The first story from The Clans: Tales of the Fourth World. It follows the ruler of a wintery land as he is forced to choose between submitting to evil and the destruction of the people he is sworn to protect. 6300 words.
by Brandon M. Lindsay
A knock at the door disturbed the Kahn’s study, which was deathly silent save for the quick yet deliberate scratching of a quill on parchment.
“Come in,” said Kahn Steyand, stifling his mild irritation. The missive he was composing was important, requiring his full concentration, and he didn’t want to be disturbed. One of his personal guards opened the door from his position in the hallway, allowing in Tyerallic, Steyand’s minister. Tyerallic’s dress was impeccable at that moment, as it ever was, yet a few milky strands had escaped his otherwise perfectly-coifed hair, and such inattention to detail could only mean distress. That combined with the lines stretched across his forehead made his dusty blue face look like an ocean amidst a hurricane.
Tyerallic stopped in front of Steyand’s sturdy yet ornately-carved granite desk and bowed sharply. “My Kahn.”
Steyand clenched the crystal quill in his hand, and willed himself to relax. Once his composure had been regained, he set aside the missive he was writing. He had already pushed from his mind what it said and to whom it was addressed. He did not set aside the quill. “What is it, Tyerallic?” He asked the question, though he dreaded the answer. From the moment his minister stepped into the room, looking as he did, Steyand knew why he had come.
Tyerallic’s face did not change, yet he hesitated before answering. A slight sigh escaped his pale blue lips but not Steyand’s notice. “My Kahn, Nauhmen’s latest messenger has arrived.”
The crystal quill snapped, startling Steyand. He dropped the quill on his desk and pressed a kerchief to the cut on his hand, which had begun to bleed. It was little more than a scratch, but it wouldn’t do to let his emotions master him.
He nodded to Tyerallic. “Take me to him.”
* * *
Five guards trailed behind Steyand as he strode down the hall, boot heels clicking in time against the frosted tile floor. Vaulted ceilings, tiled in alabaster, loomed high above, supported by colonnades of crystal that flanked the hall. High-relief sculptures of former Kahns peered out from between the fluted crystal pillars, those faces carved of pure ice seeming to cast condemning glares on those that walked past them.
Tyerallic, at his side yet a step behind, wasn’t fidgeting, but then he never did. He didn’t need to for Steyand to see Tyerallic’s anxiety as he caught glances of his minister out of the corner of his eye. Neither of them ever looked forward to meeting with Nauhmen’s messengers.
Tyerallic gestured to a door on the right. “He’s waiting in there, my Kahn.”
“Thank you.” Steyand turned to the guards. “Wait outside.”
The five guards snapped a salute as one and took their places on either side of the door. Another guard from down the hall joined them to give their formation its needed symmetry.
“Would you like me to come with you, my Kahn?”
Steyand shook his head. “No… I shall deal with this myself. But stay near in case I need you.”
Tyerallic bowed, turned, and began walking down the hallway.
Steyand breathed deeply, held it, then exhaled through his nose before gesturing to the guards to open the doors. The hinges groaned as the heavy doors swung inward. Steyand stepped into the waiting room, and then the doors were pulled shut.
The man lounging on the chair, one leg swung over the chair’s arm, was not one Steyand had seen before. A hauberk of coarse steel mail covered his chest, ragged and battle worn. Matching greaves and vambraces armored his limbs. A hooded leather cloak lined with once-white wolf’s fur was clasped with hooks shaped like talons. The man’s smile was filled with arrogance as bold as the scars that puckered one of his eyes. Were it not for the man’s blue skin and white hair, Steyand would not have believed him to be of the same clan.
The man stood, taking his time, letting Steyand know who was to be in control of the conversation.
Steyand said nothing to dispute it, but rather waited patiently for the man to speak.
“My name is Drell,” he said. “As I’m sure you’ve figured out, I come on behalf of Nauhmen.”
