Torn stood alone on the crowded deck.
The humans around him were afraid. Terrified, in fact. He could smell it, a sickly-sweet perfume hanging over the entire fleet, filling his sensitive nostrils almost to bursting. Yet, even so, he could not begrudge the men their fear. Not in this. It was right they be afraid. Fitting.
They sailed to make war upon a legend, after all. Soris the Unassailable, the Singing City. The first and last stronghold of the First Lords itself. They sailed to wake the wrath of the Sleeping God.
For anything sane and mortal, a healthy measure of fear was only reasonable.
Why then, Torn wondered, as he watched half-panicked scurrying of the humans around him, am I not afraid?
Torn was jostled from his thoughts as a burly soldier shoved passed him, making for the ship’s head. A few feet away, the ship’s wizard noticed the careless contact.
Torn watched, bemused, as the wizard stepped forward and grabbed the soldier by the front of his uniform.
“Beg forgiveness from the First Lord, soldier.”
“What? Him?” The soldier’s brow wrinkled as he turned back to Torn. “What would I do that for? He’s useless.” The man snickered. “What the hell good is a mute spellsinger, anyway?”
Torn raised an eyebrow. What good indeed?
The wizard lifted a long-fingered hand and struck the soldier full across the face. The man fell against the ship’s railing, where he tripped on a taut line and sailed overboard.
No one made a move to help, least of all the wizard. Torn took a step toward the rail, watched the man’s feeble attempts to stay above the choppy water.
See how easily they murder, these humans. See how callously they kill their own.
Yet…am I any better? Am I not, in fact, far worse?
The wizard turned back to Torn, bowed so low his dirty brown hair touched the deck.
“Apologies, First Lord.” The wizard spoke in a low whisper, as though, standing before Torn, he was suddenly ashamed to flaunt the gift of voice. “Fools will be fools.”
Torn, of course, had no answer. He let the man squirm for a moment under the weight of his eyes before giving a barely perceptible shrug. The man let out of a relieved breath and backed away.
The wizard knew the truth of one thing, at least. While the magic of the First Lords, the spellsong, was denied Torn, there were other paths to follow. Darker paths.
And silence held a power all its own.
The excitement of a man overboard quickly passed, and the humans returned to their endless bustling. As though buffing the deck one final time might just save all their lives in the hours to come.
Not for the first time, Torn found his eyes drawn to Warchief Glavil, the man responsible for assembling the hundred ship fleet. A curiosity, there.
The giant of a man stood boldly on the prow of the ship, hands clasped behind his back, heedless of the wind’s incessant fingers ripping at his uniform and the white tipped spray soaking the deck around him. An island of calm amid a sea of fear and fury.
What compels you, Warchief? What drives you? Is it the simple lure of blood and plunder, as you claim? The spoils of war?
Glavil was only human, after all. Scarcely better than a savage. Yet, somehow, Torn doubted the man’s motivations were anything so simple.
Perhaps you seek to right some ancient wrong, to put paid some half-forgotten grievance against the remnants of my people.
Torn chewed the thought, found the taste familiar.
Perhaps, Warchief, you are like me.
Perhaps. Yet in the end, he knew, it would not matter. For all the brotherly slaps on the back, for all the broad smiles of reassurance over tankards of ale, Torn knew exactly what to expect from the man, when the time came. After the firewalls of Soris finally crumbled, after the last of the defenders were dead or dealt with, Glavil would come for him. His axes would be bare and he would not be smiling.
Betrayal within betrayal within betrayal. The thought teased a rare curve from Torn’s lips. If you should live so long, Warchief, I will welcome you with open arms.
Torn turned away from the Glavil, stared out over the dark water. They were close now. He could feel it like a familiar hint of melody just beyond the edge of hearing. The humans felt it, too. The bustle of activity ceased. Silence reigned as ten thousand eyes swung toward the horizon.
And there, for the first time in centuries, human eyes beheld the Singing City.
