from a ring on his belt. “The Unadiflinus ride with their wolves.”
 
“Really?” I stood up and stepped to his side. “You’ve seen them?”
 
He nodded his grey head. “Yes. They always come out on nights like this. I’m surprised Lady Berkhoy’s coachman was foolish enough to keep traveling last month. He should have known better.”
 
“Will the wagon be safe if we leave it here?” I dropped to the ground and he soon joined me.
 
“I don’t know. Sometimes they’ll search an abandoned wagon or coach.”
 
“I should think your employers would not be too happy with that. Go to the cottage if you wish. I think I’ll stay here and guard the wagon.”
 
In the faint moonlight I saw his eyes widen. “Madame, it is not safe! You don’t know these things like I do. You’re not from here.”
 
“I can take care of myself, my good man. I’m a warrior by profession, you know.”
 
 
“That hardly matters! These ain't simple swords, madam. These are the servants of the god of death! Not alive like us.”
 
My breath hissed out between clinched teeth. “Go to the cottage. I’ve no time for your nerves.”  A look of bewildered shock crossed his face, and a wave of pity washed over me. I sighed. “Don’t worry about me.”
 
He laid a gnarly hand on my arm. “But, madam, I’m responsible for you. If something should happen…”
 
Yes. He was right. I couldn’t let this poor man suffer at the hands of angry officials of the Imperium as a result of my own recklessness. Certainly I would like to see these Unadiflinus before my mission started, but it has never been my way to allow for the pointless hurting of the downtrodden.
 
"Very well. Let us go to the cottage.”
 
The shepherd’s house was only a short walk from the wagon. Next to it was a small coral filled with woolly sleeping forms like ghosts in the moonlight. I pulled my hood over my head since I didn’t feel like explaining my appearance to local peasants, and the wagon master rapped his knuckles on the planks. Silence. Jonu looked to me, shrugged, and knocked again. There was a muffled sound of footfalls.
 
“Who is there?” said a cautious male voice behind the door.
 
“Good sir, it is an Imperial wagon master and his passenger, humbly requesting lodgings for the night,” replied the driver. “There is a full moon.”
 
“Truly?”
 
I heard the sound of wood scraping planks. The door opened inward a crack, revealing a bloodshot eye. “Show me proof of your claims. You could be bandits for all I know.”
 
Jonu fished a folded parchment square from out of his leather vest and slid it into the door crack. There was a rustling. Then the door opened further. Standing before us was a tall, stocky, middle-aged man with a salt and pepper beard. He handed the parchment to the driver and said, “Come in, but don’t expect a meal. Me and my wife only have so much.”
 
“That’s all right. My passenger and I already ate and we have provisions in the wagon.”
 
The shepherd scratched the bristles of his beard. “You had better collect those provisions and bring them in, then. The Unadiflinus like pillaging Imperial transports.”
 
Jonu chuckled. “Oh, don’t I know!” He turned to me. “You might want to get your things, madam.”
 
“Yes, of course,” I said.
 
That was when the shepherd first noticed me. “Good woman, why do you wear that hood?”
 
Jonu gave me a sympathetic smile and turned to the shepherd. “The lady is an important personage who wishes anonymity amongst strangers.”
 
The shepherd scowled, rubbed his temple, then composed his features. “Very well, then. I’ll help you two get your things.”
 
 
We quickly cleared the wagon of its baggage and settled in the house for the long night. The cottage was small with a hearth in the center of the dirt floor, the fire’s grey smoke billowing out a hole in the roof. Sitting next to the fire on a stool was a young woman with blood-red hair cascading down her woolen-clad shoulders. She rose to greet me, holding out her hand.
 
“Hello,” she said, “I am Geishnous. You met my husband, Neidertsudain.”
 
Instinctively, I took her hand. Her eyes, straying to the dark fingers that held hers, widened.
 
“My name is Syndeeka.” I kept my voice level, friendly. “My people are called the Ushe. We hail from far to the south of here.”
 
“Oh,” she said, inhaling slowly, “I see. The Imperial soldiers are dark too. Not as dark as you…um..”
 
“No. I’m from a much sunnier place than they.” I released her hand and pulled back my hood.
 
She suppressed a gasp, and then regarded me with fascination. I felt annoyed by but also sympathetic to her ignorance. “You’re beautiful, though. Even with all those scars…I’m sorry.”
 
“No, don’t be. I’m a mercenary, though I was trained as a stargazer.”
 
“It’s a shame that in these parts you can’t stay out to see a full moon, then.” She smiled. “But I can open the slats a bit on one of the shutters.”
 
 
The fire was soon extinguished, the couple retired, and the wagon master and I peered through those partially-opened slats for the Unadiflinus. It was well into the night before they materialized. A faint glow separated itself from the moonlight on a hill and rifted in the direction of the wagon. Nearing, it grew into the shapes men on horseback following a pack of dogs.
 
But those weren’t dogs. They were wolves. And those weren’t men-- not with those faces. Hairless skulls stared out over green-glowing leather breastplates. In the luminescence I could see that they had no eyes, only empty sockets. Yet they turned their heads as if looking about.
 
The wolf in the lead stared back and growled strangely. The riders immediately hitched the reins of their horses and moved in the beast's direction. She must be the queen of the pack, I realized. She trotted toward the wind wagon, followed by her pack and the phantom riders. Reaching the transport, she and the other wolves began howling. The Unidaflinus rode up to the baying beasts and dismounted from their steeds. They put their arms in front of them and crept forward, groping at the air until their fingers touched wood.
 

I turned to the driver. “Gods,” I whispered. “They’re blind!”

 
 
“Of course they’re blind,” said Lord Zounachsech the following morning. “Men can’t see without eyes.”
 
“Then they are men?” I asked.
 
“Yes, although we’re not supposed to know that.”
 
He sat before me at the head of a long oak table in the council chamber of his castle. He was bearded with long brown hair (graying at the sideburns) and a hawk-like nose under the most beautiful blue eyes I’d ever seen. To his left was his advisor, Koimersht, a shrewd, shriveled little man in a red skullcap and matching robes.
 
Sitting to Lord Zounachsech’s right and next to me was Jan, leader of the mercenaries. I had been pleasantly surprised to discover that my commanding officer was almost as dark as I was, Jan’s people being from the great desert to the north of the Ushe kingdoms. He was bald with a dark brown complexion (not blue-black like mine), chiseled features, a dagger-like goatee, and a black leather outfit similar to my own.
 
Lord Zounachsech looked to his advisor. “Koimersht, you may bring in the surgeon.”
 
Koimersht stood and walked to the door. Opening it, he leaned out and conferred with someone. A rotund man with iron gray whiskers entered the room and followed Koimersht to the table. He lifted the hem of his purple velvet robes as he sat down.
 
“Syndeeka,” said Lord Zounachsech, “may I introduce to you Dewkanosa afla Nikayduaflani. Dewkanosa, this is Syndeeka of the Ushe.”
 
We shook hands.
 
“Dewkanosa,” continued Lord Zounachsech, “tell Syndeeka about yourself.”
 
Pudgy lips twitched. “Well, Syn…”
 
“Syndeeka,” I volunteered.
 
“Yes. Syndeeka. I was a surgeon for the Order of Unadi.”
 
“Then those things I saw must not be undead if they needed your services.”
 
“He did more than serve them,” said Lord Zounachsech.
 
“Indeed,” said Dewkanosa. “I created them.”
 
“What?” I placed my knuckles under my chin and leaned forward. “How?”
 
“By, uh…” Dewkanosa fidgeted with his fingers. “By removing those features that would identify them as men, or rather as boys, I should say.”
 
“You did this to children?” My fingers slid to the handle of my sword, but I wisely stayed my hand and instead laid it palm-flat on the table.
 
Dewkanosa stared down, frowning. “I’m afraid so. My job was to cut off their lips, chop off their noses, and…uh…” (he inhaled a shuddering breath) “…and cut out their eyes.” He placed a hand over his brow. “I know I did wrong. That is why I no longer serve that dreadful order.”
 
I sighed and chewed on a fingernail.
 
“We are fortunate that he did leave the Order,” said Lord Zounachsech. “Otherwise, we might never know the truth of the matter. I particularly count myself lucky, for that means we have a chance of rescuing Lady Berkhoy, and thereby sparing me the Consumption.”
 
“The Consumption,” I repeated. “The Imperial officials mentioned that to me. What is that exactly?”
 
“We needn’t go into that right now.”
 
“Oh, come now, Milord,” said Jan, “we are all adults here. Let Mistress Syndeeka know. She must have a strong constitution to be in her line of work.”
 
“Very well. Although the term is from the Imperial language, the act itself is one our people practiced in Pre-Imperial times. If a prominent land-holder betrays the longstanding social obligation of another of his rank, his holdings are forfeited to the other land-holder, and he is to be…” Lord Zounachsech put his fist on his mouth.
 
His eyes darted to his advisor.
 
Koimersht cleared his throat. “My lord speaks of cannibalism. The offending party is to be eaten alive by his own loved ones.”
 
“Well,” I said, taking a deep breath, “I must say your people certainly have some interesting customs.”
 
 
2.
 
One of the servants, a lanky old man with long gray hair and blue robes, guided me across the courtyard to the two-story structure where the lord housed visiting guests. Like most of the buildings that made up the castle, it was a heavy stone affair modeled after the style of old Imperial buildings: thick, round columns, polished flagstone floors, and high vaulting arches.
 
We ascended a stone staircase that spiraled around a column at one corner of the building, then went down a long hall lined with doors bearing painted symbols on their faces.
 
When we reached one adorned with a mailed fist holding up a sword, he unlocked it with a key from his belt pouch and lead me into a spacious chamber hung with tapestries. In one corner lay a canopied bed with drapes. A small table draped in green, an unlit candle in its center, stood beside the bed. Next to them was an arched window, its shutters opened to admit the golden light of morning. A hearth with a spacious fireplace stood opposite the window.
 
“These will be your quarters for the duration of your employment to His Lordship,” said the servant. “If you have any questions concerning your accommodations, feel free to ask for me. A chambermaid will be along shortly to attend to any of your needs.”
 
He left me and I looked around the chamber. In the corner by the door were a washstand and chamber pot. I found a divan to the right of the door and sat down, my body aching with exhaustion from the previous night --I hadn’t really slept with the Unadiflinus to distract me. I looked at one of the tapestries: barbaric warriors clad in ring mail battled Imperial soldiers in steel and leather armor. I wonder if the Deity Imperator knows about these sorts of things? I thought.
 
