I’ve never posted one of my own stories online before, but this one’s for Crossed GenresPost A Story For Haiti effort. If you like it, or any of the other dozens of stories there, consider donating.  Links are available at their site. (And if you really like it, there’s another story with these characters here.  To those whom this seems ghoulish: I can assure you reading neither of these stories will earn me any money, and that I am just as poor and anonymous as always.)


Under a Harsh and Silent Sky

“Well, they’re all dead.” Blays lifted his blonde head from the blocky, long-limbed bodies to stare at Dante with clear accusation. “You’re not going to rob them.”

“Do you think saying it out loud will make it come true?” Dante dropped the cloak back on the road, flushing. The fit would have been terrible anyway: the dead norren must have averaged seven feet in height–or length, now, stretched as they were on the packed dirt and in the thigh-high fans of grass lining the way–silent, slabby, too large by half to be mistaken for men even if you missed their coin-sized ears and moss-thick beards. The attackers had left none of their own dead, just a score of arrows embedded in the walls of the wain. “Anything missing?”

“I don’t know, is there?”

“Get serious.”

“Unless they were hauling air, a lot is missing.”

“The box?”

“What box?”

“Cally’s box.” Dante climbed up into the back of the near wagon. “Scuffed-up wood box. Flounder on its lid.”

“Ah. The letter-box.” Blays hauled himself onto the wagon’s lip as Dante pawed through slashed-open sacks of wheat. “What’s his thing for flounders?”

“Cally thinks, since they live on the very bottom, and both their eyes point up, you can’t take a flounder by surprise.”

“There is a problem with that man’s mind.” Blays picked a single coin from a scree of spilt grain. “Silver’s gone.”

“I know. Gods damn it.” Dante punched the wheat-pile, spraying grains against the wagon boards like the roll of a hundred tiny dice, but when he checked the second wagon and then the grass beside the road and then the wagons again, the box was still gone, the sun was still setting, and the attackers’ tracks had still been washed out in the morning rain. They stood in the middle of a massacre, four hours’ hard ride from the latest norrin town Cally was pumping full of arms and wealth and wheat, with no time to go back and no way to go forward. Dante hunched down beside a wagon, elbows on his knees. “Cally’s going to kill us and we’ll never live again.”

“Maybe there was nothing in it,” Blays said. “Maybe he was sending you love letters.”

“He wouldn’t send anything unless it was vital. What if Settevites took it? What happens if one of the thieves can read and knows maybe he can’t figure these letters out but he’s smart enough to know the capital could?”

“Something awful, no doubt.” Blays stooped in the grass, came up with a long sword. He held it to the fading sunlight. “There’s blood on this sword.”

“There’s going to be a lot more once they figure out what we’re up to down here.” Dante bit his teeth together, wishing the norren were alive so he could kill them again himself. “They were supposed to burn it. First sight of trouble.”

“Since your brain is so terrible, I’m going to point out that the triangular tip makes this a norrin sword, meaning the blood splashed all over it is most definitely not norrin blood. And since our only allies in this caravan were norren–“

“Give me that.” Dante stood and yanked away the blade. “Go untie the horses. I’m about to save our skins.”

“I’m going to guess there’s at least six of them.” Blays frowned at the far-off look Dante knew was forming on his face. “That would be three times as many as us.”

Dante gazed past him, reaching out for the nether, the dark substance that filled the cracks and shadows of the world. Unshaped, it would be invisible to Blays–to most men–but Dante could sense it lurking the way he could smell cold or feel a shadow on his skin. The animatory force, the grist that spilled from the mill of the gods, according to the Cycle of Arawn, and some days Dante believed it. In his private definition, it was the substance that transformed his will into fact.

Small black blots gathered in his free hand, flitting between his fingers like inky moths. He raised the blood-crusted norrin sword, guiding the nether to it while his mind groped for the man that blood had once sloshed inside. A vague pressure bulbed in his head. Dante narrowed his eyes and turned in a slow circle, the pressure spiking as he faced the northern reach of road.

“They went that way,” he said, pointing with the sword. Blays fooled with the horses some twenty yards away. “I said they went that way!”

