Chapter One

Chapter One

Mevos Prime.

            Sepias 23rd, 2211 AD (Anno Domini Calendar).

 

“I don’t see why I had to come.” Mykel grumbled.

The creak of the wagon’s axle came in time to the wind’s laughter, sending cold knives skimming on his flesh. Mykel silently laughed, too, as he realized that his stepmother had been right all these years. It’s too cold out for that. Put on a heavier cloak. A red cloak with a heavy mantle on the side to better shroud the left arm. The gold stitching was re-woven just a few days ago, glittering in all its bastardized glory. There. That should do it. Never mind that it made him look like a circus bear. The only consolation was that he could remove the cloak in a few hours. He wanted to burn it, but somehow the ashes would find their way into Lady Fenrir’s hands, and she’d scold him on a gift denied. Mother was always one to find the worst truths at the worst times.

His regular outfit underneath, the leather cuirass and the dark leggings of the 14th Century Khatari, complete with red fedora, was the only thing that saved the damn cloak from looking ridiculous. The chain-mail that reached halfway down to his knees in pronged spikes was not part of the uniform, either, but Mother was twice the worrier on outside ventures. What if bandits were to ambush you on the road? She quailed. What if some of the king’s guardsmen mistook you for a drunkard and shoots you through the eye? Such were the ghosts that haunted the manor of Mother’s mind. The extra precautions made him look even more ludicrous.

Not that he needed any help in that avenue. He wasn’t exactly the best prize to look at this early in the morning. Deep black furrows under his eyes hollowed out cheek and bone, but the glasses he wore hid them, made him look almost normal. Black hair lay stiff and limp under the fedora, and the bare fringe around his chin rounded out his gaunt face. Mother was always the one to worry about nothing. A gust tickled his back with icy fingers, almost as if the cloak was not there at all. Well, maybe something. Just this once.

Grunting he turned to his book. The Golden Helm, volume seventeen of the Sefiros Cayokite saga, the largest epic told in ages. Sighing as the cart jolted over a bump Mykel randomly flipped to the twenty-first chapter, where the great evil Emperor Jagan was sitting in his tent with his advisor Sinise, discussing tactics for the coming battle over a king’s dinner. As usual, the emperor was being an idiot.

 

“My Lord, I believe a hit-and-run strategy would be best in this endeavor.” A thin, skeletal man, Sinise commanded a broad, deep voice that put many an adversary off-guard. It was an advantage he seldom refused to take. “We do not know wherever or not Cayokite is in the Valley of Skulls.”

            “We don’t know if he isn’t there, either.” Jagan spat through a mouthful of lamb. A big, hulking man with a big, hulking face, the Sacred Emperor of the Dominated Lands always looked irritated. “You have to take risks in a war in order to succeed. Cayokite is a senile old man, but he has many allies. They will prod him there, and we will be waiting to crush him.”

 

Mykel smiled, and in an instant his imagination put him into the book’s world.

 

Mykel laughed, jerking the two men around. Ignoring their glances Mykel pulled up a chair and joined them. “Fine venison. You treat yourself well, Jagan.”

            The two men exchanged glances. Jagan, in particular, looked worried. He was a soulpyre, a mage who possessed others’ bodies and souls by touch. Yet even he wilted at the sheer power radiating from Mykel’s frame. And why not? Mykel was indeed powerful.

            “Who are you?” the emperor demanded. “Where did you come from?”

            “Just a passerby. Never you mind how I got here. Excuse me.” Mykel helped himself to the basted lamb on Jagan’s plate. “Thank you.”

            The great emperor’s face went red. “I demand to know who you are and how you arrived!” A metallic click punctuated the emperor’s words. Knives swished into Sinise’s fingers in quicksilver blurs.

            Mykel’s grin was smug. Earlier in the book, Sinise had diced a man to pieces and served the meat to a traitor in the army’s ranks with those knives. The strips were poisoned, of course. Still . . . “No import, as I said. Please, go on with your conversation. Pretend I’m not even here.” A flash of magic misted across his eyes, so deep and bottomless those even an untrained endem–those born without magic’s gift–like Sinise faltered. The knives, spinning like quicksilver, stabbed one boot on the way down. The bodyguard’s face was priceless.

            Emperor Jagan swallowed. “Sinise. Save the knives for Cayokite.”

            “What?”

            “Put them away!” His fist made the table rattle. “We have no time. Cayokite is in the Valley of Skulls. If we hurry—”

            “Cayokite isn’t in the Valley of Skulls.”

            Jagan’s face turned purple. “What?”

            “You heard me.” Mykel licked his fingers clean of baste, one by one. “He isn’t in the Valley. He’s in Idera.”

            “What?”                    

