His grin evaporated as he moved to Vaelin, all pretence of humanity falling from his face, the sheer malice of this thing revealed in a tremulous snarl. “And you will sacrifice them to your new god. It may take decades, it may be that I will have you father sons on my puppet queen so they can continue the work. But in time every Gifted on this earth will be gone, and I can finally move on.”

He stepped closer still, voice dropped to a whisper. “The grey stones were the foundations of our greatness, receptacles of memory and wisdom, able to carry our thoughts across vast distances. With them we crafted an age of peace and wisdom, then we found the black stone and thought it another blessing. Oh the gifts it gave, my wife the power to heal, her brother the ability to pierce the mists of time. Such wondrous gifts, but not for me. For me it had a curse. Do you know what it is to live in a world of harmony, a world unmarred by greed, and possess true power? The power to command by a single touch, the power to force a man to murder. I didn’t want it, I wanted something better, something more. But the black stone only ever holds one gift, permits only one touch. For, as those who dug it from the earth discovered to their cost, touch it once and gain a gift, twice and you lose your soul.

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“So, year after year, decade after decade, I resisted my gift. I built cities, I taught, I spread wisdom across the earth, and never once did I use my gift. And my reward? A wife sacrificed to save a race of savages without the wit to even write their own name. This world, this world of flawed beasts who imagine themselves above nature. What loyalty did I owe it now? Why not take what I had been denied?

“His name is lost to me, but he was the first to touch the black stone, the first to receive a gift. A mighty power, like mine one he preferred not to use. Though there were occasions when he would demonstrate it, holding willing volunteers frozen for hours at a time, a harmless amusement you might think. But I saw it for what it was, a barrier, the counter to the power I had been gifted.

“In time we grew to be great friends. As age wearied him and he began to contemplate the trials ahead, it was a small matter to persuade him to a final adventure, a second touch to the stone which would spare him so much pain, leaving his body empty, whilst his gift lingered in his blood.

“I didn’t know, of course. I didn’t realise what I would be unleashing. We touched something, you see. When we reached into the Black Stone. We touched something beyond this world. Another place, a place where what you call the Dark holds supreme, a place of utter chaos. In having such a powerful soul touch the stone, I pierced the veil between the worlds and let it loose in ours, spreading out through all the world like a plague, latching onto a few souls, seeping into their blood so every generation would birth more, and creating a snare for their souls. For we had made them real, by giving them a place to reside, we had created the soul. We had created life beyond death. It’s them that hold me in the Beyond. Their power sustains me, feeds me, keeps me chained in that eternal prison. I tried so hard not to, but even there, in a place without form or any feeling save the endless cold, even there the instinct to feed is irresistible, and if there are none left here, there will be nothing more to sustain me when I choose to slough off this flesh.”

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He moved back, his alien visage returned to its previous blandness. “In all honesty I wasn’t at all sure I could twist you to my design. Some souls are simply too lacking in malice to make suitable tools. But then I saw you hack the head from that animal in the north. Do not think me ungenerous.” He raised a hand and reached towards Vaelin’s forehead. “I’ll make you a god too, if you like.”

The hand stopped, barely an inch from Vaelin’s skin, the Ally’s eyes widening in shock as he regarded the fist clamped to his wrist. “The seed grew,” Frentis told him.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Frentis

The Ally slammed his free hand onto Frentis’s fist, his face contorted, the flesh turned red as he no doubt sought to summon his gift. Frentis slapped the hand away and pushed him back, forcing him to his knees.

“They are forever bound to me,” the Ally snarled at him, gesticulating at the frozen figures all around. “Whilst I live in this world they are mine. Only the death of this flesh will free them.”

Frentis ignored him, eyes going to the open door at the north end of the arena in expectation.

“So that’s why Revek hung on to his shell for so long.” The Ally gave a grating cackle. “Taking another would have left him susceptible to my touch once more. So he gave you his blood to free you as he had freed himself.” His mirth evaporated and he hissed at Frentis, eyes bright with baleful promise. “You shouldn’t have revealed this little secret, boy. All you have done is ensure the death of any formerly bound by my will. Though it may take me years. Do you imagine time is any barrier to me? The centuries I endured in the Beyond . . .”