“Those devious men took the only road away from here?” Blays said. But two hours later, walking the horses by what little moonlight slipped through the heads of the trees, the pressure withered from Dante’s skull. He stopped and wheeled his horse in an awkward circle. Behind them, concealed from their approach by a wall of brambles, a path cut east. The force in Dante’s forehead returned with the first step he took, ramping up as the quarter-moon eased higher and the miles rolled by.

Have any plan?” Blays asked at their next rest. “Or just kill them in their sleep?”

“With any luck. Whatever it takes to get that box.”

“I knew most of those norren.”

“That, too.” Dante squeezed his knees to his horse’s sides. “Capital men, probably. Don’t know many vagabonds would attack a norrin wagon.”

Blays shrugged. “I no longer put anything past anyone. Just think how crazy your own self is, then realize everyone else is even crazier.”

Trees brushed by. They rode on. Blays freed his sword, pawed through his travel-sack until he found a dark rag. He rubbed it down his blade, blacking out the bright steel. The moon crested, started its downward sweep. Had the norren realized what was happening to them? Or had it simply been one more fragment of violence, as sharp-edged and inscrutable as a broken mirror? How would he describe it to Cally?

Blays drove a finger into his side. Orange fire wavered in the darkness of the woods. He’d been smelling smoke a while, Dante realized. They led their horses off the far side of the road and tied them to a pine. The force in Dante’s head pushed like a thumb.

“It’s them,” he murmured. He drew a short knife and cut a bright line across his arm. The nether flared in the edges of his mind, thirsty as sand. That was one of the first things Cally taught him: if the nether was the animatory force, it drew strength from blood the way all life did. Dante had once considered this almost comically gruesome. By the time he’d learned to cut the back of his arm rather than his palm, he no longer thought of it at all.

“Take anyone who tries to run.” Blays waggled the point of his sword. “I’ve got the rest. These things are built to hit people when they’re lying down.”

Dante nodded. They angled through the woods toward the fire, footsteps soft as shadows. From fifty yards out, Dante counted four horses in the fire’s outer light. He hunkered under a branch and a whirr like a bird thrummed over his head.

“What the hell,” he said, stumbling to put a tree between himself and the archer. An arrow rapped into the other side of the trunk. Blays pressed his back against the bark, dropped to his knees, then peered around the tree. A third arrow creased the air, ripping into the leaves behind them.

“About thirty yards right of the fire,” Blays said. Whistles keened up around the camp. “We need to do something. Now.”

The nether crawled from the moon’s deep shadows and leapt to Dante’s hands. He edged around the tree, heart jarring as an arrow hissed past him; he blinked into the night, blocking the firelight with one hand as he searched for movement. A shadow shifted from a tree to the camp’s right side. Dante punched out his free hand and hurled a spear of nether. A man’s screams drowned out the whistles around the camp.

“Go,” he said. Blays sprinted for the archer screaming in the darkness, Dante trailing. He heard the whap of an arrow hitting flesh and Blays spilled into the fallen leaves. Dante skidded into the dirt beside him, grabbing Blays’ belt and dragging him behind a tree. A shaft jutted from his hip.

“Give me the box and I’ll let you live!” Dante shouted. Laughter rang through the woods.

“Or we could keep the cash,” someone yelled back, “kill you, then take whatever you’ve got, too.”

“You can keep the silver. I just want the letters.” Dante stuck his hand past the trunk and waved it around. An arrow slashed by an instant later. He rolled around the trunk and a dark form ducked behind a tree in front of the fire. The nether pooled in his hand. He lashed out and the bole of the tree spat splinters and bark. “That tree’s a lot harder than you are.”

Shouts and curses followed by silence. Dante strained into the darkness for the rustling of leaves.

Blays struggled to sit up. “You can take them.”

Dante forced him back down. “Hold still, you idiot.”

“Morden?” someone called.

“Letters are by the fire,” a new voice said, croaky and strained, like a boot were standing on the speaker’s neck. “Come on and get them.”

“You back the hell off,” Dante shouted. “Fifty paces, then call out. I see anyone move after that, it’ll be a real blood tornado.”

Faint voices argued above the crackle of the fire. The ragged voice cut them off. “Anything but the letters and we’ll bury you in these woods.”

“Deal. Get moving!” Dante dropped his hand to Blays’ shoulder. “Can you watch my back?”

