Chapter no 43

Empire of Storms

“The stygian spiders are little more than myths,” Nesryn managed to say to Houlun. “Spidersilk is so rare some even doubt it exists. You might be chasing ghosts.”

But it was Falkan who replied with a grim smile, “I would beg to differ, Captain Faliq.” He reached into the breast of his jacket, and Nesryn tensed, hand shooting for the dagger at her waist—

It was no weapon he pulled out.

The white fabric glittered, the iridescence like starfire as Falkan shifted it in his hand. Even Sartaq whistled at the handkerchief-sized piece of cloth. “Spidersilk,” Falkan said, tucking the piece back into his jacket.

“Straight from the source.”

As Nesryn’s mouth popped open, Sartaq said, “You have seen these terrors up close.” Not quite a question.

“I bartered with their kin in the northern continent,” Falkan corrected, that grim smile remaining. Along with shadows. So many shadows. “Nearly three years ago. Some might deem it a fool’s bargain, but I walked away with a hundred yards of Spidersilk.”

The handkerchief in his jacket alone could fetch a king’s ransom. A hundred yards of it …“You must be wealthy as the khagan,” she blurted.

A shrug. “I have learned that true wealth is not all glittering gold and jewels.”

Sartaq asked quietly, “What was the cost, then?” For the stygian spiders traded not in material goods, but dreams and wishes and—

“Twenty years. Twenty years of my life. Taken not from the end, but the prime.”

Nesryn scanned the man, his face just beginning to show the signs of age, the hair still without gray—

“I am twenty-seven,” Falkan said to her. “And yet I now appear to be a man of nearly fifty.”

Holy gods. “What are you doing at the aerie, then?” Nesryn demanded. “Do the spiders here produce the silk, too?”

“They are not so civilized as their sisters in the north,” Houlun said, clicking her tongue. “The kharankui do not create—only destroy. Long have they dwelled in their caves and passes of the Dagul Fells, in the far south of these mountains. And long have we maintained a respectful distance.”

“Why do you think they now come to steal our eggs?” Sartaq glanced to the few ruks lingering at the cave mouth, waiting for their riders. He leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his thighs.

“Who else?” the hearth-mother countered. “No poachers have been spotted. Who else might sneak upon a ruk’s nest, so high in the world? I flew over their domain these past few days. The webs indeed have grown from the peaks and passes of the Fells down to the pine forests in the ravines, choking off all life.” A glance toward Falkan. “I do not believe it mere coincidence that the kharankui have again begun preying upon the

world at the same time a merchant seeks out our aerie for answers regarding their northern kin.”

Falkan raised his hands at Sartaq’s sharp look. “I have not sought them out nor provoked them. I heard whispers of your hearth-mother’s trove of knowledge and thought to seek her counsel before I dared anything.”

“What do you want with them?” Nesryn asked, angling her head.

Falkan examined his hands, flexing the fingers as if they were stiff. “I want my youth back.”

Houlun said to Sartaq, “He sold his hundred yards but still thinks he can reclaim the time.”

“I can reclaim it,” Falkan insisted, earning a warning glare from Houlun at his tone. He checked himself, and clarified, “There are … things that I still have left to do. I should like to accomplish them before old age interferes. I was told that slaying the spider who ate my twenty years was the only way to return those lost years to me.”

Nesryn’s brows narrowed. “Why not go hunt that spider back home, then? Why come here?”

Falkan didn’t answer.

Houlun said, “Because he was also told that only a great warrior can slay a kharankui. The greatest in the land. He heard of our close proximity to the terrors and thought to try his luck here first—to learn what we know about the spiders; perhaps how to kill them.” A faintly bemused look. “Perhaps also to find some backdoor way of reclaiming his years, an alternate route here, to spare him the confrontation there.”

A sound enough plan for a man insane enough to barter away his life in the first place.

