I wouldn’t advise reading this unless you have already finished The Daylight War, as it is spoileriffic. Proceed with caution!
The Skull Throne
Chapter 1: The Hunt
333 AR Autumn
Jardir woke at sunset, his mind thick with fog. He was lying in a northern bed—one giant pillow instead of many. The bedcloth was rough, nothing like the silk to which he had become accustomed. The room was circular, with warded glass windows all around. A tower of some sort. Untamed land spread into the twilight, but he recognized none of it.
Where in Ala am I?
Pain lanced through him as he stirred, but pain was an old companion, embraced and forgotten. He pulled himself into a sitting position, rigid legs scraping against one another. He pulled the blanket aside. Plaster casts running thigh to foot. His toes, swollen in red, purple and yellow, peeked from the far ends, close, yet utterly out of reach. He flexed them experimentally, ignoring the pain, and was satisfied with the slight twitch that rewarded him.
It harkened back to the broken arm he’d suffered as a child, and the helplessness of his weeks of healing.
He reached immediately to the nightstand for the crown. Even in day, there was magic enough stored within to heal a few broken bones, especially ones already set.
His hands met empty air. Jardir turned and stared a long moment before the situation registered. It had been years since he had let himself be out side arm’s reach of his crown and spear, but both were missing.
Memories came back to him in a rush. The fight atop the mountain with the Par’chin. How the son of Jeph had collapsed into smoke as Jardir struck, only to solidify an instant later, grabbing the spear shaft with inhuman strength and twisting it from his grasp.
And then the Par’chin turned and threw it from the cliff as if it was nothing more than a gnawed melon rind.
Jardir licked cracked lips. His mouth was dry and his bladder full, but both needs had been provided for. The water at his bedside was sweet, and with some effort he managed use of the chamber pot that his searching fingers found on the floor just underneath the bed.
His chest was bound tightly, ribs grinding he shifted. Over the bandages he was clad in a thin robe—tan, he noted. The Par’chin’s idea of a joke, perhaps.
There was no door, simply a stair leading up into the room—as good as prison bars in his current state. There were no other exits, nor did the steps continue on. He was at the top of the tower. The room was sparsely furnished. A small table by the bedside. A single chair.
There was a sound in the stairwell. Jardir froze, listening. He might be bereft of his crown and spear, but years of absorbing magic through them had remade his body as close to Everam’s image as a mortal form could be. He had the eyes of a hawk, the nose of a wolf, and the ears of a bat.
“Sure you can handle him?” the Par’chin’s First Wife said. “Thought he was going to kill you out on that cliff.”
“No worries, Ren,” the Par’chin said. “He can’t hurt me without the spear.”
“Can in daylight,” Renna said.
“Not with two broken legs,” the Par’chin said. “Got this, Ren. Honest word.”
We shall see, Par’chin.
There was a smacking of lips as the son of Jeph kissed his jiwah’s remaining protests away. “Need you back in the Hollow keepin’ an eye on things. Now, ‘fore they get suspicious.”
“Leesha Paper’s already suspicious,” Renna said. “Her guesses ent far from the mark.”
“Don’t matter, long as they stay guesses,” the Par’chin said. “You just keep playin’ dim, no matter what she says or does.”
Renna gave a stunted laugh. “Ay, that won’t be a problem. Like makin’ her want to spit.”
“Don’t waste too much time on it,” the Par’chin said. “Need you to protect the Hollow, but keep a low profile. Strengthen the folk, but let them carry the weight. I’ll skate in when I can, but only to see you. No one else can know I’m alive.”
“Don’t like it,” Renna said. “Man and wife shouldn’t be apart like this.”
The Par’chin sighed. “Ent nothin’ for it, Ren. Bettin’ the farm on this throw. Can’t afford to lose. I’ll see you soon enough.”
“Ay,” Renna said. “Love you, Arlen Bales.”
“Love you, Renna Bales,” the Par’chin said. They kissed again, and Jardir heard rapid footsteps as she descended the tower. The Par’chin, however, began to climb.
For a moment, Jardir thought to feign sleep. Perhaps he might learn something; gain the element of surprise.
He shook his head. I am Shar’Dama Ka. It is beneath me to hide. I will meet the Par’chin’s eyes and see what remains of the man I knew.
