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4th day, Month of the Hawk, Year of the Rat
Last Year of Imperial Prince Cyron's Court
163rd Year of the Komyr Dynasty
737th Year since the Cataclysm
Ciras Dejote sighed and wished that the peace of Voraxan might once again infect him. Instead he wandered the empty onyx streets, passing between buildings carved from ruby and emerald, topaz, lapis, and citrine, and felt nothing. The architecture reminded him of the grand palaces of the Empire—relics of a time when heroes walked and epic tales were born.
He had grown up listening to such stories and had dreamed of someday becoming a hero. He knew the path to such immortality would require achieving jaedun—the magic that transformed an ordinary warrior into a Mystic. Through diligent study and practice, he could become a superior swordsman. But as a Mystic, he would be supernaturally gifted.
He had set out with his master, Moraven Tolo, on a quest into the Wastes, where wild magic still warped the land. Then his mission had changed. He and the inventor, Borosan Gryst, had set off deep into Ixyll, to find Voraxan, the resting place of the Sleeping Empress. They were to awaken her and bring her army back to the very Empire she had sundered over seven centuries before.
Ciras paused beside a small emerald building. He ran his fingers over the characters gently carved into the lintel: Shan Tsiendao. Within the building he could see her recumbent form, sleeping, dreaming, waiting to be summoned once again to war. Though he felt drawn back to the Nine Principalities, he regretted the necessity of awakening any of these warriors.
His quest to be a hero had brought him to this grand city of the dead, with tombs carved of gems, styled to be homes. It was not, however, a place of misery and remorse. The streets and buildings all combined instead to make it into a peaceful haven. Given that the warriors resting therein had fought the greatest battle in the history of the world, it seemed appropriate.
Ciras walked on, wending his way back toward the onyx courtyard of the ruby palace that had been the Empress' resting place. Trapped between the palace and a diamond fountain, Borosan Gryst sat tinkering with one of his magical machines. Despite the hardship of their journey together, the man remained overweight. He wore no sword and had neither martial skill nor sense. In Ciras' world, those deficiencies would have made the dark-haired man beneath contempt.
And yet, on the journey, Borosan had proven himself clever. Almost too clever.
Ciras' shadow fell over Borosan. "I cannot believe you hid the fact that Empress Cyrsa had already left this place." He opened his arms wide to take in the gemstone city. "We traveled across the known world, through strange lands and countless perils, and yet you kept that hidden from me."
Borosan smiled indulgently. "It was not a matter of trust, Master Dejote. I had been given a secret mission by the Empress. I did not tell my father. I would not have told Prince Cyron, had he asked. You should not feel betrayed."
The slender swordsman crouched beside his thickset companion, though he remained beyond the reach of the spiderlike thanaton on which Borosan worked. "I understand secrecy. Delivering the message to the people of Voraxan was very important. What would have happened if you had died on the way? The call would not have gone out."
Borosan shrugged. Both arms were elbow deep in the inner workings of the thanaton's spherical body. "I would imagine I was not the only person the Empress sent with her message. I'm just the first one to make it. And . . ."
The gyanridin's right hand emerged from the magical machine's bowels and tossed Ciras a small, yellowed ivory cylinder with delicate script carved on it. "If I died, there was always this."
Ciras caught it. The writing was in the old Imperial script and therefore taxing to read. "A poem?"
"By Jaor Dirxi. A meditation on the beauty of a woman who became the Empress." Borosan nodded. "I was told he inscribed the ivory himself."
The slender swordsman twisted the top and slid the end off. A small scroll of rice paper fell into his hand when he upended the cylinder. He unrolled it. It contained the message Borosan had delivered. "Unsheathe your claws, spread your wings, and answer the call you have waited so long to hear."
The hand that had wielded the brush had been strong yet delicate. Something else struck him about the note, but he could not immediately identify it. Then he raised the note to his nose and breathed in.
Ciras' head snapped up. "The scent. This wasn't written by the Empress. This was written by the Lady of Jet and Jade. My master knows her. I caught the scent on his robes . . ."
Borosan shook his head. "You're too quick to jump to conclusions. You're correct in part. It was written by the Lady of Jet and Jade. Why would you assume that she is not also the Empress?"
