Author of fantasy, romantasy and romance novels
Fantasy Romance "Wolf of the South"
Would you leave everything behind to start anew?
Wolf of the South
The Stairs of Eternity
Copyright © 2018 by Isa Day
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the author.
Copyright © of this edition 2018 by Pongu Text & Design Ltd., Meilen, Switzerland
Cover design by L1graphics
ISBN: 978-3-906868-07-3 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-3-906868-08-0 (print)
He had killed a woman. That by itself was not unusual. He was an assassin and had been for many years.
But this death was an accident.
Something spooked his steed Reina in one of the busiest streets of Eterna on market day. Her mad dash was short, perhaps a dozen strides, before their strong mutual bond prevailed over mindless panic and she submitted to his control.
Then the wailing started.
When he looked over his shoulder, he saw a woman lying on the dirty cobblestones. A girl was kneeling by her side, shaking with tears. A small pool of blood had already formed next to the woman’s head, and her eyes were staring into the emptiness of death.
And hundreds of glares focused on him in silent accusation.
He knew then that his existence, as he had known it, was over. Because in the Kingdom of Eterna, the price for a life was a life—his own.
It had all happened only yesterday. Since then, he had been sitting in this dungeon, waiting for the judges to come and tell him when and where. Perhaps he would even be allowed to choose.
Not likely. Even if they did not know for sure, they suspected that he was one of the master’s assassins. No, they would kill him as publicly as they could, for all to see and know that evil did not prevail forever.He rose from the bed constructed of rough planks and crossed the room to the grilled window.
The dungeon was situated in one of the lower towers of the ancient magisterial palace. Through the iron bars, he could see the countless turrets and spires of Eterna. To visitors, the city was one of the most beautiful in the world, and always busy. Even now, in the dead of night, murmurs filled the streets, and the shuffling of many, many feet created a sound similar to the gentle humming of a beehive.
He could not forget the narrow shape of the girl. Her back had been bent in grief, her shoulders trembling. And when she turned to look at him, her gaze seemed as old as this eternal city. She belonged to the masses of Eterna’s poor, legions of men, and women, and children who lived their lives in the twilight of the catacombs beneath the palaces and mansions, or in the dingy huts clinging to the ramparts that kept the city safe from invaders.
He knew those areas well, hidden from sight by iron gates and high stone walls. Visitors walking on the boulevards always thought that these separations hid beautiful gardens or provided access to the quarters of slaves and servants.
He knew better.
In Eterna, the underworld started right on the other side of beauty, and death waited in every nook and shadow.
If they allowed him to write a message and dispose of his possessions, he would appoint a guardian for the child, or at least send her some money. Both gestures probably wouldn’t do much good, but he would have tried to right some of the wrong he had caused.
He still did not understand what had happened.
Reina, his most prized possession, was a fully trained assassin’s horse. She also was the gentlest soul he had ever known—unless somebody attacked her master. They had defended each other’s life countless times.
And he knew one thing with absolute certainty: She did not spook, not ever.
Even when they had crossed the battlefields of old, ghosts rising from the earth around them by the thousands, she kept her eyes on their destination and never wavered.
He had been set up.
And so it ended here, when he was only twenty-six. Gone was the hope of buying his freedom one day, or of returning to his home in the South.
“Emilio?” he heard the wind whisper his name.
He swung around, his gaze darting over the rough stone walls of his wedge-shaped prison cell.
A shadow moved in the farthest corner where the light of the torch didn’t reach.
Few people were able to sneak up on him, but she could.
“Nameless,” he whispered.
When she ran to him, he caught her in his arms and held her tight for long moments.
“I am so sorry!”
She leaned back to look up at him. In many ways, she reminded him of the girl he had orphaned today, although the child had been fair-skinned beneath the dirt and her hair bright. Faya’s skin showed the dark olive hue of all true Southerners. Her hair and eyes shone black like the night. But her eyes…their expression was even older than the girl’s. Yet she was only nineteen years old.
He had to know. “Was I set up?”
“Yes. I tried to find the child, knowing that you would wish to make amends. I didn’t find her. That was when I started to wonder. In Eterna, you will always find a witness willing to talk if there is enough money involved.”
Emilio nodded. “Where did you find her?”
“In the Fields of Death, her skin melting on a burning pyre. Her throat had been slit and her eye sockets gouged. She was somebody’s pawn.”
“She wasn’t human, Emilio. It must have been a powerful magician who created her from red clay, grease, and blood. From what I learned, even you and I could create these human imitations, but true power is needed to make them go away again. If you don’t, they will follow you until you go mad.”
Emilio shuddered. “So it can’t have been the master.”
“He could have paid for it. But I checked his books. There was no evidence of money paid, or favors or services promised.”
“You did what?”
She looked at him with her huge, fearless eyes and put her fingertips on his lips. “I need you to listen to me, Emilio. There isn’t much time until they come for you. I believe that they will offer you the choice of the Stairs of Eternity. If they do, please accept.”
He stared at her at a loss for words. Her request begged a thousand questions. He tried to decide on the most important one. “I thought they were a myth.”
“They are real. I have climbed and descended them myself several times.”
And the thousand questions popped into a million.
Training overrode curiosity. Focus on the mission. “What exactly is my choice in this matter?”
Faya took his hands, led him to the rough bed, and made him sit down next to her on the planks. “I used the stairs on our master’s missions. Thus, I can only tell you what I learned from the guardians. If the evil-doer repents, the jury of the elders can offer the person a choice—certain death or daring the stairs for a second chance. You will have to leave everything behind and prove your worth. If you manage to do so, you are allowed to continue with your new life. If not, they will obliterate your soul as if you never had lived.”
