The flash of light from the Emperor’s dying explosion blinded many of those that might have blocked our way to the royal residence. Scar and I wove our way between many combatants that had been thrown to the ground by the blast, blinded by the light of it, or were choking on dust cloud that washed out in the wake of the explosion.
I waited until the light behind me faded and risked a glance back. It was hard to see through the dust, falling ashes, and the glowing haze of the crater that marked the Emperor’s point of death, but I could see that the gates that Bull had died keeping open were gone. An entire block of buildings and everyone in or around them had been erased from existence, leaving a smoking hole in the ground. What a waste, I thought sadly, turning back toward the royal residence.
People were screaming ahead of us, as well as all around us. Roof tiles from the palace had cracked and had fallen on the people below. One of the watchtowers to my right, the one nearest the explosion, leaned to one side, lurching slightly as its bell continued to ring. Here and there, I still saw small knots of soldiers fighting, loyalists battling Navid’s usurpers. I had no time for them. The Emperor was dead, there was a fair chance that I was the only hope left for what remained of his family. I would not fail him in that, even if I hadn’t been able to save him. Or Kalb.
I gritted my teeth and willed myself past tears that threatened. I couldn’t believe old yellow-eyes was dead. He and Teeth had been a driving force in my life since childhood, much of it under the direction of Emperor Baraz, also deceased. Another time, another person, and I might have been delighted to be freed from the bonds of servitude, but I had no time for such thoughts. I could only think of Nokomi, who I felt through my bond. She needed me.
Scar struggled to keep up with me. He’d never been able to let his humanity go as easily as I could mine, which was ironic, seeing as how people viewed him as less than human because of his scars. I passed more easily for normal than he ever had, and I had little love for it, while he craved the normalcy that it would have granted him.
A snarl to my left proved to be two more of Navid’s Wolves. Other than the glowing red eyes and the sharp teeth, they could have passed for human. No one would make that mistake of me, not even in the dusk light. I barked a challenge at them, they halted their advance, thought better of it, and fled back the way they’d come. They’d likely kill a few more loyalists instead of hinder Nokomi’s rescue. I was fine with that. Those soldiers weren’t pack. Nokomi was.
We moved on the south side of the residence, where a small bronze dome with pillars supporting its weight had been set up as a stepping stone between the palace and the residence. Known as Heartfire Monument, its floor was inlaid with a mosaic of tiles depicting flames spreading outward from a black center in an artful way that almost resembled a flower, unless you really looked at it.
To my right, I could see groundskeepers’ homes, a village of tiny homes much like the scribes’ village I’d been put up in. Some of them had come out to see what was going on, but many of the smallfolk of the palace knew instinctively to close their doors and shutter their windows when the warning bells rang. It looked clear of enemies, so, we pressed on for the Heartfire Monument.
As we approached it, Scar reached out and touched my arm. I glared at him, but he signaled to the broad pillars that supported the dome. I sniffed the air once, growling low in my throat. I’d been watching our flank, and Scar had noticed enemies that I might have otherwise missed. I barked, Dog echoing my challenge.
Soldiers slid out from behind the pillars, armed heavily. These were not simple foot soldiers. In fact, judging from their armaments, they had been assembled to kill ones such as Dog and I.
I eyed the heavy greaves upon their arms, barred helms, thick chest plates, and the reinforced nooses they carried on long poles. Others held horse spears, weapons designed to fight cavalry with. They thought they could keep me at a distance and take me down. I would have laughed if I had time for such things.
Scar and his black dog looked ready to back me, but I worried. There were a dozen of these soldiers, and likely more already heading toward Nokomi. I could already feel her fear and her sense of loss through our bond. My forehead tingled like a dozen pinpricks, and I let loose a deafening roar of challenge.
I stepped up the five stairs to the platform, with Dog, Scar, and his dog, Black. I smiled at my companions, because in that moment, judging from the smells and nervous shifting of the soldiers’ feet, we had the upper hand.
“All or nothing.” Scar yelled, his words surprisingly clear as he charged the left side of the soldiers.
I followed his lead and went right, except I came in high, while he stayed low. I darted forward and jumped toward the nearest pillar. That leap carried me up over my enemies’ heads, and I used that height to spring off the pillar at the nearest enemy.
