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War of Shadows Book One: An Empire Divided


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This is a new writing project of mine, a high fantasy story entire separate from my "Realm of the Stars" space opera series. I also plan to have an update for that ready to go within the week, and intend to alternate chapters of both for a while!


Part One

The Fallen City


Chapter One

Storm clouds hung low and dark over the city of Varek’s Ford, the rumbling of thunder and flickering of lightning within their depths hinting at the rain to come. It was late in the evening now and so most of the city’s inhabitants had returned to their homes; the streets were largely quiet save for those few who made their way slowly down the streets, hoods up and cloaks wrapped tightly around them – and, of course, the occasional patrol. The same chill autumn wind that whipped at people’s clothing also caused the countless red and black banners that hung from the highest spires to flutter like unquiet spirits, an ever-present reminder of the Imperial occupation.

Kirin crouched beneath one such banner that hung from the steeple of a church that had once been dedicated to the Merentian Way but had since been repurposed by the Imperial Creed. She didn’t spare the thing, with its all-too-familiar icon of a black-armored fist clutching an upraised scepter, set against a crimson sunburst, much thought any more. In the ten years since the Torranean Empire had occupied the city in its ceaseless push for expansion, the sight had become too commonplace to waste much thought on. Kirin had no love for the Empire or its inhuman masters, but her attention lay elsewhere this night, and she had no intention of having to explain herself to the Watch for no other reason than carelessness.

Even in daylight, Kirin wasn’t liable to draw the eye; a skinny woman barely past twenty, with messy black hair cut short and features that might, charitably, be called pretty if the right cosmetics were applied. But sometimes it was good to not be noticed, and in the night she was in her element, her dark cloak and the clothing beneath it blending in to the city’s shadows and the dull grey stone of its architecture. To see her crouched on the church’s roof, someone would have to be looking right at her – and to do that, they’d have to know she was there. Tonight, it seemed, no one did.

The echoing of marching footsteps signaled the passing of a watch patrol on the street below. Kirin’s eyes narrowed as she watched them go by, men and women who carried long spears and wore uniforms that resembled those of the Watch she remembered from her childhood, save for the badges with the Imperial Crest pinned to their chests. A feeble attempt to pretend that Varek’s Ford was still an independent city-state that had merely accepted Emperor Sarrukar’s offer of alliance and protection. Nobody in the city was fooled, or ever had been. Varek’s Ford’s council had surrendered to the occupation because the alternative was to be destroyed. That was the Empire’s way – you agreed to submit to Torranean rule, or you were forced to kneel, and if you refused even then, you died. Those were your only options.

The Watch patrol passed; none of them looked up. Kirin waited for the echoes of their footsteps to fade, and then she moved. She’d been watching this street for weeks, and she knew the Watch’s schedule – another patrol wouldn’t be by for another half-hour. Now was the time to act; she had work to do tonight.

Her target wasn’t the church; much as the priests of the Imperial Creed deserved every bit of thievery and vandalism that came their way, they weren’t the ones Kirin had been hired to steal from on this particular occasion. Running to the end of the church’s roof, she gathered herself and sprang across the alley to the next building over, mentally blessing, as she always did, the cramped architecture that had long been characteristic of the city. Even with her natural agility and dark clothing, she always feared being spotted on nights like this, though the rooftops were safer than the streets below, where the Watch dealt harshly with citizens out past curfew. Luckily, her target tonight wasn’t far. A few blocks away from the church, she found herself crouching on a rooftop facing a building larger, and more richly appointed, than those around it. This was the home of Councilman Garreos, one of the worthless scum who’d groveled before the Emperor’s generals ten years ago and been rewarded by being allowed to keep his position, albeit as a lapdog in a city where he’d once been a leader.

