THE CRIMSON VAULT
A Prison in the Rain
350th Year of the Damascan Calendar
16th 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, 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 and stayed exactly where he was.
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.
Danger, 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. Danger, 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 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 spiraled up 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 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, leaned 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.
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, 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, 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 had to be from Enosh. 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 summoned a mor’we whose twisted, wasp-like body was now curled up underneath a man’s charred corpse. The agony from her summoning would not yet have faded.
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.
They were only a few dozen paces from 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 sheltered here against the rain.
It was 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 whenever 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 some artifact he should have left alone.
The Traveler 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 this one 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 held on to 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.
The burned man collapsed again, his last breath gone.
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 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. Oh, Maker, he thought. 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 an attempt to convince him that they were nothing more than 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.
So be it. Indirial would give this Enosh heretic an up-close and personal look at his Dragon’s Fang.
Indirial reached out into the rain. The chains stretched past his elbow, wrapping his bicep. The Asphodel Traveler’s eyes widened, fear twisting his scars into a revolting mask. The Naraka still looked confused. Well, she would figure it out soon enough.
He summoned Vasha.
The sword shimmered briefly as it vanished from Valinhall and appeared in his hand. His fist closed around cloth. Vasha wasn’t as long as some of the other Fangs; Kai’s Azura, for instance, or Valin’s own Mithra, were almost uselessly long. Vasha was a more practical length, about five feet from the end of the pommel to the tip of its blade, and it did not gleam like the other Valinhall swords. Its surface was dull, pitted, its blade chipped. Indirial wasn’t sure how that had happened. The steel was now all but indestructible, and nothing in his power could so much as scuff its polish, but obviously that had not always been the case.
Indirial liked it that way: rough, almost unfinished. It cut well enough.
The Enosh Travelers were shouting now. The blond Naraka moved her hand in an intricate spiral of red light, eyes tightening in pain as she mentally called for whatever force she was trying to summon. Probably not another mor’we. She should know how futile that would be; he would cut the wasp out of the air. Possibly an ash hound, then, or one of the hulking akna’dorma. Or maybe something even more exotic.
Mist gathered around the gray-robed man’s hands. The Enosh Traveler had surely mastered his fear—anything else would have been lethal for him, dealing with Asphodel—and it looked like he was cooking up a serious mist binding.
Well, then, Indirial thought. Best to cut that short. He called on his newly refilled Nye essence.
Then he ran forward.
Fueled by Benson’s steel and accelerated by the power of the Nye, Indirial covered the distance between himself and the two Travelers in a blink.
Care, Korr whispered, and a violet spark appeared on the Naraka Traveler’s hand.
The Naraka’s blue eyes widened, and her summoning mark came up in a flash of red. Vivid orange flame swirled around her palm. She hadn’t been summoning a creature, then, but fire from the Furnace of Judgment. Good decision. The flames would come much faster, and they would surely pair well with whatever the Asphodel came up with.
As Indirial understood it, fire from the Furnace would bind its target and burn them according to their own guilt. As he watched the bright orange fireball form in front of the Naraka Traveler’s hands, he saw what seemed to be faces, wide-mouthed screaming faces, swirling in the flames like burning ghosts. They shrieked as they were summoned into the real world, blasting toward his chest.
The fire would likely have caught Indirial, despite his Nye-enhanced reflexes, if not for Korr’s warning. Caught off-guard, he would have been wrapped in flame, burning to his own crimes. Considering his past, he would be lucky to live through this one fireball. He had enough crimes for a dozen men. But if he did survive, the Asphodel Traveler was there to pour mist into him, feeding on the panic that the Furnace created. Between them, the mist and the flames would have eaten both his mind and his body from the inside out.
Unprepared, he would have died an agonizing death. But Indirial was prepared.
At the first instant of Korr’s warning, he pulled his blade back. As soon as the fire left the Traveler’s hands, he swept Vasha across his body, catching the fireball on the flat of his blade. There was a brief sense of faint resistance, as though he had slapped his sword against the surface of a lake, and then he swatted the flame aside. It blasted into the trees.
The woman’s eyes widened—in astonishment, he thought, not fear—and she looked straight at him. For a frozen instant he looked into her pale blue eyes, saw the confusion in them. She didn’t seem like a woman awaiting her own death.
Indirial’s wife, Nerissa, had eyes exactly that shade of ice-blue. This woman had Nerissa’s eyes.
While his mind shouted protest, the training took over his body. Vasha flashed, slicing through bone with barely a tug. The hand with her summoning mark fell away. That was the safest way to deal with Naraka Travelers: dangerous hand first, then the other hand, then the killing blow. Sometimes, if you stabbed them through the heart from the beginning, they could still call up some horror with their last breath. Not missing both hands, though.
The pain must have just begun to register as she turned her confused eyes on her bleeding stump. Indirial took her left hand before her right hit the ground.
She looked up at him, still not understanding, her ice-blue eyes so much like Nerissa’s that it hurt.
