Authors: Will Wight
THE CRIMSON VAULT
To Devin, for giving me so much work.
Copyright © 2013 Hidden Gnome Publishing
All rights reserved.
Cover Art by Chelsey and Caitlin Bateson
Year of the Damascan Calendar
Year in the Reign of King Zakareth VI
10 Days Until Midsummer
Through the rain, Indirial stared at the blood-red tree.
It was no more than a sapling, really, barely up to Indirial’s chest, but it writhed with vicious hunger. Crimson leaves stirred at the scent of his flesh, and red tendrils crept through the grass at his feet like rivulets of blood. It was trying to sneak up on him, to drag him in and drain his body dry.
Indirial flashed the Hanging Tree a smile. Let it try all it wanted; he knew what he was doing.
The creeping roots stretched out to their full length, straining to reach him. They barely brushed the tips of his boots. The Tree actually hissed, bending its trunk toward him like a dog straining against its leash. But it couldn’t touch him.
“Nice try,” Indirial said. He swept a bow, flourishing the end of his black Nye cloak.
“Just checking up on you, Master,” he said. “Don’t let me disturb your rest.”
A violet light flared in the corner of his vision, and he whipped around to face it.
, whispered a voice in his head. It was a cold voice, dry and crumbling, like breath from a corpse three days old. The voice of his advisor, Korr.
Indirial shot a glance down, where a heavy gold medallion lay against his shirt. It was carved with the image of a skull, which held in its mouth a single dark amethyst. As he watched, the amethyst flared with violet light.
Deep in the forest, the same light—a light that only Indirial could see—burned like a flame without a candle.
, Korr whispered again.
Indirial had never been sure whether Korr was the gold medallion or the amethyst in its center. Or maybe Korr was a different being entirely, and he just used the medallion as a mouthpiece. Indirial had long given up trying to ask Korr himself; his advisor wasn’t the chatty type, like Kai’s dolls. He almost never said a word, preferring to make his warnings known through flares of violet light.
Korr only spoke when he felt he had to. Whatever was happening off in the forest, Indirial’s advisor must think it important. And this time of year, in this place, there was only one threat that mattered.
Indirial turned away from the Tree, calling steel.
Power flooded into him from Valinhall, wintry cold flowing through his body, reinforcing his muscles with the strength of iron. When he felt the chill settle into his limbs, he hesitated, glancing at his forearm. Black imprints, like the shadows of chains tattooed into his flesh, began on the back of his hand and wrapped around his wrist. It was the same on his other arm. Even seconds after he had called steel, the chains had already begun crawling up his forearms.
He shouldn’t push his limits by calling too much power. The chains of Valinhall moved more slowly than they had when he was young, true, but they also took longer to retreat. If they wrapped around his neck…
Indirial almost laughed at himself. He was thinking like Kai, worrying instead of acting. The violet light still burned in the forest, and if there was danger there, he had to meet it. If he called too much power, well, he would deal with that as it came. He hadn’t made it this far in life by doubting himself.
Indirial stretched his mind back to his Territory, reaching for a black box that the Nye Eldest had given him long ago.
He drew in a deep breath, filling his lungs with the moonlight essence of the Nye. With the steel in him, he felt as though his muscles were wrapped in bands of frigid metal, and the Nye essence felt like inhaling a blizzard. He was solid ice inside.
The world slowed around him. The raindrops seemed to freeze, hanging in the air like sap sliding down the side of a tree. The leaves of the forest canopy, blowing in the storm winds, stayed leaning to one side. Even the wind now pressed against his face like a solid wall of air, paused in mid-gust.
Before he left, Indirial shot a glance back at the crimson sapling. It waved its thorny branches helplessly in slow motion, still hungering for his blood. Good. For now, let it starve. It would get plenty of food over the next ten days, anyway.
Indirial returned his attention to the pulsing violet star deep in the forest. Then he kicked off, launching himself into the trees.
He shot into the forest like an arrow, blasting through the raindrops hanging in the air. Good thing he had kept the hood of his cloak up; otherwise his face would be soaked. A huge trunk loomed in front of him and he spun in midair, landing with his feet pressed against the rough bark.
The violet spark still burned off to his left, and he adjusted course, kicking off from one tree to the next, his cloak fluttering in the air behind him. To someone on the ground, he must have looked like a shadow flickering from one tree to the next faster than the eye could follow, flowing deeper and deeper into the trees. He should know; he had seen the Nye in the House move like this often enough.
As he approached the violet light, it abruptly vanished, which meant he was close enough. Korr only dropped the light when Indirial was so close that he could see the danger for himself.
Indirial landed softly on the forest floor, releasing the Nye essence in a single, blue-white breath. The essence wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway, and he wanted its full duration ready if he had to fight. Besides, it was easier to observe his targets through a world that moved at normal speed. The steel would last for a while yet, so he held it. Better to be safe.
