Amethyst, Shadow, and Light

As a ‘thank you’ to readers for helping me out in my recent crowdfunding campaign, here’s some free old-school-esque sword-and-sorcery by yours truly. “Amethyst, Shadow, and Light” is new to the internet, and features Zok Ironeyes and Hai Hai the rabbitwoman (who debuted in “Iron-Eyes and the Watered Down World), in my Robert E Howard/Fritz Leiber pastiche world, The Jeweled Empires. Enjoy!

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You can also download “Amethyst, Shadow, and Light” as a free ebook here.

Amazing art by Adi Fitri. This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in FEARSOME JOURNEYS: THE NEW SOLARIS BOOK OF FANTASY, (ed. Jonathan Strahan).

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Amethyst, Shadow, and Light

Saladin Ahmed

 

“I just think it’s a bad idea,” Zok Ironeyes said as he sat down to a hilltop meal of oatcakes and pigeon eggs with Hai Hai. Below them, across a vast expanse of the greygrass that gave Greygrass Barrows its name, stood the small manor house under discussion. Zok popped a pickled egg into his mouth and turned his gaze from the bright green house to his partner’s beady black eyes.

Hai Hai waved a dismissive white paw. Her long, pink-tipped ears drooped slightly, as they did when she was annoyed. “‘A bad idea.’ That’s what you always say. That’s what you said about the Mad Monk’s Meadery.”

Zok chewed and swallowed. “And we were nearly killed by the shade of a baby-eating cleric there.”

“You were happy enough with the outcome, though. We rode away with a case of rubywine and you met those two whores with the rhyming names.” The rabbitwoman smiled wickedly and took a bite of her oatcake.

Zok also smiled in spite of himself. “Anyway, abandoned house, unattended loot that somehow hasn’t been claimed yet – this all sounds too good. A beautiful beer-bottle with poison inside.” But even as he said it, he was plotting out their approach in his mind.

The greygrass was tall enough that even Zok could approach unseen. The sweet-smelling blades swayed in the breeze, enough so that the duo’s movement might be masked. It was either a perfect score or a trap.

Zok knew how that usually ended. Still, the thousand gods damn him, he’d never been able to resist a ripe peach dangling from a low branch.

He ate his last pigeon egg. Perhaps Hai Hai’s mewling stooge had told the truth. Perhaps the place had been left unattended all season. The Legion kept a relative peace on the roads, even this far out, but bandits were hardly unheard of. Not to mention wolves and grasscats. The owners would have to be away to have left the ground uncleared so close to the front door.

Unless they had… other ways of keeping watch.

Zok took a long pull from his wineskin and turned it all over in his mind again. But there was little point. Either they went in, as quiet as they could, or they didn’t. “This source of yours… you trust him?”

Hai Hai drained her own wineskin, and a thin red rivulet trickled down her chin, staining her white fur. “Foxshit and fire, Zok, no, I don’t trust him! It’s a fucking gamble, same as anything we do in this road-life of ours. How many thousand-gods-damned fool errands have I followed you on? Hunting that toad-headed demon you’re always going on about? Peace and honor to your dead wife, man, but—”

Zok nearly growled at the blithe mention of Fraja’s name. Out of habit, his fingers went into his purse and touched the earring that was his only memento of his wife.

Hai Hai saw the fire in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Zok. I know she was a fine woman, but she was nothing to me. I’ve helped you try to avenge her because you’re my partner. That means something. So if I say ‘here’s a score,’ you should…”

As Hai Hai spoke, Zok stood and strapped his bespelled broadsword Menace to his hip. By the time she finished her little speech, he was already moving quietly down the hill toward the manor house.

 

* * *

 

The two-story house was made of green-glazed brick, and had a flat, crenelated roof. Stables, a small barn, and a shed stood off to the side. Not a sound came from any of the buildings. No light from lamps, no smoke from fires. No animals about, either, other than the odd sparrow or squirrel.