There was a knock at the door.
 
I opened it. Immediately, a shock of recognition hit me as I beheld the woman before me: tall stature, a bush of black, curly hair framing her pretty face, and a light brown complexion erroneously referred to as “yellow”. 
 
“Mala!” Even though she held linens in her arms I nearly pulled her off her feet in a bear hug. “You’re alive!”
 
I let go of her and she regarded me with stunned eyes. “Syndeeka? Oh, it is you! I’d always assumed you’d left Aki Gbijume before Govewda’s legion arrived.”
 
“Come in. We must talk.” We both sat on the divan and I squeezed her shoulder affectionately.
 
She placed the linens on the floor between her feet and beamed at me. “I’m so happy to see you, Syndeeka. So, you’re a mercenary now? I thought you hated those people.”
 
“I didn’t want to return to prostitution so I fell back on another of my skills.”
 
“Why didn’t you continue being an astronomer? Wasn’t that your first love?”
 
I chuckled dryly. “Apparently that was not in the stars.” She gave me a blank look. “I’m joking. I don’t believe in astrology.”
 
“My mistress would tell you that you were mistaken not to.”
 
“The lady of the castle?”
 
“There is no ‘Lady’ right now. Lord Marcus’s wife died three years ago from a fever. No, I refer to a wise old crone who lives in the woods to the west of here. I see her a few times a month to learn her craft.”
 
“Astrology? Have I inspired you, then?”
 
“Not just astrology. Mostly herbalism. She teaches me how to make potions and charms.”
 
“Oh. I see. Mala, you know that what she does is only partly science. Mostly it’s just superstitious old wives’ tales.”
 
Mala laughed. “Well, she was an old wife. Now she’s just an old widow. Anyway, it’s no different from what the ijoko do in our homeland.”
 
“No. No, I suppose not. But tell me, how did you get here? And more importantly, how did you escape Govewda’s forces?” I clasped her shoulders.
 
She blinked tears out of her eyes, wiping them away with a white sleeve. “Interestingly enough, you’re partly responsible for that.”
 
“I was? How?”
 
“On the day you left I had a customer who so rude to me that as soon as he was finished with me, I just had to go to you to complain about him. Then I’d discovered that you were gone. The very notion that you would have left without even saying goodbye to me broke my heart.”
 
“Oh, Mala, I’m sorry. I’d just thought it would be easier for both of us.”
 
“Don’t apologize! That’s what saved me.”
 
“I don’t understand.”
 
“I was so distraught upon finding you gone that I left the brothel and wondered the streets, crying. Then I remembered that you’d mentioned how you wanted to go to another part of the world. I thought to myself, she probably went to the docks by the river outside the city. So that’s where I went. I became despondent when I couldn’t find you and gave my charm packet to the first fisherman I met so that he would take me up the river in his boat.”
 
“Did you still have it in your mind to find me?”
 
Mala sighed. “I don’t know. Probably I just couldn’t go back to Madame Oyoku’s place with all the memories it held. It was about a week later that I heard of the massacre. The gods must have blessed me by making you a part of my life.”
 
“Yes. Well, I’m glad you avoided Govewda’s legion. But how did you get here?”
 
Mala laughed. “Oh, that’s a long story. I continued selling myself to men in a neighboring city-state, and then I met a sailor who, after just one dalliance with me, said that he was in love with me. I thought the notion silly since he’d only just met me. But he offered to take me home with him. Of course he couldn’t at the time because he was forbidden to bring any guests onto his ship, but he said he’d return in a few months. I didn’t believe he’d keep his word, but he did. Rieske was a sailor for the Imperial navy and he made arrangements with his superior officers to bring back his ‘bride’.”
 
“You’re married?”
 
“Oh, no.” Mala frowned. “I mean I was for a time. Five years ago his ship was attacked by pirates. The scoundrels realized that they wouldn’t be allowed to board an Imperial vessel…so they sank it.” She wiped her eyes. “He’s dead.”
 
I embraced her again. “I’m sorry.”
 
Mala sniffled, a tear rolling down her cheek. “These aren’t even Rieske’s people here. He’d simply liked this country from his ports of call and built a home by the coast. It’s a bit complicated how I wondered inland and into the services of Lord Zounachsech.”
 
“Much can happen in ten years.”
 
“Yes.” She wiped her eyes again. “Oh, but I am happy to be reunited with you, Syndeeka.”
 
I took her hand in my own and squeezed it firmly.
 
 
3.
 
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever flown before?” Jan asked, grinning, his hands on his hips.
 
I looked passed him to the glider cradled in the catapult on the field. I smiled. “Yes. Yes, I have.” ?Jan’s smug look was replaced with a shocked frown. “But only in a balloon. Steering was limited to ‘up,’ ‘down,’ and wherever the wind took you.”
 
He shook his head, laughing. “You’re full of surprises. Was that for a mission?”
 
“I’m a sell-sword. Why else would they let me take to the heavens?”
 
“Oh, I don’t know. I once performed in a play high in the air. It was for an Imperial governor to celebrate his betrothal to a local girl. I don’t think anyone could hear our dialogue. But it’s just as well. A servant who was once the girl’s suitor disrupted the celebration by cutting our lines.We drifted out of town before the third act. The governor chopped off his head that very day and capped the festivities by drinking his blood from a goblet.”
 
“Jan, you tell the loveliest stories.”
 
Jan reared his head back and bellowed with mirth. “Say what you will about theater life, mistress. It’s still a thousand times better than being trapped in a sandstorm on an ill-mannered camel.”
 
“I should imagine. But tell me, are we to fly these craft to the Fortress of Twilight?”
 
“Oh, no. They’ll be hauled by wagon to the fortress’s outskirts. From there we shall launch them over the battlements onto the roof. It shouldn’t be too easy, either. Dewkanosa has told us that there are vast shafts built into the roof that can discharge flaming oil. This is why I want to train all of you in the art of aerial navigation for the next three months. It’s too easy to get killed even before entering the fortress.”
 
I began to have serious doubts as to the sensibleness of this job. Usually I just acted as bodyguard to merchant caravans or fought in minor skirmishes. But then I did destroy a giant automaton of brass and steel on my last mission, and it’s being a mindless machine didn’t stop it from putting up one hell of a fight!
 
“Now, I should make it clear,” Jan continued, “that these are not fliers. They are merely gliding craft. A balloon, for all its uncontrolability, comes closer to true flight than one of these devices. The catapults will launch us into the air and from there it’s a matter of steering your craft in the right direction before it looses too much altitude.”
 
“Or going through a shaft of fire.”
 
“Precisely.”
 
The rest of the day was spent learning how to work the controls of the gliders. We did not actually take to the air-- that was to come tomorrow. With Jan and me were the two other mercenaries for this mission: Sehaceo and Flershput. Sehaceo was a giant of a man, but lean and muscular. He wore his graying black hair in a long ponytail and had a spider web of scars patch-working his face. Flershput was actually slightly shorter than me, but stocky and bowlegged. With his rust-colored thatch of beard and prominent overbite, he reminded me of an orangutan I’d seen at the Emperor’s court, though I had the decency not to mention this. 
 
The gliders looked less like birds than they did like bats. Their large wings were ribbed with a thin wood frame and covered with a hide of muslin. Jan explained that the pilot was to lie flat in a body harness between the wings, feet and hands in steel stirrups. The hand stirrups had levers that could be used to work the wings, which could raise or lower according to the pilot’s needs, while the feet stirrups controlled vanes in the tail section.
 
He repeatedly drilled us in the use of these controls until well passed sundown. The lesson was excruciatingly dull, even for someone trained as an astronomer.
 
The only part of Jan’s lecture that perked my interest was an intriguing piece of trivia he told us: the basic design for the gliders was actually taken from the notebooks of a natural philosopher named Suhadoten. I remembered that name when Jan told it to me because Suhadoten had designed the clockwork god I’d defeated at the Imperial court. I wished that I could meet such a brilliant man, but I knew that he’d been dead for some three hundred years now. 
 
Because of the time Jan took to instill in us the use of the glider controls, we missed the supper served in the Lord’s Hall. Jan gave us soldiers’ rations, and though I’d eaten fair like this before, I’d always preferred the cooking of a court kitchen. Satiated as much as I could be from such salty, leathery meat, I headed to my chambers.
 
As I crossed the cobblestones of the courtyard a familiar voiced called my name. I turned and saw Lord Zounachsech at the other end of the courtyard. He smiled and walked towards me, his blue cloak flapping in the night breeze.
 
“Good evening, My Lord.” I bowed to him.
 
“You weren’t at supper tonight.” His features became more distinct as he neared.
 
“I’m afraid I was rather indisposed by Jan. He said that we were actually going to take to the heavens tomorrow. I’m a bit nervous.”
 
“You, nervous?” He finally reached me and placed a firm hand on my shoulder. “I’d think you would never be afraid.”
 
I laughed. “You don’t know sell-swords very well, then. I haven’t known a single one not to be afraid of something at times.”
 
“Oh, I can see that.” His hand gripped me. “Tell me, are there many women in your calling?”
 
Even in the faint radiance of moonlight and castle torches, those blue eyes shone beautifully.
 
“I’m sorry,” he said, frowning, “did I offend you?”
 

“What? Oh, no. No. I must have had my mind someplace else just then. You wanted to know about other women who sell their blades…Yes, there are a few. Not many in my experience. It’s mostly men.”

 
“Pity. A man in these parts likes a strong woman. In the days of our ancestors it was the women who trained young men to be fierce warriors. Sometimes they even went into battle.”
 
“Do you like strong women then?”
 
“Strong of character, courageous. My Litteesa was like that. She may have worked herself too hard in the end. She ran this castle like a field commander.”
 
“I heard about her. I’m sorry.”
 
He let go my shoulder and patted my arm. “That’s quite all right, Syndeeka. Tell me, did Jan feed you and your compatriots?”
 
“Yes, but not as well as I would have preferred.”
 
He smiled. “Would you like to come back to my apartments with me for some cheese, bread, and wine?”
 
What was this? There was a professional stance I should take in such matters. Perhaps he was being friendly, nothing more. I was in no mood to fend off any man’s advances, especially if he was my employer. But I could use some more food in my stomach. This required tact.
 
“Well, I won’t be able to stay long. Jan wants us up early to prepare for the gliders, and I always exercise before I go out.”
 
“It shows.” He stroked my arm.
 
I gasped. “Please respect our professional obligations, My Lord.”
 