He propped himself up, embracing the roar of pain in his legs. His face was serene as the Par’chin entered. He wore plain clothes, much as he had when they first met, a cotton shirt of faded white and worn denim trousers with a leather Messenger satchel slung over one shoulder. His feet were bare, pant and shirt cuffs rolled to show the wards he had inked into his skin. His sand-colored hair was shaved away, and the face Jardir remembered was barely recognizable under all the markings.
Even without his crown, Jardir could sense the power of those symbols, but the strength came with a heavy price. The Par’chin looked like more like a page from one of the holy scrolls of warding in Sharik Hora than a man.
“What have you done to yourself, old friend?” He had not meant to speak the words aloud, but something pushed him.
“Got a lot of nerve callin’ me that, after what you did,” the Par’chin said. “Din’t do this to myself. You did this to me.”
“I?” Jardir asked. “I took ink and profaned your body with it?”
The Par’chin shook his head. “You left me to die in the desert, without weapon or succor, and knew I’d be corespawned before I let the alagai have me. Body was the only thing you left me to ward.”
With those words, all Jardir’s questions about how the Par’chin had survived were answered. In his mind’s eye he saw his friend alone in the desert, parched and bloodied as he beat alagai to death with his bare hands.
It was glorious.
The Evejah forbade the tattooing of flesh, but it forbade many things Jardir had since permitted for the sake of Sharak Ka. Jardir wanted to condemn the Par’chin, but his throat tightened at the truth of the man’s words. The son of Jeph’s honor was boundless.
Jardir shivered as a chill of doubt touched his center. No thing happened, but that Everam willed it. It was inevera that the Par’chin should live to meet him again. The dice said each of them might be the Deliverer. Jardir had dedicated his life to being worthy of that title. He was proud of his accomplishments, but could not deny that his ajin’pal, the brave outsider, might have greater honor in Everam’s eyes.
“You play at rituals you do not understand, Par’chin,” he said. “Domin Sharum is to the death, and victory was yours. Why did you not take it and claim your place at the lead of the First War?”
The Par’chin sighed. “There’s no victory in your death, Ahmann.”
“Then you admit I am the Deliverer?” Jardir asked. “If that it so, then return my spear and crown to me, put your head to the floor, and have done. All will be forgiven, and we can face Nie side by side once more.”
The Par’chin snorted. He set his satchel on the table, reaching inside. The Crown of Kaji gleamed even in the growing darkness, its nine gems glittering. Jardir could not deny the desire the item stirred in him. If he’d had legs to stand, he would have leapt for it.
“Crown’s right here.” The Par’chin spun the pointed circlet on a finger like a child’s hoop toy. “But the spear ent yours. Least, not ‘less I decide to give it to you. Hidden where you can never get it, even if your legs wern’t casted.”
“The holy items belong together,” Jardir said.
The Par’chin sighed again. “Nothing’s holy, Ahmann. Told you once before Heaven was a lie. You threatened to kill me over the words, but that doesn’t make ‘em any less true.”
Jardir opened his mouth to reply, angry words forming on his lips, but the Par’chin cut him off, catching the spinning crown in a firm grip and holding it up. As he did, the wards on his skin throbbed briefly with light, and those on the crown began to glow.
“This,” the Par’chin said of the crown, “is a thin band of mind demon skull and nine horns, coated in warded electrum, focused by gemstones. It is a masterwork of wardcraft, but nothing more.”
He smiled. “Much as your earring was.”
Jardir started, raising his hand to touch the bare lobe his wedding ring had once pierced. “Do you mean to steal my First Wife, as well as my throne?”
The Par’chin laughed, a genuine sound Jardir had not heard in years. A sound he could not deny he had missed.
“Not sure which would be the greater burden,” the Par’chin said. “I want neither. I have a wife, and among my people, one is more’n enough.”
Jardir felt a smile tug at his lips, and let it show. “A worthy Jiwah Ka is both support and burden, Par’chin. They challenge us to be better men, and that is ever a struggle.”
The Par’chin nodded. “Honest word.”
“Then why have you stolen my ring?” Jardir demanded.
“Just holding on to it while you’re under my roof,” the Par’chin said. “Can’t have you calling for help.”
“Eh?” Jardir said.
