Twelve weeks into the siege of the Eggshell Citadel, Amaranth the Inestimable finally figured out he couldn’t crack it.
Yeah, that’s a joke. Maybe not a good one.
Amaranth called a wizard’s parley; his rivals sent their generals and mercenaries. Being a patchwork of thin skin wrapped around a glass jaw and a faint heart, Amaranth tapped me as his proxy.
Look at me now. General Monkey, Herald of the Red Protectorates and mouthpiece of the Burning Wizard. A long way from home in the Autumn Forests.
“We’ve tasssted the prizzze on the windsss,” hisses Zikizz the Hunter, the smaller of the Bone Spiders. I say “smaller”, but it’s about seven foot from its mandibles of sharpened tiger-rib to its baby toe-bone spinnerets. “We know it has passssed into the Knight’sss handsss.”
Its sibling Shiklizk the Marauder is the scary one. They say Boss Midnight animated it from the burnt bones of an entire pride of gorgons. I try not to meet its gaze, just in case. “Our misstressss desssiresss to possssessss it,” it says. “We will not forsssake thisss opportunity to ssseizzze it.”
“Easier said than done,” booms the Cloud Dragon, who is too big to fit more than its head inside the cathedral-sized tent Amaranth conjured for the parlay. It shakes freezing droplets from its scaled face and sighs a billow of chilling vapour. Cloudy, answerable to nobody, is the only Wizard among the expendable proxies. “Our best assaults have given the Alabaster Knight little cause to contemplate surrender.”
Captain Musha barks and slaps her leather-clad knees, shivering her antlers. “Makin’ everyt’ing too complicated, O grey-scaled lump! Let my fleet turn our cannons on them pretty white walls, eh? Watch ’em crack wide open!”
I roll my fat unlit cigar from one mouth corner to the other and let them bicker. Amaranth wants me to suss out his rivals’ strategies without giving up his own. As if they don’t already know his strategy: knock it all over and watch it burn.
Ineffective against the Citadel. I’ve lost half my tribe, throwing them against its smooth white walls. The Snow Sharpshooters pick them off as they climb, the Pearl Angels swoop down and drop them onto rocks, and once in a while Al himself comes out to make merry with his sword Bonereaver. Amaranth has tried everything – Flame Tornadoes, Burning Giants, Lava Catapults. He even conjured a Volcanic Outburst. It left him flat on his back for a week, with not a scratch on the Knight’s Pallid Keep.
Frankly, he’s running out of tricks. That’s where I come in.
“You got a better idea there, Bones?” I say to the Hunter, tossing a wink to Captain Musha. There’s no love lost between her Sea Dogs and the Spiders. They’ve been rival treasure hunters forever; this siege draws mercenaries like moths to a flame.
“We ssshall sssneak through the cracksss and sssuck the life from hisss alabassster marrow,” suggests Shiklizk. It’s a fine strategy as far as it goes, but there’s a catch.
“Well and good,” I say, “but you can’t do it on your own, can you? Raindrop here already flooded the streets to no avail. The Prince of Oceans sent his Sea Dogs to raid them and tides to tear down their walls. Your Boss Midnight certainly can’t scare anyone out of there with the Angels inflaming their morale.”
“You have a suggestion, little monkey?” says the Cloud Dragon, all thundercloud-rumbling. Guess he doesn’t appreciate the nicknames.
“Let me tell you a story about the place I grew up.” I wave the cigar around my head like a wand, conjuring a tableau of fire and smoke. The Cloud Dragon sniffs and recoils in the presence of open flame, though this is about as much threat to him as a candle in a snowstorm.
“A foressst?” Zikizz leans close to the image. The flame reflects a thousandfold in the black facets of its eyes.
“The Autumn Forest. You princes of magic probably don’t know about places like this. Endless wizarding wars don’t leave much time for tourism.”
Captain Musha looks at me. I can’t read her dog-deer features. “The Autumn Forests burned years ago,” she says.
Sympathy or accusation? Both valid stances.
“Before then, my tribe and a hundred like it roamed among trees a mile high. We licked sap and trapped birds and gorged our fill on more kinds of fruit than you can count.”
“Your lost idylls matter nothing to us, General Monkey. Get to your point before this talk of eating makes me forget the Codes of Parley.”