            Mykel smiled. In book sixteen, Cayokite had been transported to Idera, the Emperor’s homeland, by magical forces. “You know what I’m talking about. The fall of Idera. He did it.”

            “How?” Sinise shirked. “The Moghur assured us she would kill him!”

            Mykel snickered. The Moghur was the assassin Jagan sent in book six. She was the one who sent him there in the first place. “The Moghur failed.” Not dead, Cayokite was a Knight of the Old Code. But somehow Mykel doubted they would believe the old man managed to turn her to the side of good. After all, she was a demon. “He did it all by himself. Just by teaching the people how to fix a stairway.”

            Beyond priceless. Their twisted looks of disgust were stricken with the dawning horror of belief. The truth hammered nails in their coffins. “We’ll . . . we’ll get him.” Jagan nodded. As he rose he sat up straighter, his old confidence coming to his shoulders like a mantle. “It’s just magic he’s using. That conniving bastard. We’ve got sorcerers. We’ll teleport over there. I’ll hack his head and plant it on a spear! Then they’ll be nothing to stop us!”

            “You can’t.” Mykel’s grin reached from ear to ear. “You don’t understand, you idiot. You can’t just wave a hand and expect something to happen. It’s not like swords.”

            “Magic is magic,” Jagan spit out. He looked ready to rip Mykel’s head off with his bare hands. “The witches will do what I tell them to do.”

            “You’ll fail,” Mykel said, almost in sing-song.

            The Emperor had enough. With a scream to rival most bulls he charged. He might as well have been a snail. Mykel easily sidestepped his advance and spun him around. With one, scrawny, stick-like arm he grabbed the emperor by the neck and hefted him three feet in mid-air. The man’s boots jerked like a broken puppet’s.

            “Listen you scum-sucking buffoon.” Mykel paused to whip his other fist back while Sinise crumpled to the ground. “You cannot defeat him. Mainly because you’re an idiot. I should kill you right now. Granted the world would thank me for doing such a justice. But it would be beneath me. You understand?”

            Jagan choked and burbled through gasps. “I’ll . . . kill you.”

            Mykel smiled. “I thought you’d say that.” Reaching back he . . .

 

“Petyr tells me you haven’t shown up for archery practice.”

“Huh?” Mykel came from the daydream dazed. It always took a moment to process the reality around him. “Yeah. So?”

“So?” His godfather glared at him. A gaunt-faced man with the nose of a hawk, Lazarus had enough scars on his face to live through five wars. Brown-black hair fell down his brow in soft needles streaked gray and silver, then collected snake-like about his right shoulder. A jagged scar traced its way down his cheek, dark and grim with the stitches still showing. “It’s not good to neglect your responsibilities, boy. You’re not getting any special privileges just because you’re my ward. Everyone must learn these skills.”

What’s the point learning a skill you can’t use? Mykel’s arm quickened as a thing alive when he had approached the bow. The drawstring had snapped in twain the first time, for gods’ sake!

“So you promise to go to Petyr once we get back?”

“Yeah, Lazarus. I will.”

“And you’ll talk to Dante. He’s one of the best swordmasters on the continent. Keep on thinking you can dodge him and you might find yourself with a belly of steel.”

“I’ll talk to Dante. I promise.”

The Khatari stared at him, at the khatar poised for release within the cloak’s long sleeve. “Get out.”

Mykel blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I said get out, boy. We’re going to see how well you’ve mastered that weapon.”

Mykel blanched. Here, on a stretch of dirt, he was to be taught weaponry? The stories never mentioned anything like this. On bridges arcing over a stream of water, or upon a spire overlooking a pool of fire and brimstone. Not like this. This was just . . . humiliating.

“Tell me the history of your weapon.”

Mykel rolled his eyes. Better known as the punch-dagger by the more layman-oriented scholars, the khatar held more kin to daggers and knives than to claws. Mykel’s own was a large knife blade, almost the width of a sword, suspended in a bracer one would use to hold a broken arm till the bones set. The bars making up the skeletal bracer lined up the forearm to the elbow, while a vertical bar connecting the two sides made the weapon’s grip. This khatar’s gauntlet was clear of runes and marking.

The khatar was an ancient weapon. Granted, the bladed gauntlet was the choice weapon for assassins, and, as such, most men-at-arms steered clear of the things, thinking them more snakes than retractable blades, liable to strike them down at any moment. Mykel liked knowing something no one else knew.

“Excellent. You’ve definitely done your studying.” Suddenly there were khatars at Lazarus’ wrists, though there was no snap of unsheathing. “The kata is the greatest expression of the weapon arts.” The Khatari circled as he talked. It made Mykel dizzy matching his gaze. “Each strike is a part of an attack.” A simple chop from out of nowhere. Mykel stumbled back just enough for the other’s khatar to miss. “Each strike is one step closer to your enemy. One step closer to defeating your enemy.” Three chops from the side, and suddenly there were three scratches on the leather vest. “The Snake Snaps Sideways.”

