“You spend a great deal of time with the common folk,” Ephed said as they walked. His tone was light, but he carried himself taut, like a coiled serpent ready to strike. “No doubt a product of your upbringing, eh orphan? Like seeks like, I find.”
“Then I suppose I should be grateful that you were able to pry yourself away from the brothels long enough to act as my escort,” she shot back in an easy tone.
From the corner of her eye, she saw the muscles in his face twitch with anger. Good, she thought. The more his attention was focused on her, the blinder he would be to Tae.
Ephed’s voice lowered. “We’ve had our fun, Reaper. But I would not push things if I were you.”
“And I would not start things I could not finish, if I were you, Razor. I am here to do my duty and nothing further.”
“We shall see,” Ephed said.
His answer surprised her, and she wondered how long he had been at that doorway before he let his presence be known. Was he insinuating something?
They had made their way through the length of the keep and climbed the primary tower. Ephed opened the door to the master chamber. It had once belonged to Lady Lliane, but Piersym had wasted no time appropriating it as his own.
Lord Piersym sat on a large chair, fine blankets draped around it. In his hand, he gripped an ornate bottle of wine and as Elinor entered the room, she heard the rhythmic tapping of one of his large rings against the glass.
He turned his heavy-joweled face to regard her with small, piggish eyes. “Come, come,” he said, gesturing wildly. For Elinor, it seemed there was a sense of impatience in every word, every movement the man made.
“Lord Piersym,” Elinor said, coming to attention and offering a salute.
Piersym ignored it completely. “Is everything in order for the ceremony, Reaper?”
“Yes,” Elinor said, choking back her distaste for him. “The ceremony should be able to take place tomorrow. We are making arrangements with the household staff to accommodate the size of your retinue but things—”
“Yes, yes. There is no time to waste. Every minute here is a lifetime I am away from Resa. Things move quickly there, Reaper, and I am missing them. I need things to move quickly here as well. No problems and no delays.”
“I understand,” Elinor said simply, her voice cool and direct.
Piersym halted his tapping. “I am aware of your past conflicts, you know. To tell the truth, I was warned that I should refuse to use you. That I should demand another officer to act as Reaper for this process. Do you know why I decided to keep you?” he asked, leaning forward with a growing smile.
“No,” Elinor answered.
“You were the cheapest,” Piersym said and laughed loudly, seemingly tickled with his own wit. “Other Reapers cost, you see. They bleed you here and there with bribes to expedite things. But you? Why, you do your duty, Lieutenant. And duty doesn’t cost me a single coin.”
Elinor knew what Piersym spoke of was common practice, but to have him speak of it so blatantly, so openly, was both insulting and shameful. Elinor gritted her teeth, but remained silent.
Piersym took a long pull of the bottle, smacking his lips after and staring longingly at the shaped glass. “How long has it been since you’ve been to Resa, Lieutenant?”
“Two years,” she said.
Piersym made a strangled cough. “Two years?” he exclaimed. “That’s an eternity. Practically a death sentence, isn’t it, Ephed?”
“Indeed, my lord. Easier to be dead,” Ephed said, and she could hear him savoring every word.
Piersym shook his head. “Resa is everything, Lieutentant. It is the future. It is life itself. The marches,” he said, gesturing dismissively with the bottle, red wine spilling onto the floor, “are nothing but farms and lumber and bandits and savagery. The purpose of the marches is to feed Resa, like blood to the heart.”
Elinor’s eyes focused on the small pool of red wine staining the pale stone.
“I must settle my affairs here in Timberline quickly and cleanly,” he said. “Play your part in this little charade of ceremony well, Reaper, and I can get you back to Resa. Perhaps I will even champion your career. I have destroyed enough officer’s careers. It might be a bit of an enjoyable diversion to try and rebuild one instead.”
Elinor nodded and offered a tight smile, but something stuck in her mind. The way he spoke of settling his affairs here, the way that Ephed had smiled at those words. She knew she should stay quiet. That if she did, this meeting would be over soon. And yet…
“Securing Timberline was indeed fortunate for you, Lord Piersym,” she said.
Piersym’s eyes narrowed. “Fortune had nothing to do with it. Fortune is for the weak, for those who gamble their lives away in Resa’s Razor pits.” He leaned forward, pointing with his finger for emphasis. “Power is the true game. The only game. Power is what brought me Timberline.”
In that moment, she saw it. The look in his eyes and Ephed’s as well. Neither bothered to hide it. The smug satisfaction.
These men had killed Lady Lliane and her First Blade.
And they wanted Elinor to know it.
Piersym wanted her to know what he had done, and to know there was nothing anyone could do about it. He gloried in it.
Elinor had seen eyes like that before. Perhaps because the memory was so fresh in her mind after sharing it with Tae, but it filled her thoughts now. That look of control, of power. Of cruelty and mockery. Of sublime arrogance. It was the same expression the cadets at the Academy had used to break those they deemed lesser. It was the expression she had seen when they told her what had happened with Lida.
The rage kindled inside her, a burning coal in the pit of her stomach. Piersym spoke, and she nodded, but all she wanted to do was flee the room before she could no longer hold it in.
At last, Piersym dismissed her with a final wave of his hand. Elinor turned smartly and strode from the room, not bothering to look at Ephed as she passed. Once she was clear of the door, she took the stairs two at a time.
Her thoughts were swirling, and her long legs ate up the steps in long strides. She made a direct line to the village.
Outside of a small house, Aebelm and Tae were talking together quietly. They both looked up as Elinor approached.
“Take me to where they were killed,” Elinor said. “Take me to the Stone Altar.”
They traveled out of the ravine and up onto the forested plateau. The path through the thick forest was narrow, and they rode for the better part of an hour.
In the heart of the forest, amidst the rustling trees, Elinor felt something powerful and heavy, as if the very air itself carried a sense of sorrow and mourning. She immediately chastised herself. It was the melancholy of her companions affecting her. The depth of their tragedy speaking to her and her own heart responding. And yet, the closer they got to the Stone Altar, the stronger it seemed to grow.
Ahead, the forest opened into a clearing. Light played over vibrant green foliage, and Elinor gazed around at the spectacular beauty. They were on the very edge of the plateau, and the rest of the march stretched green and vibrant all the way to the horizon. It was like standing on the top of the world.
Old stonework, ancient beyond her ability to figure, delineated the clearing. Now, after centuries, the forest had reclaimed what had been the home of men and enveloped it in verdant life. The central piece of the old construction was a wide set of stone steps that led up to a small, ruined altar.
“It is truly beautiful here. Sacred,” Elinor said. “I understand your feelings about this place now.” As she spoke, both grandfather and granddaughter were staring at the broken altar.
“Something is not right,” Aebelm said. “We brought you here to see,” he said, emphasizing the last word, and there was frustration and disappointment in his voice.
As Aebelm began to shake his head, something shifted in the air and Elinor felt the skin on the back of her neck pricking.
From the far side of the clearing, a voice came smooth and supremely arrogant. “The most surprising thing about killing a noble,” Ephed said, stepping into view. “Is that it is so much easier than you would imagine. Turns out that the blood of nobles spills just as easily as any other.”
Elinor went cold as more men emerged from the forest. Razors. Ten in all. Two Razors would have been a difficult proposition to handle. This many, though? There was no hope.
A voice in her head screamed, railing at her stupidity and carelessness. She pushed it aside and drew herself up tall to face Ephed. “The lady of this land is murdered. Your lord is responsible. You were merely following his orders, I am sure. The Warden may still grant leniency if you cooperate,” she said, her voice projecting authority.
Ephed raised his eyebrows. “That’s it? That’s your play, Reaper? Truly you disappoint me.” He took a single step forward and, despite the distance between them, Elinor felt trapped. “You know, Piersym feared you would interfere. But me? I hoped you would,” he said with a predator’s smile. “I prayed for it.”
“Then let me answer your prayers, Razor. You’ve done enough to Timberline. Let the others go and then you and I can at last have that fight you’ve been itching for. Let’s finally see which of us is better.” She rested one hand on the sheathed blade at her belt and the other brought her mace up to her shoulder.
The other Razors stepped forward, but Ephed held up a hand with a laugh.
Then, she felt it. A surge of electricity in the air. The telltale sign of a Razor drawing upon the essence of the world to fuel their power.
Elinor felt it like a wave of pressure rolling off Ephed and enveloping her, almost as if she was underwater. The energy existed in the air between them, slowing time itself.
Ephed moved faster than she could have imagined.
He was upon her, his attacks moving at blinding speed. She brought the mace across her body, shielding her vital organs. She could not match his speed, so she weathered the storm, protecting her core as he sliced lines of fire into her arms and sides.
As his assault began to slow, Elinor readied herself to strike back. Then the wave of energy came once more and his foot lashed out, taking her in the chest. She tumbled backwards, rolling to the edge of the cliff.
Ephed held his blade, the bright steel stained red with her blood. ”Well, I believe we have our answer,” he said with a smile. “You lose, Reaper.”
Aebelm moved in front of Elinor’s downed form as Tae rushed to her side.
Elinor got to her knees. “Run,” she hissed at the girl and the old man. “You must survive this or their secret dies here with us!”
Ephed snapped his blade, and drops of Elinor’s blood hit the stone beneath him. The clearing filled with electricity as the Razors touched their power and moved forward.
Waves of energy rolled off Aebelm as the old Razor drew his sword and readied his shield. Tae stood tall beside him.
“Run!” Elinor yelled.
And then there was chaos and blood.
The first Razors came forward and Aebelm charged to meet them. Blood flew through the air and the sound of steel upon steel shattered the quiet.
Another Razor came for Tae. As the girl raised her blade, the Razor lashed out, taking her blade high and wide before thrusting his sword into Tae’s stomach. The girl’s eyes widened. Her sword dropped from her hand, and she toppled toward the cliff’s edge.
Elinor rushed forward and slid, avoiding the Razor’s attack. Her mace cracked into his knee and he cried out. As he fell backward, she dropped her mace and grabbed hold of Tae.
A shadow loomed over Elinor and hot blood sprayed on her back. Aebelm stood there, blood covering his face. He had intercepted the blow intended for her. Waves of power radiated from him, washing over her.
Aebelm locked eyes with her, blue irises glittering like diamonds in the dark mask of blood. “Go,” he whispered.
Behind him, Ephed raised his blade once more, and the light in Aebelm’s eyes was taken from the world forever.
Gripping Tae tightly, Elinor rolled off the edge toward a small ledge. She barely managed to catch it, but Tae missed. Elinor’s arm wrenched from the full weight of the falling girl, and she screamed, scrambling for purchase with her free arm as the girl’s weight pulled her down.
Elinor’s body dangled off the side, one hand desperately holding the ledge, Tae swinging limply from the other. Her shoulder burned with pain, and she did not have the strength to pull the girl up.
“Let… let me… go,” Tae whispered, her eyes barely open.
“I won’t let you fall,” Elinor said through gritted teeth, but the slide of dirt under her hand threatened to prove that a lie.
At the top of the cliff, Ephed and his Razors looked down upon her struggles. As her fingers continued to slip, Ephed smiled.
Then, the dirt beneath her hand gave way, and Elinor and Tae plummeted down.