“Ah, but that is my point, Waterfall. Monkey stomachs were not the only empty ones in that forest. All sorts of hunters wanted to make a snack of us: song leopards, mantisfolk, and most especially Milady D’Autumn’s Evergreen Brigade. We were hunted from every direction and the other. The only thing that kept us alive was –”
“Cooperation,” says Captain Musha. Of course she gets it. She’s a pirate captain. Getting a collection of cutthroat murderers pointed in the same direction is practically her job description.
Easier than convincing anyone smart to ally with the Burning Wizard.
Amaranth uncovered our hiding places during the Raining Season. We huddled in caves and hollows, far from the high canopies of our home, where Milady D’Autumn’s people climbed to spread their twig-fingers wide and turned their bole-faces to the streaming heavens.
Amaranth followed the scent of smoke on our fur and singled out the best of us.
Not me. Not then.
He bellowed his challenge, which made us bare our teeth and hoot our amusement. We didn’t know better. We didn’t know about wizards.
He faced our leaders down, one after another. He endured their sharpest insults and weathered their mocking scorn. They scorched him with their fire magic and threw dung to shame him. Nothing worked.
Then he burned them, one after another, down to the bones. He slaughtered until he found one who would bow down, accept his dominance, and pledge the fire monkeys to his cause.
That was me.
He granted us the tiniest sliver of his power, and told us his bidding. “All I ask,” he told us, “is that you destroy my enemy, who is your enemy also.”
That’s why I killed Milady D’Autumn.
The first part of the plan is simple enough. While Cloud Dragon conjures a downpour so fierce that the Alabaster Knight’s vision is reduced to the tip of his prodigious nose, the rest of us Captain Musha’s flagship, The Animosity, where we are loaded into hollow amber cannonballs. The Bone Spiders fill the cavities with an extruded thread to protect us from harm. Don’t ask for details. The content of my sinuses has more to do with silk than this stuff.
Musha’s cannoneers, it’s reputed, could hit a bird on the wing with a ricochet off another bird on the wing. The shells won’t breach the city walls, but what matters is accuracy, and knowing where to aim. As it happens, I have an inkling.
I’m encased in gunk, waiting to be rolled into the barrel of Musha’s main cannon, when Amaranth calls. His Burning Missive spell tricks my eyes into believing a manly pillar of flame has appeared. It’s vastly preferable to the reality. “General Monkey, what is the state of my plan?”
Webbed up like next week’s dinner, I can’t twitch a single cheek. “The alliance will hold long enough to find the Golden Salamander’s Torc, Master. I wouldn’t rely on a moment more.”
“Betrayal is to be expected. Wizards are greedy narcissists, never to be trusted.”
“If you say so, Master.”
Amaranth’s flaming image narrows its eyes. “You have never given me cause to doubt your loyalty, General. It would be a pity if you were to forego my trust at this ultimate hour.”
“Perish the idea, Inestimable One. It’s my claustrophobia talking. Have you ever been submerged in necromantic glue inside a giant amber ball? It’s more terrifying than it sounds. You should try it sometime.”
Fire-Amaranth waves a dismissive hand. “I shall travel the Searing Paths when you have secured my destination point. Do not fail me.”
“You can rely on me, boss.”
“Fly then, General, and claim my prize.”
A boom like autumn thunder surrounds me. A void of panic empties my gut, like the instant of missing a branch or spotting a predator. If I could move, I would bite my cigar so hard I’d swallow it.
I fly at the Alabaster Citadel in a cocoon of gold and glue.
Milady D’Autumn’s people called themselves the Arbora, or sometimes the Kingdom of Branches. When we thought about them at all, which was not often when they weren’t hunting and chasing us, my people called them Twiggers and Saplings and Bushfeet, and a hundred other cheeky names.
They hunted us in the dark windy weeks before the snows came. Before food became scarce. Sometimes they set snares for us. Sometimes they trained hunting birds to pluck our young from the treetops. Often they just threw spears or loosed arrows. Once in a while they got lucky, killing one of us who was too young, slow or inattentive.
It didn’t matter to the rest. We monkey kings would laugh and tease and bare our arses at the soldiers with their leaf green tunics. When they got too close, we wished the forests aflame and escaped in the smoky mayhem. As we swung off, we heard their cries over the crackling flames and laughed all the harder.
Those cries sustained us through winter. How we laughed.
Light seeps through the enveloping gunk, which sloughs off my fur like a rotten fruit rind. I am sliding on a treacly smear down the side of the Tower of Chalk. I snatch a passing window ledge and swing myself inside.
