by Chris Holzworth


 Part One

I first met Amral Jeyn in the crush of shoppers crowding Nys Eka’s dockside markets. I’d just delivered something for Case to smuggle overseas—didn’t know what, didn’t care. Coming from Naph, you could bet a pretty tall pile of stros it wasn’t anything innocent. Anyway, after catching up with Case, I hopped off her boat and clamored down the gangway. That’s when I caught Amral staring at me. No furtive glances, no subterfuge. Concern faded like water in sand.

Still, a lifetime or two in the city teaches you that anyone giving you a hard look is probably peddling trouble, so I plunged deeper into the sea of shoppers, hoping he’d lose me in the mob. Almost reached the Dusk Span when, after slipping between a pair of stalls, I found him standing there.

“You’re the soulwalker, aren’t you?” It leaned more toward statement than question.

Here we go again.

“How you know that name?” asked with a hint more bite than I intended.

“You are perhaps not as unknown in the city as you’d like, soulwalker,” he said with a smile, and took a step closer.

“Don’t call me that.”

“Then what should I call you?”

“Kuran’s fine. Just Kuran.”

“Very well then, Kuran. My name is Amral Jeyne. I am in need of your service.”

“No.”

“Please, hear me out.”

“Absolutely not. I’m not for hire. There’s countless sellswords swigging beer at every bar in Nys Eka. Go hurl your stros at them. They’ll happily risk their necks over a few stacks for whatever fool’s errand you’ve got lined up.”

“I didn’t think the soulwalker would lower his worth to that of a common sellsword.”

“Yeah, well. You were wrong.”

“That may be, but I don’t think I’m wrong in believing you are among the very few suited to handle this particular problem.”

“Dahfede’s fiery balls, what are you going on about?”

“Something precious has been taken from me, soulwalker, something—”

“Kuran.”

“Yes. Kuran. Sorry. My sister’s sword—it was stolen from our house.”

“It’s a shard of hammered steel and a handle, friend. Go find a new one. The sentimental value’s not worth the trouble.”

“Perhaps not usually. Unfortunately, this sword is quite unique. Not many have had dealings with the Amata and lived to tell the tale, like you.”

“Oh, for Dahfede’s sake—“

“My sister shared that honor. She returned from the Wasteland with the bones of one that almost claimed her life, and from them forged a weapon. A magic blade of considerable powerful.”

“And you let this sword get lost in the wild.”

“I did not let it go anywhere. As I said, it was robbed from me.”

“What, your sister—mighty warrior woman that she is—can’t reclaim the sword herself?”

“She’s dead.”

“Guess not, then.”

That struck a nerve. I watched his jaw shift as he clenched his teeth to suppress the flash of anger that stole through him. Seemed the casual dismissal of his much-venerated dead sister was a step too far. Well, at least that meant he was serious.

“I would think the soulwalker of all—”

“Kuran.”

“Yes. Kuran. I would think that you of all people would show more concern about rogue magic artifacts falling into the wrong hands.“

Fucking fireside stories. That nonsense haunted me wraith-like from one life to the next. I pressed thumb and forefinger into my eyes, suddenly exhausted. Behind the shuttered lids, I could see the disapproving glare Naphtali would pin me with if I turned this fool down. Dark Emissaries damn it all.

“Fine. Why don’t you take me back to your place and tell me everything.”

A smile broke apart the bitter look he’d adopted. “Follow me,” he said.

Part Two

Amral wasn’t much like his sister, as it turned out. Although the way he told it, she was the strange one. Born into a line of affluent merchants, Amira—his sister—decided to pursue a life of violence over the cushioned safety and financial stability of mercantile interests. Wanting instead to carve her own path, she took up literal sword and shield and joined Granseal’s Guardians. And when the sky ripped open above Zarephath, she was shipped up north. There’s a good chance Naph and I fought shoulder to shoulder with the woman. Maybe at the Siege in the Square, or Tower’s Fall. If she could walk away in one piece from Zarephath, though, it was tough to believe anything in the city could take her down. I decided against pressing the matter further.

Anyway, Amral seemed certain about what happened to his sister’s sword. Convinced, you might say.

“It was Theda.” He paced along a wall lined with leather-bound books restlessly, like a caged animal. “Had to be. That swindler has had it out for our family for years.”