Indirial slid Vasha straight through her heart, holding his eyes on hers the whole time. He didn’t want her to suffer. She was in this forest to sabotage the Hanging Tree, to release on the world a force without pity or weakness…but she had his wife’s eyes. The least he could do was kill her quickly, before she had the time to feel any pain.
Her body slid off his blade and to the ground, and he allowed himself an instant to feel the weight of her death. How many had he killed? How many more would he kill, before he was done? Who would wait for this woman to come home?
Only an instant did he indulge his guilt, then he brought his mind back to the business at hand. He wasn’t the moping type. He preferred to think more encouraging thoughts, about success rather than tragedy.
But on nights like tonight, tragedy became hard to ignore.
The Asphodel would be calling up his mist soon, so Indirial did something he would have rather not done. He called diamond.
In his mind, he pictured a beautiful diamond, cut with a thousand facets so that it looked almost like a perfect sphere. The gem was the reward for conquering the winter garden, one of the deepest rooms in Valinhall. Indirial called the diamond into him, let it take over his thoughts, his feelings, let it focus his memories and intentions into one blade-sharp arrow of intent.
I hate this, Indirial thought. Then the diamond took control.
And everything became simple.
The Asphodel man stood next to the body of his companion, his face composed underneath his scars. But of course his face was composed, because Asphodel Travelers had to stay calm, or their own Territory would turn on them. Mist swirled around his hands, and Indirial recognized the pattern: the binding was almost complete. He was about to summon the Mists of Asphodel.
Running forward would do no good; the mist would rise wherever
Indirial stood. So he stayed where he was.
No need to complicate matters.
The mists rose in half a dozen tendrils as thick around as Indirial’s thigh, crawling over his skin like cool, moist snakes. They moved with deceptive speed, reaching his face in less than a second. Mist slithered into him: through his nose, into his mouth, into his ears. He thought some particles might have even found their way in through his eyes.
The illusions began.
He saw Nerissa in front of him, crouching on the wet leaves of the Latari Forest. She wept, eyes of blue ice locked onto his face. “Please,” she whispered, and held up an arm that ended in a bloody stump. His sword dripped red.
Indirial’s wife vanished and his daughter took her place, nine years old, running on her short legs from a pack of ash hounds. They trailed sparks through the air as they ran out of the trees, devouring the ground between them and their prey. The hounds would have her on the ground in seconds. Without looking, Indirial knew his feet were chained to the ground.
“Help me, Daddy!” she cried.
The images were a product of the mist. The more fear he felt, or anger, or pain, the worse they would become. Eventually his mind would shut down, unable to process reality any longer. They fed on emotion, the Mists of Asphodel.
So Indirial chose to feel nothing.
The diamond made his choice both clear and easy: if he felt emotion, he would go crazy, and the Enosh Travelers would find the Hanging Tree. So he felt nothing as he watched his daughter pulled down by blazing hounds.
Indirial stepped forward, and the mist was simply a cloud parting around him.
He smiled broadly, showing off his teeth. Let the Asphodel Traveler see how well his binding had worked.
The Traveler paled. Then he panicked, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste to run away. Well, it was a good thing this Traveler wasn’t in Asphodel right now. That much terror would have devoured him in the real Mists.
The Nye essence was fading from Indirial now, but that didn’t matter much. Even the steel was waning, but he only needed a bit. It would only take the last dregs of his power to deal with this third-rate Traveler.
Still, Indirial allowed the Asphodel a few seconds of a head start. It was only fair.
“If I had been frightened, that much mist might have killed me,” Indirial called. “Maybe even driven me insane. I hear the Mists of Asphodel have that effect on some people.”
It wasn’t honorable of him to taunt a beaten opponent, he supposed, but who cared about honor outside of Tartarus? Besides, this was the only fun he was likely to get tonight.
“But guess what?” Indirial shouted. When he judged the Traveler had run far enough, Indirial leaped after him, his jump powered by steel. He landed inches behind the fleeing man, and then he put Vasha through the Traveler’s back.
“I’m not afraid.” He gave the Asphodel another smile that the man couldn’t see. Then he pushed the Traveler off of his sword.
The big man toppled to the ground. Indirial exhaled, letting his sword vanish and his steel run out.
He kept the diamond, though. And his smile.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had this much fun.
Indirial walked back to the clearing with the cart and all the bodies. Someone would have to clean these up before Enosh found them. He would tell Zakareth to send some slaves out here tomorrow, maybe make a big bonfire. He stared into the Naraka Traveler’s empty blue eyes and imagined her body burning. A Naraka burning on her own pyre. Wouldn’t that be fitting?
Then the boy in the cart made a choking sound, and Indirial remembered himself.
This isn’t me, he realized. I need to release the diamond.
Or do I?
But everything is so clear. So easy.
That was true. Why not hang on to it? The diamond lasted a long time, longer than most Valinhall powers to be sure, and it made everything so simple. What was the harm?
Danger, Korr whispered. Indirial glanced into the trees, looking for the spark of violet light that indicated the presence of danger, but it wasn’t there. He glanced down at the medallion.
The violet light burned in his own chest.
Inside, Korr said.
