The Hidden Queen
I’m Darin Bales, and I’m looking for my mam.
Never knew my da. He died before I was born. Savin’ the world, if you believe I’m telling honest word. Ask around if you like. Walk a hundred miles, and folk will all tell you Arlen Bales went down to the Core and sacrificed himself. How his last act was seen in the sky in the form of great, blazing wards that turned the tide of the demon war, burning the corelings to ash. Even those with him at the time say it. My bloodfather. My mam.
I was there, too, in a manner of speaking. Still in Mam’s belly when he died, but she says I spilled out onto the stone floor of the demon hive just minutes later.
Missed my only chance to meet my da by minutes. Might as well be years. Goin’ back a minute, a single second, ent any easier.
I’m starting to think folk were wrong, though. World still needs savin’. And if they’re wrong about that part, why not the other? My aunt Leesha is a fortune teller. She cast her demonbones in my blood, and there was magic about the throw, to be sure. Her words have replayed in my mind so many times they’ve become part of me.
The father waits below in darkness for his progeny to return.
Might mean other things. Ent such a fool I’d trust a prophecy to say everything it seems to. But it ent crazy to wonder if something of my da is still down there, stuck halfway to the Core, like a cork in a bottle.
But while my da might be alive, I know my mam is. And I know the thing that’s got her is trying to fatten her up like a choice pig for a wedding feast.
Din’t know my da growin’ up. Saw other boys with theirs and knew I was missin’ something, but it’s hard to really miss someone you’ve never met.
Mam was the one who was always there for me. Who fed me and taught me and kept me safe. Mam, who felt strong as the sun.
Now she’s gone. Taken. And I’m left to care for myself, best I can. It’s good I got help, because I don’t think I could do it alone. Since my first born day, folk have been trying to see something of Mam and Da in me, and they always go away disappointed.
And it ent just myself I need to take care of. All those years Mam looked out for me, what kind of son would I be if I din’t come after her? Even if it means walking into the lair of a creature the Jongleurs have a dozen names for, each scarier than the last. The demon king. The Father of Evil.
Alagai Ka. He has some plan to hatch a new hive queen, and if he does . . .
What did Da even die for, if I let Alagai Ka bring it all back? If I let him feed Mam to a hatchling queen and repopulate the hive with a new generation of demons, just when folk were startin’ to have a taste of what life could be without ’em?
I ent up to the job of stoppin’ him, of course. I’ve got fifteen summers, and the demon king is older than a mountain. Got a bit of magic I can use—more by frightened instinct than control—but the Father of Evil wields power as easily as I play a tune on my pipes. Alagai Ka’s got nothin’ to be scared of, and I’ve never felt anything but. If I go alone, I’m more likely to die tryin’ than put a rock in front of his plow.
But I’m not alone. Got a lot of friends, all of them better than me at one thing or another.
Olive Paper’s got magic of her own—bound to her in the form of muscle and bone. Reckon she could pick up a milk cow and throw it through the barn wall. Demon’s got her mam, too, and she’s none too pleased about it.
Selen Cutter ent as strong as Olive, but she’s a fair sight bigger’n stronger than me. Smarter, too. Don’t know I would have dared any of this, trekking hundreds of miles through a desert to find Olive, if I hadn’t known Selen would be around to keep me safe.
Arick and Rojvah, my cousins in all but blood, project confidence and assurance I can never have. Arick is built like a prize bull, and the best fighter I’ve ever seen short of Olive. Rojvah’s music puts mine to shame, luring demons—and folk—in close and putting them under her spell.
I can’t save our parents alone, but maybe all of us together can.
Want to get on with it. To get on the road and run at the thing I’m scared of, hoping the momentum, and not wanting to disappoint my friends, will keep pushing me forward when I get too spooked.
But first, we got some business left to attend.