“Of course. What is it your master wants today?”
The man’s smile transformed into a scowl at the word master. He flipped back the edge of his cloak, exposing the steel sword sheathed at his hip, and rested his hand on its cross hilt. He didn’t say anything immediately, and his smile came back. He obviously enjoyed making Steyand wait.
Such men took what power they could get.
Steyand wished he had brought his own sword to this meeting. He hadn’t, of course, knowing that such an overtly defiant act would be frowned upon by his guest. As Steyand had learned, defiance had a high price when dealing with Nauhmen and his men.
“He wants the Crystallier. And you’re going to give it to him.”
Steyand blinked, unable to believe what he had heard. “What are you…? You can’t be serious, can you? No, absolutely not.” Was the man mad? That would ruin the whole clan. And give Nauhmen unimaginable power, Steyand realized with mounting dread.
Drell was nonplussed by Steyand’s outburst, obviously expecting it. He didn’t say anything for several moments, giving Steyand time to consider the implications of not capitulating to Nauhmen’s demand. “Of course you’ll need time to think it over,” Drell said. “Nauhmen has allowed for this. He can be quite merciful when he gets what he wants. He has given you three hours to comply. Meet him in the courtyard of the Symposium’s western wing, and make sure you bring the Crystallier.”
Three hours. Scarcely enough time to make a decision of this import, much less do what was necessary to act on such a decision. “Can you give us more time?”
Drell sneered. “Three hours is all you get, and it’s more than I’d ever give you.” The limits of his authority were apparently being tested by the request, and Drell obviously didn’t like that.
He rose, his scarred eye staring blankly at Steyand, and brusquely knocked. The door swung open and Drell left, leaving Steyand standing in the room, alone with thoughts of his clan’s doomed future.
* * *
“You can’t seriously be considering giving in to this madman’s demands, my Kahn!” Tyerallic paced the room, flustered to a point beyond anything Steyand had ever seen in the man. His advisor’s silver belt buckle was slightly askew, and the lace at his wrists was rumpled and ragged-looking. Enough white hair had escaped from his queue to render it useless.
It was an argument that was fast becoming old, even though Tyerallic seemed to never tire of making it. But Steyand understood Tyerallic’s concerns, and felt them himself. The Crystallier was the crux of the clan’s economy, not to mention a symbol of the Kahn’s power. Steyand’s very palace was built of the curved crystal blocks that only the wielder of the Crystallier could create. It was because of this magical device—the only one of its kind—that the unsurpassed sweeping and ethereal beauty of the palace even existed. These grand structures were the pride of the clan. Without the power wrought by the Crystallier, such objects of beauty would be the last of their kind, rendered a finite and fragile resource.
“I don’t see what other options we have,” he said. “You know what Nauhmen is capable of doing.”
“Yes, and we also know what he is capable of compelling us to do,” snapped Tyerallic. Then he closed his eyes and sighed deeply. “I apologize, my Kahn. I spoke out of turn.”
“Nonsense.” Frowning, Steyand dismissed the apology with a wave. The last of Nauhmen’s demands, before this newest one, had been the imprisonment of one of Nauhmen’s enemies—and one of Steyand’s greatest supporters. Not only did Steyand lose one of his closest allies, but all of his other allies had to reconsider their trust in the Kahn. And the man had been popular with the people; imprisoning him had caused unrest. It had been catastrophic, but Steyand had had no choice. The price for disobedience, he had learned, was simply too high.
Tyerallic sighed again, his chin bowing towards his chest. Nodding, he stepped over to the glass window, frost-limned on both the inside and outside of the pane. He reached up and dragged two fingers along its surface. “Glass,” he said. “A remarkable material. Difficult to make in our lands, all the more so if enchanted. We don’t have much in the way of magic here, my Kahn, and little wood for fueling the furnaces required in glass production. If we lose the Crystallier to Nauhmen…” He turned to Steyand, despair in his eyes.