Indirial sighed. Fine, he thought. You win. He released the diamond.
Sensation flooded back in: regret, pain, sympathy, guilt, duty. He almost turned to the boy in the cart, but a thought stopped him. My mother and father are hurt, the boy had said.
So Indirial walked over to the boy’s father.
Burned and ravaged as the man’s body was, Indirial held out little hope for his survival. But he had seen men live through unlikely wounds before, so he pressed two fingers against the man’s neck.
Indirial sighed and shook his head, afraid to see the look on the boy’s face. He walked over to the mother.
With the death of the Asphodel Traveler, she had been released from the grip of the mist. He took her pulse first: it was thready, weak, barely there at all. But her heart was beating. He peeled her eyelid back with two fingers.
Her pupils dilated, she stared at something beyond his head. Her eyes flicked from side to side, as though tracking quick movement, and her breath came in gasping bursts.
She would survive. Her physical injuries amounted to nothing more than a few bruises and pulled muscles—whatever she had incurred twisting herself about or falling over. But her mental injuries would be far worse.
He picked her up without much effort. He had no steel in him now, but he had kept his body in shape these last twenty years, and she was not a large woman. He brought her over to the boy’s cart, tucking her in beside him, pulling the tarp over them both to keep the rain out.
Indirial winced as the boy snatched his mother back, pressing her to his chest as if to protect her from Indirial.
“Are you the Forest Demon?” the boy whispered.
The Forest Demon? Was that old legend still around? If so, it probably applied to him. He had been the one to start that particular myth, after all. He smiled at the boy like he would smile at his own daughter. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The boy sniffled and kept crying. Well, he had never claimed to be good with children.
“What’s your name?” Indirial asked.
“Simon, son of Kalman.”
“Very pleased to meet you,” he said. “And this is your mother?”
The boy nodded, pulling her closer to his chest. At least he had stopped crying.
Indirial hesitated. If the Valinhall healing pool would have done her any good, he would have opened a Gate in a heartbeat and carried her there himself. But her injuries were more than physical. The pool would be more danger than benefit to her. How was he supposed to explain that to an eight-year-old?
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do for her. If it was just the body...but Asphodel attacks the mind. The spirit. It will be years before she recovers, if ever.” True words, but to his ears they sounded like excuses.
The boy—Simon—started crying again. Not that Indirial could blame him. “I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I just wanted to help, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t move.”
He had to say something to comfort the kid. “It’s not your fault, Simon. Not at all. But you can do something now, all right? I need you to take care of your mother for me. Can you do that?”
The boy wiped snot from his nose with the back of his sleeve and nodded.
“All right,” Indirial said calmly. He started to move around the cart,
toward the donkey, which—amazingly—hadn’t panicked or bolted.
“Now, where do you live?”
“Myria village,” Simon responded.
Indirial repeated the name, thinking out loud. “That’s...a day or two northwest, I think. I can make it.” Simon sat there, looking hopeful and sad and alone, so he said it more firmly: “I’ll make it.”
It took Indirial almost twenty minutes to get the donkey to pull them all the way out to the trader’s road. In all that time, Simon didn’t say a word. He didn’t cry, either. He tended to his mother in silence.
There had to be something Indirial could do for him. He couldn’t leave an eight-year-old boy to care for a mother who would probably never regain her sanity. Maybe he could take them in, raise them with his own family. Elaina could use a little brother.
No, Zakareth would never allow it. He was annoyed enough by the little of Indirial’s time he did not control. But there were still a few areas of Indirial’s life where the King of Damasca had no say.
“Once you get a little older, you should come back to the Forest, if you can,” Indirial said. “I’ll teach you how to make it so that Travelers never bother you again.” The Forest was his post, and would be for the foreseeable future. Unless Zakareth made good on his threat to make Indirial an Overlord, he would be there to train Simon properly. Besides, it was about time the Dragon Army got a little new blood.
“They were Travelers, then,” Simon said. He sounded…lost. Disappointed.
“Yes,” Indirial said simply. Some dreams of childhood needed to be crushed.
“Why did they hurt us?” Simon asked. Tears filled his voice.
For a blood-red tree, Indirial thought but didn’t say. To open a prison and release the monsters inside.
“Nothing you did, I promise you that,” Indirial said. “They were...looking for something.” That was all he would allow himself to say on the subject.
“When we reach Myria, I’ll do what I can for you, help you take care of your mother as best I can. For a little while. But I can’t leave my forest undefended for long. Not now.” Not with midsummer so close. This failure would only make Enosh try even harder.
“It’s okay,” Simon said. “I can take care of her.” His voice was strong.
“I know you can,” Indirial said. But if the Enosh Travelers succeeded, if they destroyed the Tree, no one would be safe. The villages near to Latari Forest, like Myria, they would suffer the worst. The Incarnations would reap a harvest of blood and bone greater than the world had seen in centuries.
Indirial would put a stop to it. Alone, if he had to. He would show the Enosh Grandmasters what a soldier of the Dragon Army could do.
Under the hood of his cloak, Indirial smiled.
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