“What does any of this have to do with the stolen eggs and hatchlings, Ej?” Sartaq, too, apparently possessed little sympathy for the merchant who’d traded his youth for kingly wealth. Falkan turned his face toward the fire, as if well aware of that.

“I want you to find them,” Houlun said. “They have likely already died, Ej.”

“Those horrors can keep their prey alive long enough in their cocoons. But you are right—they have likely already been consumed.” Rage flickered in the woman’s face, a vision of the warrior beneath; the warrior her granddaughter was becoming as well. “Which is why I want you to find them the next time it happens. And remind those unholy piles of filth that we do not take kindly to theft of our young.” She jerked her chin to Falkan. “When they go, you will go, too. See if the answers you seek are there.”

“Why not go now?” Nesryn asked. “Why not seek them out and punish them?”

“Because we have no proof still,” Sartaq answered. “And if we attack unprovoked …”

“The kharankui have long been the enemies of the ruks,” Houlun finished. “They warred once, long ago. Before the riders climbed up from the steppes.” She shook her head, chasing away the shadow of memory, and declared to Sartaq, “Which is why we shall keep this quiet. The last thing we need is for riders and ruks to fly out there in a rage, or fill this place with panic. Tell them to be on their guard at the nests, but do not say why.”

Sartaq nodded. “As you will it, Ej.”

The hearth-mother turned to Falkan. “I would have a word with my captain.”

Falkan understood the dismissal and rose. “I am at your disposal, Prince Sartaq.” With a graceful bow, he strode off into the hall.

When Falkan’s steps had faded, Houlun murmured, “It is starting anew, isn’t it?” Those dark eyes slid to Nesryn, the fire gilding the whites. “The One Who Sleeps has awoken.”

“Erawan,” Nesryn breathed. She could have sworn the great fire banked in answer.

“You know of him, Ej?” Sartaq moved to sit on the woman’s other side, allowing Nesryn to scoot closer down the stone bench.

But the hearth-mother swept her sharp stare over Nesryn. “You have faced them. His beasts of shadow.”

Nesryn clamped down on the memories that surfaced. “I have. He’s built an army of terrors on the northern continent. In Morath.”

Houlun turned toward Sartaq. “Does your father know?”

“Bits and pieces. His grief …” Sartaq watched the fire. Houlun placed a hand on the prince’s knee. “There was an attack in Antica. On a healer of the Torre.”

Houlun swore, as filthily as her hearth-son.

“We think one of Erawan’s agents might be behind it,” Sartaq went on. “And rather than waste time convincing my father to listen to half-formed theories, I remembered your tales, Ej, and thought to see if you might know anything.”

“And if I told you?” A searching, sharp look—fierce as a ruk’s gaze. “If I told you what I know of the threat, would you empty every aerie and nest? Would you fly across the Narrow Sea to face them—to never return?”

Sartaq’s throat bobbed. And Nesryn realized that he had not come here for answers.

Perhaps Sartaq already knew enough about the Valg to decide for himself about how to face the threat. He had come here to win over his people—this woman. He might command the ruks in the eyes of his father, the empire. But in these mountains, Houlun’s word was law.

And in that fourth peak, on Arundin’s silent slopes … Her daughter’s sulde stood in the wind. A woman who understood the cost of life—deeply. Who might not be so eager to let her granddaughter ride with the legion. If she allowed the Eridun rukhin to leave at all.

“If the kharankui are stirring, if Erawan has risen in the north,” Sartaq said carefully, “it is a threat for all to face.” He bowed his head. “But I would hear what you know, Ej. What perhaps even the kingdoms in the north might have lost to time and destruction. Why it is that our people, tucked away in this land, know such stories when the ancient demon wars never reached these shores.”

Houlun surveyed them, her long, thick braid swaying. Then she braced a hand on the stone and rose, groaning. “I must eat first, and rest awhile. Then I shall tell you.” She frowned toward the cave mouth, the silvery sheen of sunlight staining the walls. “A storm is coming. I outran it on the flight back. Tell the others to prepare.”