He crouched behind the branches of a redberry bush, surveying the scene. A donkey shifted and snorted nearby, hitched to a small cart filled with barrels and crates. A few paces away from the cart, a small woman hovered inches above the ground, twitching and jerking like a puppet under the effect of glowing Asphodel mist. A gray-robed Asphodel Traveler stood over her, a mass of scars covering his face.
They were from Enosh, of course. Damascan Travelers would never have entered the forest at this time of year without informing him first. Their King knew better than that.
A blond Naraka Traveler stood beside the scarred Asphodel mist-binder, her face twisted in disgust. Likely in pain, as well, considering that she had just summoned a
whose twisted, wasp-like body was now curled up underneath a man’s charred corpse. An Asphodel and a Naraka; not a usual combination, but not too rare. He shouldn’t have much trouble.
Indirial could barely make out any features of the burned man, but the context of the scene completed the picture: a couple had set out from a nearby village to sell or deliver some goods, and had the misfortune to run across two Enosh Travelers looking for the Hanging Tree.
He was close to the northwest edge of the Latari Forest, near the road that led up to Enosh. That explained why a pair of small-time village merchants had apparently sheltered here against the rain. Tragic, but there was nothing he could do for them now. Even if they weren’t dead, they would be soon. He would follow the Enosh Travelers, looking for a chance to ambush them when they let their guard down. He could probably take them head-on, but there was no sense taking the chance just to avenge some unfortunate villagers. He had to prevent the Travelers from reaching the Tree, no matter what.
Then the Naraka woman lifted her palm toward the cart, her mark glowing cherry red. Why? Was there something in there that she wanted destroyed? Maybe the merchant had found something he shouldn’t have.
She spoke then, and even though Indirial couldn’t make out the sound of her voice over the rain, he could read her lips. “I’m sorry,” she said. Her mark flared.
A sound came from the cart, like a dog’s whimper. The walls of the cart shivered, as though someone within was trying to crawl away.
As the cart’s walls dipped, Indirial caught a glimpse of dark hair within the cart. A child. The merchant couple had a child.
The steel running through Indirial’s veins felt warm compared to the frost that gripped his heart. He had seen children die before—too many, in his opinion—but every time he did, the same picture floated to the surface of his mind: his daughter, Elaina, on the day of her birth. She was wrapped in a soft cloth, cradled in her mother’s arms, smiling up at him for the first time.
How could he let someone else’s child suffer?
He knew what Zakareth would tell him to do.
Wait for an opportunity
, the King would say.
Bide your time. If the Enosh Travelers reach the Hanging Tree, then more than just this child will die.
But King Zakareth wasn’t here, and Indirial’s daughter would be turning nine this year. What kind of man would he be if he let this child die?
He leaped over the bush and ran for the cart, cloak billowing behind him. He had hesitated too long. If only he had never released the Nye essence, then he may have reacted fast enough, but now…
Around the edge of the cart, Indirial barely saw a cracked, burned, red-and-black hand seize around the Naraka Traveler’s ankle. The boy’s dying father heaved, screaming with his dying breath. Indirial got a full glimpse of the Naraka Traveler’s shocked face before she fell over backwards, head slamming into the ground.
Indirial slowed to a walk, his heart heavy. “I’ve never seen a man go more bravely than that,” he said, almost to himself. But the boy in the cart heard.
The kid squirmed to get a better look at Indirial, twisting around in the back of the cart. Tears and terror were smeared across his face. The boy was as dark as Indirial himself—obviously descended from one of the villages—and maybe seven or eight years old. Skinny for his age. His eyes held all the horror that came from watching strangers murder his parents.
Indirial’s heart ached. He had been almost twelve years old when he saw his parents cut apart by Damascan soldiers. How much worse would it be for a boy so much younger?
He favored the boy with what he hoped was a comforting smile. “Are you hurt?” he asked. The Naraka Traveler was scrambling to her feet, asking him some question, but he ignored her. Already cold rage pulsed along the steel in his veins.
He would give her what she deserved shortly. For now, the boy was more important.
The boy shook his head. “My mother and father are hurt,” he said. “Please, don’t hurt me.”
Indirial’s smile slipped.
What a tragedy this is
The Asphodel man, whose face looked like someone had used it to sharpen knives, said something Indirial didn’t let himself hear. It would be some plea for diplomacy, no doubt, or some attempt to convince him that they were just ordinary wanderers lost in the woods who had come across an injured family. The fact that the Asphodel Traveler was talking instead of attacking meant that he hadn’t recognized Indirial. He didn’t know what the Nye cloak meant, and he probably hadn’t seen the chains on Indirial’s arms. He most likely planned on recognizing a Valinhall Traveler by their sword.