The ever-burning light of the firewall, a thing of jagged flames twenty feet high, forced back the night for miles around. Beyond the orange glow lay half a mile of killing ground, thick with a nearly impassible tangle of waist-high thornweed. Then arose the stonewall. Beyond that, Torn could just begin to make out the rising red towers of the city itself, stabbing toward the heavens like so many bloody daggers.
Glavil came to stand at his side as the flagship settled to a rest on the sandy shore, set a hand on Torn’s shoulder. “You have led us well, my friend. I hope, for your sake, the rest of your promises ring as true.”
And if they do not, Warchief? What then? If the bastard song I’ve taught your wizards proves insufficient to sooth the flames, what will you do? Pack all your proud warriors back into their ships and sail away from this dark mystery without so much as wetting your blades?
Or will you order your men through the flame, anyway, and those who burn be damned?
Glavil was the first man to set foot upon the shore. Troops scrambled out of longboats, forming ranks upon the sand behind him perhaps thirty paces from the firewall. The wizards stepped forward and prepared to sing the flames to sleep.
It would work, Torn knew. Their song was a pitiful thing--a pale shadow of the all-encompassing melody of his childhood--yet it would prove enough to lull the Sleeping God. The humans would breach the first barrier. That alone would be enough to cause a panic in the city unlike anything seen in a thousand years.
Torn needed nothing more from them.
No longer content to wait his turn at the longboats, Torn vaulted the rail and leapt to the shore. The men displaced by his landing stumbled back and cursed, but he scarcely noticed. The army, the Warchief, the chanting of the wizards—it all faded away to nothing beneath a single shining truth.
I am home.
He began walking down the shore, away from the assembling army. Someone shouted at him to halt, but he paid them no mind. It would take far more than words to turn him from his purpose, now.
When the humans were out of earshot he walked to the firewall and stood for a time regarding the flames. The heat was a familiar thing, the warm caress of an old friend.
Do you remember me, I wonder? Would you let me through, songless, and not sear the flesh from my bones?
Perhaps. But then, perhaps not.
He reached down to the sack dangling at his belt, freed it from a hook and untied the cinch. Inside rested the severed head of a First female. He reached in, lifted her out by fistful of silver hair and brought her level with his eyes.
For a time he simply stood there, examining the dead thing in his hands.
I remember you, Sella. I remember your laughter, your easy smile. Your grace.
And I remember, too, the way that lovely face would twist whenever you caught me sneaking glances at you from the shadows. The outcast. The mute. The unwanted freak who lacked the decency to die.
For a moment more he stared. She had been beautiful, once. She was not so now.
He turned her face to the flames.
Sing for me, Sella.
The severed head in his hand drew a long, ragged breath, and sang.
Torn stepped through the stonewall, last of the Sleeping God’s defenses, and into the city proper. Without glancing back, he chucked the severed head behind him, letting it fall where it might. It had served him well, but he needed it no more.
The streets of Soris were empty. But it was not the emptiness Torn found unsettling. Despite himself, it was the silence that set his skin crawling. Always before the streets had rung with song, with the song.
The lullaby of the Sleeping God. It was everywhere, in the city. It was everything. Men and women sang as they worked, children sang as they played. Infants sang before they could talk. Always the same song. Always the same tune. It was prayer, it was currency. It was the lifeblood of the city.
Which had made Soris a particularly poor place for a child born voiceless. Yet, pariah though he’d been, he had not been completely friendless. The ghost of a smile touched Torn’s lips. No, not completely.
Familiar towers and buildings rose on either side as he made his way through the streets. He hardly needed the experience gained in half a century of residence to find what he sought—he had only to find a road and follow. In Soris, all paths led to the Temple of the Sleeping God.
A familiar figure stood before the double doors of the Temple, watching the streets beyond as though expecting an army to burst forth at any moment. He wore a suit of chainmail and a sword at his hip—that was different. But Torn still recognized Tessan easily enough.
Guard duty? At the center of the Singing City? Busy work for one fit for little else. The priests within hardly expected anyone to breach the city defenses and reach the Temple. Yet it kept Tessan neatly out of the way.