I struck him perpendicular to what he’d expected, and he couldn’t turn his horse spear fast enough to protect himself. My crushing blow broke both of his legs, leaving Dog to finish him as I spun off after the next enemy. This one carried a noose, which he whipped toward my head, trying to lasso it around my neck.
There was no way I was going to let him choke me to death with that thing, but if enough of them surrounded me, there was a chance that at least one of them would get lucky. I also had to assume that they’d done this before, likely practicing on some of Navid’s Wolves.
I caught the noose with my hand, intending to rip the pole, noose and all, from his hands. Except, the noose cord was studded with something sharp, and it shredded my hand as he yanked it back. Hissing in anger, I went in low and ripped him open from his ankles to his groin.
That guard crumpled to the ground, blood spurting on my face as another noose fell dangerously close to my neck. The noose scraped my ear instead of finding my neck as I jerked my head to the side. Dog lunged at that soldier, but backed off when another noose came at him. The remaining soldiers quickly spread out, trying to ring us in.
Scar had killed one soldier as well, but he was being pressed into the center of the circle with us. Nine more of these dog hunters ringed us, and they were patient, cautious fighters. They were highly disciplined – I had to give them that. They remained focused even after the bloody deaths of their comrades.
I stepped over to one of the dying soldiers, lifted up his noose, and cast the capped end of it like a spear at one of my enemies before they could react. The pole shattered, and while it did not puncture his breast plate, it did knock him back with the force of a mule’s kick. He staggered backward, tumbling over the railing and falling off the platform. He went crashing to the ground outside very awkwardly, and I seriously doubted he’d get up.
I held up eight fingers to taunt the soldiers, laughing. Dog howled in triumph.
Three of them came at me with their horse spears next, trying to skewer me from the front, my flank, and my back. I jumped to the side, going for the body of another downed soldier. I threw the body at the spears, managing to trap one of them momentarily beneath the dead man’s weight. That was all the time that Scar needed to surge over there and end another soldier’s life.
Scar quickly retreated to my side then, and we held up seven fingers together, four of his with three of mine. I caught the look on his face, a twisted grin that probably matched the one on my own torn face. Undeterred, the remaining soldiers closed their ranks, hedging us in on one side only now, offering us an escape if we wished to retreat back the way we’d come. Getting past them would be much harder.
Even these little triumphs felt too costly, because I could feel Nokomi fighting. I knew she was using her heartfire, because I could feel it as a hot wash across my face from my scarred forehead every time she let her fire loose. I gave another roar, this one of fury and frustration.
That was when I heard an answering howl to mine, followed by another, and then a third.
“The Emperor’s Dogs!” Scar’s eyes flashed brilliantly in contrast to his dark skin.
We had just moments to wait before three more of our kind struck from their rear, vaulting inhumanly high over the railing to attack. Scar cast a look my way before he joined the attack. “Save the Emperor’s family! We’ll handle these ones.”
“Seek me outside the city!” I called to him in the clearest words I could form.
He nodded and fell on the enemy with Black. The last I saw of them, the four men and their dogs were getting the upper hand against the outnumbered dog hunters.
Dog and I ran then, and, in the fading daylight, it brought to mind our one time rendezvous with Nokomi on her balcony. Except, this time we ran along the top of the wall of the Empress’ gardens, approaching from the west rather than the north, and the situation was drastically different.
Days of serving guard duty in the royal residence had granted me a familiarity with its layout. I knew how many paces on a side the wall was, where the stairs were located along the inside of the wall, and where the best handholds were if I had to climb it. I’d always been preparing to attack or escape from this place, no matter what my duties had been. It was how I’d been raised on the streets, to always understand the lay of the land, to know your ins and outs.
We scaled the wall with ease, taking out two of Navid’s men out at the top of the wall without hesitation. I felt Nokomi’s need more intensely as the battle within the walls raged on. Within the residence and on these walls, I saw more soldiers fighting. Soldiers and servants alike lay dead on the grounds and atop the walls. We paid their bodies no heed, advancing on the residence from the grounds, approaching the northwestern tower carefully.
In the smoke and the dusk light, the blue bell-shaped top looked an unwelcoming shade of purple. Above us in the tower, soldiers tried to target us with crossbows, but we hugged the wall, and they could only cast stones down at us, and we weren’t about to let rocks stop us when explosions, spears, wolves, and swords hadn’t been able to.
