Rain cut through the forest like cannon fire.
The sound was terrifying, but it provided invaluable cover as Eriko stalked toward the castle. Reduced visibility. Covered the sound of her steps.
It was a gift from the ancestors, a sign of their approval.
Eriko spotted the first guard relieving himself off the side of the island, the open sky plunging down hundreds of feet to the Mists below.
Her blade flashed, speckled by the downpour.
He never had the chance to scream.
She pushed the guard’s body off the side. Watched it swallowed by the Mists, never to be seen again.
Clad in the guard’s armor and cloak, she continued.
The next guards were better prepared, standing back to back atop a hill along the path to the castle.
Eriko hid behind a tree and traced the sigil Chameleon’s Cloak. Silver light followed the path of her sword, snapping into place as she completed the form.
The rare purple of her Mertikan soldier’s cloak muted into greens and browns.
Eriko stalked after the fourth guard, walking the road leading to the castle. The soldier sang in a rich, full voice, some Mertikan drivel about a bird flying home through a storm. This woman might not be a killer, might be a fellow Kakutan conscript. But Eriko had made her choice.
Just inside the woods, barely out of sight, Eriko cut the Songbird, duplicating the young soldier’s voice.
She stepped out and turned the corner within sight of Vigilance Castle. The island floated two hundred feet higher than Kakute, just a quarter mile of open sky between them. It was a perfect perch from which to protect Kakute’s western edge.
And a perfect place for the prisoners the Mertikan empire wished to keep well out of the way.
Eriko stood at the gates and shouted the words “Lilac Lance!” in the young soldier’s voice. Her colleagues had gleaned the pass-phrase and guard rotation from the drunken private they’d kidnapped the week before.
The Mertikans opened the gate, and she was in.
The Golden Lord of Kakute sat in his cell, tending the flame of his spirit.
For forty years, his life had been reduced to a cell not four yards to a side, and a hallway beyond. Guards came with food, left with waste, and that was his whole world.
His last true visitor—the empress of Mertika—had come most of a decade ago. She’d regaled him with how Kakute was thriving under the empire, its children adding to the might of her navy—and of how soon his people’s warlike ways would be but a shameful memory. Her cruel smile was burned into his mind like an unending sigil. But she’d failed to break his spirit on that last visit, as she’d failed before.
The sound of a swinging door and hammering rain stole his attention away from his nightly exercises. He stood to watch a guard in a rain-drenched cloak walk inside.
“That storm is something. You’ll need this,” she said, taking off the cloak. As she held it out to the waiting guard, the normal night became something else.
The flash of a sigil filled the room, and with uncanny speed, the newcomer’s blade slashed across the necks of both guards. The two slumped to the floor, dead.
She pulled keys from one guard’s belt and unlocked the Golden Lord’s cell.
“Quick, change into the uniform,” she said. “There’s a cart just outside and to the left. The pass-phrase is ‘remembrance.’”
She swung the door open. For a moment the Golden Lord thought he was dreaming.
But this was real. He traded clothes, and as he strapped on one of his jailer’s side-swords, an emptiness more painful than hunger filled him once more. He’d lived his young life by the blade, and now he might have the chance to turn it to rescue his people.
The Golden Lord cut the sigil Enduring Mountain to refresh his stamina. With a surge of golden light, he was flush with energy, more alive than he had felt in ages. The blade nearly called for him to do more, but instead he resheathed the sword. There was little time.
“Keep the cloak up, and don’t answer anyone but Toku, the driver. He’s wearing a golden sword pin. Now go!”
“What about you?”
“One guard in, one guard out. Anything else draws suspicion. I’ve made my choice.”
She chose to die. For him. She’d seen perhaps twenty years. Old enough to be dangerous, young enough to throw away her life for a history she never knew.
“What is your name, child?”
Her voice shook. “I am Hideyama no Eriko.”
Hideyama. She was from the south. He remembered those mountains. That view. “I will remember you, Eriko.”
And then he beat his escape. It was all he could do not to break into a sprint. Hood up and head down, he was indistinguishable from the other guards, especially in this downpour. He wished to throw his cloak back, let the rain wash away his captivity,...