“Torn?” The figure called as he approached. “Is that truly you? Why, you’ve returned! Wonderful! And none too soon, either! They’ll have need of you on the wall. Maybe they’ll let you carry water to the spellsingers. Singing is thirsty work, you know.” He frowned as Torn continued toward him. “I can’t let you into the temple, my friend. The priests are very busy. You will have to wait until the human rabble is dealt with.”
Tessan had always been a loud mouth and a fool, but he had treated Torn better than most. No mockery. No disdain. Just a constant stream of senseless chatter.
Yet…there are few things more irksome to a mute than someone so blind to the value of silence.
Before Tessan could open his mouth for another tirade, Torn stepped forward and gently pressed two fingers against the man’s mouth, catching the words before they could escape. A moment later Tessan’s eyes went wide and he tried to scream, but Torn caught that, too, along with the breath that came behind it.
Then he followed the breath deeper, deeper, until he came to the very center of the man. And there squirmed Tessan’s soul, thrashing madly about like an eel at the bottom of a well. He reached inside with his phantom fingers and plucked the wriggling thing out.
Tessan collapsed in a heap on the Temple steps as Torn pulled his hand away. A smoking red hole the size of a fist grinned up at him where once had been a mouth.
You talk too much, Tessan.
Torn stepped over the corpse and into the Temple.
No one looked up as he entered. A dozen priests lined the walls inside, faceless within the hoods of their black robes. The high priest stood at the very center of the circular room, poised before a calm pool of water.
Reflected in the surface Torn could make out images of the battle he had left behind. The humans had indeed broached the flames, even made it through the killing ground. Now they were assailing the stonewall in earnest.
All around him the song poured from the priest’s mouths like a sickness. The high priest watched the battle through the waters as he sang, sometimes raising his voice, sometimes letting it grow to a bare whisper. The other priests followed his lead.
When his voice grew, the flames consuming the humans lessened. The tremors stilled. The Sleeping God calmed.
When his voice fell, men burned.
They play the god like a puppet. Use him like a tool. They let him wake just enough to serve their purpose—no further.
They make of him a slave and name it worship.
Torn took a step toward the high priest. For the first time, heads swiveled in his direction.
The high priest spun toward him, clearly surprised at the intrusion. An angry flash of recognition spread across the First Lord’s weathered face as he saw Torn. He raised a hand and his song took on an edge of focus. Spellsong sped toward Torn with the force of a battering ram.
And parted around him like so much hot air, smashing twin holes in the temple wall.
The shock on the old man’s face was most satisfactory.
There are some battles you cannot fight with words, High Priest. Yet…shall I try a few notes? Have I not held my peace long enough?
Shall I sing for you, High Priest?
Torn threw back his head, opened wide his mouth and let loose a soundless scream. A seething black cloud of silence crawled free of his throat, thick and dark as oil. The mass spread out in a dome around the inner sanctum. The Song stuttered, then broke altogether as inky tendrils dropped from above and wrapped themselves around delicate priestly throats, choking the words from the air.
The priests fell to the ground, rolling, writhing, dying.
Within moments silence reigned.
Torn closed his mouth and regarded the corpses all around.
Well. Perhaps my key was off.
The black dome above began to dissolve, falling like inky rain. Where it touched stone it smoked, yet not a drop touched Torn. Beneath him the ground rumbled.
A voice rang in his head, deep beyond all mortal reckoning. It was the voice of his youth, the voice of his dreams.
“Ah, to awaken after such a sleep! Such a hunger I have, such a thirst! And you, who stand so boldly at the center of my chains…can it be? The wordless one? The melancholy child who shared my dreams? Tell me, is it you who have done this thing, Torn? Or are you just another dream sent to torment me?”
Torn fell to his knees, bowed his head. Hello, old friend. Your long rest is at an end. An army of humans crawls upon your flesh, a city of your tormentors hide within the stones of your shackles. I make of them an offering. Awake, my lord, and feed.
The stones beneath his feet rippled like the stretching of a cat.
“You have done well, my child.”
Outside the Temple walls the roar of flames grew to a fierce crescendo, and the city of Soris began to sing a song of screams.