“Yes. Of course. I just wanted to know if you were hungry and would like to talk. You don’t strike me as a common warrior for hire.”
 
“I’m not. I’m an astronomer.”
 
His eyes widened. “Indeed? How is it you came to your current profession?”
 
“My master trained me in the use of the sword. He said it would help me to focus better. I suspect he had other reasons to teach me, though.”
 
“Such as?”
 
I stared at my boots. “My Lord, my past life is rather unpleasant and I don’t always feel comfortable discussing it.” I looked at him. “There has been much tragedy. Things you would not believe.”
 
“Oh. Please forgive me then. I understand what it is to have painful memories. But come. And we shan’t take long. I promise.”
 
 
4.
 
My heart beat like a talking drum. I slowed my breathing to bring it down. The green horizon rolled up and down before me like the sea viewed from a wind-tossed deck. Cool breeze whistled through my ears and tickled my braided hair.
 
Sehaceo and Flershput ran down below, as if trying to keep up with the winged shadow whisking across the slopes.
 
I was flying!
 
No, just gliding. And here came the ground--
 
Thunk. The sun shot across my eyes. Darkness. I felt moist grass cutting into my cheek and numbness in my limbs. Footfalls thudded into my hearing.
 
“Get her up.” Jan’s voice was calm.
 
Fingers grappled my arms and someone unlatched me from my harness straps. I was pulled from out under the muslin and light flashed in my eyes. I blinked.
 
Flershput put one of my arms across his shoulder and supported me with a hairy arm. “Well, I grant that there’s one advantage to having a woman on this mission.”
 
“Oh…?” I asked, winded but still annoyed. What’s…what’s that?”
 
He chuckled. “Just that you at least won’t be dead-weight when it comes to the flying portion.”
 
“Uh…remind me…to punch you later.”
 
Flershput guffawed. “Easy girl. It’s a joke. I respect a sturdy woman.” He clapped my shoulder with his free hand.
 
Jan approached me, smiling. “Well, how did you like it?”
 
“I…hope…I didn’t…” (I caught my breath) “damage the glider.”
 
“Don’t worry. The damage is only minor. I didn’t expect you to be perfect on your first try. You rose up pretty high, though.”
 
I inhaled slowly. “Not enough to surmount the battlements of the fortress.”
 
“No, but the catapult wasn’t set with the right gage to allow that.”
 
“I wasn’t up long, was I? It seemed like forever when I was airborne, but I don’t remember seeing much.”
 
“A mere moment. But again, that had more to do with the gage than your handling of the glider.” He slapped a hand on my arm.
 
I later was informed that I’d flipped over in my descent-- that was probably why I could taste blood in my mouth.
 
 
Training continued for several weeks. Jan explained that we had to hurry with the glider lessons before winter locked the land in its snowy vice. It was conceivable that we could take to the air when snow blanketed the ground, but certainly not when it was falling. The day the snows came would be when our flying lessons would end and we would concentrate on other aspects of the mission. When the land again thawed, we would strike. We had to raid the fortress before the Vernal Equinox hailed the new year.
 
In the meantime I decided to settle into something of a routine at the castle. Since Lord Zounachsech liked me, he agreed to my request to use the roof of the highest watch tower in the castle for making astronomical observations. Most nights I only had the companionship of the lookout guards, but Lord Zounachsech would sometimes dismiss them and keep me company while I studied the starry vastness.
 
“Are the constellations different where you come from?” he asked me one night.
 
“Yes, but the actual groupings of stars aren’t too far removed from what you see in the night sky. Different cultures have different ways of ordering the points of light in the darkness.” I reached down and dipped my quill into the ink bowl on the flagstones.
 
“Different gods?”
 
“Different gods and heroes. Gods are mostly the planets. By that I mean those brighter stars that don’t remain fixed in any of the constellations but move about regardless of the fixed arc of the sky’s rotation.” I made a notation of the red planet’s trajectory change from the previous night in a blank book Lord Zounachsech had given me. I was crouched in the space between two battlement crenellations while he stood at my side, a lantern flickering in his hands.
 
“How do you keep track of all those lights in the sky if each one is constantly in motion?”
 
I smiled at him. “Things of the earth tend to keep fixed positions. Right now, I’m using the crenelation by my feet as a reference point.”
 
He chuckled, shadows dancing across his face. “Certainly, this can’t be as good as a true observatory.”
 
I brushed the feathers of my quill against my lips. “No, but I’ve learned from my travels that even the most primitive peoples have ingenious methods of observing the night sky. My contact with them has taught me resourcefulness.”
 
“But what is the point of you writing all this down if you are going to move on? Do you have a place you call home?”
 
“No, I can’t say as I do. But I’ve made arrangements with the Deity Imperator so that I can keep my books and papers stored in a small room at his palace. Anyway, I don’t like to stay situated; the bad things will always find you.”
 
“I could never live like that. My ancestors have been here for many generations. We are tenants of the land and have complex social relations we are born into.”
 
“I’d rather be free.”
 
He laughed. “Then you are a wondering planet, while I am but a star locked in my constellation. Don’t you ever get lonely?”
 
I regarded him for a moment, then pulled my gaze heavenward.
 
“All the time.” 
 
 
5.
 
Mala smiled at me as she held back the tree branch to let me through. Beyond was a meadow with stones lined up in two concentric rings.
 
I stepped passed her and entered the meadow. The stones were waist-high and covered with moss. This whole place bespoke age.
 
Mala ran up to my side. “Well, what do you think?”
 
 
“This is beautiful, Mala. But there couldn’t have been so many trees here when this observatory was built. They’re bound to obstruct a large part of the sky.” I turned around to survey the canopy of foliage that walled us in. Already, the trees were shedding their brown and red leaves, creating a crunching carpet under our feet.
 
“Mistress Ayni says that these stones stood here even before her people arrived. She tells me they were laid out by giants in antediluvian times.”
 
I chuckled. “I think giants would have used bigger stones.”
 
“Oh, but let’s not spend too much time here. I want to introduce you to her.”
 
Mistress Ayniflasech lived in a green hut on the other side of the meadow. Approaching the house, I soon realized the exterior was covered with the same moss as the cairn stones of the observatory. The old woman herself seemed a part of the place for she had few teeth and cataracted eyes sunk in a shriveled face.
 
“You are Ushe like Mala?” 
 
“Yes, Goodwoman.” I felt strangely humble before this mystical crone. “We both hail from the same city-state.”
 
“Ah.” She thumbed the bowl of the pipe in her mouth. “Fate has designed you two should meet again. I wonder why.”
 
“I’m sure,” said Mala, “that it is because we were always meant to be together.” She patted my shoulder.
 
“Perhaps.” The old woman pulled the pipe from her lips and pointed its stem at me. “Young lady, what know you of destiny?”
 
I smiled. “Quite a lot, actually. Mala told me you sometimes teach her astrology. Well, I am a stargazer.”
 
Mistress Ayniflasech laughed dryly. “Then you are very familiar with the future.”
 
“If we let the stars dictate our fate then they will. I think it’s best to know how people will react to celestial omens. That way we don’t have to be destiny’s casualties.”
 
The old woman chortled. “You are wise for one so young.”
 
I thought this whole exchange puzzling. Here was an old crone espousing the wisdom of her folk beliefs while I presented my own views as a scientist, and yet we agreed.
 
She stood up and hobbled to a corner of the hut. “I want to give you something, Syndeeka. Mala has told me of your mission. Only great power may animate the dead.” She knelt down and removed a charm packet from a leather bag, then returned and placed the item in my hands. “Promise me that you shall take this with you when you meet the Unadiflinus.”
 
I looked at the leaf-bound talisman in my hands and wanted to laugh, but was afraid to in this old woman’s presence. “Certainly, Mistress Ayni. I don’t think it would add much weight to my glider. Thank you.”
 
She gave me a ragged-toothed grin. “No need to thank me now. That will come soon enough.”
 
Bone-colored eyes held me in their gaze.
 
I felt uneasy. “You are a very hospitable hostess, but I should be going now.”
 
“I understand. But come if you ever wish to use the stone circle. Do come for the Winter Solstice.”
 
I smiled. “Yes, that would be the best time.”
 
 
 
With a ratcheting sound the lock on the catapult released and my body was jolted into the night. The air was cold, sharp as it cut into my face. Everywhere above me were stars, and now I was joining them. I glanced below and saw the other mercenaries staring up at me and running across the field to follow my path. Soon my craft reached its highest elevation, 
slowed, and banked. I felt that strange sensation in my stomach I always got  when the glider began its descent. With my hands in their braces I raised the wings and caught the rushing updraft of air. There was a tugging, followed by the feeling of lazy buoyancy as I drifted on the winds. My heart pounded my ribcage. (Breath in.) Ahead was the blackened mass of the castle, cutting out the stars. (Breath out.
 
I was headed in the right direction. Just maintain this height, I thought. The castle loomed before me. Battlements bit into the night. Soon I was over them and guards turned their heads up to gawk at me. I felt like smiling and telling them “hello,” but tried to stay focused on flight.
 
Now I saw the cobblestones scaling the courtyard in the moonlight. A building was drifting into my vision. Tiles shifted below me at a slant. They grew bigger. A dim, winged shadow shrank as it raced over them. I was almost to the roof-peak. My stirruped boots raked against wood.
 
Then the glider slammed into the roof. My breath was knocked out of my lungs. I’d landed, not gently. Pulling my hands form their stirrups, I quickly worked the buckles of my harness straps. The tiles slid forward, roughing my knees and elbows. Panic hit me. My fingers fidgeted on the straps. They wouldn’t come undone! There was a loud clacking as my glider and I slid down the roof. Suddenly, my legs felt cold air below. Masonry rose before my eyes. Now a window. My thumbs depressed levers, and the fall was broken, momentarily. I rose a little. Then went down. I began rapidly flapping my wings. Another window rose before me, slower than the first. Pulling my boots from their stirrups, I dropped my legs under me. Wing joints creaked as I continued flapping. Sweat chilled my body in the updraft. I braced my legs as the cobblestones neared.
 
A jolt shot through my ankles and up my backbone. My soles touched solid ground, before the force of the landing made me stagger. I fell forward, but a pocket of air cushioned my descent.My knee impacted cold cobbles. I knelt down, gasping for breath, my winged arms stretched out.
 
Castle guards and mercenaries ran across the way to aid me. I grinned at them, still choking air. Jan stopped before me, his breath rolling out in crystal plumes.
 
“Syndeeka, are you all right?”
 
