The cataclysmic Long Night has ended, with humanity slowly recovering from the madness-inducing rule of Nightmares. Out of the ruin of the old empires rise two new powers—the Protectorate of Free Cities and the Dominance of Thrycea, ruled by a dynasty of hereditary weather mages known as Storm Lords.
Between the two lies a buffer zone of provincial kingdoms, where the powerful nations fight out their differences. And in the shadows, defeated but not destroyed, the Nightmares lurk.
In Rivern, the westernmost city in the Protectorate, three unlikely individuals stumble into a complicated plot of murder, magic, and politics. One is a Storm Lord, a young woman facing an arranged marriage. Another is a priest turned assassin, whose partner is an intelligent sword. And the third is a drunkard —a and magician who appears to have accidentally achieved immortality.
None of them are heroes. But these three damaged, flawed individuals face a plot to wipe Rivern off the map. Alone they have little to recommend them. Together they might just be able to win out against the manipulative scheming of the Queen of Lies.
Serra floated up the stairs to the eastern wing of Landry Manor, her long black robes billowing behind her. City Inspector Berringer followed, never closer than ten paces behind, torn between his fear of dealing with the Invocari and his desire to see that his case was cleared of foul play. There were six bedrooms in each wing of the house—twelve total, not including the servants’ quarters.
Serra was a slight girl, but the robes of the Invocari and her levitation were designed to give her an air of menace. Her face was deeply shadowed under her heavy cloak, and her sleeves covered all but her fingertips. She was the dark specter of Rivern’s law, ever vigilant against all threats physical and metaphysical. Today was her first time assisting in an investigation.
“The master bedroom is at the end of the hall,” Inspector Berringer said, clearing his throat.
Serra didn’t reply. Her silence was as much a badge of office as her robes or her starmetal rings.
It was a vast, well-appointed room, dominated by a large four-poster mahogany bed draped in purple silks. An ornate armoire was crowded into one corner. Serra noted the old nobility were loath to part with any of the ugly antiques from the days of the monarchy. So they crammed the little used spaces of the manors.
She lingered in the doorway and looked to the ceiling. Inscribed above the bed was a circular warding seal of moderate complexity. It looked intact as far as she could tell. Warding wasn’t really her specialty, but the Cabal was short on wardens.
The coroner, one of the few practicing necromancers in Rivern, was already on the scene along with one of the wizards from the college—a blood mage in red robes who wore gold-rimmed spectacles. The abbess was present as well. She wore long robes and a white veil that masked all but her eyes. Serra could tell she was dark of skin but could make out little else about her.
“There are no eyes,” Isik the necromancer grumbled. He had a thick Volkovian accent and the surly demeanor to match.
The body of Lord Landry and his wife were still in bed, their eyes burned out, their lifeless faces contracted in terror. The tableau was horrifying in the context of the ornate furnishings and exotic purple silk bedding. Black veins spidered out from the orbits of their eyes and corners of their mouths. Lady Landry was twenty years the junior of her husband and probably quite fetching while alive.
Isik complained, “I can’t recover the final moments of a corpse that has no eyes.”
“Can you at least confirm it was an attack by Harrowers?” the abbess inquired.
Isik shrugged. “It fits. You didn’t need to drag me all the way across town to say this.”
“We’re just being thorough,” Serra said. “We’ve never heard of two attacks occurring at the same time. And we still need you to confirm the time of death.”
“Bah,” Isik said, shaking the wrists of the Landry corpses. “Midnight…ish.”
The chance of having one’s soul carried off in the night, Serra knew, was vanishingly small. More people died by falling into one of the three rivers each year than those who died by the hands of the Harrowers, but the arbitrary and grisly nature of these deaths (the eye sockets burned out, leaving the skull completely empty) made the danger greater in peoples’ imaginations. With three of these deaths in as many months within the city proper, the people of Rivern were panicking.
Achelon the Corrupter had unleashed the Harrows upon creation five hundred years prior. When they finally were banished, their echoes remained in dreams to return each night to claim twelve souls, one for each of the twelve Harrowers (the thirteenth abstained for some reason). With twelve people dying out of everyone in the world, every night and in different nations, the chances were extremely remote of it happening to multiple individuals in the same city.
“Cause of death,” Serra said, “harrowing. This investigation is closed.”
After finishing her reports at the Invocari tower, Serra walked home, exhausted. The sun was little more than an orange sliver on the horizon. Now that her shift was over, she wore civilian attire: a burgundy dress with black laces up the front. No one gave her a second glance as she jostled through the flow of people to her apartment. The Invocari were everywhere in Rivern; you just didn’t always see them.
When they did appear like dark sentinels floating over the streets, people gave a wide berth. Even Serra didn’t recognize most of them in their hoods, but when they cast their gaze toward her, she placed two fingers to her collarbone in a salute of respect. The dark watchers sometimes returned the gesture by curling all but those same two fingers into the folds of their sleeves.