Ciras rocked back and sat staring at the ruby palace. The Empress had led an army of Mystics to destroy the Turasynd horde raiding from the north. Their grand battle released untold amounts of magical energy, which swept over the continent, triggering the Time of Black Ice. The Nine Principalities had been devastated, and even now were only beginning to match their former glory and power.
The swordsman from Tirat frowned. "The Lady of Jet and Jade is a courtesan of incredible skill. She, too, is a Mystic, hence her longevity, but . . ."
"You must have known she became one of the last Emperor's wives as a gift from a courtier. What did you think she had been previous to that?"
Ciras shook his head. "I know you people of Nalenyr think those of us from the islands are provincial, but we, too, have our houses of pleasure. I have no objection to the Lady of Jet and Jade, but she is no warrior, and yet, from the stories, I expected someone more like one of the Keru."
Borosan laughed and closed the thanaton's body. "Yes, tall, strong, able to kill a charging elephant with a single spear thrust. Apparently skill at arms was not where her strength lay—and I don't intend that as a pun. She had the world's greatest warriors with her, many of whom are now being wakened from their Voraxan homes."
"And they will answer her call." Ciras shook his head. "I wonder what she will ask them to do?"
Borosan stood and brushed his hands off. "We will see when we return with them."
Borosan bowed past Ciras to a slender man with a bald head. Ciras stood immediately and bowed as well. "Greetings, Master Laedhze."
The warrior returned their bows. "I have news to impart and a favor to ask."
"Of course." Ciras answered for the both of them. "Whatever you need."
Vlay Laedhze waved a hand back toward the city. Throughout, people could be seen stirring within their jeweled homes. "We are waking our companions, and many are consenting to answer the call."
Ciras arched an eyebrow. " 'Many'? I would have thought they all wanted to answer."
The tall man brought his hands together and hung his head with resignation. "I have little doubt they all intended to answer when they first lay themselves down. Over the years a few of them have done their duty when wakened and have departed Voraxan. Others returned to their homes here, and embraced the peace of this city. You have partaken of this."
Ciras nodded. During his time in Voraxan he had slept very well. He had not once dreamed of violence or warfare. In dreams, he'd journeyed to far Tirat and visited his family. They knew nothing of his sojourns, but he was able to watch them and see that they were happy. That warmed his heart in a way quite beyond value.
Laedhze smiled gently. "The dreams are very seductive, and some will not awaken. And, alas, some of our companions have expired in their sleep. We know they have gone to a better place. They will rest happily in Kianmang, awaiting the call of another time to fight again."
"So how many will we have?"
"We have a battalion." Laedhze nodded solemnly. "We may have a few more."
Ciras' stomach twisted in on itself. "Two hundred forty-three warriors? Granted, they are all Mystics, but only three companies. How is that possible?"
Borosan caught Ciras' sleeve. "Ask him how many survived the battle."
Laedhze's expression became grim. "Just over four hundred."
"Not possible." Ciras tore his sleeve from Borosan's grasp. "All the stories . . . Even this place . . . How could four hundred have created it?"
The warrior from Voraxan clasped his hands at the small of his back. "You have traveled past the battlefield. You have seen how the corpses continue to fight. Such was the violence of that day—the venom of each man, the strength of his will—that even death will not release them. Would you care to see the scars I bear from that day? To say we triumphed is an exaggeration—we barely survived. We were the Empress' Bodyguard. There were two thousand of us held in reserve."
He rubbed a hand over his face. "We were but a tenth of our army, and a twentieth of the horde we faced. The vanyesh had already been broken, but had bled much of the Turasynd horde. By rights, the nomads should have retreated; but they believed the Empress had brought her treasury with her, so they came on. And came and came and came. And we killed and killed and killed."
Ciras nodded, his anger ablated by the man's sober tone. "But this place, four hundred of you, how could . . ."
"You forget, Master Dejote, that this place was alive with wild magic. All of us were steeped in it. There were those of us who could work magic—not all the magicians belonged to Prince Nelesquin's vanyesh. They and a Viruk companion of ours shaped the magic and made this place. They made it to be our haven. If what you tell me of Tolwreen is true, then vanyesh survivors have done the same thing."