True to the wealth Amral’s plush robes conveyed, his three-story home was a testament to accumulated riches. Overstuffed chairs stood sentry in every corner. Trinkets and fineries lined the walls, opulent displays of money and power that would probably impress most people who set foot in the residence. To me, they seemed little more than a collection of dreck.

“And why’s that?” I asked, swirling the cup of wine he’d poured for me earlier. Probably expected me to comment on its vintage or something. I guess my aristocratic etiquette had gathered rust in the last few lifetimes.

“Jealousy, I imagine.” He gestured at our surroundings. “The Jeyn line’s done well for itself, and our services during the Zarephath campaign built us quite the reputation among Nys Eka’s nobility.”

“I still don’t see how that would drive the man to kick in your door and steal a family heirloom. Seems like a pretty petty move on his part.”

“The sword is built from the bones of an Amata, soulwalker.” Amral looked at me as though I were stupid. “Any number of Nys Eka’s less reputable institutions would stack up stros to get their hands on something like that. The Malrain, the Knights of Sevenec. Hell, even Granseal’s Guardians.”

“Fair point. What makes you think the Guardians didn’t take it? Or the Malrain, for that matter?”

“I suppose that’s not out of the question,” He scratched his beard in thought. “Though, I doubt the Malrain know the sword exists. Not unless Theda tipped them off. As for the Guardians, I don’t know.

Samara runs a tight ship, and she respects her soldiers. It would be dishonorable to steal a dead woman’s sword.”

“Would they have any compunction about buying it from Theda?”

“That would certainly...uncomplicate things for them.”

Didn’t seem Amral liked the taste of that in his mouth.

“Alright, let’s stick with the Theda theory for now. So, he breaks in, makes off with your sister’s sword. Sells it. Then what?”

“Then he orchestrates a takeover, to add insult to injury. Or perhaps injury to insult. Whichever the case, the money and connections he’d make from selling the sword would give him enough leverage to topple us. But knowing Theda, he wouldn’t stop there. No, he’d want to embarrass us as thoroughly as possible. Retain us as middle management, make us watch as generations of our hard work piled stros high for him.”

“Well, it’s as good a lead as any.” I set the jewel-encrusted goblet down on the nearest shelf, then stood up. “Where do I find him?”

“He’s usually holed up in the old warehouse district, just north of the Shattered Sky. Do you know the place?”

Naturally. In all of Nys Eka, Theda had set up shop in Nevan’s neighborhood. Didn’t have to wonder why.

“Intimately.”

Part Three

Where the Twilight Span touches down on the western bank of the Ringil River, Nys Eka takes on a noticeable change. Old World ruins give way to buildings built by our own hands. At the foot of the Span, warehouses group together like the discarded shells of some long-forgotten brood of monsters, the lingering remains of when travel up and down the Ringil served as the city’s chief trade route. When trade took to the seas, the aristo-merchant elite moved into the towering Old World bones of what’s now called Center City. Artists took their place west of the river and converted the warehouse district into a sprawling salon, inside and out. Every surface of Artist’s Garden is splashed with bright colors, blanketed with murals, populated with sculptures, or otherwise adorned in every imaginable artistic expression its denizens can dream up.

Always one with an eye for opportunity, Nevan Raffie came in after the artists and secured a fruitful enterprise as the go-between for Nys Eka’s nobility and the more illicit services provided on the poorer side of the river. The aristo ruling class aren’t without the same unbecoming habits the rest of us possess, and it’s Nevan that caters to those needs. Slavers, drug peddlers, black market business, just to name a few. In exchange, Nevan establishes patronages for his colony of artists, scraping a generous amount off the top and calling it a finder’s fee, making the whole arrangement seem like an act of philanthropy.

People tend not to look beyond the surface.

Theda having situated himself next door to Nevan told me two things: that there was most certainly some connection between the two, and that Theda was considerably more dangerous than Amral indicated.

I considered my options. Visiting Nevan at the Shattered Sky and having him set up a meeting would be the sensible thing to do, but it might also scare Theda into selling the sword sooner. I could slip in unseen and steal the sword, but it would just send Theda right back to Amral’s doorstep. I briefly entertained finding Case, Sorandra, or even Naph to help take the unsubtle approach, but that risked provoking Nevan and bringing a weight of trouble tumbling down on me I didn’t want.

In the end, I settled on speaking to Theda directly. It didn’t take much effort to determine which warehouse north of the Shattered Sky was his. A few artist-looking types high on hinas happily pointed me in the right direction, and before long I stood outside Theda’s operation, eyed down by a bouncer clearly bored by his duties.

“What you want?”

“To speak to Theda.”

“He expecting you?”

“That’s very unlikely.”

“Then get lost.”

I pressed thumb and forefinger into my eyes. Tried to rein in my frustration for playing the next card.

“Tell him the soulwalker’s here to see him.”

That earned me a familiar look—some mix of disbelief and amused dismissal. The bouncer banged on the door with the back of his heavy boots. When it cracked open, he exchanged a few whispered words with whoever was on the other side, then the door swung shut again. The guard and I stood there, pointedly looking past one another. When the door finally cracked back open, a hand beckoned me.

Inside, the warehouse was crowded with shipping containers someone had somehow managed to drag down from the rail yard, the space between them forming a labyrinth of corridors. The guard who waved me in led me through narrow space without a word. We eventually emerged in what remained of the warehouse proper, where a patriarchal man in his mid-fifties sat behind a utilitarian table littered with parchment. He gestured to the battered wooden chair opposite his desk. I tried not to roll my eyes as I sat down.

“The soulwalker, huh? That’s a pretty good line. You’re a lot more...plain-looking than I expected.”

“I take it you’re Theda, then?”

“That’s right, but between the two of us I’m the one who’s not a myth. How do I know you’re not some drunk trying to hustle me?”

“You don’t. But I’m not about to summon godsfire out of the sky just to show off, so how ‘bout the benefit of the doubt?”

He chuckled.

“Alright. I’ll indulge you. What is it that brings the storied soulwalker before me?”

“A sword. I imagine you know the one I’m talking about. The owner would like it back.”

“Would he now?”

“Theda, whatever business rivalry you and that snake-tongued aristo trash have going on is none of my concern. But a weapon fashioned from Amata remnants is not something I can let fall into the wrong hands.”

Theda leaned into his chair, grinning.

“What did that scumbag merchant sell you, soulwalker?”

“I prefer Kuran.”

“Alright, Kuran. Tell me. What did Amral sell you?”

“He seems pretty convinced you broke into his home and stole the sword, and that you’ll likely sell it and use the profits to buy out his family’s business. Which, as I said, I don’t give a damn about. I’m only here to make sure the sword doesn’t wind up sold to the Malrain. Or worse.”

Theda guffawed.

“Amral Jeyn sold you lies, soulwalker. Kuran, sorry. You’re wasting your time here. I’m not Amral’s competitor, I’m his banker. I deal in debt. And Amral is in the hole for quite a bit. He gave me the sword, you see. Put it up as collateral to keep his family business afloat.”

Well, shit.

Part Four

Should’ve seen this one coming, soulwalker.

Swept up by Naph’s crusade against manatech, I’d let myself get sloppy. Should’ve given Amral a second look, but instead I let him point me toward the nearest magic artifact and chased after it like a grimbeak smelling blood. Guess it really didn’t matter, though. Still needed the sword.

“Look, Theda. Let’s not make this any messier than Amral’s already managed to. You know I can’t leave here without his sister’s weapon.”

“Then I guess you can’t leave here.” He gestured with one hand, palm up.

I turned around to find four of his lackeys had surrounded me, three with hands resting on the hilts of the swords, a fourth with a crossbow leveled at my chest.

“Why give you the sword when I can have it and you.” Theda laced his fingers together, pressed his hands to the back of his head, and leaned back in his chair. “If you really are the soulwalker, I’m sure something of you is bound to be worth a stack or two of stros.”

Slide of steel being freed from scabbards. I kept my eyes on the bowman, hand moving toward my own sword. As soon as my palm grazed the pommel, he squeezed the trigger and loosed the bolt with a dull thwack. I reached within myself, grasping for the gossamer threads of energy that tethered me to all these lifetimes. Felt a sharp cold, like breaching the frozen surface of a pond and plunging your fist into frigid waters. I pulled. The air shimmered around me, folding in itself. The arrow snapped in half mid-flight, then in half again. And again. The pieces dropped to the dirt.

Panicked, the bowman started to crank the crossbow and load a fresh bolt. I freed my blade and charged. He looked up in time to see my sword sink into him, run through until the crossguard pressed against his chest like the hand of a lover. I stood intimately close. Watched his eyes widen with the unmistakable certainty of what I was. I put a hand on his shoulder for leverage and pried my sword out of him. He dropped to his knees and collapsed forward. I turned to face the other three men.

The nearest came at me with an overhead swing. I stepped aside and cut him down with a backhand stroke, sending a ribbon of blood splashing across the packed dirt of the warehouse floor, staining it black. I met the next attacker while he hacked wildly at my head. Brought my own blade up in an arc and severed his sword arm between elbow and wrist. His weapon fell to the earth, fingers still wrapped around the handle. He stared in disbelief at the bleeding stump where his hand once was. A low keening escaped his lips.

I stalked to the last of Theda’s underlings He looked from the bodies of his two fallen colleagues to the mutilated man, then over to me. Dropped his sword and ran, disappearing down the narrow space between the storage containers. Smart man.

That left only Theda. I saw him feverishly trying to unlatch a door at the back of the warehouse. I sighed, strode over to him, and slashed at his thighs. The blade bit through leather and flesh, leaving two long grooves across each leg. He dropped to the ground in a heap. Started babbling for mercy. I grabbed him by the collar of his tunic and hauled his face an inch short of mine.

“Shut up and show me where the sword is.”

Part Five

I left Theda tending to his wounds, winding my way through the shipping containers until I found one marked with the symbol he’d described. Hauled the armor-thick metal door open and stepped inside. Enclosed within was a pile of assorted curios Theda had no doubted amassed from debt collections over the years. I sifted through the mess of artwork, heirlooms, and antiques. Didn’t take long to find the sword. I gripped the handle and held it out.

For all its much-vaunted value and exotic making, it struck me as underwhelming. Seemed like any other sword, save the strange runic lines that branched out from some sort of blue filament embedded along the fuller. Something more for show than slaughter. Then again, if it’s one thing I’ve learned about magic artifacts, there tends to be more to them than meets the eye.

I slung the sword over my shoulder and headed out.

***

At Amral’s estate, one of his servants ushered me through the foyer and into an over-decorated antechamber. I busied myself by trying to decipher the meaning of an abstract sculpture while the merchant made a show of making me wait. I was midway to comprehending what I was pretty sure represented the inexorable march of time and the inevitability of death when Amral finally made his entrance.

“The soulwalker returns.” He clasped his hands together. “Did you find the sword? Is that it?”

“You tell me.” I pointed the sword toward him.

“Yes. Yes! Wonderful! Oh, my sister can sleep soundly in the void now, knowing her cherished weapon is back where it belongs.”

He held his hands out expectantly. I rested the blade back on my shoulder. That earned a vexing look.

“The job is done, soulwalker—”

“Kuran.”

“Kuran. Yes. Please, return to me what is rightfully mine.”

“No.”

“Excuse me?”

“You lied to me, Amral. Said the sword was stolen. Your friend Theda told a different story, though.”

“He is no friend of mine.”

“But he is a business associate, no? One you owe so much money you put up the sword to pay off your debts.”

“The matter is...complicated.”

“If you say so.”

“That sword belongs to me, soulwalker.”

“It belonged to your sister. And while I never met the woman—insofar as I know—I suspect she’d rather it be kept in safer hands than yours.”

“You have no right!”

“Nope. But you have bigger concerns right now than two feet of killing steel, Amral.”

His face contorted in confusion and fear.

“What are you talking about?”

“Granted, Theda’s going to need some time to get back on his feet, so to speak, but rest assured—once he does, he’ll come for you. I suggest you pack whatever’s most precious and be gone before then.”

“Theda’s still alive?”

“A little worse for wear, but otherwise yeah.”

“You can’t abandon me to that animal! You have to protect me!”

“No. I don’t. See you around.”

“Soulwalker, stop—“

“Kuran.”

Whatever! Please!”

Amral reached for my arm. I smashed the pommel of his sister’s sword into his nose and sent him sprawling.

“Get packing, Amral.”

I pulled open the antechamber door and let a servant rush in to help stanch the stream of blood trailing down his master’s broken nose. Spared Amral one last look before I made my way back to the streets of Nys Eka, sword at my side.