Kirin scowled beneath the cloth mask she wore across the lower half of her face, and beneath her cloak her hand gripped one of her daggers tightly. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself and let the grip go. She was a thief, not an assassin, and she was here to rob Garreos, not kill him. And besides, the man wasn’t even home. He was attending a gala at the Imperial Governor’s mansion, halfway across the city. That was why she’d chosen tonight to do the job; with the councilman gone, and his bodyguards with him, security on his mansion was a light as it would ever be.

There was a sudden crack of thunder and a cold rain began to fall as Kirin rose from her crouch and eased a long coil of rope off her shoulder. Taking careful aim, she swung it in a loop and let it fly, its hooked end latching on one of the metal spires decorating the councilman’s roof. Grasping the rope firmly, trusting the storm to conceal her presence, Kirin took a running leap, enjoying, in spite of herself, the momentary feeling of soaring through the air before she landed atop the mansion. Stowing the rope carefully about her shoulder once again, she made her way carefully along the sloping rooftop until she came to a window. After a moment of fiddling with the latch, it sprung open and she slipped inside.

According to the plans Derran had given her when he’d hired her for the job, this was a music room; she was pleased to see that the information appeared to be accurate, though none of the instruments on stands around the walls looked like they’d been played in years. Garreos was a collector; he didn’t care about art, he cared about owning, and Kirin doubted any of the pieces here was worth less than a thousand Imperial denarii. For a moment she was tempted to take one of them, but shook the thought away – she wasn’t equipped to carry or hide a harp or woodwind tonight. Her eye was on another prize.

Leaving the music room behind her, she crept out into the hallway, finding it empty. Slowly she made her way down it, pausing briefly to make sure each room was empty, until finally she came to the end of the hall. Stepping through the door she found there, she entered a well-appointed room filled with display cases, each of them holding some treasure or treasures that Garreos had acquired over the years. Kirin grinned under her mask. Here was the prize.

Casting back her hood, she walked into the display room, treading carefully so as not to make a sound. Each of the cases she passed held something of value, whether a gemstone, a manuscript, or a work of art; Kirin pulled the parchment Derran had given her out of her pouch and examined the picture on it so she could match it to the piece he wanted. There, near the back of the room, she found it. An obsidian statue, small enough to fit into her pouch, depicting a man seated on a throne, one hand raised as if in blessing or command. Kirin recognized the depiction as Meren the Wise, the sage who had founded the Way some six centuries ago – and whose religion had been outlawed when the Torreneans came, replaced by the supposed “truth” of the Imperial Creed. This piece, Derran had assured her, was old – perhaps it had been carved within a generation of the sage’s death. Yes, there were those who would pay quite handsomely for this.

Kirin drew a lockpick from her pouch and after a moment’s work, the display case sprang open. Another moment, and the icon had been removed and slipped into her pouch, replaced by a small pin with the rune for the letter N in a long-dead language engraved on it. That was the calling-card of Nevarre, one of Derran’s rivals in the black-market trade. He’d requested Kirin leave it there, to throw suspicion her way instead of his. Kirin had never much cared for Nevarre, though she’d take the woman’s money if she had a job, and was happy to oblige.

She was interrupted from her reflections by the sound of footsteps. Quickly, Kirin dove into a corner of the room behind a cabinet that held several small objects, just a moment before two men entered the room. One was young, about her age, with short-cropped brown hair and fine clothing; the other older, and though he wore plain working clothes he had a military bearing. Kirin stopped herself from cursing under her breath. The young one was Torsin Garreos, the councilman’s son; the older one must be Berne, retired Watch captain and current head of the councilman’s guards. They were both supposed to be at the Governor’s party! What, by all the dead gods, were they doing here?

“-don’t understand what all the fuss is about, Torsin,” Berne was saying. “I was quite enjoying myself sampling the Governor’s wines and watching your father make a fool of himself. Why did you want to leave early?”