The Cloud Dragon’s downpour begins, blasting the walls clean of spider goo and cannon shell fragments in my wake.
Inside, our shells have devastated a gallery of delicate tapestries and ornate sculptures. Captain Musha and the Bone Spiders clean themselves of muck in the rubble.
“I missed the window,” I say with a scowl at Musha. “Perhaps your gunners aren’t as good as you claim?”
Musha booms with laughter. “We all made it, General Monkey! When three of four shots find their mark, I call it a success!”
“Cool yourssself, little ape,” says Shiklizk the Marauder. “A minor missscalculation. Nothing more, unlessss you wisssh to make an accusssation?”
Musha’s hand drops to the pommel of her magic sword Winning Argument. Is that a wicked monkey-cutting grin on her snout?
“Of course not,” I reply, flicking gunk from the tip of my cigar. I am suddenly desperate for a smoke. “This partnership has never been stronger.”
“Funny you should say that,” says Musha, crossing to the window and pointing up at the furious storm clouds roaring thunderclaps and vomiting torrents. The face of the Cloud Dragon is sketched in lightning flashes, gleaming with sadistic fervour.
A blinding blue flash appears at the centre of the tumult. It spreads through the tumultuous clouds like a glowing ink stain. The tenor of the thunder changes, rising to a deafening howl.
“What was that?”
“A special shell,” replies Musha. The clouds solidify into ice, a great block that fills the sky. At its dark heart is the Cloud Dragon, its dim face frozen with inarticulate rage. “I bound a colony of arctic wind spirits inside.”
The dark sky cracks. Shards fall like frozen knives onto the streets and lanes of the Eggshell Citadel. Some of the bigger pieces glint like dragon scales.
“Very resourceful.” I turn from the carnage below, where the Alabaster Knight’s citizens and foot soldiers have been annihilated. “Did I not explain the concept of alliance clearly enough?”
Musha swaggers, pleased with her handiwork. “If a pirate knows anyting, Monkey, it’s how equal shares work.”
“We are wasssting time.” Zikizz’s tiger-mandibles rattle in hungry anticipation. “We cannot sssplit a prizzze before it’sss found.”
“Lead on, O treasure hunter.”
The Tower of Chalk overlooks the Pallid Keep; we climb down from one to the other almost undisturbed. A drenched and battered Pearl Angel spots us. It tries to raise the alarm with its bleached horn, which scours the memory of hope from its victims. Captain Musha throws a knife in its eye. While it’s confused, Shiklizk bites its head off.
We don’t see anyone else until Zikizz’s uncanny loot-sense leads us to the Knight’s treasure chamber.
It’s an indoor pond.
Warm mossy rocks and a thicket of jungle plants surround a dark pool. Soothing insect sounds fill the air. Light beams cut through thick fronds, radiating from some unseen sun and mottling the rippling water.
The Golden Salamander is splayed across the largest rock; a ring of beaten silver and bronze is propped atop its flat head. His bulbous eyes swivel lazily toward us.
“Well, if it isn’t the red monkey,” he drawls. “Wondered who’d get to me first.”
“The Burning Wizard’s got his eye on your torc,” I explain.
His eyes swirl and roll independently, taking in my motley company. “Not such a good idea, Red. The Knight won’t give me up without a fight.”
Zikizz scuttles forward to the water’s edge. “We care nothing for you, lizzzard. Sssurrender your prize or we will take it from your husssk.”
The Salamander sticks out its tongue in a slow flop. “Can’t do that. It’s attached.”
“Then I feassst,” snaps Zikizz. It pounces.
“Hey, stop!” My warning’s too late. The Salamander closes his eyes as the torc flashes like the sun. Zikizz bounces away like an invisible lease has snapped it back. It hits the wall and curls into a twitching ball.
“Sorry!” says the Salamander. “I can’t help it. It’s a reflex!”
“Sssibling!” snaps Shiklizk. It tenses for an attack but I’m no longer off guard. I throw a wall of flames in its path.
“Back off, Bones! Stick to the plan.”
Shiklizk turns in a rage, raising its gleaming forelegs to strike. I wonder what it’s like to be digested in a necromantic cage of animated bones. It’s not a happy picture.
Then Zikizz chitters shakily and rolls itself upright in an ungainly spread of legs. It’s alive. Alive-ish? Whatever.
“Happy now?” I waggle my burning middle finger in Shiklizk’s bone face until it backs off with a disgruntled hiss. “Good. Remember, the torc is trying to protect itself. Guard the door. Concentrate on not looking like an unspeakably nightmarish threat.”
Musha pops open a belt pouch and pulls out a variety of gadgets – tuning fork, stoppered tubes of coloured oils, feathers of various sizes. “Everyting here is trap,” she declares.
I wince. She’s used to making herself heard over the sound of the ocean; her voice carries. We’re going to attract attention. It’s time to call Amaranth in. I clear a space on the floor and light a summoning circle-shaped ring of flame.
“Anything you can’t disarm?”
Musha snorts. “Please. Is it tickin’? I silence it. Is it not bolted down? I steal it.”
I begin the ritual steps to open a portal to the Searing Paths. “What if the thing that’s ticking is bolted down?”
“I keep t’ bolts.”
My monkey army wore the insignia of the Burning Wizard and donned the uniforms of the Red Protectorate. Before, my people never wore a stitch or carved an icon. Amaranth was big on branding, excuse the pun.
We stormed the Arbora capital and put Milady D’Autumn’s forces to the torch. The streets filled with leaf-sweet smoke, so thick that not even Amaranth’s far-seeing eyes could witness the victory. The Evergreen Brigade formed a tight circle of defence about the Forest Queen. My retinue of sisters and cousins surrounded them, screeching and blazing in triumph.
“I congratulate you, General Monkey,” she said. Her hair wafted in the flurries whipped up by the encircling flames. Her pale green skin was flushed with the rising heat. “Your master chose his slaves well. You have served his designs admirably.”
“He’s a good judge of opportunity,” I replied. “But don’t give me the credit. He never would’ve brought my people to his cause if you didn’t fight your wizard battles with him.”
She inclined her head. “You may be right,” she said. Her skin was crinkling like onion skin, her hair curling like worms on a hot stone. “But all of us must act in accordance with our nature. It is in the nature of my people to chase the heat until it burns us.”
“Yeah? My people got a different nature.” The heat was unbearable for the Arbora. The Evergreen Brigade withered and dried, becoming rough husks wearing monkey leather armour.
“You are vindictive and mischievous,” said Milady D’Autumn, understanding the fire monkeys for perhaps the first time.
“I am that and more,” I told her as her leafy flesh wrinkled and dried into paper.
“Let me show you a trick.”
Musha is as good as her boast. The final lock is a jigsaw of murder-runes triggering a vortex-portal to a maze dimension teeming with carnivorous cacti and swarms of zombie wasps. The Alabaster Knight is very serious about home security.
Musha waggles her antlers in a pattern of ritual suppression until the lock fizzes out of existence.
The Golden Salamander gets to taste about six seconds of freedom before the Knight hits us.
Broad daylight streams in as the roof bursts open. The Alabaster Knight and his retinue of Pearl Angels drop through in a hail of white quartz rubble and righteous fury.
I’ve nearly completed the ritual. If I break it off now, its fixed magic will unravel like a wildfire, consuming everyone. I help by raising the heat given off by the circle; the thermal updrafts play havoc with the Angels’ flight.
The Knight fixes on Zikizz, mistaking it for our ringleader. Al’s physically formidable but he’s nobody’s first pick for tactical genius.
The Angels swoop, their talons glistening with demoralising venom. One strays too close to the Salamander, who mutters “Oops” and “Didn’t mean it” as the torc swipes the Angel into a gooey grey smear on the far wall. Musha shoots another between its sunspot eyes. The others attack Zikizz with swords, claws and a heavenly chorus of unintelligible smack talk.
Just as I finish the ritual, Shiklizk leaps onto the Knight’s back. With a noise like a breaking egg, an ashen proboscis explodes from the middle of the Alabaster Knight’s forehead. The Knight’s perfect porcelain skin start to grey and harden; cracks radiate from the protruding bone.
A foot-long spike of monster bone impaling his head doesn’t slow the Knight as much as you’d expect. He kicks back at Shiklizk, pulling himself off the impaling bone. His sword Bonereaver arcs around and lops four of Shiklizk’s forelimbs off at their inner joints. The two crash together in a pale tangle of bone and white armour.
I toss a low-power flame stream into the fracas between the Angels and Zikizz as a distraction. The spell unexpectedly forks into two flows. Each envelops an Angel and incinerates it between one breath and the next.