I gasped a while before answering.
 
“I think I sprained both ankles and my limbs are scratched up. But I’m elated.”
 
It felt like my body was being dragged in the swell of an ocean wave, and I didn’t care where it took me.
 
“Does the glider look fine?” I asked after a moment.
 
Jan smiled. “Nothing that can’t be fixed between now and the mission.”
 
 
6.
 
A week later dark clouds roofed the horizon and snow drifted down. We’d mastered flight, and before winter could encrust our wings with frost. Now we trained with wooden swords in the courtyard, although my ankles initially impaired my abilities. I joked that it couldn’t matter too much if we were trading blades with the blind. “No, that is where you’re mistaken,” Jan replied. “The Unadiflinus cannot see, but they know how to fight blind. Since childhood, they’ve been trained to maneuver in darkness. Each one of them can hear a blade slicing the air and has reflex moves to match it. And you will be fighting them in their fortress. No windows. You’d be blinder than they.” This knowledge filled me with dread, but Jan assured me that Dewkanosa had brought with him a solution which would be revealed shortly. 
 
Soon the Solstice was upon us. Since the people celebrated it as a holiday, Jan gave us mercenaries the day off, and I trudged through white snow to the observatory in the woods. 
 
Mala was required to perform her duties and had to stay behind at the castle, so I figured I would spend the day with Mistress Ayniflasech. When I came to the meadow she was standing on her staff in the middle of the central ring, her stooped shoulders blanketed in a shawl.
 
“Greetings and happy Winter Solstice!” I said, my boots crunching snow as I approached.
 
The old woman squinted at me and bared her ragged teeth. “Syndeeka, you kept your word about the Solstice. I am pleased.”
 
“I wouldn’t want to miss coming to the observatory on the shortest day of the year.” I passed between two frozen cairns and stood before her.
 
“This is more than an observatory, my dear. Here my ancestors once made blood sacrifices to the gods.”
 
Chill seeped into my chest. I thought of Lady Berkhoy tied to an alter, a dagger arcing towards 
her heart.
 
“When,” I asked, “did your ancestors perform these sacrifices?”
 
Mistress Ayniflasech’s cataracts regarded me with milky opacity. “During the Winter Solstice and also the Vernal Equinox. With the Equinox, blood was shed to banish winter and bring the time of sunlight.”
 
“And bring the new year.”
 
“Oh, no! That’s the Imperial calendar. My people began the new year on this day.” She raised her staff from the snow and hobbled even closer to me, her breath steaming my face. “The Yuletide is the day the spirits of our ancestors rise from the underworld. It is the time of the dead, and those of my calling would ask their advice on this day.”
 
I felt a shock of realization. “This is the day the year dies…”
 
“Only with the wisdom of the dead might we begin anew.”
 
I stepped back and laid a hand on an icy stone. “So the cycle of life is completed in death.”
 
Frost clouded from my mouth. “I’m sorry, Mistress, but I must return to the castle.”
 
I touched my gloved fingers to her shoulder.
 
“Then you understand?” She looked at me quizzically.
 
“Yes. I’m afraid so.”
 
I ran from the circle.
 
 
 
I pounded my fist on the door of Jan’s chamber. “Jan, open the door!”
 
“Go away, Syndeeka,” came his voice. “Today is a holiday and I choose to celebrate.”
 
I sighed. “Today is the New Year. We need to launch our gliders.”
 
“What are you talking about, woman? Check your calendar.”
 
“That’s the problem. We can’t go by the calendar. The Order of Unadi follow the old ways. Please let me in. I don’t wish to argue through a bolted door.”
 
“Then go have some wine and leave me be!”
 
Taking a deep breath, I stepped back from the door and kicked it with my boot.
 
“Woman! Have you gone mad?”
 
“Open the door!” I kicked a second time.
 
“All right! Just stop what you’re doing before they have you thrown in the dungeon.”
 
I waited a moment and heard the bolt pull from the door. It swung open and Jan stood in the opening, shirtless and glaring at me murderously.
 
“Just what do you think you’re doing, little girl? This is no way for a professional to be acting.”
 
I tried my best to compose myself, suddenly embarrassed at my behavior. “They are going to kill Lady Berkhoy today. Or possibly tonight. It’s more likely in the evening.”
 
Jan grinned. “Do you believe that? Here, I don’t want you causing a scene. Come inside.”
 
He stood aside and I entered his chamber. Sehaceo was sitting cross-legged on the bed, naked, a bottle of wine between his legs.
 
Jan shut the door. “There’s nothing here that should shock you, Syndeeka.”
 
“I don’t care about your private life, Jan. And seeing a naked man is nothing to me. I used to be a whore.”
 
Sehaceo grabbed the bottle and hopped from the bed. “Maybe I should be going, Jan.”
 
“Don’t bother,” said Jan. “This woman has worked for the Deity Imperator; his tastes are no different than ours. Just put a sheet around you if you don’t want her staring at your privates.”
 
Sehaceo sat in the bed, wrapping himself with the sheet.
 
I found a chair and dropped into it.
 
Jan strode up to me, hands curled into fists. “It’s not enough that I get you fired over this.” He held a fist to my face. “I should knock your teeth out, you crazy bitch! Do you think you’re heroic to be causing a ruckus? We were told that the Order of Unadi will sacrifice Lady Berkhoy with the coming of spring.”
 

“With the coming of the new year!” I said. “The traditional New Year is today. It’s not snowing. We could launch our gliders and raid the fortress. We can’t let Lady Berkhoy die!”?

 
Jan grabbed my shoulders and shook me. “We’re mercenaries! We don’t care if people live or die!” He released me. “We’ll be paid if we perform our mission.” He strode to a tapestry by the bed, then turned to me. “We have been informed that we are not to launch this raid until the snows have thawed. That’s all I’ve trained you for. You don’t know how to operate a glider when it’s snowing.”
 
“But it’s not snowing.”
 
“Oh?” Jan stepped up to the shutters, then pulled them open. Flakes tumbled from the gray sky. “What is that?” He held his hand to the window.
 
The air grew sharply cold.
 
I cradled my head in my hand, wanting to cry.
 
“Even if it hadn’t been snowing,” Jan continued, “it could start any moment.” He closed the shutters, took the bottle from Sehaceo, and approached me. “Here, you can have this. I’ll just request another bottle from the butler in the wine cellar.”
 
I looked up at him. “I don’t want to get drunk.”
 
“What else can you do?”
 
He was right.
 
I grabbed the bottle and stood, suddenly aware of a dull pain in my ankle. “Is it in our profession to care about anyone?”
 
Jan sat on a corner of the bed and placed his hand on Sehaceo’s foot. “Syndeeka, you obviously must know something about my people, considering we were your neighbors. Have you any idea what it’s like to live in the desert?”
 
“I can only guess.”
 
 
“There is no room for sentiment. Tribes must live by rigid codes to survive. Someone like me would be castrated and slain. They would argue it was for the good of the tribe.” He sighed. “Why do you think I left? It wasn’t because I wanted to be in plays or travel the world. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
 
“Possibly.” I uncorked the bottle and took a swig. “I’m not sure.”
 
“Foolish wench. You can’t play by the rules that they do. Our employers may believe in honor and heroism and compassion. But we can’t. This is the price we pay for our individualism.”
 
I resealed the bottle and went to the door. Looking back I said, “If you’re right about the Equinox, may I still fly with you?”
 
“Why not? All you came here for was a bottle of wine.”
 
7.
 
I spent the rest of the day sitting up in bed nursing the bottle of wine. My chambers were dark.The only fire burning was the one I’d lit in the hearth for warmth, and even that I kept to the level of red embers. But for my ankle, my limbs were numb, and my heart felt like it was being squeezed in a tourniquet.
 
Lord Zounachsech wanted the mercenaries to join his court in the evening festivities, but I wasn’t in a sociable mood. I felt like I could die of guilt alone, both over Lady Berkhoy’s predicament and my own actions earlier. 
 
Oh, to be an astronomer with my own observatory. That was all I really wanted. Maybe then, I thought, I’d have a reason to settle down.
 
There was a knock at the door.
 
“Who is it?” I said.
 
“It’s Mala.”
 
Should I talk to her? I wasn’t in a cheery state, but I hardly wished to make her feel bad.
 
“Come in.”
 
With the creaking of the door came a painful burst of light. I squinted my eyes and made out Mala’s silhouette.
 
“Why are you sitting in the dark, Syndeeka? Don’t you feel well?”
 
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mala. I’m very melancholy right now.”
 
“Why?” Mala left the door ajar and came to the foot of the bed. “The Winter Solstice is a time of celebration.” She sat on the mattress’s edge and patted my still-booted foot.
 
I smiled sourly. “When the spirits of the dead rise and blood sacrifices are made to appease them and any menacing gods. Sounds charming.”
 
“No, dear. They don’t perform human sacrifices anymore.”
 
I stared at her like she was an idiot.
 
“I mean,” she continued, “not most people. But the idea of spirits of dead loved ones returning is a good thing. If you think about it, it’s a lot like what we Ushe believe.”
 
“Well, you anyway.”
 
“Here, let me light this place.” Mala got up and pulled a taper from beside the hearth, then stopped. “Do you mind?”
 
I corked the wine bottle. “Uh, no. It’s nice of you to want to talk to me when I’m feeling rotten.”
 
Mala dipped one end of the taper into the fire. “You know I care about you, Syndeeka.” She touched the reddened taper end to the wick of the candle on the table, and the room glowed warmly. 
 
“Oh, Mala, you must realize I won’t stay. As soon as I’m finished here I’ll go someplace else.”
 
“It’s sad, but I understand that’s your way.” She reseated herself at the foot of the bed. “I hope you will reconsider. Regardless, I do thank the gods for bringing us together again.”
 
“Mala, I’ve never quite understood your sentiments toward me. You know I prefer men, even with my years of whoring to sour me on them.”
 
“What are your feelings for me?”
 
I rubbed my head. “I don’t know. But I don’t want to see you hurt. Don’t become attached to someone as itinerant as I am. You remember when you once told me I’d never find a place without cruelty?”
 
“Oh, yes. I was right, wasn’t I?”
 
I chuckled. “So far. But I’m still looking. My master had shown me that people can live by rationality instead of blind impulsiveness. There must be somewhere a community of scientists and philosophers.”
 
“Who are served by slaves.”
 
“Yes.” I sighed. “Perhaps you are right. But I must believe there is a way to have both freedom and order.”
 