“Because there are things I wanted to talk about that I didn’t want to say in front of company,” Torsin replied. “Look, we both know that my father’s store of goodwill with the Empire is running thin. The Governor considers him a washed-up has been who doesn’t realize his glory days are past, and he doesn’t help that impression with how he spends his money on wine and curiosities almost faster than they can pay him. It may not be long now before the Empire decides it doesn’t need the farce of the council anymore and that the time has come to rule Varek’s Ford openly. Father’s antics aren’t the only reason for that, of course, but he certainly isn’t helping the case that he’s still useful.”

“I know all this already, Torsin,” Berne said, stroking his chin. “What are you getting at?” Kirin thought he sounded intrigued in spite of himself.

“If Father goes, we all go,” Torsin said. “The Governor won’t want reminders of an old regime he doesn’t have a use for any longer hanging around. We’ll end up on the streets, or worse – the Inquisition isn’t known for its generosity. So long as the Empire rules this city, our house’s days are numbered.”

“Are you implying what I think you are?” Berne asked slowly.

“I have my sources, Berne,” Torsin said, putting his hand on the older man’s shoulder. “They say the campaigns in the east aren’t going well. The Governor’s trying to hush it up, but apparently nobody’s heard from Emperor Sarrukar in weeks. The Inquisitors are anxious, and there are rumors that troops are going to be pulled back to Torreneos. Whatever happens, change is coming. This could be our chance!”

“Our chance for what?”

“To be free of the tenebrans for good!” Torsin said, excitement audible in his voice. Tenebrans – it was all that Kirin could do to keep from drawing a sharp breath at the word. They were the ruling class of the Torrenean Empire, though she’d never met one. The Governor, his family, and the Inquisitors were supposed to be the only ones in the city. Rumor said they were immortals, powerful sorcerers one and all, and were no longer entirely human – if they ever had been. The Imperial Creed said they were blessed by the gods with a divine right to rule all the realms of mankind. Kirin had no desire to meet one in person and see if the stories were true, though she did know that Emperor Sarrukar had sat his throne for more than a hundred years and was, supposedly, the very same man who had united the Torrenean tribes into a military machine that had brought the known world to its knees. If even half the stories were true, what Torsin had just said was high treason.

Apparently, Berne was just as troubled, though he merely looked grimly worried rather than scandalized. He was old guard, Kirin thought, had been a soldier long before the occupation, and it seemed doubtful the current order much appealed to him, or that Torsin would have revealed his hopes if he didn’t trust the man. “Maybe you’re right,” he finally said. “But there’ve been rumors before, and none of them panned out. I’ll keep your confidence about what you said tonight, but give me time to decide how things are going and if I want to be part of whatever you’re cooking up.”

“Of course,” Torsin said. “But don’t take too long, lest history pass you by.”

Berne snorted, then turned and walked from the room. Torsin turned to follow him, and Kirin breathed a sigh of relief – too loud. The councilman’s son stopped and turned to look back at the room. His eyes roved over the display cases, and then stopped at the one from which she had taken the statuette and left the pin. His gaze narrowed as if he recognized that the contents had been changed, and then shifted towards the corner and the cabinet behind which Kirin crouched. The thief’s heart pounded in her chest – had he seen her? – but he only nodded once and gave a small, secretive smile before turning and leaving the room.

It was several long moments before both men’s footsteps had faded and Kirin’s heart stopped hammering. Finally, she slipped out from behind the cabinet, down the hall, and out the window and into the stormy night, relieved, despite the rain, to be free of that house and mulling over in her heart the meaning of what she’d just overheard.


The next morning, Kirin found Derran waiting in his usual place, a back room of a dingy tavern that most people weren’t aware he owned. Two of his henchmen, a rough-looking man and woman in plain but functional clothing, lounged against the doorframe; they nodded in recognition and Kirin and the woman patted her down to make certain she wasn’t carrying any weapons before waving her in. Clearly, she was expected.