Steyand forced himself to meet that gaze. “I know what you mean, Tyerallic. You’re absolutely right. Our clan doesn’t have much magic. Sorcerers are rare, yet Nauhmen is one of them, and an exceedingly powerful one at that.” Yes, Nauhmen had proven his power when the first of his demands were not met. The Fourth World had lost ten thousand souls that day, destroyed in a magical conflagration from nearly thirty miles away in the city of Stillrivers. Reports claimed that not so much as a single bone was left of those in that city, so hot were the flames. Steyand doubted that even the firebinders of clan Canterell could perform such devastation. He was afraid to imagine what other horrors Nauhmen would inflict upon them.
“My Kahn, at what point will these demands stop? Do you think a man like Nauhmen, who obviously cares so little of the lives of his clansmen, will ever be satisfied? And towards what end do these demands aim?”
“I don’t know,” said Steyand. “Good questions, all of them. We don’t have much time to find out the answers, I’m afraid.” He paused in thought, absently stroking his trim white beard. “Could you have someone investigate this discreetly?”
The expression on his advisor’s face did not look hopeful. “I have men trained to perform such a task, but they would normally need more than a few hours to discover any information worth knowing.”
“Have them do it. I don’t want Nauhmen to know that they’re even there. And if necessary, tell them that the future of our clan depends on their success.”
“I will, my Kahn.” Tyerallic bowed and departed the room.
Steyand walked over to his desk and sat in his chair. Finance reports, propositions from the council, and other sundry demands of his time were stacked on his desk. He had little time to think, to decide, before he had to retrieve the Crystallier and take it to Nauhmen.
Had he already decided his course, then? Nauhmen had promised that he would not use his powers to take any more lives if only Steyand complied with his wishes. But could he really trust such a man? Long ago, Steyand had learned the meaning of trust, and that trust, to be of any value, had to be earned. Nauhmen’s actions so far had earned him nothing but fear and revilement.
But fear was a powerful motivator. Even though Steyand had not seen the destruction of Stillrivers with his own eyes, he could feel the ripples of its absence. The city had simply ceased to exist, as had all the people in it. Already clansmen began to believe that it was Steyand’s fault since he was the one in power when it happened, that since he did nothing to stop it he must have allowed it to happen. And he had done nothing to cast the blame upon he who deserved it—another one of Nauhmen’s demands. Steyand was thus seen as an impotent ruler, whose watch did nothing to prevent or rectify disaster. Steyand didn’t care about his own popularity, but he also didn’t want the people to side against him when he was the one truly fighting for them.
Was that was he was doing, though? Was he really fighting for them, or fighting against them?
He stepped over to the window. The frost obscured the view somewhat, but he was still able to see patches of his city through it. The hill from which the city spilled out could just barely be seen from where he stood. Spiraling crystal towers, such delicate and intricate beauty as only the Crystallier could form, stretched upward exultantly, dominating the skyline. Shorter buildings clustered around them, their roofs of ice sublimating in the early morning sun. If Steyand gave up the Crystallier, towers such as those would never be made again. But if he could stay Nauhmen’s hand, at least these would still be standing.
His two-handed sword, Glacier, hung from its wall mount made of shale, its crystal blade sheathed in tooled leather. It was an ornate thing, with a gilded basket hilt and a sapphire in its pommel. Yet its edge could shame razors, such that Steyand feared to draw it in any but the direst circumstances. His sword was a work of art as well as a weapon beyond those forged by other clans, and it, too, could become a relic of a golden era that would soon be passing. Once Nauhmen got his way.
Slowly, reverently, he clasped the sword to his belt and returned to the window. He couldn’t even say why he did it, other than it brought comfort to him knowing that such a treasure wouldn’t be neglected when objects of its like were soon to be rare. An hour passed, maybe more, as he stared out and considered his bleak options. Whatever course he followed would take time to prepare for. He had to make his decision now.