Frentis cuffed him on the side of the head, the force of the blow enough to leave the Ally stunned and barely conscious. “You seem overly fearful, for a god.”

“Beloved.”

She stood next to the ape’s body, red from head to toe but whole again, the rents torn into her chest sealed and smooth. Her face was a stranger’s but the gaze was the same: unselfish affection, naked love. “Did you bring the healer?” she asked.

He looked back at the doorway, seeing the Lonak girl enter, leading Lekran and the Politai into the arena. Vaelin had told her to wait until her song told her it was safe. Weaver walked at the head of the Politai, his gaze fixed on the Ally.

“I see you did,” the woman observed. “I don’t suppose it matters now. It seems your brother found a better vessel.”

He turned back to her, noting she had reclaimed a short sword from the sand and was moving purposefully towards the queen.

“Don’t!” he told her, moving to block her path.

She stopped and issued a sigh of frustration. “She took you from me,” she explained in her impatient tutor’s voice. “There must be a reckoning.”

“Yes.” He raised his own sword. “Yes there must.”

“Don’t you see?” she railed at him in sudden anger, pointing at the Ally. “He is broken now. I will drink from him, take his gifts. The world can be ours.”

“And what would you do with it? I fought my way through a city of horrors today, all of your design. How can you dream I would allow you to do that to the world?”

“Because you love me!” Her new eyes were beautiful, he saw. Dark, limpid pools in a pale mask, free of any cruelty, but utterly mad.

“You are sick,” he told her. “And I brought the healer . . .”

She gave a shout of frustration and attempted to dodge past him, sword reaching for the queen’s exposed back. He forced the blade aside with his own and tried to grab her wrist, hoping to disarm her. She was too fast, spinning away and slashing a cut into his shoulder.

“You talk of sickness,” she spat. “We live in a world of sickness. You mourn for those I killed today. Did any ever mourn for me? I killed for decades to build this empire of filth and greed. It was mine to bring down.”

Frentis felt his left arm growing numb as warm blood coursed down his back. “Please!” he begged her. “If he can heal a body, perhaps he can heal a mind.”

She paused for a second, a confused frown appearing on her brow. “The night I killed my father he wasn’t afraid. He sneered at me, he spat in contempt. He said, ‘I should have drunk your blood the night I drank from your whore mother.’ Can he heal that?”

“I don’t know.” Frentis reached out to her, chilled arm trembling. “But we can . . .”

The arrow took her in the chest, quickly followed by two more. She staggered, her confusion fading as she looked down to regard the fletchings, her expression one of complete and sane understanding.

The Lonak girl stepped to Frentis’s side, bow drawn, and sent another arrow into the woman’s neck, folding her body onto the sand. Frentis watched the girl move closer and deliver a hard kick to the corpse, eyes narrowed as she scanned her for the slightest sign of life. She glanced at Frentis, frowning at what she saw on his face. “The song was clear,” she said.

He heard a faint moan behind him and turned, seeing Weaver gently taking hold of the man lying slumped in the sand and guiding him into a seating position. The Politai stood around them, spears levelled at the Ally. “There is a great sickness in you,” Weaver said. “Let me help.”

The Ally’s senses seemed to return as Weaver drew him into a tight embrace, struggling feebly then throwing his head back to issue a scream.

PART V

Any found to have promulgated the falsehood that human life may be extended by the foul practice of drinking the blood of the Gifted are liable to summary arrest, their punishment to be determined under the Queen’s Word. Any writings containing this falsehood are subject to immediate seizure and destruction.

—THE QUEEN’S TENTH EDICT, SIGNED INTO REALM LAW BY HER GRACIOUS CONSENT IN THE SIXTH YEAR OF HER REIGN

VERNIERS’ ACCOUNT

Despite the stubbiness of his fingers Raulen had a fine, flowing script the equal of any scribe. Also, his reading voice was similarly accomplished, reciting my recently dictated words in even tones free of any stumbles. “‘. . . and so it came to pass that Queen Lyrna Al Nieren walked once more on the soil of her beloved homeland,’” he read. “‘And terrible would be her vengeance.’”

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