With that, the hearth-mother strode from the warmth of the pit and into the hall beyond. Her steps were stiff, but her back was straight. A warrior’s pace, clipped and unfaltering.

But instead of aiming for the round table or the kitchens, Houlun entered a door that Nesryn had marked as leading into the small library.

“She is our Story Keeper,” Sartaq explained, following Nesryn’s attention. “Being around the texts helps to tunnel into her memory.”

Not just a hearth-mother who knew the rukhin’s history, but a sacred Story Keeper—a rare gift for remembering and telling the legends and histories of the world.

Sartaq rose, groaning himself as he stretched. “She’s never wrong about a storm. We should spread the word.” He pointed to the hall behind them. “You take the interior. I’ll go to the other peaks and let them know.”

Before Nesryn could ask who, exactly, she should approach, the prince stalked for Kadara.

She frowned. Well, it would seem that she’d only have her own thoughts for company. A merchant hunting for spiders that might help him reclaim his youth, or at least learn how he might take it back from their northern kin. And the spiders themselves … Nesryn shuddered to think of those things crawling here, of all places, to feed on the most vulnerable. Monsters out of legend.

Perhaps Erawan was summoning all the dark, wicked things of this world to his banner.

Rubbing her hands as if she could implant the heat of the flame into her skin, Nesryn headed into the aerie proper.

A storm was coming, she was to tell any who crossed her path. But she knew one was already here.



The storm struck just after nightfall. Great claws of lightning ripped at the sky, and thunder shuddered through every hall and floor.

Seated around the fire pit, Nesryn glanced to the distant cave mouth, where mighty curtains had been drawn across the space. They billowed and puffed in the wind, but remained anchored to the floor, parting only slightly to allow glimpses of the rain-lashed night.

Just inside them, three ruks sat curled in what seemed to be nests of straw and cloth: Kadara, a fierce brown ruk that Nesryn had been told belonged to Houlun, and a smaller ruk with a reddish-dun coloring. The tiniest ruk belonged to Borte—a veritable runt, the girl had called her at dinner, even as she’d beamed with pride.

Nesryn stretched out her aching legs, grateful for the heat of the fire and the blanket Sartaq had dropped in her lap. She’d spent hours going up and down the aerie stairs, telling whoever she encountered that Houlun had said a storm approached.

Some had given her thankful nods and hurried off; others had offered hot tea and small samplings of whatever they were cooking in their hearths. Some asked where Nesryn had come from, why she was here. And whenever she explained that she had come from Adarlan but that her people hailed from the southern continent, their replies were all the same: Welcome home.

The trek up and down the various stairs and sloped halls had taken its toll, along with the hours of training that morning. And by the time Houlun settled herself on the bench between Nesryn and Sartaq—Falkan and Borte having drifted off to their own rooms after dinner—Nesryn was near nodding off.

Lightning cracked outside, limning the hall with silver. For long minutes, as Houlun stared into the fire, there was only the grumble of thunder and the howl of the wind and the patter of the rain, only the crackle of the fire and rustling of ruk’s wings.

“Stormy nights are the domain of Story Keepers,” Houlun intoned in Halha. “We can hear one approaching from a hundred miles away, smell the

charge in the air like a hound on a scent. They tell us to prepare, to ready for them. To gather our kin close and listen carefully.”

The hair on Nesryn’s arms rose beneath the warmth of her wool coat.

“Long ago,” Houlun continued, “before the khaganate, before the horse-lords on the steppes and the Torre by the sea, before any mortal ruled these lands … A rip appeared in the world. In these very mountains.”

Sartaq’s face was unreadable as his hearth-mother spoke, but Nesryn swallowed.

A rip in the world—an open Wyrdgate. Here.

“It opened and closed swiftly, no more than a flash of lightning.” As if in answer, veins of forked lightning lit the sky beyond.

“But that was all that was needed. For the horrors to enter. The

kharankui, and other beasts of shadow.” The words echoed through Nesryn.

The kharankui—the stygian spiders … and other infiltrators. None of them ordinary beasts at all.

But Valg.

Nesryn was grateful she was already sitting. “The Valg were here?” Her voice was too loud, too ordinary in the storm-filled silence.

Sartaq gave Nesryn a warning look, but Houlun only nodded, a jab of the chin. “Most of the Valg left, summoned northward when more hordes appeared there. But this place … perhaps the Valg that arrived here were a vanguard, who assessed this land and did not find what they were seeking. So they moved out. But the kharankui remained in the mountain passes, servants to a dark crown. They did not leave. The spiders learned the tongues of men as they ate the fools stupid enough to venture into their barren realm. Some who made it out claimed they remained because the

Fells reminded them of their own, blasted world. Others said the spiders lingered to guard the way back—to wait for that door to open up again. And to go home.

“War waged in the east, in the ancient Fae realms. Three demon kings against a Fae Queen and her armies. Demons that passed through a door between worlds to conquer our own.”

And so she went on, describing the story Nesryn knew well. She let the hearth-mother narrate as her mind spun.

The stygian spiders—actually Valg hiding in plain sight all this time.

Houlun went on, and Nesryn reeled herself back together until, “And yet, even when the Valg were banished to their realm, even when the final remaining demon king slithered into the dark places of the world to hide, the Fae came here. To these mountains. They taught the ruks to fight the kharankui, taught the ruks the languages of Fae and men. They built watchtowers along these mountains, erected warning beacons throughout the land. Were they a distant guard against the kharankui? Or were the Fae, too, like the spiders, waiting for that rip in the world to open again? By the time anyone thought to ask why, they had left those watchtowers and faded into memory.”

Houlun paused, and Sartaq asked, “Is there … is there anything on how the Valg might be defeated—beyond mere battle? Any power to help us fight these new hordes Erawan has built?”

Houlun slid her gaze to Nesryn. “Ask her,” she said to the prince. “She already knows.”

Sartaq barely hid his ripple of shock as he leaned forward.

Nesryn breathed, “I cannot tell you. Any of you. If Morath hears a whisper of it, the sliver of hope we have is gone.” The Wyrdkeys … she

couldn’t risk saying it. Even to them.

“You brought me down here on a fool’s errand, then.” Sharp, cold words.

“No,” Nesryn insisted. “There is much we still don’t know. That these spiders hail from the Valg’s world, that they were part of the Valg army and have an outpost here as well as in the Ruhnn Mountains in the northern continent … Perhaps it is tied, somehow. Perhaps there is something we have not yet learned, some weakness amongst the Valg we might exploit.” She studied the hall, calming her thundering heart. Fear helped no one.

Houlun glanced between them. “Most of the Fae watchtowers are gone, but some still stand in partial ruin. The closest is perhaps half a day’s flight from here. Begin there—see if anything remains. Perhaps you might find an answer or two, Nesryn Faliq.”

“No one has ever looked?”

“The Fae set them with traps to keep the spiders at bay. When they abandoned the towers, they left them intact. Some tried to enter—to loot, to learn. None returned.”

“Is it worth the risk?” A cool question from a captain to the hearth-mother of his aerie.

Houlun’s jaw clenched. “I have told you what I can—and even this is mere scraps of knowledge that have passed beyond most memories in this land. But if the kharankui are stirring again … Someone should go to that watchtower. Maybe you will discover something of use. Learn how the Fae fought these terrors, how they kept them at bay.” A long, assessing look at Nesryn as thunder rattled the caves again. “Perhaps it will make that sliver of hope just a bit larger.”

“Or get us killed,” Sartaq said, frowning toward the ruks half asleep in their nests.

“Nothing valuable comes without a cost, boy,” Houlun countered. “But do not linger in the watchtower after dark.”

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