We quickly rounded the tower, heading toward Nokomi’s balcony. My face felt like it was on fire, and my jaws ached. My fists ached from clenching them so tightly, and I knew that I was starting to fade. I needed to make this happen quickly. I also knew that Dog was nearing his limits. We could not fight and kill forever. We had to rescue Nokomi and get out of the palace, taking the others with us if we could. Deep down, I knew I’d leave everyone else behind if it meant saving her. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
I looked to Dog, with his round ears covered with dust and his tongue lolling out tiredly. An arrow sailed overhead, so I reached down for Dog, who was ready for me. I threw him like last time.
He sailed up over the railing onto Nokomi’s balcony, thudding against something I followed him immediately, jumping straight up this time. I caught the bottom of the railing and pulled myself up, swatting another arrow aside as I went.
On top of the balcony, I noticed that the sliding doors had been closed and latched. That left us exposed to arrow fire. Growling, I reached out and grabbed the ornamental handles, tearing the doors open with my bare hands. The handles splintered and came free of the ornamental wood, and the latch gave way.
As soon as I started to slide the doors open, a gout of flame blew past my face. I had very little warning, and my right ear was singed. I heard my flesh sizzle and yelped at the pain of it.
“Stop! It’s the Captain!” Halina shouted.
“Go?” Nokomi called out weakly.
The flash of fire had temporarily blinded me, but when Dog and I advanced into her room, I saw that they had barricaded the entry with furniture and they’d somehow managed to drag the large bed mattress partway over as well. It had several scorch marks on it, and one edge of it still smoldered, filling the room with the stink of burned feathers. Small splatters of blood had been dribbled across the floor, leaking from between Nokomi’s fingers.
On the floor, a soldier with the right side of his body burned away was curled up beside Lila’s still form. Lila’s dead hand still clutched a small knife, but the puddle of blood and the sword wound through her middle indicated she’d died at the hands of this soldier, who had been burned alive by Nokomi. I shook my head at that, thinking that Lila would never again entertain anyone with her imitations of the people she knew and worked with.
“Nokomi.” I tried to say, but it came out as a growl.
“Gods, Captain! Your face.” Halina said in alarm, finally getting a good look at me. She held the dead soldier’s sword and looked as if she knew how to use it. She hesitated, unsure if she might have to use it on me.
Even in her stunned state, pale from the loss of blood and her father, Nokomi could notice that all was not right with me. She did not seem scared of me, at least. Rather, she was scared of the wounds I’d taken. “Go, my father…”
I eased some humanity back into my face, shuddering at the pain of my torn cheeks. The pain was distracting, but communication was necessary, and the more human I became, the more control I had. “I was there, Nokomi. I tried to save him. Kalb did, too. There were just too many.”
Defeat crept across Nokomi’s face, paired with the despair of having confirmation of what she’d known to be true, but prayed as not.
“Where are the others?”
“Mother… Shapur… I tried to get to their rooms, but the hallways were filled with my uncle’s men. They tried to take me.” Nokomi clenched her fist, squeezing her eyes shut tightly. Tears streaked down from the corners of her eyes.
“And your sister? What of Neema?” I asked.
“Dastan.” Halina spat on the floor. “That bastard slipped something in her drink. He surrendered her right away. He said that it was better to live under Navid’s rule than die resisting. I would have killed him, but Navid’s men got there first.”
Dog growled beside me.
“I know.” Halina agreed with him. “Me, too.”
We needed a plan. “Is there a secret way out of the palace? I don’t think we can fight our way out.”
Halina nodded. “Kalb showed me the hidden passages in and out of this place. They lead to the head caretaker’s home, and then there is a passage from there to take us beyond the walls.”
That might work, so long as Navid didn’t also know of them. Either way, we’d have to move quickly, because Navid’s wolves would follow our scents. “Where is the entrance?”
Nokomi nodded, liking our plan. She looked as if she’d gathered her wits about her once more, and she was ready to act. There would be no more hiding for her, at least not until after she’d rescued her mother. “The entrance is upstairs.”
“Upstairs?” It seemed as if it would be downstairs, not upstairs. To go up to go down made little sense, or did it?
“Under the horn statue in the royal library.” Nokomi answered. “But we don’t go without Shapur and my mother.”
“Fine. Let’s go.” I nodded toward the door. “Stay close to me.”
Nokomi spared one last look for Lila, whispered a prayer, and followed me.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs