“Well there is one person who could help us” he said wearily.
“Nuh-uh, don't even go there, it’s not going to happen!" I snapped, shutting down that idea before it could be fully laid out. Thomas rolled his eyes his shoulders rising and falling heavily as he let out a sigh of frustration.
“Then what do you suggest?” he asked, irritation leaking into his calm, proper tone.
“I don’t know but I’ll think of something,” I huffed, failing to even convince myself. Thomas’ blank unfeeling visage gave way and knotted into an expression of pure rage as he seized my shoulders with his skeletal hands. I struggled to break free but he had an incredibly strong grip for someone his age, I could feel warmth trickle down my chest as his ragged thumbnails bit into my collar bone.
Nose to nose he spoke with through gritted teeth, I grimaced as my face was smothered by his breath, hot and smelling of stale spices. “Listen to me, we are in serious trouble and like it or not she is the only one who can help us now, so put aside your pride and go speak to her, beg her if you have to.”
I dropped my forearms down on Thomas’ with a sharp blow breaking his grip, “You don't understand she's evil, she's a witch, a- a demon; you don't know what happened the last time we met.” I gasped clutching my shoulders as my mind wandered back to that evening almost 15 years ago.
Okay, so maybe that was an exaggeration on my part, I was quite young at the time. But one thing I was certain of was that she was a wicked creature, wrathful and malevolent. Thomas looked at me stone faced as always, but after all these years I knew better, I could see it in his eyes he was terrified. For his sake I relented, “Fine!” I sighed “We better gather some supplies it'll take us at least three days to get to my sister.”
* * *
I chewed a piece of jerky. Every time I bit down on it the right hinge of my jaw clicked. There were plenty of unpleasant memories I had taking up real estate in the space between my ears, but on any given day, I could ignore most of them, however wretched they might be. Except for one. Mostly because I ate every day. My jaw had never really healed right.
I wasn’t quite sure that the punishment had fit the crime. To be honest, though, all I could really remember was agony and rolling about on the floor screaming. Followed by more screaming when my screaming and rolling about caused the agony to increase exponentially. I was only—what?—eight or nine at the time. What kind of psychopath does that to a kid? My jaw clicked. Frustration rose up to mingle with his good buddies fear and apprehension. It was practically a party.
Not long after that… incident, she’d departed. I suppose what she did could’ve been some sort of deranged parting gift. Under normal circumstances, one of our family departing in anything other than a box was greeted with attempts hasten the box along after them. The problem with giving my sister a similar treatment was that she’s a complete fucking monster.
I don’t claim to be some fine example of social grace. Oh, sure, I’m more than capable of making the right moves and noises, but when it comes right down to it, it’s nothing more than an act. When you’re raised from birth being trained to kill and destroy, there’re bound to be a few loose screws left on the drawing room floor. If I’d been born into your average, everyday family, I probably would have grown up to be a well-balanced human being.
My sister, you see, was born missing a few component parts. Her sanity, most importantly. Couple that with the training from hell and you’ve got yourself a batshit insane killer-woman on your hands. The icing on the cake was a capacity for violence, mayhem, and destruction on such a scale that if there was a god of murder, he’d abdicate his throne in an instant. If there was a patron saint of killers, there’d be no other candidate.
I crested a light hill on the neat trail that meandered through the light woods, and I found, peppered liberally along the trail and in the light grasses among the trees, corpses. The wind had carried the smell in the same direction I was heading. All of the ones I could see had been killed as they fled. They were relatively fresh; the crows were only getting started on their meals. They had been Imperial soldiers, but I suppose now they weren’t much of anything anymore.
As I continued down the trail, I passed among the trees and corpses and the armor and equipment that the soldiers and shed so that they could flee faster. It hadn’t done them much good, apparently. Somehow, the corpses didn’t really make the scene any less idyllic. Although, that could change when the crows really started swarming. A large cluster of maybe fifty corpses came into view, peeking at me from in between the trees. They blocked a portion of the trail, forcing me to step off if it or risk treading on the bodies. These must’ve been the men who stood and fought. Their wounds were worse. Arms and legs and heads had been hacked off, entrails spilled in ropey coils about their feet. Looking at how the group fanned out, the density of corpses thinning towards the edges, I could imagine with ease how the battle had gone. No one expects a single opponent to be capable of the casual slaughter of better than a century of men. You hear the stories, but seeing is truly believing. These soldiers had gotten an eyeful at the wrong end of things. They didn’t get to live and learn. Well, I’m sure a few had made good their escape, but I seriously doubted that they’d be good for much other than crying and pissing themselves for a long while.
Her house was a ways up the road from the mound of corpses. Perhaps she’d come out to meet them so that it wouldn’t be burned to the dirt. Or maybe it was so she wouldn’t have to smell the corpses when she sat on her porch. It was rather quaint, really. Not what you’d expect from a psychotic killer-woman out of legend. I wondered if she’d built it all herself. I went up the three steps to the porch and knocked on the door. There was no answer. I debated the intelligence of letting myself in, but ultimately decided that that would be a poor choice after a good half-second or so of indecision. You don’t force your way into the house of someone who could easily kill you if you’re going to wait for her return. I took a seat on a chair she had next to a small table. Both were well crafted pieces of furniture. It seemed like a good spot to sit down for some tea and gaze out at the wood. Lined up beside the door were a few different pairs of shoes. They were rather small. It seemed odd, somehow, that she would have dainty feet. I didn’t remember much of her, really. It was rather like all my other, better memories had been overwritten by the one where she kneed me in the face.
I pushed my dark thoughts aside and tried to smooth my expression. My plan, if it could be called that, for getting my sister to lend me her aid was rather simple. I was certain that she wouldn’t help me if I just asked. If I came to her on my knees, I was certain that she’d just kill me and be done with it. In the end, I’d figured that a crazy person might just respect crazy. With that in mind, I figured that issuing her an ultimatum— help me or die— would work best. As luck would have it, I was in possession of an item that I had squirreled away for a rainy day that would let me do just that. Thomas, of course, was stuck at an inn along one of the major routes into the capital. I hadn’t told him how I intended to convince my sister to help me nor had he seen fit to ask. I was certain that he didn’t want to know because then he knew that he’d feel obligated to stop me or come along. I’d known the man as long as I could remember, and though I haven’t always liked him, I did have a strange fondness for him. Besides, once this was all over, he had a responsibility to train those who were left. We still had a duty to uphold.
She came out of the woods, pale, slender, long of limb, and hair as black as the pits of hell. There was so much blood on her that it looked like she’d upended a bucket of crimson paint over her head. In her right hand she clutched a sheath, sword sealed but still loosened, ready to be drawn the moment it was needed. There was no indication that she’d seen me. She didn’t slow, change direction, or make any one of the hundreds of subtle changes in body language that might’ve given something away. She moved with the rolling, cat-like gait of someone who knows how to kill people. Her pale, jade eyes regarded my icily, if without malice. Though I suppose I would’ve preferred some malice to the utter lack of emotion she showed. A memory swam up; I recalled a distant cousin referring to her as a “beautiful, blood-soaked nightmare” on one occasion. I couldn’t help but agree.
As she came closer, I saw that she wasn’t quite expressionless. She wore a very slight, amused smile that didn’t reach her eyes. I found it mildly disturbing. “Feel free to let yourself inside,” she said in a quiet, soft voice. “I need to wash up, first. Wouldn’t want to track blood inside.” She didn’t waste much time stripping, leaving a trail of clothes, all soaked completely through, in her wake as she walked around the side of the house.
I went inside. It was rather cozy looking, if small and cluttered. If there were any more furniture, it would have been difficult to move around. I sat at a table near a wood-burning stove and waited. After longer than I would’ve liked, she walked through the door nude, sopping wet, and seemingly without a care in the world. She picked a plain robe up off the back of a couch and pulled it on as she made her way to the table to sit across from me.
“My dear little brother,” she said with that same disturbing smile, “it has been quite
some time.” She reached across the table towards my face, as if to cup it with her hand. I smacked it away, and I wasn’t exactly gentle about it. I really didn’t want her touching me. Her face went completely and utterly blank, and she stared at me hard for a good, long while. It was probably the closest I’d come to death in years. “Not going to try and placate me?” she said.
“I’m not really in the mood.”
“Mmmm.” She cupped her face in her palms, that smile returning. “You should enjoy reunions like these, Matthew.”
“Kind of difficult to do when our parting memory is of you dislocating my jaw, Felicia.”
She tilted her head to the side and blinked at me, frowning slightly. “Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve done for you.”
“I don’t see how you could possibly think that you did me any favors with that.”
“I see,” she said, looking mildly disappointed in me. “So why are you here?” Her eyes flicked slightly towards her door and, by extension, that large mound crow food down the road.
“There has been a coup d’état.”
“Has there now?”
I had to stop myself from screaming at her. “Yes,” I managed, “there has. The details are unclear, but it seems that they’ve done a rather neat job of it. From what intelligence that I’ve been able to gather they staged a coup to perform a coup. The Emperor and most of his family are dead, and since the heir is too young to legally perform his duty he has been appointed a regent, Count Fallbrook. They’ve already been executing the, ah, ‘seditious’ nobles for their part in the ‘treasonous’ attempts to depose the royal family for weeks. Most of the loyalist nobles are dead or in hiding.”
“It seems the standards of the Royal Guard have fallen low, since I’ve taken my leave.”
I bit back my immediate response. “There is major sorcery involved in this plot. The greatest seen in hundreds of years. We apparently failed to wipe them all out.”
“This surprises you?” she asked.
It shouldn’t have, but it did. It hadn’t been five years since I encountered and killed the first sorcerer seen in decades. He’d been surprisingly well supplied with various magical accoutrements. There’d been signs, but no one had wanted to see them.
“I’ve been working on a special assignment with the Ministry of Secrecy training some of the family members unsuitable for fighting or breeding in espionage, so I have close contacts with them. The soldiers guarding the exterior citadel have been replaced by some sort of black cloud that kills just about anything that gets close.
“At this point,” I continued, “the plan is to sneak into the Victory Day celebrations in the citadel through a secret passage and rescue the crown prince from his captors. The military has done almost nothing since the coup. For the most part, I have no idea which generals are or aren’t loyal, but there are one or two who I can be certain of. So the idea is that we get the prince out and behind a couple of armies. As far as I’m concerned after that, I just go back to being a bodyguard.
“I already have the gist of the plan laid out, but we’ll need my contact in the Ministry to finalize everything. We need to leave now.”
“And why, pray tell, little brother, would I want to do that?”
“Because of this,” I said, pulling a small glass cube out of my pocket. Within the cube there seemed to float another cube, this one of silvery stone. “Chaos Stone. It was among the belongings of a sorcerer I killed. If you don’t accompany me, you die.”
My sister smiled, showing the barest hint of teeth. “Well played,” she chuckled.
* * *
“Are you sure we’re not going to be caught?” I asked.
“It’s fine, fine. Trust me, trust me,” said Brice. I was about as fond of the head of the Ministry of Secrets’ demeanor as I was of eating sand, but he did his job well. We’d worked closely enough the past few years to be able to put up with one another in short bursts. “I’m more worried about your sister.”
“From all you’ve said, she’d be the type to renege on her agreement because she thinks the results would be entertaining.”
“How can you be sure?”
I frowned, “I’m not sure I understand.”
Brice looked at me like there was clearly something wrong with my head, but he let it go.
There was a ridiculously large crowd gathered around the throne. The only reason either of us could see it was because it was on a dais overlooking all the festivities. The 12-year-old Emperor was seated uncomfortably in the throne, with a far-too-large crown seated uncomfortably upon him. Count Fallbrook hovered behind the throne. Slowly— and not very kindly— Brice and I elbowed our way to the front of the crowd. One large nobleman gave me a withering look, so I returned the favor much more impressively. He paled. I wasn’t my sister, but I was still a competent killer. That sort of thing shows.
It seemed most of the nobles gathered round were her to suck Fallbrook’s dick by pretending to suck the prince’s. Once Brice and I were at the front of the crowd, there wasn’t much to do but wait and hope the prince recognized me. I’d served undercover in his personal guard once. I’d saved his life. We were there for ten minutes before we got a reaction. His eyes widened when the set upon me, and a moment later he was poorly pretending he hadn’t seen anything of interest. I watched him for a moment longer before nudging Brice with my elbow and trying to extricate myself from the crowd of would-be lackeys.
“He recognize you? Did he?”
“Did he tip off Fallbrook?”
What do you mean?”
“Never mind. Seen anyone who could be a sorcerer?”
“Sorcerers look just like normal people, Brice. No real way for someone like me or you to tell. Most of them should run off to see what’s happening once my sister starts rampaging about, though. Then we snatch the kid and leave. Simple.”
“Sure, sure. Real
“Simple isn’t the same thing as easy, but you should have nothing to worry about. Concentrate on getting out. Don’t worry about me.”
There came the sound of a distant explosion, and the floor beneath our feet grumbled slightly.
“’The hell was that?”
“She’s early,” I said. The floor shook again after another explosion. This time, dust shook itself loose from the ceiling high above. Inhumanly high-pitch wails rose up, muffled by the walls. Panic started spreading through the nobles. “So I guess we start early ourselves.” I pushed myself back into the nobles gathered around the throne, even less gentle with them this time. When I emerged from the other side of the crowd, the prince’s eye immediately locked onto me. Fallbrook was in a heated discussion with another noble. Neither had noticed me. With a simple flick of each wrist, a stiletto appeared in each hand. I picked up my pace, and with a light hop, I landed halfway between the edge of the dais and the throne. By the time they turned, both with confused and frightened expressions, it was too late. I plunged the stilettos into their eyes and toppled them quickly with a shove. Brice was right behind me, and he had the prince up a moving to the back before the corpses had hit the floor.
