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Authors: J.F. Lewis

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BOOK: Oathkeeper
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He lacked the close-cut beard Kholster wore, but despite his head being covered in head petals rather than actual hair, Kholburran kept his in the same style Kholster did, cut short, like a Hulsite mercenary, close to the scalp. Kholster guessed they were of a similar height, roughly eighteen hands tall, though Kholster imagined a male of Kholburran's age would take credit for the length of his ears and claim to be taller.

Kholster resisted the urge to reach out and help Kholburran, feeling further justified and pleasantly surprised when the crystal-twisted woman he had spared and entrusted to the Long Speaker's College reached out to assist. The prince escaped with only minor scorching, and the young female who feared for him seemed on the path to reclaiming her life.

Good for both of you
.

There was always some small victory for life to keep his outlook positive. That wasn't the problem, but there most certainly was one. His mind felt empty—alone. The constant thread of other thoughts from other Armored, warsuits, and Overwatches at the edges of his consciousness had died when he had become a deity and been replaced with a near infinity of self. Kholster felt his physicality expand as more than one sentient died at a time. He knelt by dying mothers, drowning seamen, a young knight thrown from his horse, to the sides of the slain in multitudinous battles ranging from bar brawls gone wrong, to domestic horrors in the dark, to a gallows, to two children lost in the mountains, to the bedsides of a scattered handful of the aged and infirm. Any time more than one person lay dying simultaneously, which seemed to be most times, there were more than one of Kholster, his perceptions not split but duplicated. The closest thing he could compare it to was when, as First of the Aern, he'd shared a memory with his people or addressed them all at once. Only this new feeling came with a profoundly impressive headache.

“All know,” he muttered. “All recall.”

Shall I establish a connection, sir?

Almost alone.

Vander would have been better suited for this
, Kholster thought at his warsuit.

Is that a yes or a no, sir? I could easily link you to Bloodmane and through him—

No thank you, Harvester.

At the mention of Bloodmane's name a thought took one of Kholster's many selves to his former warsuit's side. So much history between them. Kholster remembered hammering and shaping every inch of the warsuit, working him into being on the Life Forge. Once joined, they had lived and fought as one for thousands of years, until many had come to think of Kholster as not simply Kholster, but Kholster Bloodmane. They had walked the world together as a force that could be delayed but never truly defeated . . .

Until the Sundering.

When Wylant had shattered the Life Forge in an attempt to win the war against the newly freed Aern, killing all Aern except those who were Armored, her actions, combined with the Vael's desire for peace, had convinced Kholster to accept a treaty forcing the Aern to retreat into exile without their rightful skins, their constant companions, their warsuits . . .

If it had never happened, however, Kholster wondered whether his people ever would have discovered their warsuits' potential. Though their connection remained unbroken, the warsuits, deprived of their occupants, grew apart from their makers, further developing their own sentience . . . and now they fought battles and forged agreements as a separate people, a people led by Bloodmane, armor of Kholster. Kholster could not have been more proud.

Blazing crimson light flashed within the crystalline eyes in the armor's helm. Shaped in the likeness of a roaring Irkanth, a species of horned lion that (before the Sundering and the changes it had wrought to their natural habitat had pushed them in the wood, The Parliament of Ages) had been king of the Eldren Plains, the rich red of the warsuit's namesake flowed behind it in an arc born of velocity.

“Now!” Bloodmane shouted, commanding not only the warsuits but their allies, the Eldrennai Oathbreakers.

On cue, Oathbreaker Geomancers ripped the ceiling of the tunnel open as Pyromancers at the ready superheated rock, letting it fall back as steaming magma. They hadn't been able to save West Watch, but Bloodmane had avenged it thoroughly. If only Kholster's former warsuit realized he was tying up all his resources on feints.

They haven't found the central tunnel yet
, Kholster thought.
Or engaged the main force of the Sri'Zaur
.