He strode to the door and opened it. “Get me Tyerallic,” he said to one of the guards. “And make sure he has the Crystallier.”
* * *
Forty-seven guards were arrayed behind him as they marched through the city, wearing uniforms different from those normally worn in the palace. Unmarked, as if Steyand were nothing more than a councilman or a very wealthy merchant. His sword, with its ornate sheath and jeweled pommel, he worked to keep hidden within the folds of his cloak. Again, his advisor was at his side, but less than a full step behind him this time. From Steyand’s hand hung a small leather sack, barely large enough to hold the single round object within.
Threads of vapor writhed and undulated across the ice-paved street as Steyand and his retinue marched down it. The blue-skinned people of his clan that stood or walked in the streets, going about their daily business, scattered at the sight of such a large troop. A young boy dragged a stubborn saddled dire elk across the street toward the stable that Steyand had smelled but not seen. The boy stopped and stared at the soldiers as they marched past, but doubtless didn’t know who led them. No one could see Steyand’s face, hidden as it was by the cowl of his cloak pulled low, nor would they recognize his simple yet well-made clothes as those of the Kahn. Those few foreigners that they passed , bundled up in heavy layers and breathing thick clouds of steam around faces wrapped up against the cold, wouldn’t even know Steyand if they caught a clear view of him up close. Few people from other clans traveled here, even in peacetime.
“Did you hear back from your man yet?” Steyand asked in hushed tones.
“No,” replied Tyerallic. “And I sent three. At least one of them should have reported back by now, even if they had found nothing.”
“Might they be waiting for us along the way?”
“No, my Ka—” He cut himself off. “No, sir. They had explicit instructions to return to the palace before the time of our departure.”
Steyand cursed under his breath. He should never have ordered Tyerallic to send anyone out. Nauhmen had doubtless captured them and probably killed them, but not before torturing them. The man was paranoid in addition to being insane, a combination that did not bode well for anyone he discovered was a spy. Even if they didn’t talk—which was likely, as Tyerallic told it—he would simply continue to torture them. To Nauhmen, it wouldn’t be a waste of time.
A stone gate coated in hoarfrost loomed less than a block away—the gate to the Symposium’s courtyard. Steyand turned to the captain behind him. “I want you to leave seven of your men at the gate, just in case something goes wrong and we need to cover our escape.”
“Sir?” The captain frowned in confusion.
“Don’t worry about our number, captain. We’ll still have forty-nine, even if they are split up. Besides, we’re not fighting a curse or a ghost, but men of flesh and blood.”
Tyerallic leaned toward the captain with a dark expression. “You’d do well to follow your leader without hesitation, captain.”
“Sir.” The captain snapped a sharp salute before issuing commands. Seven pikemen split off from the group to disappear into the crowds and alleys.
As they resumed their march, Tyerallic leaned in. “Not to undermine what I just told the captain, but is it wise to divide our numbers? Should we not strive to have Berahmain on our side at every opportunity?”
“First of all,” said Steyand, “your job is not to obey but to advise, and thus you need beg no forgiveness for doing just that. Secondly, if the God was on our side, he would have dealt with Nauhmen long ago. No, I believe we will have to handle this ourselves.”
Tyerallic grew silent at this, then turned to count the soldiers behind them. Steyand didn’t want to tempt bad luck either, but when so much was at stake, tactical considerations had to override numerological perfection. More than ever, Steyand had to use his head. He didn’t want to leave his chances to fate.
* * *
The strictures and seemingly limitless number of rules imposed by clan life caused many people to seek an avenue for release, and it was for this purpose the Symposium was first built. Grand orgies and parties that could double the price of wine in a night were held there, all with the promise that once outside the walls of the Symposium, no one could be called to account for the actions he had taken within. It was the one aspect of life that was not governed by rules, and it was even begrudgingly accepted by the clergy. Man, the priests argued with some distaste, could not go forever without giving in to some of his baser instincts.