Mala held out her hand and I took it. “Oh, poor Syndeeka. You think your quest is to find Paradise, but it’s really to escape your past. It wasn’t all bad.”
 
“No,” I said, patting her hand, “it wasn’t.”
 
 
8.
 

Dewkanosa unrolled the vellum map on the conference table and we all stood, leaning forward. The three levels of the Twilight Fortress lay side by side. “You will need to get through the third and second floors before you reach the lighted section.” He pointed to a circular area in the middle of the first level. “Up until then, all the floors, rooms, and halls, all the stairwells even, will be in complete darkness. Only the zone at the core of the fortress is lighted. Those are the chambers of the sighted members of the Order of Unadi. That is where Lady Berkhoy is kept.”?

 
“May I ask,” I said, “how you know she’s still alive?”
 
Lord Zounachsech gasped, but Dewkanosa held up a reassuring hand to him and smiled. “You know of the Winter Solstice tradition, then, do you?”
 
“Yes. Shouldn’t she have been sacrificed already?” I looked to Lord Zounachsech. “Forgive me asking, My Lord.”
 
Lord Zounachsech grimaced. “If you must know then ask, Syndeeka.”
 
“Quite right,” said Dewkanosa, steepling his fat fingers. “They did say the sacrifice would be made at the end of the year. They’ve probably performed a minor blood sacrifice for the Solstice (not necessarily her, though I can’t be sure), but I assure you she’s still alive. She is probably only symbolically dead.”
 
“Symbolically?”
 
Dewkanosa tugged at one of his grey whiskers. “I’m afraid I don’t know all the details. I was only a surgeon. The priests and their acolytes were the ones in charge of sacrifices.”
 
“You said she could still have been a blood sacrifice. How?”
 
“If she was, then they probably cut off her hands.”
 
"Wouldn’t that be the doing of a surgeon?”
 
“No, my people only created Unadiflinus. The priests are very secretive. They prefer to keep a monopoly on all occult knowledge.”
 
I took my seat and the others did likewise. “But why cut off her hands?”
 
“Syndeeka,” said Lord Zounachsech, “you don’t understand our religion. Unadi has no hands. His twin brother, Haishtoyflagos, chopped them off in a battle. Unadi cannot feed himself so he is always skeletal in appearance and always hungry. He can inhale vapors so he of course feeds on souls.
 
“He also drinks blood. When our ancestors made sacrifices on the Equinox it was to appease him so that crops might come from the earth. ‘When the soil drinks of blood it shall grant life,’ so the saying goes.”
 
“What of the Winter Solstice? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to take her life then?”
 
Dewkanosa smiled and said, “Even the Order of Unadi has adopted the Imperial calendar.”
 
“This background information is all well and good,” said Jan, placing a cloth sack on the table, “but we should really concentrate on logistics.” He  undid the drawstring and removed several stoppered vials. He held one up and a milky fluid sloshed inside. “Made from the finest Imperial glass. Dewkanosa, perhaps you should explain this potion.”
 
“Of course,” said Dewkanosa, taking the vial from Jan and holding it before us. “Here is the substance that gives the death riders their ghostly light. It comes from certain animals in other regions of the Empire. We call it phosphorescence.”
 
“And with it,” said Jan, “we can sneak through the wings of the Twilight Fortress without alerting our blind opponents. They could hear torches, but not this.”
 
Flershput, normally quite, volunteered a question. "Are we supposed to run through darkness, then, with a sword in one hand and a vial in the other?”
 
“Indeed. And each of us will have several vials in case of emergencies.”
 
Flershput scratched his beard. “I don’t like it. What about Lady Berkhoy? I doubt they’ll leave the gliders intact. How will we get out with her?”
 
Jan grinned. “Be assured that members of the Order will destroy the gliders. But that is why we should thank Dewkanosa for his map.”
 
“Yes,” said Dewkanosa, rising and placing a finger on vellum. “Here is where you are likely to find Lady Berkhoy”--his finger slid to the side-- “and here is where you will find the drawbridge mechanism. Release that and you can dash to freedom.”
 
Flershput grumbled.
 
“Do not fear, Flershput,” said Jan, clapping him on the shoulder. “There will be extra horses brought along for our escape from the fortress grounds.”
 
“I have another question,” I said. “I’m afraid it’s not directly related to the mission, but I just have to know. Lord Zounachsech, if Unadi devours the souls of the dead, how is it that they can come up to visit the living on the Winter Solstice?”
 
Lord Zounachsech smiled. “My good woman, when is it you get a cold?”
 
“When I’m around sick people, My Lord.”
 
“When it’s winter. Unadi sneezes out the souls he’s inhaled and they’re hurled to the surface!”
 
“Oh. I see.”
 
How could seemingly rational people be so absurd?
 
 
9.
 
We still had a few months before the mission and I found the wait maddening. To be told what to expect at the thaw and then to be forced to bide our time until then was almost like being prisoners forced to count the days until the headsman’s ax. Astronomy was my passion so I continued my observations. I’d practically worn a spot between the two crenelations I crouched in on the watchtower, but that was fine since I found more order in the regularity of the night skies than in my own life. And though the planets may have been somewhat erratic in their courses, they also shone brighter than the other stars; I hardly wondered that people assigned them such greatness. 
 
It was on a night but one month removed from the time of the mission that Lord Zounachsech proposed something wonderful to me.
 
“Syndeeka,” he said, his face rudely aglow in the lantern light, “would you agree to stay after the mission if I offered you your own observatory?”
 
My eyes darted from the polestar to him. “Excuse me, Milord?”
 
“Stay here. Be my court astronomer. I enjoy the talks we have up here at night. The loneliness of the past three years melts away when I share your company.”
 
So it had come to this.
 
I closed my notebook and turned to face him. “I’m not sure what to say about that, My Lord.”
 
He laughed. “When we’re alone you need not address me by my title. I’d prefer you didn’t. I’m not your superior. We’re equals. I may be a prominent lord, but you are a great scientist. I should like to help you practice your research. I’d have all your dreams realized.”
I let jets of frost hiss from my nostrils.
 
“You’ll forgive me… Zounachsech. I’m somewhat at a loss. You would have an observatory built for me?”
 
“Oh, no. I don’t need to do that.” He rested his hand on my shoulder. “There is an ancient one in the woods, not far from here. I’d simply have it cleaned up for you.”
 
“No, don’t do that.” I placed the book on the flagstones. “An old woman lives near there. I would not wish her inconvenienced.”
 
“She wouldn’t be.” His thumb gently kneaded the flesh on my shoulder.
 
I stood, removing myself from his grip. “You don’t understand. She practices herbalism. She needs the plants that surround the observatory, but I must have the trees cleared to perform my observations.” I stepped to the center of the roof and looked at him. “You can see how this wouldn’t work.”
 
He cocked his head to the side, eyebrows raised. “Very well, then. I shall have this tower converted to an observatory.”
 
A memory of Keeshofa’s observatory at Lord Betahz’s palace surfaced in my mind, and I began longing for a dead past. I closed my eyes and felt the weight of tears.
 
“You would do that for me, My Lord?”
 
“Zounachsech.”
 
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I forgot. Zounachsech.”
 
He approached me, set the lantern at my feet, and placed his hands on my arms. “There is little I wouldn’t do for you.”
 
My heartbeat doubled. I squeezed my eyes shut, dropping my head. My cheeks stung with moisture in the cold air. “I…I don’t know how to answer you.” I swallowed. “Do you love me?”
 
“Oh, Syndeeka of the Ushe, I’ve never known anyone like you.”
 
I stared into his blue eyes.
 
He chuckled, looking to the side. “I remember the first time I met you. I’d seen darker peoples before, but you were as black as ash. Yet I’d never beheld such a pretty face in all my life, not even Litteesa’s. And those eyes…Such beauty and intelligence.”
 
I smiled. “Yours are beautiful, too.”
 
He caressed my cheek. Then he took my hand in his and put his lips to it.
 
My skin prickled. I had not felt like this for a long, long time. So much weight seemed to be taken from my body. Pain, guilt, and loneliness dissolved in a warm, gentle current and I felt like a part of the world, at last.
 
We seemed to stand there for centuries.
 
Finally, I mustered the courage to broach the silence.
 
“Do you wish to marry me, Zounachsech?”
 
His smile died into a frown. “Oh, if only I could. I’m nobility. I should marry one from another great House. Possibly even Lady Berkhoy, for all that she may be missing hands. You understand, don’t you?”
 
Venom filled my insides, burning.
 
“Then I should just be your employee?”
 
He shook his head. “Oh, no! More than that. I love you too much. You could be my mistress.”
 
I pulled away from him, my fingers clinching into a fist. There was nothing I wanted more at that moment than to take a swing at him. Still crying, but now disgusted, I marched to the stairs.
 
 
For the next few weeks I did my best to avoid Lord Zounachsech, retiring early at night and taking my meals in my chamber. Mala and I would talk often and she advised me not to be so cold to my employer.
 
“He has much on his mind right now,” she said. “If you were to fail this mission it would mean the loss of his life.”
 
“I probably wouldn’t be alive, myself,” I mused.
 
“Too much can be lost, Syndeeka. I should know.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “Don’t stay mad at him. Make peace while you can.”
 
Mala’s advice was sound but I was too afraid of confronting Lord Zounachsech to seek him out. I didn’t need to, though, because he approached me on my last day of training. I was practicing at swordplay with a wood and cloth dummy suspended from a post in the courtyard when he stepped up to me.
 
“Syndeeka,” he said, keeping a respectful distance, “I am truly sorry for what I said to you the last time we talked. I’ll respect your wishes if you choose to leave upon completing the mission.”
 
I re-sheathed my wooden sword, placed a hand on the dummy to stop its swinging.
 
I inhaled. 
 
"I refuse to be your mistress, but I haven't made up my mind concerning your offer to retain my services. I can give you a decision at the end of my current assignment. Not until then."
 
His beautiful eyes looked pained, but he still managed a smile. “Yes, of course. I look forward to your answer at that time.”
 
He quickly strode off down the cobblestones of the courtyard.
 
I felt like crying…
 
…but composed myself and resumed training.
 
 
10.
 
The moon was a silver crescent in the sky when the mission began. Jan, Sehaceo, Flershput and I crouched in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, a muslin canopy ruffling above us in the steady, cool breeze. I’d been anxious all through the day in spite of my breathing meditations, and now was all but nerve-wracked. The others were quiet for most of the ride, possibly saving their energy for the raid, or possibly feeling like I did.
 
