The Keeper of the Seals by Alec Hutson
The stars whispered and the shadows laughed in the Garden of Lost Nightingales.
Wen Linxing glided along the twisting paths, beneath trellises laced with thorned vines and through stone archways gilded silver by the falling moonlight. Shapes flickered between branches, and the hum of insects rose and fell with his soft footfalls. In the distance, etched black against the velvet sky, the bone-shard towers of the warlocks pierced the night.
He came to a stone table in a small glade. He knew this place – his father had sat here, during Wen’s childhood, to savor the words of the ancient poets as the dawn broke the darkness and the world began to stir. The garden had been a refuge, secreted in the folds of Tsai Yin, far from where the teeming market crowds jostled and the waitao sellers called out the freshness of their delicacies and the Thousand Voices of the Jade Court knelt in obeisance before the Phoenix Throne. A place for meditation, to contemplate on what had come before and what might yet be.
It had also been destroyed sixty years ago, in the great fire that had swept Tsai Yin in the Year of Falling Stars.
And so Wen knew he must be dreaming, even though that should be impossible. He had drunk the coldblossom tea, as he had nearly every night since he had become the Keeper of the Seals. That was because if he did not, then they would come, slipping into his mind, stalking him through the forests of his dreams.
But this night he had not forgotten his tea, he was sure of it. And yet here he was, in the lost garden of his youth.
With slow and measured steps he approached the table and its curving bench. His heart thundered, loud enough to make the moon shiver. Terror thickened the air, stealing away his breath. He sank down upon the stone, slipping his hands inside the long sleeves of his robes. Around him the music of the night swelled – the insects cast their cries into the darkness, the nightingales entreated each other to abandon their solitude, and the stars continued their unintelligible, whispered conversations.
He watched the darkness. And he felt the darkness watching him.
A shape stepped from the shadows, small and twisted.
we are coming
Wen Linxing came awake, gasping, clawing at his blankets. The feeling of small, clammy hands brushing his skin slowly faded, leaving only goosepimples and a sheen of cold sweat.
He rolled over, and after a quick fluttering of his shaking fingers and a muttered incantation light blossomed in his chamber. His first glance
was to the rosewood table beside his bed – yes, there was his empty cup, its insides stained blue-black with the dregs of the coldblossom tea. He had not been mistaken. His night should have been dreamless. And yet they had come into his chamber, into his thoughts, when that should have been impossible.
He considered ringing the servant bell beside his bed. The sound would travel along the metal pipes that veined the bone-shard tower, down into its distant depths. Then the boys would come, panting, having run up two dozen flights of stairs, their hair still mussed from sleep and concern twisting their faces. Why would the Keeper of the Seals ring the bell at this hour? What could possibly have happened?
Foolishness. He was an old man, and what comfort could some frightened youth bring him? Groaning at the stiffness in his limbs he rose from his bed. The pale light he had summoned followed him as he shuffled across his chamber to his desk. Perhaps he could soothe his troubled mind by reading from one of the eight classics. If anything could banish the lingering dread of his dreams it would be the words of the Immortals.
He opened the annals of Sagewa Tain, the thump of the heavy cover making his heart leap. He attempted to concentrate on the couplets, but he found his attention drifting. His light left pooled shadows in his chamber, and he had to force himself to ignore the thought of what could be crouched in the darkness, staring at him hungrily from the other side of the veil.
But the seals were still strong. They had not degraded in the slightest since they had been forged almost two thousand years ago. The Betrayers could not slip their prison – only a faint echo of their hate reverberated in the dreams of those who stood watch. As it had always been.
He returned to the annals.
The soul of man
Labors to create a perfect world
Yet the true perfection
Must first be fashioned within
Ancient truth. The only control we truly have is over ourselves. Believing that we can master what surrounds us before we master the Self will lead to ruin. Wen stroked his wispy beard with gnarled fingers, considering this. Could a better understanding of himself keep his dreams unsullied by the Betrayers? Was their presence a sign of a weakness that had grown within him, some stain upon his soul?
Perhaps if he –
His chamber trembled. It was like a drop of water had fallen upon the surface of reality, sending a ripple through the world.
He staggered away from his desk, the light flickering above him. As quickly as it had come the moment passed. The edges of the chamber sharpened again, returning to how they had been.
But something had changed.
It was the seals – they had been touched.
Fear clutched at his heart. Their prison. He must go to it.
Gathering his sorcery he rushed across the chamber and flung open the door. The passage outside seemed to contract, twisting beneath his feet. He took a few stumbling steps, then closed his eyes, willing himself calm. When he looked again the corridor was as it should be. To his left, spiral stairs leading down. To his right, the door to where they were imprisoned.
It was cracked open.
Trying to master his fear his hand touched the black iron handle. Warm, still tingling from some strange sorcery.
Who would risk freeing the Betrayers? Who could be so foolish? Only the Raveling, but the strength needed to open this door meant that one of the most powerful warlocks had been corrupted.
Clutching as much of his own sorcery as he could hold, Wen pushed the door wide. His light shattered into countless shards, fragmented by the mirrors ringing the chamber. These were ancient devices, created long ago by the greatest of the warlocks, designed to reflect and amplify the spells that kept the Betrayers bound.
In the center of the room was the rosewood chest, carved with warnings. Its lid, thankfully, was closed. The intruder had not managed to pierce the seals, give praise to Heaven and all the blessed Immortals.
She stood a few paces in front of the chest, facing away from him. He could feel the massive surge of sorcery swirling around her, locking her flesh like she had been turned to stone. He stepped closer, awed by the struggle he felt. She had cut through the outer seals with her sorcery, and it was only this last one that had captured her. Never had he imagined that any sorcerer alive today could get so far – these seals had been crafted by the greatest warlocks of Shan during the golden age of the old empire. Such Talents had not been born in many centuries. And yet he felt her striving against these suffocating magics, contesting with the will of those vanished warlocks.
She should be dead. Wen circled around her. A shiver of surprise went through him when he saw that she was not from Shan. Her hair was a midnight black, but her eyes were wide and round, her skin dusky. She was a northern barbarian. What was she doing here?
He felt her watching him, her pupils following his steps as he paced in front of her. She was a sorceress like he had never encountered. Her power awed him. The sorcery behind the seals was as vast and relentless as the sea. And now it had been stirred up into a storm. But the waves dashing against her defenses . . . it was hard to tell, but it almost felt like their fury might be slackening . . .
A sound. Something sharp scraping against wood.
“No,” he moaned.
This was a nightmare. He was still trapped in his dreams. He concentrated, trying to will himself awake.
In the mirror across from him he saw the lid of the chest slowly open.
He should turn around, but he could not. The terror had gripped him as fiercely as the sorcery of the seals held this northerner.
A pale arm emerged from the chest. Fingers curled against the wood. Tangled black hair rose up from within. It veiled the creature’s face as it slipped over the edge of the chest, arms and legs crooked unnaturally. It raised its head, as if sniffing the air. Behind it another corpse-white arm, black veins etched stark against its skin, lifted from the chest.
“No,” Wen murmured, tearing his gaze from the mirror. This couldn’t be happening. He forced himself to stare at the northern sorceress. Her eyes were looking past him, intent on the Betrayers. Then with a pained grunt she collapsed to one knee, the sorcery of the ancients dissipating before her impossible strength.
“No,” Wen repeated.
She raised her head to look at him. Her face was flushed, and a smile crooked her lips.
Coldness touched his leg. Wen glanced down. White fingers had curled around his ankle.
They spoke then, in the hoarse whispers of many lost children.
we have come