Nor should they, or at least that was what Nauhmen believed. He had chosen the Symposium’s courtyard for this very reason, as a symbol of his own usurpation of the rules. He did not feel it was healthy for a man to be so restricted. It turned his will into mush.
However, that was not the only reason he had chosen this place. Like anyone else, he didn’t want the eyes of the city to cast judgment upon him for what they would believe to be treason, and while within the walls of the Symposium, even in the courtyard, nothing done here could be spoken of elsewhere. Not that it would matter—once he had the Crystallier, they would have no power to judge him.
A drunken man stumbled out into the courtyard tripped and puked all over himself, and then promptly slipped and fell in his own vomit. A few couples fornicated in the bushes, but other than them and the drunk, Nauhmen was alone with his men spread out behind him. Fifty-eight of them, and Nauhmen made fifty-nine. It was an obscene number, so wrong in its indivisibility that it even made Nauhmen uneasy. Numbers divisible by seven—the number of worlds in Berahmain’s plan—were the holiest, and so ingrained in the rules of the clan were numbers that contemplating those indivisible ones could make the priests cringe. It was just another rule—and in Nauhmen’s view, another form of repression. The number of his men, like the choice of the Symposium, was deliberate. It, too, was a symbol.
He smiled as the Kahn’s men stamped through the gate in lockstep in six rows of seven, Steyand heading the lead, though he was doing so at an easy stride rather than a march. The Kahn’s dark blue eyes were tired and even watery, as though they were older and had seen more grim years than the rest of him. His long white hair was gathered in a tail and swept over his shoulder. His trim white beard framed tight blue lips.
A slight breeze caught the edge of Steyand’s cloak and lifted it, revealing the scabbard of his sword, Glacier. Odd. Nauhmen couldn’t imagine what had compelled the Kahn to come here with his sword. Not that he expected him to use it; Nauhmen had already demonstrated his unwillingness to be denied his demands. Such demonstrations, however, would pale in comparison to what he could do once he controlled the Crystallier.
Knowing Steyand’s teeth were pulled was not enough to assuage Nauhmen’s fears, however, and he glanced to Drell, who shifted his weapon belt and nodded at the look. The men would be ready for anything.
The Kahn stopped only a half dozen paces in front of Nauhmen, standing on a stone path that cut through the courtyard and stared at the leather sack in his hand. In it was the orb, the Crystallier. The final key to Nauhmen’s weapon.
His smile widened. “Welcome, dear Steyand.” He extended his hand. “If you wouldn’t mind, then.”
* * *
Nauhmen’s words stirred Steyand from his thoughts. He glanced up at Nauhmen’s sneering grin and his extended hand. That one-eyed thug Drell stood at his side, thumbs hooked in his belt and scowling, not even bothering to draw his weapon. Nauhmen’s men were scattered about haphazardly in no formation that Steyand could see, which was probably done to rattle him and his own men. Judging by the tightening knot in Steyand’s stomach, it was doing a wonderful job.
His attention fell back to his hand, to the Crystallier in its leather pouch. It wouldn’t be difficult to just hand it over. Just hand it over, and his problem would be solved. It would buy him some time, and buy Tyerallic’s spies some time, too. Just because they hadn’t heard from them yet didn’t mean they wouldn’t.
He shook his head. No, such thoughts were lies, and Steyand knew that he was a terrible liar. He couldn’t fool a child, much less his own conscience. He would only be giving Nauhmen what he wanted, and Tyerallic’s spies were likely dead. But what choice did he have? Simply give away his clan’s chief source of wealth? Or could he walk away, when he knew that Nauhmen could destroy another city if he did?
His clan’s policy was to not deal with such an aggressor. Yet he knew that Nauhmen could have simply killed everyone and taken the Crystallier from their dead hands. Power would then inevitably shift into that madman’s grasp, Berahmain’s plans be damned. That he hadn’t done something so horrific had at least shown a measure of good will. Hadn’t it?