“I’ll scream if I see anything funny.” Blays closed his eyes as he touched the arrow sticking from his side. “Don’t count on more than that.”

“Got it.” Dante crept around the tree, staring into the night. The outlines of two men retreated through the woods.

“Count four,” Blays whispered. Dante frowned, then saw the shapes of two more joining the others in the distant gloom.

“We’re gone,” the croaky voice shouted out. Dante blew a long breath through his nose and crept forward. He doubted he’d hear the arrow that struck his head or his heart. Anywhere else and he might have a chance. He heard nothing but the scrape of his boots over the thin layer of leaves. To the right of the fire, a horse snorted and Dante froze, clawing at the nether to keep it from leaping toward the hidden men. Amongst the packs and blankets around the fire, he found the box with the painted flounder lying open, a handful of letters spread in the dirt. He gathered them up and clutched the box to his chest. Blood from his self-made wound tickled down his arm.

“I’ve got it,” he yelled into the darkness. “We’re leaving.”

“We’ll be watching,” the voice came back.

Back at the tree, firelight glinted from Blays’ eyes. Dante dropped beside him, heart racing too hard to think.

“We should go.”

“Agreed.” Blays stood, faltered. Dante tucked the box under one arm and wrapped the other around Blays’ neck. The arrow wobbled with Blays’ steps, snagging the lowest branches and tallest undergrowth. By steps, they put the fire behind them until they reached the road and their horses waiting on the other side. Dante didn’t think they’d been followed. Blays sat hard in the dirt, panting, sweat and tears sliding down his face.

“You could have killed them,” he said.

“Maybe.” Dante got out his knife and cut Blays’ doublet away from the arrow jutting below his ribs. Blood leaked down his side. Dante wiped the sweat from his eyes. “But if they’d gotten me, I wouldn’t have been able to hear you when I do this.”

He grabbed the arrow’s shaft, curled his fist against Blays’ skin, and pulled.

“You dirty drip from a who–” Blays breath hissed as he slumped forward, passed straight out. Dante wrenched the arrowhead free, a gout of blood following it. He pressed his hand to the wound. Shadows wrapped around his fingers and passed into Blays. The flow of blood stalled to a dribble. Dante sat back, staring through the woods toward the direction of the thieves’ camp, imagining the things he’d do to them if Blays had died.

* * *

“Some day, you’ll be asleep in your bed, dreaming of dismembered women or whatever it is you dream about, and I’ll crush you to death with a boulder.” Blays’ eyes opened to slits. The eastern sky was just starting to go gray.

“You were not very useful tonight,” Dante said.

“That was a lucky shot.” Blays lifted his head and loosened the bandage on his side. The red-brown scab looked a week old. He sat up, wincing in anticipation, then frowned. “Well, that doesn’t hurt very much.”

“Enough to ride?”

“That eager to get home?”

Dante pressed his knuckles to his nose. “We’re going after them.”

Blays stared, then pushed his brows together. “Oh, come on. We got the box.”

“Even if I didn’t know for sure they’d read the letters, which I do, the very possibility they read them would be enough. The capital finds out about what we’re up to and they’ll bring war down here before we can even tell Cally what we want on our tombstones.”

“Sometimes I think you like doing this.”

“They killed those norren. Yesterday you wanted to sled their bones down a mountain.”

“That was before I knew we were after Half-Blind Morden.”

Dante sat back. “What?”

“Temple-torching, priest-punching Morden One-Eye,” Blays said.

“No we’re not!” Dante glanced back through the woods. “That’s crazy. You just said a crazy thing.”

“This isn’t too far south of where they roam. They were smart enough to ambush us. And there was that thing where his friend called him Morden.”

“I’m sure you got a good look at him, lying in the dirt like that.”

Blays lifted his brows. “You ever met another Morden?”

“Well, what? Do you think we can’t do it?”

“It isn’t that.” Blays drew his limbs together. “I know we’ve got to do it. I know if we let him go and he runs to Setteven, they’ll have ten thousand troops here by summer’s end. And I know I’m going to hate myself for doing this.”

Dante got up too, brushing dirt from his cloak. “How do you feel?”

“Fit enough to commit murder.” Blays untied his horse and wiggled his way into the saddle. “Think we can do a little better this time?”