Anger filled the librarian’s frame, roiling through his veins, building and building with no release. With each new cycle, the flames fanned all the hotter. “Katas are named after nature because the katas are nature. By mimicking nature’s motions we become closer to that nature. Closer to the world. Until we are one with the world.” Trumpet of the Grasshopper. Lazarus’ khatar brushed cheek and forehead. Blood dribbled down from a cheek, stinging of humiliation. “One with the world.”

Mykel’s vision pulsed crimson. He didn’t know he was howling, didn’t know he was moving, until the world pivoted and the librarian was flat on his back with Lazarus’ steel poised at his neck.

“Focus is everything. Will and heart hardened towards a singular purpose. It is what divides the art from sword-play. You need to find your center. You must reduce the world to you and your opponent. Nothing else matters.” A gloved hand pulled Mykel to his feet. “And do not attack in anger. That is the quickest way to die.”

You’d think he’d get tired of lectures.

Tired of the horizon creeping ever forward, Mykel traded books. Ever since he was old enough to hold a quill he wanted to write. He wanted more than just imagining himself into the stories of elder authors, aiding heroes and legends. He wanted to create his own stories, his own legends, his own heroes. Somewhere, deep down beneath all those wishes of creation, he nursed a secret desire that almost everyone knew: to have people revel in them. To like them. To want to imitate the hero he created.

A foolish fantasy if his current speed was any indication. Beating back the armies of doubt, armies of despair, armies of the nagging thought, all on the battlefield of my mind . . . Mykel sighed. Terrible. He didn’t know how; he just knew. It’s very good, Mother would say. You will become a great writer. Her voice would be calm, still. If the mother’s love impelled her to cloud the words he could not find it. Worse still was the lingering doubt that furrowed her face. Are you sure you’re feeling all right?

Mykel snorted. It was the reason he never showed her his writing anymore. But if his stepmother had any cause for concern then his father—no, his stepfather—was double that, though he expressed it in a different way. Don’t be clowning around like some drunken poet. You’re a Fenrir ward. Don’t forget that. You don’t mope around. Soft words, but Laurence Fenrir was the kind of man who could kill you with his eyebrows if he so wished.

Kurtis Fenrir would be all braggart and arrogant. You think some cunt would come to you for this? Better an old man. Or maybe that’s the way you want it.

In disgust, he slammed the book shut. LeKym the Learned traveled to every library in the world to know everything there were in the world, all when he was ten. He was a bard at age twelve. Mykel thought that adopting the bard’s last name would somehow bring him closer to the myth’s realization. But as he was being frequently reminded as of late, he was no LeKym. I bet no one dragged him out at the crack of dawn for some stupid delivery.

Mykel sighed and once more entered the daydream’s realm. A few trees adamant in their green coats became the gleaming towers of a majestic civilization. Crumpled leaves dancing to the wind’s cold breath became the trumpets of a thousand men, praising him, Mykel LeKym, the librarian hero of ages past, for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. His reward? Ancient tomes, the older the better. For the betterment of mankind, of course. Mykel inhaled the scent of the pages, the scent of secrets just waiting to be discovered.

Life was good . . . until a hole in the road jarred him back into the boredom that was the real world. A glance to the books in the wagon bed revealed there was a good number less than when he’d last glanced back. Poising himself on the wagon’s edge, Mykel boosted himself up and saw a scattered trail of pages following them, blown out by the wind. Damn it. “Lazarus. Some books have fallen out.”

“Hm?” Lazarus’ dark eyes were often referred to as augurs, drilling a hole through whatever he gazed upon. Today they swept the area from above stone-shaded spectacles. If the land could grimace, it would from the intensity of his glare. War hero, indeed. Of the five wars there was more myth than truth. Nor did anyone know why such a celebrated war hero would live his life as a simple librarian. All Mykel knew was that the man was a close comrade to Lord Fenrir. Close enough, in fact, that when Mykel was old enough to pursue a venture away from the Fenrir Manor, he was quick to suggest Lazarus’ library as a suitable recluse. The libraries in Kal Jada were only second to those in Paree Vinaz. Besides, anything far away from Kurtis was music to Mykel’s ears.

Look at how that turned out. Mykel hadn’t counted on was Lazarus himself. He was overbearing, stubborn, grumpy, and his style towards library maintenance could only be described as militaristic. Every book had to have its own place, disconnected from favor or age. The really old books he stored in vaults, of course. But never once had Mykel remembered him actually reading any one of them. Just organizing and copying and re-organizing over and over. It was clear that the man didn’t live up to the legend.