Steyand untied the leather cinch on the sack and emptied its contents into his hand. As he did, several breaths were drawn throughout the courtyard and held in rapt attention. The orb fit neatly into Steyand’s hand, crystalline perfection beyond the greatest works it had helped create. It appeared perfectly round, yet shimmered as if a million tiny facets were cut into it. Thin threads of vapor curled around it and disappeared into the air. To Steyand’s hand, it merely felt cool, but he knew if someone from another clan had held it, it would have blackened his skin with its deathly cold.
In his hand was the lifeblood of the clan, and their greatest advantage. Even if Steyand survived this day, he would be without the Crystallier, and near defenseless should another clan have designs for war. Its products had armed his people before, made their enemies quail in fear. Ruqaid’s Wall, built so many centuries ago with the help of the Crystallier, had yet to topple. Steyand’s hand slipped down to Glacier’s hilt, and his fingers wrapped around it comfortably. An unmatched weapon, yet it felt so meager compared to Nauhmen’s capabilities.
Indeed, Steyand had the future in his hand. Yet no matter what path he took, what choice he made, the future looked bleak.
He stared into the Crystallier’s many facets. He stared a long time. Then, his eyes widened as he saw another path.
The Crystallier rolled from his fingers and crashed onto the stones at his feet, shattering into a thousand glittering shards.
Time seemed to still. A hundred breaths were drawn as one. Only Steyand remained free of the spell of his own actions. He moved, though no one else seemed able. His first step crunched on the pieces of the ruined orb at his feet, all of them rendered to nothing more than bits of pretty stone. His second step brought with it the sound of crystal being drawn from the sheath at his side.
His third step accompanied a furious roar ripped from his throat as well as the clash of crystal slicing through steel chain, followed by the gurgling scream of his first fallen foe.
The courtyard exploded into motion. Nauhmen’s men, poised as they were and ready for action, reacted first, though even they were reeling from Steyand’s impossible action. The Kahn’s men, initially shaken, formed up in lines, weapons at the ready, discipline quickly overcoming their surprise. Two arrows were shot at them, taking one of Steyand’s men in the leg and dropping him screaming to the ground. The other was shot high and glanced off of the stone wall behind them.
Steyand ignored the screams and the escalating clash of battle behind him as he dashed Glacier’s hilt against one of the archers while he was nocking his next arrow. His surprised, wide-eyed expression quickly turned to one of pain and blood. Steyand used the momentum of this strike to finish his arc in a wide sweep that severed the other archer’s leg at the knee. The archer went down in shrieks of pain.
Drell’s steel sword rang free of its sheath, and darted in beyond Steyand’s defenses. Steyand caught the edge of it along his ribcage. Pain rippled like fire across his chest, but his own blade blocked the end of the thrust, which could have killed him, and swept around to pierce Drell in the stomach. Drell’s single eye blinked once as Steyand kicked the man free from Glacier’s blade, and then blinked no more.
Steyand glanced to where Nauhmen had been standing. He was gone. Motion caught Steyand’s attention out of the corner of his vision—the door to the Symposium opening, and Nauhmen casting a glance over his shoulder as he raced in. Steyand raced after him, Glacier gripped tight in both hands.
The thick, sticky air of the Symposium barely registered. A few people glanced up from their indiscretions, perturbed that someone would interrupt them. Steyand didn’t heed their glares. His eyes were fixed on Nauhmen’s fleeing form, his mind fixed on catching him.
A pool blocked his path, one that couldn’t be circumvented without losing his quarry. The water was barely knee-high, and filled with groaning bodies. He leapt in, legs splashing and cracking through the thin film of ice that had formed on the surface, shoving people out of his way, though some were too insensate from drugs and wine to notice. No one seemed bothered that he brandished a crystal sword, nor that it was edged with blood, but someone did blearily say, “Is that the Kahn?”
Nauhmen reached another door. Daylight streamed in as he opened it and sped out. Steyand cursed and leapt out of the pool. His soaked clothes were a burden now, holding him back. He tossed his wet cloak onto the tiles.
Crashing through the eastern door, he blinked at the sunlight, such a contrast from the innards of the Symposium. More people milled about the streets at this hour, several of them frowning at him. When he caught a glance of someone flashing through the crowd, shouting at them to move, Steyand shot down the steps and the chase resumed.
* * *
Nauhmen couldn’t believe what had happened.
His mind simply wouldn’t allow it. Yet it must have happened, because everything went wrong, and now he was running. But it seemed so impossible.
Steyand was a weakling. A coward.
A coward that was now chasing him down with a sword, murderous rage in his eyes.
Could Steyand listen to reason? Maybe, just maybe if Nauhmen explained what had really happened to that city, that he hadn’t really destroyed it, then maybe Steyand would relent. Nauhmen didn’t even have the power to do such a thing; he was no firebinder. He certainly had power, vast power, but not the kind that could do what Steyand and the rest of the clan had seen.
No, Nauhmen’s strength was lightbinding. Not the simple conjuring of light like the simps that deigned to call themselves Nauhmen’s peers could do. Lightbinding of another order.
And what are illusions but the manipulation of light?
Of course, Nauhmen’s power had been, to some extent at least, an illusion itself. The people of that city had never been burned in that massive explosion. But they had been killed, fooled to death by their own set of illusions beset upon them by Nauhmen. Visions of horror could make people do strange things, that didn’t necessarily lead to health and happiness, and the variety of shocking images were enough to make some people go mad and kill each other, and other people to go mad and kill themselves. It was among his greatest and most terrible works. It had even made him cringe to conjure such illusions, even though he hadn’t seen them himself, but he couldn’t afford to have any unscathed survivors betray his plans.
Perhaps that was why he continued to run, to let fear propel him. He knew that Steyand would not be reasonable in light of such a revelation.
An old woman shuffled out of an alley behind a wheeled fruit cart, oblivious to the crowd around her—as well as to Nauhmen’s path, apparently. The corner of her cart clipped his hip as he dodged his way through the throngs of merchants, buyers, thieves, and workers, spinning him around to crash into a fish hawker’s stall. The hawker started shouting obscenities and the cart woman stared in horror as her cart toppled over, spilling her collection of ice pears onto the street.
But Nauhmen’s attention was fixed behind him, to the gleaming sword tip quickly coming towards him, peeking over the tops of people’s heads as it rushed between them. People parted with frowns on their faces, frowns that quickly turned to surprise and awe as they saw the man holding that sword weave through the crowd.
Nauhmen pushed himself off the stall, stinking of fish, and began to run again.
He came upon a familiar alley and turned sharply to the right. He flew down the stairs as he heard a hoarse shout in the street behind him: “Which way?!”
Down the stairs, and then up another flight that led to the top floor. His thigh muscles burned until he was sure that the next step he took would send him tumbling backwards. Four more flights to the top, taller than most other buildings in the city. Nauhmen was beginning to regret that decision.
None too soon he reached the top and threw open the door. He could hear quick footsteps and the creaking of floorboards from the landing below, and then the stairs he had just ascended.
Several glass windows spilled daylight into the room. Beyond the murky panes of glass could be seen the Kahn’s Palace. That would have been the target of the apparatus in the center of the room, had Nauhmen been able to complete it.
If only he had gotten the Crystallier.
No time for regrets. He picked up one of the glass lenses sitting next to the apparatus, not at all certain that it was the one that worked the best. He slid it into the slot at the end of the long, metal tube-like device until it clicked into place. He then swiveled the tube away from the window and towards the door just as it was kicked open. Steyand stood there, holding Glacier, fires burning in his eyes.
Nauhmen smiled. Fires would soon be burning everything else, too.