"But not as well." Borosan shook his head. "This place nourishes you, but Tolwreen is just a shabby mausoleum."
"I am certain they would just as soon call this place a mausoleum, too." Laedhze looked up, his face again a pleasant mask. "It is not a mausoleum, however, and we have not all just lain sleeping. It is with this in mind that I need your aid, Borosan Gryst. You may come, too, Master Dejote."
Ciras agreed with a nod, his mind still reeling. The trio set off, with Borosan's thanaton pacing them. Its metal feet ticked loudly on the onyx road, reminding Ciras of the ringing of one blade against another. The peace of Voraxan was something he would know no more, and he felt certain none of those waking would ever return to it, either.
Laedhze led them into a bloodstone building and down a broad set of stairs. They emerged in what might once have been a natural cavern but had been shaped and carved into a stable of stone that extended into darkness. The nearest end had been transformed into a smithy, and though the fires were out, there was ample evidence that it had been very active throughout the ages.
Borosan gasped and drifted toward the nearest stall. "I don't believe it. I have dreamed it, of course, but . . ." He raised a hand and stroked a sleek metal muzzle.
The thanaton had wandered forward, and there was a clear kinship between it and the tall mechanical horse Borosan stood admiring. The thanaton had an insect's simplicity, but the steed revealed intricate gearing and springs, support pieces and joints. All the mechanical beasts had been decorated with plating, making them as beautiful as they were sturdy.
Laedhze pointed off into the darkness. "When we awakened to rotate through sentinel duty, we each assembled at least one of these creatures. We were given plans for how they were to be constructed and examples of the pieces. The original plans have long since been lost, though each of us has memorized them. We know each beast is meant to be ridden, yet each is immobile. And we know no magic to make them work, though we are certain some must exist."
Borosan moved into the stable and slowly made a circuit of the steed. He ran his hand over the flanks and along the neck, then reemerged at the head. He stared closely at it, then waved Ciras over. "Come here. I need your help."
Ciras frowned. "Have you forgotten I want nothing to do with your gyanrigot?"
Borosan looked back at him, incredulous. "This isn't mine. I mean, I dreamed it, but this is more refined. It . . . I can't explain, but I need your help."
Ciras approached reluctantly, and almost retreated when he saw himself reflected in the steed's dead ruby eyes. "What do you need?"
"Up there, by the ear, there is a spring-loaded catch. Press down and in."
Ciras did as he was bidden. Something clicked and he pulled his hand back fast, dropping it to the hilt of the sword at his waist. He reached out and tugged Borosan back with his other hand.
Borosan smiled, but did not laugh. "It won't hurt us."
With a hiss the faceplate tipped up near the ears and extended straight out, coming down near the muzzle. At the same time the steed's head dipped, bringing the cavity behind the faceplate into clear view. The fact that the ruby eyes still stared at Ciras did not make him feel any better.
Borosan stepped forward and poked at five narrow slots in a flat plate. "Of course. Brilliant."
The Voraxan warrior came forward. "What is it, Master Borosan?"
"The one useful thing I discovered in Tolwreen was an alloy of thaumston, which could store both the wild magic and directions for the operation of a gyanrigot. Made into command-slates and properly inscribed, they should power and direct one of these mounts. They work in the thanaton, so there is no reason they won't work here."
Ciras folded his arms over his chest. "I will not ride one of those things."
Borosan smiled. "On our horses we can go maybe thirty miles in a day. What if these will take us sixty, and in half the time? In a quarter of it?"
Laedhze nodded solemnly. "And think of these mounts in combat. Just their weight alone will shatter an enemy formation in a charge."
Ciras frowned. "And where is the heroism in that? It takes no skill and wins no honor."
The ancient warrior pressed his hands together. "Our final battle was not a matter of skill. There was no honor to be won. It was a war of survival, and we did what we were required to do. We won because we survived."
Ciras bowed. "I mean to suggest no dishonor."
"And I did not think you had." Laedhze smiled cautiously. "But the Empress has summoned us, and it is not to display skill or win glory. She summoned us because of dire peril. And so I will not hesitate to use whatever means are at my disposal to reach her side as fast as possible, and do her bidding with all the strength I possess."