Dante swung himself up on his horse. “Say you just stole a trunkload of silver. What would you do next?”

“Install myself in a whorehouse until my purse and all the rest of me shrank to a more manageable level.”

“They’re probably headed to Kendall. It’s less than a day from here and it’s friendly to people with money.”

“Yeah.” Blays prodded his horse toward the road. “The people are going to hang us for this.”

“Not if they never know.” Dante glanced up at the cloud-strewn sky. “I heard he once robbed the Winter Cathedral during the Falmac’s Eve service.”

“He did,” Blays said. “After Gashen’s priests raised the tithe for the third time in five years. Morden claimed they had the silver to go without a tithe for a lifetime, and after his crew dumped everything the Cathedral had out the windows–minus all they could carry for themselves–the riots were so bad the clergy had to cut the tithes in half just to convince the mob not to burn them alive.”

Dante snorted. “Where’d you hear all that?”

“Pubs. He was a monk before that, you know.”

“What kind of monk robs a cathedral?”

“He burned one after they put the bounty on his head. Told them he’d burn another chapel every month the bounty stood.” Blays smiled in the overcast dawn. “Took three months before they recalled it.”

“Then what’s he doing killing norren? Gashen’s people have been pushing their taxes for years. Throwing up new chapels all across the hills.”

“I don’t know.” Blays rode with one hand held lightly to his bandage. “I think he’s been trying to build some kind of reform movement. People don’t talk about that stuff much, though.”

“Maybe he needs money. Or he’s trying to get back in their good graces.” Dante frowned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. So now it had come to killing a folk hero. The older Dante got, the messier the world looked. Cally and the council of Narashtovik on which Dante sat had been smuggling wainloads of silver, steel, and grain into the norrin hills for two years now. With Blays, he’d ridden guard with norrin wagons, contacted river smugglers, advised the growing norrin martial enterprise. They’d gone to absurd lengths to keep their involvement hidden: using norrin go-betweens, shaving their heads or growing their beards every few months, dressing as farmers and mercenaries when they rode with the wagons; once, to Dante’s exasperation and Blays’ delight, they’d worn dresses and wigs.

And when something went wrong, Dante and Blays arrived within days. They ferreted the capital’s agents out of towns up and down the hills, arranged drownings and fires and hunting accidents, or simply killed them and pitched their bodies into the woods. They watched wagons of norrin wheat bound north for Gaskan lords, saw the six-sided towers of Gashen’s chapels casting shadows over their towns, heard pubs and homes go silent when someone asked about a son or brother or father turned soldier–their size made norren the favored recruits of noble houses throughout Gask, but their pay had a way of going missing in the long miles between the latest front and the norrin hills, and often as not, so did the men who were taken.

No wonder they wanted rebellion. At the same time it was exactly the kind of thing a quasi-independent city like Narashtovik should have absolutely nothing to do with. In ways too subtle for Dante to grasp, the norren had been instrumental in the coup that put Cally’s hands on the city’s reins. A normal man would be helping them now out of gratitude or honor, but Cally’s mind worked the way a crab walked–sideways, and in jarringly sudden bursts. Dante knew the old man just well enough to be suspicious his motives looked so clear. At times he believed Cally’s true goals were so alien he found it easier to let people blather about debt and duty than to try to explain the real ones, but Dante couldn’t guess those any more than he could unscrew Cally’s head and peer into the old man’s brains. That uncertainty weighed on Dante like six feet of earth–not that he thought the gods pettied themselves with human affairs–nonetheless, something was watching, if just the cold blue eye of the skin, and if it turned out he’d been spreading death in the name of a lie, he knew he would be judged.

Morning broke across the woods. Manure littered the road, still wet. Without the nether to guide them, they had to check the tracks at every crossroad. Dante had grown up a fair woodsman and in the last two years had become a great one; the tracks of Morden and his men told they’d left in the night at a steady but unhasty pace that should reach Kendall by dusk. Dante read the letters as he rode, memorizing what he could of Cally’s bizarre orders passed down from three hundred miles away. That night he burned the letters but kept the box. He checked Blays’ bandage and saw all the swelling had gone. By the time he finished with the nether, the scab looked ready to peel.

“I remembered something else,” Blays said, muffled by the cloak pulled over his head.