The funeral ent all that different from one of Tender Harral’s Seventhday services back home in Tibbnet’s Brook. Bunch of long, loud, boring prayers mixed with bits of half-sung lyrics, sandwiched between tedious sermons. Only here the prayers and lectures are all in Krasian, and instead of the little chapel up on Boggin’s Hill, I’m in legendary Sharik Hora.
I’ve been in grand Holy Houses before. The Cathedral of the Deliverer in Hollow. The great Library and Cathedral of Miln. Even the new Sharik Hora in Everam’s Bounty—which took my breath away, first time I saw it—pales in comparison with the real
Sharik Hora, the temple of heroes’ bones in Fort Krasia, or Desert Spear, as the locals call it.
There’s magic here. Old magic, and . . . sleeping, but I can sense it, even if most folk can’t.
It’s different from what I’m used to. Ent like the demonbone magic Aunt Leesha uses, or the raw magic of the Core Mam used to Draw upon. Not like the magic inside me, born in darkness, or the demons themselves, saturated with magic from the dark below.
It’s just past dawn, sun streaming through the stained-glass windows to fill the place with color and light. Sunlight burns magic away, but it has no effect on this place.
Not like it does on me. I’m as covered up as custom allows, showing nothing but my face and hands. Still the light hurts, and not just my eyes. It dizzies me, and makes my skin itch and burn. Magic comes out at night and clings to me like a stink until sunrise scours it off like sandpaper and a bucket of scalding water.
At night the Temple of Heroes’ Bones comes alive, like it’s got a will of its own. Reckon it does—shaped by the dying emotions of warriors who gave their lives defending humanity from the corelings.
That . . . purpose radiates from the bleached and lacquered bones that decorate every surface of the temple, a golden light that can only be seen by those with magic of their own.
Chandeliers made of hundreds of skulls stare down at us. I can sense every bone in a body, even if I ent got names for ’em all. Altar’s got a bit of everythin’, arranged like a jigsaw, floor-to-ceiling. Even the chalices and fonts pool blessed water in the tops of human skulls.
Alcoves around the room hold entire skeletons of great kai
, captains of the demon war, holding spear and shield even in death. The pews are made of thigh and calf bones, lashed and glued together. Even through three layers of cloth between my bottom and the seat, I can feel the texture of bone. I squirm at the places where joints meet.
It’s unsettling. Even a little scary. But I feel safe here, too. This is one place the demons can’t touch.
Everything stinks of incense, and the chemics used to prepare the dead. For once I don’t mind. Helps mask the smell of thousands of worshippers, their sweat and perfume and the clay dust on their sandals.
Like Seventhday services in the Brook, the pews in Sharik Hora are divided, with men stage right and women stage left. It’s a bit oldfashioned—the Free Cities stopped the practice ages ago—and one of many reasons I used to skip services whenever I could get away with it, which was most of the time.
Here it means I’m on the men’s side with Olive, Arick, and a few hundred Sharum
warriors. Meanwhile, Selen and Rojvah are stuck across the aisle from us with the women.
Don’t make a lot of sense to me, splitting up families across the aisle like this. And what about folk like Olive, who fit on both sides? Or maybe neither.
Not that she looks out of place. I’m the one who doesn’t fit. Everyone in my row, Olive included, has at least six inches and a hundred pounds on me, not counting their armored robes, which puff them up even more. And it ent exactly subtle that I’m the only one not wearing black, or Krasian robes at all. Stand out like a sheep in a nightwolf den.
Across the aisle, Selen stands out just as much. She’s taller than most men, and towers over the other women, thick with muscle and puffed by armored robes of her own. Like me, Selen refuses to dress Krasian, which has its disadvantages. Rojvah blends better in her clerical white, but I know she hates it.
Someone coughs, startling me enough that Olive spares me a glance.
“All right, Darin?” she asks, too quietly for others to hear.
My senses work differently from other folk’s. Nose like a hound and ears like a bat,
Mam used to say. Words whispered to the Creator are as clear to me as those shouted across a taproom.