The front door of the green house was a slab of etchwood covered in images of animals. Zok knew right away that it was genuine, and his pulse raced at the size and complexity of the nature-wrought scenes. Etchwood was prized for the naturally occurring images it held, but usually one found a single flower or a sun. A slab this size, with this many little pictures… Zok smiled, despite his unease. One part of the story was true, at least—there was great wealth here.

Beside him, Hai Hai sniffed once, and her ears stiffened. She gave him the someone’s here hand gesture. Zok’s muscles tensed. He looked before him, behind him. Nothing.

Something struck him hard from above. The quiet afternoon exploded with shouts.

A man had dropped onto him from the rooftop. Even as he crumpled to the ground, Zok shoved his attacker away. The man—no more than a blur of colorful robes to Zok’s eyes—was on top of him again in an instant. Where is Hai Hai? Zok couldn’t see his partner. Worse, he couldn’t reach his sword.

Zok wrestled with his attacker. The man smelled of cloves, and his mustache was long and braided. An Eastlander? What in the Three Hells is he doing here, besides trying to kill me? Somewhere behind him he heard a woman shouting and Hai Hai cursing.

Menace’s hilt dug into his ribs. Zok tried to gouge the man’s eyes, tried to get space for a good head-butt. But despite being much smaller, the Eastlander was nearly as strong as Zok. Few enough men could say that.

Zok felt the battle-madness rise in him. Enough of this. He twisted and bit the Eastlander, tasting blood.

It worked. The man screamed and looked at Zok as if he had just become a giant viper. Zok seized on the Eastlander’s surprise. He managed to flip the man onto his back, then sat astride him, pinning his wrists. A dozen yards away, Hai Hai was facing off against a small, dark-haired woman also wearing vibrant robes. The rabbitwoman had lost one of her sabers. The Eastlander woman wasn’t armed, but a strange glow surrounded her hands, and they danced like weapons.

Zok looked back to his attacker. Now that he’d been pinned, the man didn’t struggle. He just lay there, staring at Zok as if at a mad dog.

Only then did Zok notice the man’s necklace. Around his neck was an incredibly thin band of what looked like… amethyst. The stone of the Empire.

Zok could still hear Hai Hai and the Eastlander woman, but he could no longer see them.

Do they work for the Amethyst Empress? Why in the Three Hells would Easterners be working for the Empire? Who are these people? They were good, whoever they were. That rooftop blow would have knocked most men cold.

But Zok was not most men.

“Stand down, woman, or I’ll kill your friend here!” he shouted. It was a bluff—as soon as Zok released the man’s hands he’d have a fighting opponent again—but it was worth a try.

“Zok, don’t—” Hai Hai’s shout came from somewhere behind him before it was cut short. Zok turned, trying to keep hold of his captive. He saw Hai Hai sprawled at the robed woman’s feet.

Then the Eastlander twisted away hard, breaking free of Zok’s grip. Something—some sort of pink light—blazed forth from the man’s hand, catching Zok full in the face. It burned his eyes, and he had trouble breathing. In an instant, he felt the magical light clouding his mind as well.

“Bind them,” he heard the Eastlander say from far away. Only then did he realize he was lying on the ground. It was all Zok could do to keep his eyes open. After another moment, he couldn’t even do that.

* * *

 Zok awoke in chains. It had happened to him enough times that he did not panic. He was indoors, in a drafty building with a high ceiling. It was dark—the dark just before sunrise, his body told him, which meant he’d been out for hours—and his nose picked up the faded scents of horse and riding-beast nearby. He guessed he was in the stables of the house he’d just tried to rob.

He tested his bonds once, twice, thrice. But it was no use—whoever had chained him had known just how strong he was.

Just as his eyes were adjusting to the dark, a weasel of a man entered the stables. He carried a torch in one hand, and what looked like a jewelry box in the other.

“Who do you work fo

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