Our wagon was part of a long train of vehicles that snaked across the plains and through the hills to the Twilight Fortress. The Order of Unadi resided in a neutral ground called the Voiceless Plains and we were now within its borders. Strangely enough, our wagons still rolled over the paved stones of an Imperial road. I asked Jan about that.
 
“Oh, these roads were built before the Order reared up their fortress.”
 
He sat next to me with Flershput on his other side.
 
“Why hasn’t anyone opposed the order?” I asked.
 
Jan grinned. “Considering what you’ve seen, need you ask?”
 
I chuckled mirthlessly. That was irrefutable logic.
 
Sehaceo, sitting across from me, took a small wine flask from his boot. Removing the stopper, he said: “Does anyone want a drink?”
 
Jan frowned, snatched the flask from Sehaceo, and threw it out the wagon.
 
“Hey!” cried Sehaceo.
 
Jan pointed at him. “What have I told you about drinking before a mission?”
 
Sehaceo spread his hands out. “I’m nervous.”
 
“Better nervous than dull-minded. You don’t want to impair your reflexes tonight.”
 
We soon caught our first view of the Twilight Fortress. Twice as large as Lord Zounachsech’s castle, the structure seemed one great building: dark, grim, immense. Its heavy masonry reflected little light, rearing itself over the yawning emptiness of a dry moat. Within the shadowed canyons that surrounded the fortress glowed iron spikes jutting from bedrock.
 
Guarding the path to the drawbridge stood a giant statue of a skull-faced being, lifting head and handless arms to the heavens as if in screaming defiance to a world that feared death-- Unadi, Lord of the Underworld. The stone figured shone like some emerald specter but for its cavernous sockets and gaping mouth.
 
Jan gave me an evil smile. “Do you wonder now why the locals avoid this place?”
 
I returned his smile. “I must say that whoever carved that statue was quite an artist.”
 
The wagon train rode up to the base of the huge statue, using its bulk to block the view of any sighted devotees of the Order patrolling the fortress’s roof. We alighted from our transport and worked with His Lordship’s attendants to unload and assemble the components of the two catapults and our four gliders. Several hours elapsed as we all worked at our tasks, and I found the concentration we devoted to our labor did much to settle my nerves. When our work was finally complete we moved the catapults, each with a glider locked into position, and the other two gliders back from the statue about forty paces.
 
 
Jan stood by one of the catapults, conferring with the captain of Lord Zounachsech’s guard. I approached them as they spoke.
 
“This should be far enough out that we can shoot over the statue in a large arc,” said Jan. “I’ve calculated the resulting height and momentum, and it should carry us over those battlements onto the roof.”
 
The captain nodded his helmet. “Good. My men and I will keep posted watches until sunrise. Your horses will be brought to you if we see the drawbridge come down. Remember, though, if you’re not out by sunrise, we have no choice but to leave. We won’t have the cover of darkness, then.”
 
“I understand.” Jan nodded to the captain.
 
The captain laid a hand on Jan’s arm. “May Haishtoyflagos’s golden rays touch you once more.”
 
“Likewise.”
 
The captain turned and headed for the wagons.
 
Jan looked to me, grinning. “Are you ready, Syndeeka?”
 
I took a deep breath. “I don’t know that anyone can be fully ready for something like this. I’m scared, but not anymore than at other times.”
 
He slapped my shoulder with a gloved hand. “Use that fear, good woman. Don’t let it use you. The gods gave us emotions for survival, even if the romantics use them as ends in themselves. Never go down that dark road.”
 
I smiled. “I think you were in the theater too long.”
 
“Excuse me if I’m interrupting an important conversation,” came a voice from behind us. I turned and saw Mershtafleisham, Lady Berkhoy’s court physician, approach us, his long white curls contrasting with his night hued robes.
 
“I want to remind you, Jan,” he continued, “that Lady Berkhoy is to be brought to me immediately upon her recovery from the fortress. We don’t know what condition she’ll be in, but my assistants and I have brought enough elixirs and potions to ensure her the best chances of survival.”
 
“Of course,” said Jan. “You and your shpoitus will also tend to any wounds or injuries we mercenaries will sustain, I trust.”
 
Mershtafleisham’s long face frowned. “Lady Berkhoy’s well-being will take precedence over that of hired killers, but I assure you that you and yours will be attended to when it can be arranged.”
 
He turned and strode off.
 
Jan looked to me. “It’s like I said before, Syndeeka. People like us cannot live by the codes of the majority. They’d sooner see us dead than respect our differences.”
 
“That doesn’t give us license to do anything we please.”
 
“Well, no!” He laughed. “We can’t get away with everything.”
 
The night’s chill suddenly seeped into my blood.
 
 
With the dropping of stone weights the catapult shot Jan into the sky. Strapped into the harness of my glider, I was carried by Lord Zounachsech’s attendants to the device’s now vacant hold. The young men quickly secured my glider into its cradle and adjusted the controls. While they were doing this the second catapult discharged its contents and Sehaceo joined Jan in the heavens.
 
I inhaled, slowly…
 
Exhaled, slowly…
 
“Are you ready?” asked an attendant.
 
“Yes,” I replied.
 
“Very well.” He looked to a man at a lever on the catapult’s side. “Launch!”
 
The man pulled the lever and I was hurled into the stars. My mind quickly began analyzing everything: my ascent, the wind hitting my face, my hands and feet in their stirruped controls. The nightmare statue before me began dropping in my vision and growing larger. I could only see the top of its leering face as I soared over. Jan’s and Sehaceo’s gliders bobbed on the winds ahead, dwarfed like dragonflies before the dark, dark edifice which devoured the night. My thumbs worked levers, lifting my wings. I rose on the wind, still hurtling forward in cold space.
 
Jan’s glider, now in a steady descent, crossed over the battlements. Red light exploded. I blinked reflexively then stared ahead with slited eyes. A blazing column of fire fountained up on the roof. Jan’s glider banked left to avoid it. The smoldering tower collapsed, leaving a purple after-image in my eyes. There was another red burst to the left. Jan pulled his glider right, but I noticed a flickering glow on the edge of the left wing. His glider had almost completed its descent. Flames spread across the wing as the craft alighted on the stone surface.
 
Sehaceo caused his glider to tilt back and forth, possibly to confuse the people below him. Then he burst into flames as a fire column engulfed him. The smoldering wreckage of his craft spun in the air, flaming tatters of muslin falling from skeletal ribs.
 
My heart stopped.
 
The battlements shot below me and I saw the dark stones of the roof. Figures scurried about, glancing up and shouting to each other. A vast, gaping well slid beneath me. I quickly banked left, shutting my eyes. Heat and light hit me. Hot winds fluttered my wings and hair and a roaring battered my ears. I opened my eyes, catching blinding light in the corner of my vision.
 
Below me, the figures cast long, dark shadows over now-bloody  flagstones. Then darkness. I could feel my descent increasing rapidly, but my eyes were too dazzled to make out the roof. I closed them a moment, trying to ease the strain of shifting light and shadow. Opening them, I saw another well to my far left. Bank right, I thought, working my foot controls. The ground was coming up and with it leather-clad men unsheathing swords. I didn’t have time to disentangle myself to reach for my blade. No matter. My wings slammed into several men, toppling them. I slid my boots from their stirrups and spread my legs for a landing. My boot soles grazed stones and I began running. I was jolted by forward momentum but managed to keep my legs under me. Air beneath my wings braked me.
 
I stood on the roof like some winged creature out of myth, my hands undoing the buckles of my harness. I turned my body to face the men I’d knocked over. They’d pulled themselves off the ground and grouped into a crescent which was closing around me. I slid the glider off my back and it clattered behind. I reached a gloved hand over my shoulder. My sword, sheathed on my back, slid out and I raised it over my head.
 
Running forward, I brought the blade down in a swift arc. There was a wet crunching as steel made contact with a man’s skull, cleaving it open. The other men jumped back a few paces, giving me time to retrieve my sword from their comrade’s split head. The dead man, brains spilling his skull, fell back and I immediately ran over his twitching body to get out of the crescent. Now beyond the line of men, I turned and charged at the nearest one, my sword swinging. Blade made contact with neck and his head came off in a fountain of blood. Two more men came at me from either direction, swords out. I rushed the nearer on and he lifted his steel to block mine. The whole roof lit red.I slid my blade down the man’s and he pulled away. Footfalls pounded up behind me and I swiftly turned to meet the other man. Our blades clanged against each other, but my swing was strong enough to send the man toppling on his back. I stabbed his throat and turned to his companion. He held his blade before his face, approaching me. There was a gust of cold air and he looked up as Flershput’s glider flew overhead. Taking advantage of his distraction, I jabbed his stomach. He cried out, bleeding as his knees buckled and he fell forward. Removing my blade from his body, I spun around, surveying the roof for more opponents.
 
This had been too easy. I knew the Unadiflinus had to be around here somewhere.
 
“Syndeeka!” I turned and saw Jan running up to me, the sleeve his left arm emitting wisps of smoke in the cold night air. "Come with me, woman. I found the roof exit.”
 
I followed him, breathing heavily. “How is your arm?”
 
He laughed. “In the most pain it’s ever been in, although wearing a second skin probably kept it from being worse. Fortunately, I’m right-handed.”
 
"If you can briefly roll up your sleeve and take off your glove, I can help you out."
 
Jan smiled and said, "Of course." 
 
He bared his arm and held it out to me. In the moonlight I could see it was blistered, pink in places, and bleeding a little.
 
In spite of Mershtafleisham’s coldness to us mercenaries, he had still given us some salves in case we received any burns, and I quickly unstopped the vial I kept in a bag hanging from my belt and spread the lotion on Jan’s raw arm. He still seemed to be in pain, but I could tell that the ointment was making that pain a lot more bearable.
 
When I’d finished my ministrations, he briefly closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He repeated this several more times before opening his eyes and smiling at me. “I learned a technique from a priest years ago that allows me to focus my mind away from severe pain.”
 
“Really?” I placed the vial back in the bag at my belt and wiped my hands on my pants. “Is it working now?”
 
His smile sagged. “Not as much as it should.”
 
“Oh, I’m sorry. And I’m sorry about Sehaceo.”
 
“He knew the risks.”
 
Jan’s nonchalance startled me, but I realized this was not the time for grieving.
 
Our boots echoed hollowly across the vast expanse of roof as I followed Jan.
 
“Have you seen Flershput?” I asked.
 
“He’s probably contending with his own welcome party. Just listen for the sound of metal on metal and there you’ll find him.”
 