Derran himself wasn’t much to look at; a lean, graying man who might be anywhere from forty to sixty, he wouldn’t stand out in any crowd. But he was clever, resourceful, and ambitious, and he’d paid off the watch to look the other way when he fenced stolen goods out of his pub, allowing him to turn a fine profit in an environment where people of his profession tended to find themselves hanged. Of course, the deal probably wouldn’t hold if his crimes injured anyone of real standing, but in the current climate that meant the Governor or the Inquisition, not washed up councilmen whose suspicions had been pointed in the wrong direction.

He was lounging in the chair behind his desk as Kirin entered, smoking the long pipe that was one of his various vices. When he saw her approach, Derran took the stem from his mouth, blew a smoke ring, and smiled. “I hear you have something for me, kid,” he said.

“I do,” Kirin said, removing her prize from her bag and setting it on the desk; Derran leaned forward to inspect it. “One classical icon of Meren the Wise, as requested. I trust you’re satisfied?”

Derran picked up the statuette and turned it over in his hands; apparently his inspection convinced him it wasn’t a fake, because he smiled even more broadly as he sat it back down and then slid several small pouches of coins in Kirin’s direction. “I am indeed,” he said. “I have some buyers who are going to be very interested in this little beauty. Never was a religious man myself, of course, but there are those who’ll pay a pretty penny for the Sage.” He looked up at her. “No trouble getting it, I trust?”

She thought back to the strange conversation she’d overheard and how Torsin Garreos almost seemed to have seen her; it was on the tip of her tongue to tell Derran, but something she couldn’t explain stopped her. “Nothing,” she said. “No trouble at all. And I left Nevarre’s token, as requested. Garreos might just be thick enough to fall for it.”

“’Course he is, or I wouldn’t have asked you to do it,” Derran said with a pleased grin. “A good night’s work, Kirin, very good. Always can count on you.”

“So long as you keep paying me, I’ll keep it up,” Kirin said, returning the grin as she stuffed the coin pouches into her bag. “Well, if that’s all, I think that I really should be going…”

“No,” Derran said, waving her to stay. “Not yet. There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve got another job for you, if you’ll take it. This one’s dangerous, but I think the profit’s worth it or I wouldn’t have said yes to it.”

“Someone hired you?” Kirin asked, raising an eyebrow. People bought things from a man like Derran, but so far as she knew, nobody hired him. He was his own master, and even the Torreneans hadn’t managed to take that away from him.

“Yes, they did,” the thief lord said, his voice hard. “And now I’m hiring you, and if you won’t take it, I’ll find someone who will. What do you know about the resistance?”

The memory of Torsin’s words about being rid of the tenebrans for good flashed through Kirin’s mind. “Not much,” she finally said. “You always told me they were patriots, zealots, and fools, and advised me to stay away from them if I wanted to keep my head. I’ve tried to follow that advice.”

“I did say that,” Derran admitted, “but that was before one of their agents approached me and offered me more gold than I’d ever seen in one place to steal something for me. It won’t be easy, but you’re one of my best. Will you hear me out?”

“More gold than you’d ever seen?” Kirin asked, whistling softly. “All right then. I’m intrigued.”

Derran opened his mouth to say something more, but before he could utter a single word his door burst open and one of his guards, the man, burst in. “Master Derran, Master Derran,” he said, panting.

“What is it, Scathroe?” Derran demanded. “I’m in the middle of business here. This had better be important.”

“The news just came in, and it’ll be all over the city within the hour!” Scathroe said. “The Governor’s trying to hush it up, but he’s got no chance.”

“Out with it!” Derran said, impatience written on his face.

“It’s the Emperor,” Scathroe said. “They say… they say word came in from the front, and that Emperor Sarrukar is… is dead.”

The news hit Kirin as if she’d been punched in the stomach; she stumbled back against the wall, breathing heavily. So far as most people were concerned, Sarrukar was the Empire. If he was dead… the implications were beyond her ability to imagine.

Derran, for his part, sank back into his chair and stared at his hands. “Well now,” he murmured, half to himself. “This changes things.”


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