Amaranth has arrived.
Musha fires her pistols at the Knight’s back but he’s made of stronger stuff than the Angels. The Knight flings a retaliatory knife. Musha folds over as it punches through her breastplate.
It’s all the victory the Knight enjoys.
Shiklizk spins a lasso of grave-silk and pins the Knight’s sword arm with it. Amaranth heats the Knight’s platinum plate armour to melting point. The Alabaster Knight fries without saying a word.
I move to help Musha.
Zikizz intercepts me, skittering with uncanny grace for a collection of bones. “Ssstay where you are, Monkey.” It bares its bone fangs, forcing me back a step. The bone shards of Shiklizk’s severed legs spike up, forming a cage around me. Shiklizk looms behind.
Trapped, I look to Amaranth. He can’t quite keep a superior smirk off his dour countenance.
“So that’s how it is, huh?” I tap the butt of my cigar against the bone bars of my cage. Fireproof and unbreakable. My heart begins to pound. “Arachs before brachs?”
“You should take it as a compliment, General Monkey,” says Amaranth from behind his almost-smile. “You’ve learned my fire magic techniques well. Never before have I had a pupil so gifted that he became a threat to my power.”
I nervously bite the end from the cigar and spit it on the floor, where it writhes and begins to smoke in the lingering heat of the summoning ritual. “I was never disloyal, boss.”
Amaranth chuckles. “You didn’t need to show it. I understand your unreliable nature well enough. Sooner or later you would have betrayed me.” He approaches the Golden Salamander slowly, murmuring respectful remarks about the Torc’s power and appearance. When he gingerly plucks the Torc from the Salamander’s head and places it on his own, they both sigh with evident relief.
I point the cigar at the Salamander. “Were you in on this, Goldie?”
The Salamander shakes its head. “Nothing to do with me. I was just the chump stuck carrying the macguffin.”
“Then I’m sorry.” The cigar tip bursts into flame; Amaranth’s power suppresses any stronger magic. I take a big drag on the fat roll of dried leaves and hold the hot smoke in. I feel it swirl and cool inside my chest. I puff it out in a long exhalation in Shiklizk’s face.
“I guess you got me sussed, boss.” I make a show of the next puff, waggling my eyebrows as it emits a series of tiny pops like distant firecrackers. “I can’t be trusted.”
“Sssomething is wrong. What isss he burning?” Zikizz the Hunter has a good sense of smell for a walking ossuary.
I drag again, pulling until the scorching tip hits my lips. More pops. “Doesn’t it smell good?” I say. “It’s my personal blend. Some tobacco. A pinch of ground bark. Just a hint of mint leaf.”
On the floor outside my cage, the cigar ash piles like a snowy mountain peak. Tiny avalanches form on its slopes.
I blow out the last of the smoke and drop the butt into the ash pile. “But it wouldn’t work without the secret ingredient. The dried seed pods of Milady D’Autumn and her elite Evergreen Brigade.”
Amaranth gets it. “What have you done?”
The ash pile shivers and splits. Green saplings sprout and grow, creaking with the speed of their expansion.
“That’s the thing about nature, boss. It’s all about cycles. Life, death, destruction, rebirth. We monkeys, we live for fun, food and fire, and when we die, we rot for the worms. That’s natural. But we don’t all got the same nature, do we?”
The saplings spread and reach for the sky. Shiklizk snaps at one with its gorgon-mandibles; the springy trunk resists its bite. The young trees are taking distinctly human shapes.
“The Forest people, their nature’s different. They need the spring rain and the summer sun to grow and flourish. And when the autumn comes, their thinking turns to the next generation. Then they come hunting for that old monkey fire.”
Amaranth has a panicked look. He stumbles back, his hands aflame. He’s preparing a big spell – Scalding Geyser, or maybe a Volcanic Outburst. More than hot enough.
“A little taste of flame, that’s all the seeds needed to get them going.” He probably thinks I mean the ones in the cigar. I don’t mention how many of those seeds I’ve been carrying in my guts since I made the deal. Freedom for rejuvenation.
One sapling reaches Amaranth’s size. Its bark hardens in the shape of a face. Its branches are green-tipped claws.
I can’t resist. “Do you think the new Milady knows the Codes of Parley, Amaranth?”
Ooh. It’s getting hot in here.
Copyright (c) 2016 David Versace. All rights reserved.
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