“A while after all that bounty stuff died down, Morden set up a chapel a bowshot from nowhere. He had services for everyone under the sun–Gashen and Taim and Arawn and Mennok, even gods outside the Twelve Houses, the norrin ones and those weird animal things over in the east. People were calling him a modern-day Lyle. Some people said he gave all his sermons drunk, too, and held private lessons for the other priests’ wives, but really, anyone would get bored talking about the gods all day.

“After a few months, they came for him. They disguised themselves among the converts–“

“Who?” Dante realized he’d drifted off. He sat up.

“I don’t know. Them. But someone tipped him off, and he slipped poison into the beer he’d introduced for his god-toasting at the end of a sermon–just the assassins’ beer. One of the assassins didn’t drink any and he and Morden had a swordfight right there in the chapel.” Blays laughed, the folds of his cloak puffing up over his mouth. “Morden won, obviously, but that’s when he lost the eye. That’s when he started roaming, too.”

Dante lay back down against the dirt. The sunlight was blocked by clouds and leaves, too faint to stir any real warmth. When people talked about Morden, they wouldn’t talk about the caravan of norren lying bloody and silent beneath a harsh sky. People told stories about himself, Dante knew, and Blays too: how three years ago they’d traveled a thousand miles to Narashtovik to overthrow Samarand and put down her war on the southern kingdom before it could begin; how they’d found and strung up the man murdering guards in the city streets; how after Duke Kaddaman threatened to annex Narashtovik, Dante went forth bearing a branch of the White Tree, and the afterworld annexed the duke.

The few times Dante heard them being told, he’d been silent, rapt. His smile remained until he remembered what the teller couldn’t know: for every story that ended in laughter or, occasionally, applause, there were a dozen that would play out like their hunt for Morden and his men–a confused and panicked battle in the woods, a lie to buy some time, a hero and his followers stabbed to death in the beds of whores. These were the stories that wouldn’t be told, the tales Dante and Blays would recite them only to themselves.

* * *

They rode hard through the late afternoon and reached Kendall as the town was shutting its wooden gates for the ten o’clock bells. Dante knew this for a farce–the river town was swamped with traders and highwaymen and all the world’s restless men showing up without a clue what day it was, let alone what hour, and Blays and a couple coins talked their way in without angry words on either side. The city stunk like vegetables that had spoiled before they’d reached the market, like smoke and horses and urine and goats. They stabled their horses and hired a local boy to help them search–a favorite trick; no one looked a vagabond kid’s way longer than it took to curse at or hit them, and kids ran in packs that seemed to know every house in town–but found Morden and his men in the second whorehouse they tried, a loud, smoky place a stone’s throw from the docks.

“I don’t want anyone to see us on the way in,” Blays said as they waited in a public house across the street.

“I’ll just fly us in through their window, then.”

“I mean, not our faces.”

Dante grunted. They ordered a second round. The midnight bells rolled through the city. Blays wandered outside to piss. As their third round arrived, four men piled out of the house into the street. Dante leaned forward, beer sloshing over his hand, and saw a deep round shadow where a man should have an eye.

Blays lifted his sword a half inch from its sheath. Dante cut a fresh line across the back of his arm. The four men started for the docks and the two of them followed.

“A meet? A smuggler?” Blays said. One of the men glanced behind him; Blays burst into laughter and shoved Dante hard enough to send him reeling like his two mugs had been eight. He caught himself on the corner lamppost and let the men’s lead grow. After one more lamppost, the streets grew dark, wares-houses standing solid and unadorned under the patchy moonlight. The clean wet scent of water on stone smothered the city’s other smells. Dante turned a corner and saw the last man silhouetted in a warehouse doorway, light fanning past him into the street before the door closed.

“They’ll sleep sometime tonight,” Blays whispered, gazing at a house that shared a wall with the taller building.

“Unless they’re about to hop on a galley.” Dante gathered the nether to his hands. With it came that sweet spike of potency, that sense he could see right into the deep places of the world. He jerked his chin at the dark-windowed house. “Same guy probably owns both. Bet they share a door, too.”

“Try not to let me get shot this time.” Blays rolled his shoulders and faced the door. “Also, you have to do this next time.”

“But you’re good at it,” Dante said. Blays launched forward. His shoulder met the door with a dull thump and Blays tumbled back and the door shuddered inward on its hinges; from the other side, metal skittered across a wooden floor. Dante brushed past Blays into a hallway little darker than the night outside.

Two doors passed on his left before they reached one that opened into the warehouse. Dante slid back the bolt and pressed his ear to the door but heard nothing more than the rasp of his skin and whatever non-sound a door makes when it’s not being used. He glanced at Blays and Blays nodded. He eased the door open and followed Blays into a high-ceilinged room with dried mud on the floor and a nest of papers on its barge-like desk. In the opposite wall, a window looked out on a vast roofed-in space cluttered with casks and sacks and loose boards and spilled grain, alleys and mountains of stuff that blocked sight of the torchlight washing the far wall. At once, laughter brayed through all that open space.

“I’ll hit first,” Dante whispered. “Then you take whoever looks most killable.”

Blays stared into the gloom. “Get Morden first. Might rattle the others.”

They ducked behind makeshift walls that stank like beer and wine and lamp oil, stepping over grain and still-wet mud. Dante could hear the conversation now, not its words but its murmur. He turned a corner and a couple rats dashed away from a gnawed-open sack of wheat.

“What’s going on here?” Half the room away, Morden’s croaky, stepped-on voice was unmistakable. Dante froze.

“Pretty much what it looks like,” another voice said, factual and flat. Four or five others pitched in at once, obliterating each other’s words; Dante hustled forward, steadying himself against the ground with his off hand. The walls of casks gave out thirty-odd feet from the gathering of men. Dante pulled up behind a slatted crate rank with the sour smell of birdshit, slowed his breathing, then inched his face above the crate’s edge.

Three rough-dressed men gripped the hilts of still-sheathed swords, clustering around a middle-aged man with a black gouge for an eye making an obscene gesture at the seven armed men facing them. Dante lived around soldiers at Narashtovik and recognized at once the slaty faces and steady stances of the men across from Morden. One wore the same pine green cloaks as the others, but he carried something more, too: hands that hung like weapons of their own, and the miles-distant gaze Dante had only seen in the hands and eyes of council priests and their strongest students.

“You had every chance to disappear,” the man said to Morden. He raised a hand to touch the iron lion that clasped his cloak. “Instead, you kept popping up, a shrew nipping at the lion’s ankles. It can take a while for a lion to notice something that small, but you know what happens when he does?”

Blays touched Dante’s shoulder, mouthed the word “Setteven” at him.

“The lion’s black heart gives out in fright?” Morden said.

“The shrew gets clawed into several discrete pieces.” The man paused, then glanced at his men with vague annoyance. Steel whispered on leather as they drew swords and Morden’s men pulled theirs.

“Before I kill you or you kill me, tell me who betrayed me.” Morden fingered the handle of his undrawn blade. “As a fellow clergyman, you must understand my need to do heavenly justice unto whatever rat-scum traitor sold me out.”

“Not really.”

“Lyle’s balls,” Morden said, weariness seeping through that crushed-out voice no man could imitate. His one good eye locked on the faraway stare of the Setteven priest. “You’ll carry this with you. It’ll shine back at you from the eyes of every man whose gaze you’ll no longer be able to meet.”

“No one else will know,” the priest said softly. He spread his hands in front of his stomach as if to catch a ball. Bright white motes spooled around his fingers. Dante’s spine straightened at the sight of the ether.

“We’ve got to help him,” Blays whispered. Shadows flocked to the sticky line of blood on Dante’s arm. Steel clashed; Blays gripped Dante’s shoulder, shaking him. “You know it’s wrong. If you helped kill him, you know you could never tell a soul.”

“I know,” Dante said. Blays bared his teeth in a grin and a snarl. He rolled from behind the wall of casks, Dante half a step behind him.

Morden and his men stood shoulder to shoulder, scuffling back from the swift, exploratory blows of the soldiers. The priest pointed and a glowing line leapt from his hand to a stubble-headed man to Morden’s left. The man stopped mid-motion, his backhand arrested before it could block a soldier’s downward stroke. The sword cleaved into the frozen man’s collarbone and still he didn’t move. The soldier whipped his head toward the charging Blays, yanking to clear his blade; it wrenched free, blood flying from its point as it wheeled over the soldier’s head, then fell from his grasp as Blays’ strike bit through his side to the spine.

Morden laughed, a coughing, stuttered burst that made the soldier across him fall back on his heels. Dante heard a shriek and a spatter and in the edge of his vision a white flare ripped from the priest’s hands toward Blays. The nether coursed through Dante from his bones to his skin and he punched forward, a delta of shadow rushing to meet the power of the priest.

In the earliest days, the days before Dante even had a name for the things he was learning to command, Cally had tried to teach him to use the ether as well. Ether and nether, nether and ether; they weren’t opposites, Cally insisted, nor reflections or derivatives of each other, no matter how they looked or what anyone said, but more like two hands of the same body trained for different talents. Dante still didn’t know what this meant: he’d been terrible with it. Utterly, criminally bad. Cally gave up teaching him to wield the ether in less time than he’d taken to explain it.

The wedge of shadows met the ball of sparks and disappeared with a hiss Dante could feel in his teeth. The sparks blew out like the seeds of a dandelion, some flashing against Blays’ face and clothes, others winking out in the air. The priest’s eyes snapped to Dante, all their gauzy distance now gone.

“Um,” the priest said. He flexed his hands and to Dante’s right he saw a fresh wave of sparks reflected in the clashing blades of the battling men. He splayed the nether from his left hand and raised his sword in his right, knowing the weapon would do no good, and the sparks dimmed but pulsed on through, sinking through his body. The point of his sword twitched as his elbow locked. He tried to step back but found his whole right side as rigid and rooted as the trunk of an oak. The priest drew a slender sword and ran forward.

Light flashed on steel and the priest stumbled, blood spraying from a shallow groove on his neck, a knife plopping into the mud to his right. The grip on Dante’s body trembled; the nether surged through him, graying his vision, blotting out the grunts and clanks and curses of the others. The priest found his footing and cocked his blade. Another knife thudded into the man’s ribs as Dante leveled his shaking hand and blew a plow of shadows through the priest’s guts.

The man dropped to his knees, wordless. Dante turned to the others and saw a flash from Morden’s hands. The third knife sailed over the priest’s drooping head. Bodies curled in the mud. Blays pivoted around the thrust of the last soldier, beating the man’s sword into the ground as he turned right. He brought his left hand to his hilt and wheeled his sword through the rest of the circle as his hips went on turning, leaving the point of the blade jabbing parallel to the ground and straight into the soldier’s chest.

The nether sizzled away from Dante’s fingers. Blood pattered from sword-tips and open wounds. The living glanced around themselves, panting. Blays wiped his blade on a dead man’s shirt. Morden’s surviving friend clutched a deep gash on his arm while Morden squinted at Dante with his one eye.

“Who the hell are you?” he croaked, right hand drifting for his belt.

“A dock worker,” Dante said.

A knife glinted in Morden’s fingers. “From the woods. Last night.”

“You read something you shouldn’t.” Dante felt for the nether. Blays sheathed his sword with a click. Dante bit his lips together. “Killed norren.”

Dismay clouded Morden’s eye. “Your friends?” Blays nodded. “You do things sometimes,” Morden went on. “It was the silver. You get wrapped in a cause and can’t see the rest no matter how many eyes you have.”

Dante looked past him. Cally’s letters were burned, and with them the hard proof; betrayed by the capital, Morden’s silence was secure. For once they could walk away from a living body. Dante would even be proud to tell Cally how they’d dealt with this supposed hero. That feeling, he thought, should be the unequivocal sign it was the right thing to do–not even counting the fact Morden had saved Dante’s own life during the fight. But two days from now, he and Blays would return alone to the norrin hills, bearing a wagon slung low with the weight of a half dozen bodies and the thin consolation their men had died in what was, as far as Dante could tell, a worthy pursuit. He closed his eyes, sick from his scalp to his soles.

“Those norren are dead,” Blays faced Morden. “You carry that with you.”

Morden’s eye went bright. Blays turned his back. Dante followed him through the maze of all the world’s goods, the casks of foods and spirits, the mess of lumber and cloth that filled the warehouse floor. He had two days to decide how he would tell the norrin wives and sons and mothers how he’d spared the man who’d taken their loves.

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