Skinner was dispatched to check Kevari Pass, he might notice—

He won't. Bloodmane should have sent Scout or Eyes of Vengeance.
Kholster stood next to Bloodmane, the magma's orange glow painting his former armor in tones of anger and hate but leaving the bone of which Harvester was composed unmarked.
Skinner was never very good at tracking
.

Maybe he will be lucky this time?

They need reinforcements and they don't even know it
.

But surely the warsuits—

It is not the warsuits about whom I am worried. There are almost as many Zaur and Sri'Zaur deployed as there are living Aern in the whole of the Dwarven-Aernese Collective
.

I could warn your son?

Which one?

Irka. Harvester thought at him. He is still your Incarna and there will always be a link there.

Ignoring the question, Kholster looked down at his white gauntlets, the sight killing his line of thought. “The light doesn't touch me.”

Lava's pale glow, Harvester intoned. No dragon's fire or Ghaiattri flame may reach across the gulf to touch us, but . . .

The gulf?

Between the realm of gods and mortals. You could cross it if you wished, of course, sir . . .

No.
Kholster hated that “no.”
Rae'en is First now. She has all of the Armored to advise her. I . . .

A multitude of Kholster moved along the passageways of Xasti'Kaur and the lands above them collecting the souls of dead and burning Zaur, Vael, humans, and Eldrennai.

No Aern. Yet
.

Watching the other versions of himself he couldn't help but picture the Queen of the Issic-Gnoss on her faraway continent with her army of drones that had no thought which was not hers.

Is that what I am now
, he mused,
a death spider sitting at the center of my web of life?

If that was the price for freeing the Aern, for giving them a freeborn kholster no longer bound by the myriad oaths he'd sworn in the past, Kholster considered it a sacrifice well worth making. He just didn't like the hidden costs that came with it.

As one Zaur rolled in agony, clawing at its burning scales and ruined hide, it occurred to Kholster how easy it would be to grant the dying a respite from pain and take them as soon as he felt the pull and knew death was certain.

He did not.

“Every moment of life, each breath, each heartbeat is theirs.” The memory of Torgrimm's voice washed over him. “Do not steal it from them. Even at the end, at the last spark of life, the evil can see the error of their ways and the pure and bright can become resplendent in their glory.” Kholster turned away from the dying Zaur. The death god smiled to see the warsuits moving unscathed amid the flowing superheated earth . . . a smile that vanished when he felt eyes spying on him in the night.

Aldo?

Aldo, Harvester confirmed.

Kholster growled low and took a single step.

*

Gray and dim, the death god Kholster's destination was little more than a carpeted cube floating in the ether, a single figure at its center. Wreathed in a swirling cloud of ever-shifting lenses, the occupant, a gnome-like being with cavernous eye sockets, twisted to face Kholster. Gold light gleamed from the being's distended ocular orbits. His robes, unlike the ones worn by his statues, were simple and well made but without ornamentation or embroidery. He could assume any form he wanted in a vain attempt to hide his true self from the mortals, but this, Kholster imagined, was the real god of knowledge: a cringing, spying deceiver.

Flinching slightly, as if expecting Kholster to seize him by the neck and lift him into the air, Aldo smiled broadly when the death god stood at arms' length.

“Aldo.” Kholster growled.

“Kholster.” A full-length mirror appeared in the space to Aldo's right. “Did you wish to see something? Dienox, Torgrimm, and I have spent many a—”

“The eye that spies on me, I shall pluck out.” Kholster's voice came as a rough whisper abrading the cloud of lenses nearest him. Convex and concave alike, mirrors of all sizes and shapes, floating circles of various liquids, and even a few made of quicksilver broke and scattered before that voice, shards and silvery droplets drifting in a mass.

“Then it is fortunate,” Aldo said amiably, “that I have none of them in at the moment.” He reached into his robes and withdrew a lacquered wooden box, holding it open for Kholster's inspection.

He has you there, sir.

I'd noticed.

Kholster glared into the lacquered wooden box at the eyes, one pair for each type of sentient of Barrone, rolling about like marbles within.

“My friend, if pulling a few of my eyes out of their box and shaking them about would mollify you in any way—” Aldo thrust the box at him, further agitating its contents.

“I felt your eyes upon me, Aldo.” Kholster reached out, flipping the box closed. “I respect you for the kindnesses done for me when I was mortal, for the knowledge you gave me, the language you gave my people, but—”

“You are everywhere anyone dies, Kholster.” Aldo waved away the sparseness of his surroundings as if he were banishing an illusion. The gray cube expanded, filling with light and color to become a fully appointed study with plushly upholstered chairs, a polished oaken desk, and even rows of books and scrolls, along with shelves of massive bookcases upon which the tomes were carefully arrayed. A fire blazed merrily on the lush burgundy carpet a few scant moments before a stone fireplace appeared around it and mystic globes of flame materialized hanging in the air at the corners and center of the room.

Was all this here or . . . ?
Kholster thought at Harvester.

He created it despite his gesture's contrary implication. Aldo is more about appearances than he would have you believe. You might want to kill him.

Kill Aldo?
Kholster snorted.
I just came to get him to stop spying on me
.

Killing him would achieve that end rather efficiently, sir
.

I think Conwrath is right about you, Harvester
. Kholster felt a smile touch his lips despite himself at the thought of Captain Marcus Conwrath and Japesh, the two human souls Torgrimm had assigned to keep him . . . What? Company? Keep him in touch with his mortal way of thinking? Kholster did not know and had not asked, but he was grateful for their presence.

Right, sir?
The warsuit intoned.
About me?

Yes. He says you're bloodthirsty.

I hardly think so, sir. There need not be any blood. Strangulation, burning, poison, heart attack, stroke . . . a death is a death. I cannot recall ever being thirsty for anything.

You know what I mean.

Actually no, sir, but I am certain Captains Marcus and Japesh would. Shall I summon them?

Not in front of other gods.

As you will, sir.

Kholster thought about correcting that “sir” and insisting on being called “Kholster” or “friend,” but even thinking about it sent a spike of anguish through his chest. Harvester wasn't Bloodmane. Could never be Bloodmane.

Perhaps that was good. Kholster was not sure yet. Thinking about his own loss, Kholster wondered what exactly had happened to cause the god of knowledge to become what he was, this being who needed to look through the eyes of others. It occurred to him then, how such a need could be used. He marked it in the same way he'd noted the strengths and weaknesses of the human settlements between his mortal home in South Number Nine and the Guild Cities. He'd relayed them all to his Overwatches, in case the information were ever needed. Then. But now, without Overwatches, if any preparations were to be made, he would have to make them. “All going well in there?” Aldo asked. At some point during Kholster's reverie the god had settled into the high-backed chair, its crimson upholstery covered with embroidered words that flowed and changed beneath the dramatic illumination provided by globes of mystic fire.

A pair of human-looking eyes peeked out from Aldo's ocular orbits behind platinum-rimmed spectacles, and he had grown to more Aernese proportions. Aldo peered up at Kholster over the rim of his glasses, head bent over a volume of forgotten lore, as if Kholster had interrupted him in the midst of reading.

“I—” Kholster began.

Not waiting for an answer Aldo “returned” to the book. It shrank as he read, pages vanishing, as he turned them.

I think I see what you mean
, Kholster thought at Harvester.

Him, then Dienox, sir. Just a suggestion.

And then Shidarva, I suppose?

Nomi and Sedvinia. Then Shidarva.

That's quite an itinerary you have plotted out for me.

You are a better god than they are, sir. You understand the mortals more. You are more trustworthy and you care. It is simple logic and expedience.

Let me finish talking to Aldo, first.
There was mirth in Kholster's thoughts, and he wondered if that had been Harvester's intention all along.

Of course, sir.

“So you weren't spying on me?” Kholster prompted.

“Hmmm . . . ?” Aldo closed the book and sat back, hands steepled. “Spying?” He rested his chin on the points of his fingers. “Are we still going on about that?”

“Yes, we are.”

He's trying to bait me, isn't he?

BOOK: Oathkeeper
8.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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