The Par’chin tilted his head at him, and Jardir could feel the son of Jeph’s gaze reaching into his soul, much Jardir did when he had the gift of crownsight. How did the Par’chin do it without the crown at his brow?
“You don’t know,” the Par’chin said after a moment. He barked a laugh. “Giving me marriage advice while your own wife spies on you!”
The derision in his tone angered Jardir, and his brows drew tight despite his desire to keep his face calm. “What is that supposed to mean?”
The Par’chin reached into his pocket, producing the earring. It was a simple hoop of gold with a delicate warded ball hanging from it. “There’s a broken piece of demon bone in here, with its opposite half in your wife’s ear. Lets her hear everything you do.”
Suddenly, so many mysteries became clear to Jardir. How his wife seemed to know his every plan and secret. Much of her information came from the dice, but the alagai hora spoke in riddles as oft as not. He should have known cunning Inevera would not rely on her castings alone.
“So she knows you’ve kidnapped me?” Jardir asked.
The Par’chin shook his head. “Blocked its power. She won’t be able to find you before we’re finished here.”
Jardir crossed his arms. “Finished with what? You will not follow me, and I will not follow you. We stand at the same impasse we found five years ago in the Maze.”
The Par’chin nodded. “You couldn’t bring yourself to kill me then, and it forced me to change how I see the world. Offering you the same.” With that, he tossed the crown across the room.
Instinctively, Jardir caught it. “Why return it to me? Won’t this heal my wounds? You may have difficulty holding me without them.”
The Par’chin shrugged. “Don’t think you’ll leave without the spear, but I’ve drained the crown in any event. Not a lot of magic venting from the Core makes it this high,” he waved his hand at the windows circling the room on all sides, “and the sun cleans out this room each morning. It’ll give you crownsight, but not much else until it’s recharged.”
“So why return it to me?” Jardir asked again.
“Thought we might have a talk,” the Par’chin said. “And I want you to see my aura while we do. Want you see the truth of my words, the strength of my convictions, written on my very soul. Perhaps then, you’ll come to see.”
“Come to see what?” Jardir asked. “That Heaven is a lie? Nothing written on your soul can do that, Par’chin.” Nevertheless, he slipped the crown onto his head. Immediately, the darkened room came alive with crownsight, and Jardir breathed deep in relief, like the blind man in the Evejah, given his sight back by Kaji.
Through the windows, land that had been nothing but shadows and vague shapes a moment ago became sharply defined, lit with the magic that vented from Ala. All living things held a spark of power at their core, and Jardir could see strength glowing in the trunks of trees, the moss that clung to them, and every animal that lived within their branches and bark. It ran through the grasses of the plains, and, most of all, in the demons that stalked the land and rode the winds. The alagai shone like beacons, awaking a primal desire in him to hunt and kill.
As the Par’chin had warned, his cell was dimmer. Small tendrils of power drifted up the tower walls, Drawn to the wards etched into the glass windows. They flickered to life, a shield against the alagai.
But though the room was dim, the Par’chin’s shone brighter than a demon. So bright it should be difficult to look at him. But it was not. Quite the contrary, the magic was glorious to behold, rich and tempting. Jardir reached out through the crown, attempting to Draw a touch of it to himself. Not so much the Par’chin might sense the drain, but perhaps enough to speed his healing. A wisp of power snaked through the air toward him like incense smoke.
The Par’chin had shaved his brows, but the wards above his left eye raised in an unmistakable expression. His aura shifted, showing more bemusement than offense. “Ah-ah. Get your own.” Abruptly, the magic reversed its flow and was Drawn back into him.
Jardir kept his face calm, though he doubted it made a difference. The Par’chin was right. He could read the man’s aura, seeing his every feeling, and had no doubt his old friend could do the same. The Par’chin was calm, centered, and meant Jardir no harm. There was no deception in him. Only weariness, and fear Jardir would be too rigid to give his words fair consideration.
“Tell me again why I am here, Par’chin,” Jardir said. “If your goal is truly as you have always said, to rid the world of alagai, then why do you oppose me? I am close to fulfilling your dream.”
“Not as close as you think,” the Par’chin said. “And the way you’re doing it disgusts me. You choke and threaten humanity to its own salvation, not caring the cost. Know you Krasians like to dress in black and white, but the world ent so simple. There’s color, and more than a fair share of gray.”
“I am not a fool, Par’chin,” Jardir said.
“Sometimes I wonder,” the Par’chin said, and his aura agreed. It was a bitter tea, that his old friend, whom he had taught so much and always respected, should think so little of him.
“Then why did you not kill me and take the spear and crown for your own?” Jardir demanded. “The witnesses were honor bound. My people would have accepted you as Deliverer and followed you to Sharak Ka.”
Irritation ran like wildfire across the Par’chin’s calm aura. “You still don’t get it,” he snapped. “I’m not the ripping Deliverer! Neither are you! The Deliverer is all humanity as one, not one as humanity. Everam is just a name we gave to the idea, not some giant in the sky, fighting back the blackness of space.”
Jardir pressed his lips together, knowing the Par’chin was seeing a flare across his aura at the blasphemy. Years ago he had promised to kill the Par’chin should he ever speak such words again. The Par’chin’s aura dared him to try it now.
Jardir was sorely tempted. He had not truly tested the crown’s power against the Par’chin, and with it at his brow, he was no longer as helpless as he seemed.
But there was something else in his ajin’pal’s aura that checked him. He was ready for an attack, and would meet it head on, but an image loomed over him, alagai dancing as the world burned.
What he feared would come to pass, if they did not find accord.
Jardir drew a deep breath, embracing his anger and letting it go with his exhalation. Across the room, the Par’chin had not moved, but his aura eased back like a Sharum lowering his spear.
“What does it matter,” Jardir said at last, “if Everam be a giant in the sky, or a name we have given to the honor and courage that let us stand fast in the night? If humanity is to act as one, there must be a leader.”
“Like a mind demon leads drones?” the Par’chin asked, hoping to snare Jardir in a logic trap.
“Just so,” Jardir said. “The world of the alagai has ever been a shadow of our own.”
The Par’chin nodded. “Ay, a war needs its generals, but they should serve the people, and not the other way round.”
Now it was Jardir who raised an eyebrow. “You think I do not serve my people, Par’chin? I am not the Andrah, sitting fat on my throne while my subjects bleed and starve. There is no hunger in my lands. No crime. And I personally go into the night to keep them safe.”
The Par’chin laughed, a harsh mocking sound. Jardir would have taken offense, but the incredulity in the Par’chin’s aura checked him.
“This is why it matters,” the Par’chin said. “Because you actually believe that load of demonshit! You came to lands that were not yours, murdered thousands of men, raped their women, enslaved their children, and think your soul is clean because their holy book’s a little different from yours! You keep the demons from them, ay, but chickens on the chopping block don’t call the butcher Deliverer for keeping the fox at bay.”
“Sharak Ka is coming, Par’chin,” Jardir said. “I have made those chickens into falcons. The men of Everam’s Bounty protect their own women and children now.”
“As do the Hollowers,” the Par’chin said. “But they did it without killing one another. Not a woman raped. Not a child torn from its mother’s arms. We did not become demons in order to fight them.”
“And that is what you think me?” Jardir asked. “A demon?”
The Par’chin smiled. “Do you know what my people call you?”
The demon of the desert. Jardir had heard the name many times, though only in the Hollow did any dare speak it openly. He nodded.
“Your people are fools, Par’chin, as are you if you think me the same as the alagai. You may not murder and you may not rape, but neither have you forged unity. Your northern dukes bicker and vie for power even as the abyss opens up before them, ready to spew forth Nie’s legions. Nie does not care about your morals. She does not care who is innocent and who is corrupt. She does not even care for Her alagai. Her goal is to wipe the slate clean.
“Your people live on borrowed time, Par’chin. Loaned to you against the day of Sharak Ka, when your weakness will leave them meat for the core. Then you will have wished for a thousand murders, a thousand thousand, if that’s what it took to prepare you for the fight.”
The Par’chin shook his head sadly. “You’re like a horse with blinders on, Ahmann. You see what supports your beliefs, and ignore the rest. Nie doesn’t care because She doesn’t ripping exist.”
“Words do not make a thing so, Par’chin,” Jardir said. “Words cannot kill alagai, or make Everam cease to be. Words alone cannot unite us all for Sharak Ka before it is too late.”
“You talk of unity, but you don’t understand the meaning of the word,” the Par’chin said. “What you call unity I call domination. Slavery.”
“Unity of purpose, Par’chin,” Jardir said. “All working toward one goal. Ridding the Ala of demonkind.”
“There is no unity, if it depends on one man alone to hold it,” the Par’chin said. “We are all mortal.”
“The unity I have brought will not be so easily cast aside,” Jardir said.
“No?” Arlen asked. “I learned much during my visit to Everam’s Bounty, Ahmann. The northern dukes have nothing on your people. Your dama will not follow Jayan. Your Sharum will not follow Asome. None of the men will follow Inevera, and your Damaji would as soon kill one another as eat at the same table. There is no one who can sit the throne without civil war. Your precious unity is about to crumble away like a palace made of sand.”
Jardir felt his jaw tighten. His teeth whined as he ground them. The Par’chin was correct, of course. Inevera was clever and could hold things together for a time, but he could not afford to be gone for long, or his hard-forged army would turn on itself with Sharak Ka only just begun.
“I am not dead yet,” Jardir said.
“No, but you won’t be returning any time soon,” the Par’chin said.
“We shall see, Par’chin.” Without warning, Jardir reached out through the crown, Drawing hard on the Par’chin’s magic. Caught off guard, the Par’chin’s aura exploded in shock, then distorted as Jardir hauled in the prize.
Power rushed through Jardir’s body, knitting muscle and bone, making him strong. With a flex, the bandages around his chest ripped and the plaster about his legs shattered. He sprang from the bed, crossing the room in an instant.
The Par’chin managed to get his guard up in time, but it was a Sharum’s guard, for he had not been trained in Sharik Hora. Jardir easily slipped around it and caught him in a submission hold. The Par’chin’s face reddened as he struggled for air.
But then he collapsed into mist, as he had done in their battle on the cliff. Jardir overbalanced when the resistance ended, but the Par’chin reformed before he hit the floor, grabbing Jardir’s right arm and leg, throwing him across the room. He struck window so hard even his magic-strengthened bones snapped, but the warded glass did not so much as crack.
There was a thin flow of magic on the surface of the wards, and Jardir instinctively Drew on it, using the power to mend his bones even before the pain set in.
The Par’chin vanished from across the room, appearing in close, but Jardir was wise to the trick. Even as the mist began to reform he was moving, dodging the Par’chin’s attempted hold and striking two hard blows before he could melt away again.
They struggled thus for several seconds, the Par’chin disappearing and reforming before Jardir could do any real damage, but unable to strike in turn.
“Corespawn it, Ahmann,” he cried. “Ent got time for this!”
“In this, we agree,” Jardir said, having positioned himself correctly. He threw the room’s single chair at the Par’chin, and predictably, the man misted when he could as easily have dodged.
Your powers are making you lax, Par’chin, he thought as he sprang the open distance to the stairwell.
“You ent goin’ anywhere!” the Par’chin growled as he reformed, drawing a ward in the air. Jardir saw the magic gather, hurtling at him, a blast that would knock him away from the stairs like a giant hammer. With no time to dodge, Jardir embraced the blow, going limp to absorb as much of the shock as possible.
But the blow never came. The Crown of Kaji warmed and flared with light, absorbing the power. Without thinking, Jardir drew a ward in the air himself, turning the power into a bolt of raw heat. Enough to turn a dozen wood demons to cinders.
The Par’chin held up a hand, Drawing the magic back into himself. Jardir, dizzied by the sudden drain, stared at him.
“We can do this all night, Ahmann,” the Par’chin said. “It won’t get you out of this tower.”
Jardir crossed his arms. “Even you cannot hold me forever. The sun will come, and your demon tricks and hora magic will fail you.”
The Par’chin spread his hands. “Don’t have to. By dawn, you’ll stay willingly.”
Jardir almost laughed, but again the Par’chin’s aura checked him. He believed it. He believed his next words would sway Jardir, or nothing would.
“Why have you brought me here, Par’chin?” he asked a final time.
“To remind you of the real enemy,” the Par’chin said. “And to ask your help.”
“Why should I help you?” Jardir asked.
“Because,” the Par’chin said, “we’re going to capture a mind demon, and make it take us to the Core.
“It’s time we brought the fight to the alagai.”