The Invocari were terrifying because they had to be, but beneath their robes they were the best men and women Serra ever had the honor of knowing. She loved all of them like family. Like her, most had been orphaned or abandoned. The Cabal had given them a home in order to gain their unwavering loyalty, but it was loyalty well deserved.
Serra stopped outside her apartment building.
An old man in tattered gray robes stood across the street, watching with milky eyes. His face betrayed no emotion, and he stood eerily still amid the people jostling by. As an Invocari, Serra had become accustomed to the unnerving, so the sensation of unease was doubly troubling to her.
She regained her composure and marched toward him.
He looked Genatrovan, and she guessed he was eighty or ninety; it was difficult to tell. “Excuse me, sir,” she said. “Do you need any assistance? I can guide you somewhere if you need. It’s no trouble.”
He sighed and smiled kindly to her, the warmth in his face suddenly breaking through his stoic facade. His eyes were white from cataracts. “No dear. I have nowhere to be but here.”
“It’s just,” she continued, “this isn’t a very good part of town for beggars. There have been a few disappearances lately, and with all the talk of Harrowers, it’s really better for you to sleep somewhere warded.”
The old man took Serra’s hand. “Whatever is meant to happen will happen. I’m too old to spend what little time I have left worrying about what might or might not be. Death comes for us all when it is our time. What matters isn’t when, but what we did before those moments. You should spend time with friends and people you love. Surely there’s another man you’d rather be talking to. There’s one watching us from the window now.” He pointed at her building.
She turned in time to see a pair of curtains on the second floor shutting abruptly.
Serra blushed. It was Warder Vernor’s apartment. She’d been sweet on him for the last few months and suspected he harbored similar feelings. Had he been waiting up for her? It was strange how they always seemed to meet in the hallway.
“My vision is better than it appears.” The old man released her hand and winked. “I’ll be fine. You should run along.”
“Okay. Be safe!” She smiled and turned to her apartment building.
She beamed as she entered the cramped lobby. Behind the desk, Loran the watchman was scribbling in his logs. He had a round, kindly face and a bushy red mustache. “Who were you talking to?”
“That man out front.” Serra motioned over her shoulder. “He seems harmless. He’s just standing in front of the building and didn’t seem particularly interested in moving. If he’s a spy, he’s either terrible at concealing himself or brilliant at making it look like he’s terrible at it.”
“I noticed him earlier,” Loran said. “What did he say to you?”
“That life is short and we should make the most of it.” Serra grinned. “Shorter for some of us than others.”
“It’s bad luck to joke about that—I’m a week away from retirement,” Loran scolded her playfully. He was only in his fifties but much senior to the other warders living in the building.
Serra turned and ran up the stairs, half expecting to see Vernor coming out of his room. Her heart sank a little when his door didn’t fly open. He was probably embarrassed that he’d been spotted watching her. She readied her hand to knock but lost her nerve at the last second.
No, it would be too strange after she’d caught him spying. She’d see him in the morning and maybe ask him to get a drink after her inspections. She chuckled to herself. If people knew the Invocari had silly romantic entanglements, their image as the menacing enforcers of law would be ruined.
She went to her room and prepared a sleeping draught. If she got up early enough, she could catch Vernor before he went to the tower. She picked out her prettiest blue dress and laid it across the top of her dresser. She didn’t have many eye-catching fashions, but this one complemented her more so than her others.
Serra prepared for bed then lay down on the mattress, anxious for the possibility of tomorrow. Even the daunting workload of ward inspections didn’t bother her. She waited for the draught to take effect and drifted off to sleep.
She had nearly dozed off when a gentle knock sounded at her door. She gathered her night-robe and opened the door, just a crack at first.
Vernor stood outside, looking timid and anxiously planning what he was going to say. He hesitated then said, “I had to see you. I had to tell you…”
Serra beamed. “I’ve dreamed of this.”
His expression darkened. “You’re still dreaming.”
Serra stepped away from the door. Suddenly everything felt very wrong. Her room no longer seemed familiar. Vernor stared with cold blue eyes from the doorway, his mouth opening slowly.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw herself fast asleep under her covers.
A part of her knew that if she looked back at Vernor, it would be the last thing she ever saw. A cold hand gripped her shoulder.
She never awoke.
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Michael J. Bode a writer in the deep south who always loved to tell stories as long as he can remember.
Bode grew up in Indiana, surrounded by woods and horses. He got his degree in sociology from Indiana University and somehow ended up in business intelligence and text analytics.
Bode recently quit a very lucrative job to write fantasy books full-time because he wanted to tell stories with LGBT characters that could also appeal to a wider audience. Bode’s work features rich worlds and interesting characters whose conflicts are as much internal as they are external.