Soon we heard such mercenary music and spotted Flershput at a far corner of the roof, felling his last opponent. Flershput, surrounded by bloody bodies, scanned the roof and I waved to him. He immediately trotted up to us, his bloody blade swinging back and forth.
 
“There you are!” he said, panting.
 
“Welcome to the Twilight Fortress,” said Jan.
 
“Where’s Sehaceo?”
 
“He was caught by one of the fire shafts,” I said, trying to sound more compassionate than Jan.
 
“Huh. Damned fool always did drink too much. Well, there’s three of us, anyway.”
 
“And I can lead us down below,” said Jan.
 
We continued our trek until we sighted a trapdoor in the roof a few yards off. It was black iron and lined with studs.
 
“How do we get in?” I asked. “I doubt if it will be unlocked now that we’ve made our presence known.”
 
Jan chucked evilly. “They could just leave us trapped up here to starve and die. Ah!” He touched his arm. “No, that’s not their way. We’re potential sacrifices.”
 
I fished Mistress Ayni’s charm packet from under my leather tunic and held it out to him. “I’m not sure what’s in here. Do you think it might ease your pain?”
 
Jan grinned (or was it a wince?). “Not likely. You keep that for good luck.”
 
I slid the packet back in my tunic, between my breasts.
 
Jan stepped up to the trapdoor and started banging on it with his sword. Laughing, he jumped away and regarded Flershput and me with a knowing look. “Wait now. It shouldn’t be long.”
 
He was right. Only moments later, the heavy iron door swung outward and clanged against the flagstones. We held our swords at the ready. There was a rustling sound. Then a fury grey head popped out of the darkness. Several more now. Wolves. They scurried out the doorway, barking and growling and hurtling at us in a fury mass. One jumped up on Jan, yelping as it was impaled by steel. Several more charged Flershput and me.
 
The next few moments stretched out forever as I slashed and hacked at darting muzzles baring fangs. My sword always made contact with a beast, but one reared up and locked its teeth onto my left arm. The leather of my sleeve afforded some protection, but the wolf twisted its head back and forth as if trying to burrow into my flesh. With a surge of strength, I flung my arm out, but the wolf remained jaw-locked. Another one leaped at my face and I just managed to block its open jaws with my blade. It clamped onto steel and screeched, blood splashing its fur. As it dropped to the ground I shoved my sword at the beast chewing my arm. The point stabbed the creature’s neck and it finally dropped off. 
 
I gasped for air, looking about me. Jan and Flershput had just finished their last kills and stood ankle-deep in a sea of blood-matted fur.
 
I re-sheathed my sword and touched my gloved fingers to my sleeve. Placing them to my lips, I tasted blood.
 
Jan stared at me. “It looks like mangled arms are the theme for tonight’s drama!”
 
I gave him a dirty look. “Spare me your attempts at wit!”
 
Flershput regarded the dead animals before him, sighing. “Such beautiful creatures. I wish we hadn’t had to dispose of them like this.”
 
“It was them or us,” said Jan
 
“They only followed their nature. We’re the ones who choose to murder.”
 
“Yes,” I said, “but wolves don’t have money.”
 
“Well, the door’s still open,” said Jan, removing a luminous green vial from the bag on his belt.“They must be expecting us. Let’s not be late guests, then.”
 
With that he strode up to the trapdoor, his vial held before him, stepped into the opening, and descended.
 
I unsheathed my blade, removing a light vial from a bag at my hip with my other hand, then looked to Flershput, who smiled sheepishly before making his own departure. There was now a ghostly glow in the doorway.
 
I approached the exit and stepped down into the realm of death. The steps below my feet were illuminated by our vials and I met Jan and Flershput at the bottom of a small chamber.
 
Jan removed another vial from his bag and slid it under his belt. We copied his actions and the chamber grew more distinct. On the far wall was a wooden door, slightly ajar. Jan placed a gloved finger to his lips and cautiously crept to the door. He swung it open, jamming his sword into the intervening space.
 
There was a clank and suddenly an Unadiflina emerged, its blade locked with Jan’s. They began a vicious melee and Flershput and I soon joined Jan. We quickly dispatched the spectral warrior. Checking the darkness for more of his kind, we stealthily slipped into the hallway.
 
The corridor was immensely long and our radiance only illuminated a small circle about us. Jan, Flershput and I stood side by side, our swords angled before our chests. We crept forward this way for some time, silently aware that the entrance to the stairwell couldn’t be much farther.
 
Ahead were two closed doors on either wall. Jan looked to us, shook his head, and we moved passed them. That was when a shrill scream rose behind us. I spun on my heal as both doors opened, emitting skull-faced warriors wielding swords. They all began a high-pitched screeching as they charged us in a mob. 
 
There was no choice but to run.
 
Jan and Flershput outpaced me and I pounded my boots on the flagstones to catch up. The screeching echoed off the walls and battered my ears. My head began pounding with the noise.
 
Then more skull faces emerged from the darkness ahead.
 
We were surrounded.
 
I remembered the charm packet and tore it from my tunic. I shoved it onto the tip of my sword and waved the blade around. 
 
The screeching stopped.
 
A warm breath tickled my ear and I jumped. Jan came up from behind me.
 
“What is that?” he said.
 
“Apparently, something they have an aversion to,” I replied, still waving my sword about me.
 
“Can they smell it?”
 
“They have no noses! Somehow they’re detecting it.”
 
The corpselike warriors, both for and aft, stood at bay, mouths gaping in uncertainty. 
 
“What do we do now?” I asked.
 
“Charge at the ones following us.”
 
I did. They ran from me.
 
I stopped. So did they.
 
Curiosity got the better of me and I put a gloved finger to the black sludge dripping down my blade, then sniffed it. Instantly, a wave of nausea came over me. Scientific fool that I was, I licked my finger. A putrid, burning taste overwhelmed my mouth and I retched. My whole body heaved, spilling my supper on the flagstones. Gasping, I looked around. The creatures at either end of us stood about, swaying on the balls of their feet, saliva dripping from their skinless jaws.
 
“Jan,” I said, startled, “I think I know what’s going on.”
 
“Do tell us, then,” said Jan, looking around nervously at the Unadiflinus.
 
“The charm packet wasn’t really effective until I pierced it with my sword. The herbs, fungus, moss, or whatever makes up its contents, must be reacting with the blood on my sword.” I smiled. “That’s the final ingredient.”
 
“Very good! But what now? Do you lead with your blade and we follow?”
 
I wiped vomit from lips. “No. I think the best thing to do would be to smear this substance all over our bodies. I know it smells bad, but we can always breath through our mouths.”
 
Jan sighed. “If it means preventing our friends here from opposing us then yes, that’s what we’ll do.”
 
We spent the next few minutes squeezing the contents of the charm packet onto our bloody blades, then applied the resulting concoction to our leather armor and our faces. My eyes began watering and dizziness swayed me, but I had nothing more in my stomach to donate to the flagstones. Jan and Flershput showed signs of nausea but followed my advice and breathed through their mouths. Having previously succumbed to curiosity, I now resigned myself to performing the rest of the mission on an empty stomach. The charm packet, now little more than an hollow leaf, I replaced in my tunic.
 
Now we were ready to continue. We proceeded to march down the corridor, the creatures behind us huddling in one place and those before us shuffling backwards, their swords swaying limply before them.
 
I looked to Jan. “Let me try something.” I thrust out my sword and ran forward.
 
Unadiflinus stumbled back and toppled onto the floor. Soon their was a pile of writhing, quivering bodies, some bleeding from unintended stabs by their comrades.
 
Jan, Flershput, and I hacked at the creatures, initiating shrill screams as we sent them to their god. We then gathered their swords, which we tossed in a clanging mass behind us (there being no point in stepping on blades), and then ascended the mound of bodies before continuing down the hall. It was shortly thereafter that Jan located the entrance to the stairwell.
 
As the three of us spiraled down into darkness I asked Jan, “What now?”
 
“Now,” said Jan, “we stay doubly alert. We’ve caused quite a commotion already tonight. Don’t think members of the Order aren’t waiting for us on the ground floor.”
 
I chuckled. “They’ll get a whiff of us and fall to their knees!”
 
“Don’t get too cocky. They’re lying in wait. Dewkanosa gave me a password to gain admittance into the lighted section, but the order may have decided to change it, especially after this evening’s mayhem.”
 
Finally, we reached the foot of the stairwell and stepped out onto the first floor. A loud shrieking pierced the silence and another mob of Unadiflinus ran at us from all directions. It was like they’d slammed into an invisible barrier, though, because they quickly jerked to a halt and hovered around us. Feeling the hero of the evening, I took the first swings at the specters, but Jan and Flershput eagerly joined me. After repeating the third floor’s ritual we crossed the mound of dead warriors and Jan lead us through what appeared to be a king’s hall.
 
At the end was a large, arched door of iron. Jan rapped on it with his sword hilt.
 
A long, still moment followed.
 
Faint footfalls could be heard through the barrier. A face-level partition slid back and two grey eyes stared out at us. “Password?”
 
Jan took a breath. “Peat moss.”
 
The partition closed.
 
I tightened my grip on my sword hilt.
 
Nothing.
 
I looked to Jan and whispered, “What should we do?”
 
He waved me to silence.
 
Minutes crept by.
 
I began to notice a dull pain in my back, followed by the awareness of the stinging in my bloody arm.
 
Then the door creaked inward, spreading flickering orange light on the flagstones. Jan signaled us and we rushed in, swords swinging. Jan sliced into a grey robed boy of about fourteen. The lad screamed, slamming into now bloody flagstones.
 
Two other adolescent boys stood at the far end of the circular chamber. They held their hands out pleadingly.
 
“Please,” said one of them, “don’t kill us. We’re but acolytes.”
 
His wide eyes blinked from under a bowl haircut.
 
“Stand next to each other,” said Jan coldly.
 
The acolytes complied with his demands.
 
My eyes surveyed the circular chamber. It rose up two stories, the second level ringed by a stone balcony lined with rows of wooden doors. The ground level had a scattering of stools randomly distributed about and a large round marble table in its center. Next to the boys was another door, beside which stood a tripod baring a brazier, the sole source of light.
 
“Come over here,” Jan continued, stepping forward.
 
Casting dancing shadows on the orange flags, the young acolytes crept towards him, slowly circling the table. When they were halfway to him they stopped.
 
All the doors on the balcony opened at once. Leather clad archers stepped out, knocked shafts onto their bow strings, and fired.
 
Jan rolled on the floor and I followed his lead.
 
An arrow shaft penetrated the tip of my boot, just missing my toes.
 
Other arrows clattered the flagstones. I continued rolling until the table was over me.
 
Flershput came up behind me and I saw Jan inching up from his position in front. That was when I noticed a shaft impaling his back.
 
He grimaced at me. “Complete the mission…”
 
There was a gurgling in his throat and his eyes glazed over, then his mouth spilled blood.
 
I looked back to Flershput.
 
He stared at me matter-of-factly. “You heard him.”
 
Such love, I thought grimly. I pulled the arrowhead from my boot and tossed it aside. “Do you have any idea what to do now?”
 
“We can’t stay under this table.”
 
I began to see why Flershput would never lead his own mission.
 
I thought for a moment.
 
“I have an idea,” I said. “Help me get one of Jan’s boots off. I also need a glove.”
 
“What?”
 
“Idiot! Just do as I say.”
 
Flershput and I re-sheathed our swords and set to working a boot and a glove off of Jan’s corpse. I hated touching a dead comrade, but this wasn’t the first time. When we’d removed the items, I draped Jan’s larger glove over my own and handed the boot to Flershput.
 
“Now,” I whispered, “throw the boot towards the entrance.”
 
He complied and a hail of arrow shafts rained down by the iron door. At that moment I rolled out from under the table in the opposite direction. My feet toppled a stool and I grabbed it, holding it before me. There was a jolting as arrows thunked into the wooden seat. Still moving, but now in a running crouch, I slammed my elbow into the tripod with the brazier. It tumbled on its side, spilling coals. Quickly grabbing the rim of the brazier with my double-gloved hand, I turned it upside down on the floor, smothering the coals.
 
The chamber went black.
 
I took a glow vial from under my belt and hurled it across the room. Arrows clattered as blinded archers tried to hit anything that might be a target.
 
The boys seemed to have escaped through the door. I just hoped they hadn’t locked it.
 
“Syndeeka!” whispered Flershput at my side.
 
I felt for him in the dark and touched his arm. Fumbling with my other hand, I found the door handle, gripped it, and pushed. It came open and we ran into a lighted room. I slammed the door shut and looked around.
 
It was a small room with a wooden door on the opposite wall the only other exit. Beside that door rested the only furniture, a long wooden trunk, and above that the only light source, a bracketed torch in the corner.
 
“Hurry,” I said. “Help me slide this trunk in front of the door we just came through.”
 
Flershput and I grabbed either end and pushed the trunk across the room.
 
I looked at the wooden box and thought it long enough to be a coffin. Intrigued by the idea, I decided to try the lid. It wasn’t locked and I pulled it back. A woman with blond hair and a blue velvet dress stared blankly with green eyes. I recognized her pretty young face from a portrait I’d been shown by Jan.
 
“Lady Berkhoy!” I said.
 
“It looks like we’re too late.”
 
I thought about the Winter Solstice and was tempted to agree. But I had to be certain. I grabbed one of her wrists and pulled it up. It ended in a skinned-over stump, but I’d expected that. I didn’t seem to detect any pulse. Removing a dagger from my boot, I nicked her wrist. Long, long moments passed before I saw blood rise out of the cut.
 
“She’s alive!” I said. “She wouldn’t be bleeding otherwise.”
 
Flershput pulled out his sword. “Then I’m afraid you and she will have to die.”
 
Dropping the dagger, I jumped from the trunk and unsheathed my blade. “Flershput, why?”
 
He grinned like an orangutan. “You know how it is, Syndeeka. We are paid professionals. Someone offered a higher price to see that Lady Berkhoy didn’t come out alive.”
 
“Traitor!”
 
He laughed.
 
I recalled what Jan had told me about us mercenaries being unable to embrace values like honor and compassion, and I suddenly hated our entire profession. 
 
I stepped back until my hand touched the door beyond.
 
“Come over here!” said Flershput.
 
My fingers graced the cold brass handle.
 
Flershput shrugged. “Very well.” He turned to the open trunk and raised his sword over it.
 
I rushed at him and our blades locked.
 
It was a fierce fight, one of the fiercest I’d ever had. His skill level was a product of his greater age. I always managed to parry his blows, but I could never find an advantage. The best I could hope for was a stalemate, and that wasn’t good enough.
 
Then the door behind us burst open. The sudden jolting sound broke my concentration and Flershput cut my hand. With a clattering, my sword fell to the floor. But Flershput’s victory was only temporary. An archer in the doorway shot an arrow into his jugular. Flershput groped at the wooden shaft, his fingers drenched in blood. I instantly flung myself into the trunk and slammed the lid shut. I felt bad laying atop Lady Berkhoy, but she wasn’t conscious anyway. Is this the end? I wondered.
 
The lid was thrown back and three people stared down at me: the archer who had felled Flershput, one of the acolytes who had escaped, and a tall old man in black who had the seal of Unadi-- an ivory skull hanging from a chain around his neck. Their eyes, red and watery, informed me that my fragrance was effecting them. In spite of their condition, they still tried to grapple me from the trunk.
 
I slammed my boot into the archer’s face and he fell back. It wasn’t too hard to overpower an old man and an adolescent, and I soon knocked them to the floor. The archer got up, his nose broken and bleeding, and lunged at me. My fist landed his face, shattering the nose further and knocking him out.
 
The force of his tackle had slammed my back into the flagstones. The boy, now wielding my sword, pinned me down with a sandaled foot and placed the blade’s tip to my neck. He grinned at me. The old man rose up and stared down at me, disdainfully. He and the boy pinched their noses, wincing with obvious nausea at my odor.
 
“You dare to defile the sanctity of this temple?” said the old man, trying to sound menacing in spite of his pinched nose.
 
Footsteps sounded from behind me and I glanced at the doorway as it filled with guards, their hands reaching for the swords at their hips.
 
My left hand brushed the flagstones till it felt cold steel.
 
“You, boy,” I said to the acolyte, “how can you be part of such an evil order? You’re so young.”
 
He smiled. “I’m the one who cut off her hands.”
 
No waste of innocence, then, I thought as I flung the dagger into his chest. He fell back, nicking my throat as he dropped the sword. I shot my knee up and it impacted the hilt, spinning the blade forward in an arc. I caught the sword in my hand and leaped up, twisting round to face the guards and slamming back into the old man. He stumbled over Flershput’s corpse; then the wind burst from his lungs as his back hit the wall. The guards, their swords raised, stood frozen. I reached behind me, grabbed a waddled, bony neck, and pulled the old man forward. When I had him before me, I locked my left arm over his chest and placed the blade under his chin. He gagged and then vomited onto his robes. I guess mangled arms aren’t the theme of tonight’s drama, after all, I thought.
 
“Listen to me!” I shouted at the guards. “This old man is my hostage.”
 
The old man scowled. “I’m the high priest, you tar-colored bitch!”
 
“And I’m the high priest’s executioner if you don’t watch that mouth of yours,” I whispered into his ear. Looking to the guards, I continued my speech. “If you want to see him live, you’ll do as I say. Firstly, I want one of you to come pick up Lady Berkhoy.”
 
A guard re-sheathed his sword and walked over to the trunk, removing the prone woman.
 
“Good,” I said. “Now I want four of you to relinquish all of your weapons-- and I mean all of them-- and come surround us. You’ll act as shields should any of your comrades decide to use me for target practice.”
 
With this setup (me holding the high priest before me with a sword to his throat, a man following with Lady Berkhoy in his arms, and four other men shielding us) we marched to the fortress’s exit. The drawbridge lowered with no complaints from the Order and we crossed over in the still dark hours of early morning. I looked into the chasm-moat and admired the workmanship that had gone into embedding iron shafts into bedrock.
 
Lord Zounachsech’s guard met me at the foot of the bridge, four of them holding the reigns of horses. That sight deflated my joy, somewhat.
 
Lady Berkhoy’s physician, Mershtafleisham, pushed through them and looked at me sternly. “Give her to me.”
 
I nodded. “Very well.” I turned to the man carrying her. “Hand her to the shpoita, if you will, please.”
 
The man complied and Mershtafleisham quickly spirited Lady Berkhoy off.
 
Lord Zounachsech’s guard surrounded the Order’s warriors and took them into their custody. I personally handed over the high priest to the captain of the guard. He had his troops spirit the old man to one of the wagons. He then appraised me, sniffing the air and tugging his whiskers.
 
“Oh, but you smell like death itself,” he told me, cringing.
 
I gave him a weary smile. “Yes, but now I’m back from the dead.”
 
He frowned. “So, your compatriots didn’t make it?”
 
“No. Unfortunately, they were all killed.” I inhaled, considering whether I should mention Flershput’s turn.
 
The captain clasped my shoulder. “From one warrior to another, I can say that they were all an honorable lot. I’m sorry to see that they’re not here to celebrate this victory. These past few months, I’ve grown to like you all. ”
 
I looked to the ground, exhaling through my teeth, but presenting a half-smile. “Thank you.”
 
My mind blanked, momentarily.
 
“I never had brothers till I met them,” I said, looking at him.
 
The captain saluted me.
 
I gasped nervously, then returned his gesture.
 
He marched over to his men, who were taking swigs from a wine bottle.
 
I wondered if my words were lies or truth. I didn’t know.
 
I peeled the two gloves off of my sword hand and examined the wound from Flershput's blade. There was a bleeding gash between my thumb and forefinger, but the extra leather had shielded me from a more debilitating cut. I placed the wound to my mouth and blew on it.
 
Mershtafleisham approached me, though not close enough to smell my aroma. He wore an angry expression on his face. “Lady Berkhoy is dead.”
 
“No, she’s not! I checked. She’s only drugged.”
 
“She’s dead!”
 
“That can’t be. Corpses don’t bleed.”
 
“Young woman, I’ve tested all her vital signs. I know where I speak.”
 
Then it dawned on me. The careless coachman who made Lady Berkhoy’s capture possible, Flershput betraying the mission, and now her (and more importantly, her father’s) physician pronouncing her dead when she’d been alive moments before. I saw everything now. Lord Zounachsech would be sacrificed in the consumption and his holdings would go to the wronged rival. In this society, a lord’s social status was more important than his own child.
 
I regarded the physician with cold, cold eyes.
 
“Savages,” I said through clenched teeth. “You’re all savages.”
 
I gripped the hilt of my sword, ready to unsheathe it and plant it into this man’s chest.
 
I turned and walked away.


Submitted: May 09, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Thomas LaHomme. All rights reserved.

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