The Imperial Guard had mostly been replaced by normal soldiers after the coup. They were in utter confusion. Most of the ones guarding the door drew steel. Before I could draw steel of my own the prince stepped forward. “T-there has been an attempt on my life. These men are my bodyguards. Let us pass.” And it was that simple. Shouts had risen up from the direction of the dais.
“Guard this door with your lives,” I told the soldiers as we passed. “His Highness must escape.” I had no idea whether they would obey or not, nor did I suppose it would matter as long as they didn’t pursue us.
“Good, good. Looks like this really will be easy,” said Brice.
“Cake,” I said.
“Matthew,” said the prince, “I was certain you had been killed.”
“I was on a special assignment, Your Highness. Not many were made aware of it.”
Brice took the lead. He was the one who knew the citadel like the back of his hand. “There hasn’t been much noise lately,” he said. “I wonder if that sister of your has finished up already. Okay, we’re here.” He pushed open a door into what looked like the servants’ quarters. “The escape tunnel is through here,” he said, stepping into the room with the prince at his heels.
I wasn’t quite sure what it was that tipped me off. I pulled the hilt of my Sidhe-forged sword and the pearlescent blade blossomed upwards into existence, and I spun to see a black, thorned tentacle coalescing out of a putrescent cloud to lash at my face. I stepped forward and swung, the blade seemed to sing as it effortlessly sliced through the tentacle. A grating, high-pitch shriek spewed for from the cloud, the tentacle had withered where the blade severed it.
“Don’t stop,” I said. “Escape. Run!” I stepped fully out into the hall, carefully avoiding the writhing, severed tentacle on the floor.
“A Sidhe-forged weapon. It’s been so long since I’ve seen one.” A woman emerged from the other side of the cloud. Her right arm was missing above the elbow and a sword blow had deprived her of an eye, her nose, and her lips. I couldn’t tell if she used to be pretty or not. Although, I suppose it didn’t really matter. “The sorcerers killed the Sidhe, and you and yours killed the sorcerers. It’s only appropriate that you’d wield such a weapon, really.”
“She let me go.”
“I said, she let me go.”
“Are you an idiot?”
“I don’t have time for this shit,” I said. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the glass cube containing the Chaos Stone. Then I flicked it at the sorceress’ head. She seemed to immediately realize what it was.
“Are you fucking insane?
I didn’t bother hanging around to respond. Instead, I ran into the servants’ quarters and through the rather obvious hole that a piece of wall and slid aside to reveal. A peculiar noise, like a million voice just barely above a whisper, came from close behind. I risked a look back to find that, not ten feet away, the tunnel behind me was being dissolved by some… thing that look like nothing so much as a massive collection of every imaginable color brought to life and mashed up into a ball. It was getting closer. I ran harder. Eventually, I’m not sure after how long, the whispering just stopped. I turned and looked to find nothing. A massive, empty, perfectly spherical crater occupied the space where the Chaos had been. There was a loud groan and then the upper floors of the citadel came crashing down into the crater. I hadn’t realized that it would be quite that destructive.
* * *
The tunnel eventually ran into a cave, and the cave eventually ran into a small forest to the southwest of the capital. When I emerged into the sunlight I was greeted by the sight of my sister, covered in blood once again, standing over two corpses. It took me a few seconds to realize whose they were.
My head pounded to hard that I staggered. It didn’t make sense. “What the fuck is this?
” I shouted.
“Why, it’s exactly what it looks like, my silly brother. Our Emperor and the head of the ever elusive Ministry of Secrets lie dead at my feet. I wonder why that is.” She bent over to clean her sword of the prince’s garments before sheathing it.
I fell to my knees with a whimper, clutching my pounding head. It didn’t make sense. “Felicia! Why?
“Why?” she echoed. “I’ve told you. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you. Are your brains addled?”
“Are my brains addled?
” I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. It felt like someone had opened a hole in the top of my head and poured in molten metal, but I couldn’t stop laughing. “The royal family,” I giggled, “gone. All gone. What the hell am I suppose to do? What the hell am I suppose to do?
“Live well, little brother,” said Felicia. She turned to started to leave me there, crying and laughing in the shade. “I shall have to kill Thomas too, perhaps.”
It didn’t make sense. Nothing did.