He thrust his fist into the open end of the tube and released his power.
The room fell into darkness as all the light within it was bound into a single focal point within the center of the tube. That light had nowhere to go but out. Nowhere to go but through the lens.
A blazing light, brighter than anything Nauhmen himself had ever seen, shot forward out of the end of the tube towards Steyand. But then it quickly widened harmlessly, leaving Steyand blinded but otherwise unharmed.
With a violent cry the Kahn surged forward, eyes shut, and swung his sword.
Like a glacier parting the land though infinitely faster, Steyand’s sword swept through Nauhmen’s neck. Before Nauhmen even felt the sting of its crystal edge, the room, and then the world, plunged into darkness.
* * *
It was nearly half an hour before Tyerallic and the six remaining men found the Kahn sitting on the floor next to Nauhmen’s severed head, loosely holding Glacier in his hands. His eyes were clenched shut, and he was breathing heavily.
Not a drop of Nauhmen’s blood had clung to Glacier’s blade.
After the soldiers had made sure that the building was secure and then patched the cut on Steyand’s chest, Tyerallic sat on the floor next to his Kahn.
“Tell me, Tyerallic,” said Steyand, his voice a rasp after all of his shouting. “What is this device?”
“It looks something like a telescope, my Kahn.”
Steyand nodded. “Nauhmen was a lightbinder, and I don’t believe he was a firebinder. Send a detachment over to the burned city to see if it really was destroyed.”
No one had come in or out of that city since they had believed it ruined. Tyerallic didn’t think there would be much in the way of survivors. “I will.” He looked over the telescope-like machine in the middle of the room. “I don’t know much about optical devices, my Kahn, but it seems he was making a weapon out of this one.”
“He tried to use it on me.” After a moment, Steyand opened his eyes, but then shielded them against the muted daylight coming through the windows. He stood up, straightened his jacket, and walked over to the machine. He pulled out what appeared to be a curved glass disc. “I believe he was loading this into it when I came through the door.”
Tyerallic took the disc and studied it. “Rather clear, for glass anyway. But still riddled with bubbles and flaws. Nothing like crystal from the Crystallier.”
Steyand stepped over to the window with his hands folded behind him and stared at his palace. “And I was planning on giving it to him, Tyerallic. With it, he could have made good on his promises.” Slowly he turned to regard Nauhmen’s head, its face frozen in a rictus of terror. Steyand’s eyes were filled with pain. A single tear rolled down his cheek and into his beard. “I have given in to his demands, ruined lives for him, Tyerallic.”
“I know, my Kahn.”
“My capitulation strengthened him as it weakened me, as it weakened the clan.” He turned his dark blue eyes, filled with anguish, to Tyerallic. Tyerallic turned away, unable to bear the agony in them. “I don’t know that I can—or should—forgive myself for that.”
Tyerallic breathed in deeply to compose himself. “My Kahn, those decisions have been made, and there is no erasing them. But few men would have made them any differently, and fewer still would have changed their course when committed, as you have done.”
“I am not like most men, nor can I be. I am the Kahn, and I must be the exception in every decision. The fate of the clan depends upon this.”
Several moments passed in silence before Tyerallic had anything else to say. “When I studied at the Citadel, I tried to learn what it meant to be a leader, or even just a man. Many classes were offered for such a subject, most of them worthless. But one idea compelled me, consumed me, while I studied there.
“One of my magisters had said that integrity in a man was really an integration of a man, a harmony within himself, a wholeness comprised of all his parts.” He shook his head. “I was obsessed with the idea, but I never really understood what he meant by that, and wasn’t sure that I would ever be able.”
Tyerallic stared down at Nauhmen’s decapitated body, then up at Steyand, with the hint of a smile on his face. “But you’ve given me a better proof than he ever had.”
Despite all that had happened and all that would, Steyand couldn’t help but laugh.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Brandon M. Lindsay