Lazarus was a history zealot. He wore the high-collared red-and-black longcoat of the Khatari, but it was 7th Century, not 14th. The scarf flowing down the parted collar soft as ash bore the vertical columns of tiny gold Houserunes.

Though the script was but flicks of glitter amidst the ash-scarf’s edges, Mykel knew they detailed the Lazarus family Bloodline for forty generations. The small black diamonds lining the velvet fabric in horizontal lines signified the coat was made by the days of the Ancient Calendar, black diamonds for the Raven’s Year, and seventeen to mark the 17th day of the Year. Twining about the black diamonds were slightly larger golden ones, twenty-two in all, each dotted with eleven red-and-blue triangles, marking the current year as the year twenty-two thousand and eleven.

The mantle of gray-felt plates coming down from shoulder to forearm were designed with the emblem of two wolves grappling under a dragon-like creature standing on its hind legs, both black as pitch and with silver pearls for eyes. The conclusion was clear, of course, to anyone with half a brain. The original bearer of the coat lived in the time of the great Jax Wyvern, Armsmaster of the Steel Circle, the holy arms of warriors and guardians. Very old indeed.

Aside from that, the man was just plain annoying. You can’t be reading books all your life, Lazarus had said this morning. You have to get out. Else you’ll forget what the sun looks like.

            Who wants to remember? Still, as Lazarus followed his glance Mykel felt strangely relieved. If nothing else the old man was a pillar of calm strength amidst this damned morning. “Make sure the horse is calm and then follow me. We haven’t got time to waste.”

Mykel grumbled a reply, and then hopped from the wagon to the horse leading it. Vincent was an old steed, stocky and well-built for the slow traveling Lazarus favored. Mykel had been there when the horse had been birthed, but for all of that, the stubborn horse flinched away from his touch. Mykel had to mutter soothingly into the beast’s ear before it took on an air of calm. Grumbling, he set off after Lazarus, his left arm drumming a rhythm into his hip as he went.

The trail of books was a short one, thankfully. Every year in the fall, Lazarus had new books delivered from the library at Paree Vinaz, even though there never was much use for them. People found more pleasure in jugglers and tumblers and street magicians nowadays, and the ones who actually did come for the books were snot-nosed noblemen who came only to flaunt their “education” to others. Within a week or two these books would be as dusty as they were grimy at this moment, lost and forgotten amidst its aged kin.

Lazarus tucked the books under his arm in small clusters, stacking the tomes in small straight piles back on the wagon, calmly brushing away the grains of dirt that slipped in-between the pages. With a guilty start, Mykel headed towards the nearest book, a fat tome thicker than his fist. The librarian was rangy in the limbs, more than anyone he’d known. There were some who said there was more meat in his books than on his arms, and even less so for the left arm. But there wasn’t anything he could do on that front, so Mykel ignored it. Most of the time.

“I’ll take that one, lad.” Lazarus called out. “I see one closer to the wagon. Why don’t you get that one?”

That one? The book was no thicker than the leaves it was sprawled on. Exactly what the old man intended, of course. Anger burned a hole in the librarian’s gut. I’ll show him. Stubbornly, Mykel went to the heavier tome.

It really was big, the largest he’d ever seen. And not one the Paree Vinaz library would be subject to selling, no matter how long Lazarus polished his contacts. It was too expensive, all laced with intertwining rings of gold and silver, with a strange symbol in the center. Weirwynd, Mykel thought. Wizards. Magic. But he was uncertain.

“Lad? I told you to get the other one. Lad!”

Mykel ignored him. Hesitantly, he stretched his hand—his left hand, mind, not his right—and forced his fingers open. They came stiffly and slowly, but they came, and so Mykel lowered the arm and he curled fingers about the tome’s spine. They held. Mykel hesitated. He could almost feel Lazarus’ eyes burning into his back. Then slowly, very slowly, he lifted.

The arm came as commanded. Mykel turned and dragged himself back to the wagon, forcing a smile of victory he didn’t really feel. The tome was an anvil in his hand, sending bolts of pain up the fingers that would not go away. They never did. Before long the pain changed to ceaseless quaking that made the fingers alive in their shuddering. Mykel ignored it and kept moving. Just a few more steps. Just a few more . . . Abruptly he stumbled as the fingers failed, the book slipped from his grasp, and finally thudded halfway into a mud puddle.

“I told you to pick up the smaller one.” Lazarus snatched the tome up and checked it. The leather-bound cover turned a murky brown as it absorbed the water. Almost like shit. “You know you can’t—” He stopped and took a deep breath, then said. “Get into the wagon.”

“I was trying to—”

“I know what you were trying to do. Just get in the wagon.”

Mykel stalked back to the wagon, sat down on the seat and tried not to feel completely useless. And as always, the history of his incompetence was there to prove him wrong. Perfect. Just fucking perfect.

Copyright © 2016 Michael Wolff.

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