Emilio snorted. “Sounds like a sure win. Why should I try? In many ways, I have never lived. Better they kill me right away.”
“Don’t let the master win. Please. We were not allowed to choose our first life, but you might get a chance at a second one of your own making.”
He sighed, looking away from her mesmerizing eyes.
She knew better than to push him. Instead, she put her head on his shoulder. “You know. For a cell, this one is not half bad.”
He could not suppress a grin. “There’s good company. So far, I have counted seven rats. The water is fresh, the wooden bed clean, and they even gave me a bucket.”
“Paradise,” Faya sighed dramatically.
“Of course, you could always flee with me the way I came. There is a hidden door back there. And there are tunnels in the walls.”
“The day I sacrifice honor is the day I die!”
Faya smiled, unperturbed by his harsh answer, and rose to her feet. “Go down the stairs, Emilio. Promise me?”
“I will think about it.”
They looked at each other for long moments. He wanted to rise and hug her. If he did, he would never let her go. “See you in hell,” he finally whispered the traditional assassins’ farewell.
“See you in a new and happier life,” she answered.
Like a shadow, she was gone. He and the rats were alone again.
He had to wait for another day, and another. Guards came, gave him food and water, and emptied the bucket.
He should have been grateful. In Eterna, lots of people lived their lives in much severer constraints—five to twelve people in a single dirty and drafty room smaller than his cell, with no regular meals. Only water was never a problem. The city took pride in its aqueducts and many fountains. And soiling the water—no matter if by oversight or on purpose—was punished by instant death.
He should have been grateful to receive two more days in a life that had officially ended. Instead, it was grating. Seconds went by like years, minutes like millennia.
What took them so long? There could only be one verdict.
Emilio sat down cross-legged on the wooden boards that formed his bed and leaned back against the rough stone wall. Outside, the late spring sun was shining. Birds sang their most beautiful tunes. And he felt comfortably warm, which was a blessing. Having been born in the South, he had never got used to the cold, despite the excruciating training to which his master had submitted him.
So why now? Had the set-up been planned for a long time? Or had he done anything recently that necessitated a fast disposal?
His last missions had been nothing special. A servant who knew too much here. A princeling that was considered too stupid to continue the bloodline there. A few businessmen who had crossed their competitors.
The master’s assassins learned early in their career not to question his orders. Emilio usually tried not to think about them at all. If you thought too much, madness threatened.
He slept for a few hours. By nightfall, he was wide awake again.
In the wee hours of the morning, they finally came for him—three judges in black hooded capes that fell all the way to their toes. One tall and young, based on his quick strides and the arrogant way he held himself, one corpulent and old, and a smallish one of indistinct gender who moved in ghostly silence and stopped a bit to the side of the others. Their cowls were so voluminous that their faces remained in perfect shadow. Even Emilio with his excellent night vision only caught occasional glints when their eyes reflected the flickering light of the torch.
The old one addressed him. “Hear our verdict, assassin. You have been sentenced to death for accidentally taking a woman’s life, but we give you a choice. You can choose death by decapitation. Or you can take your chance on the Stairs of Eternity. And don’t try to pretend ignorance. We know that your little friend told you about them.”
Emilio waited in silence.
As expected, one of the judges—the arrogant young man—soon became impatient. “What do you say, assassin?”
“What makes you so sure that I don’t turn around on the stairs and hunt you down?” Emilio asked nonchalantly.
The young one hissed.
The corpulent judge chuckled. “Peace, Emilio—Wolf of the South. Being offered the choice of the stairs is an honor. What do you really want to know?”
The man showed no visible reaction. Interesting. Based on his training, Emilio was able to read most people. This man gave nothing away. In many respects, he reminded him of the master. But he wasn’t the master. None of them was.
“You are a man of extraordinary skills, Wolf of the South. And if the master hadn’t stolen you away from your family, you could have been a great man. Your skills are needed. That is why.”
Emilio made his decision. “I choose the stairs.” Strange. They seemed pleased.
“Then you need to listen,” the corpulent one said. “To go down the stairs, you have to leave everything behind and be as naked as the day you were born. You will decide which exit to take. You will live the life you find there. Eventually, there will be a second judging. You won’t know when and where. If you did well, you will be allowed to stay—if not, you will never have existed.”
When the judge had finished his explanation, the three of them turned as one man and filed out of the cell.
Two guards entered instead. They carried a stool, a bucket of water, a bar of soap, and one of the curved knives used as razors in Eterna.
“Strip!” one guard commanded.
Emilio held his gaze. Was he being set up again? They could slit his throat with that knife in an instant.
“Strip!” the guard repeated, this time less harsh. “We have to shave your head, and then you have to wash.”
Emilio obeyed. In the end, it did not matter.
They splashed water over his head. He had expected it to be ice-cold and gritted his teeth in expectation. Instead, it was comfortably warm. The guard rubbed soap into his hair, working efficiently but without being extra rough.
“Don’t move. I’ll start over the forehead.”
Emilio felt the scratch of the razor, and his locks started to fall. They had been shoulder-length, their color blue-black as a raven’s wing. Now they curled in gentle waves on the stone floor.
When they reached the back of his head, he heard a sharp intake of breath.
They had found the master’s sign. Unlike other guild masters, he did not mark his charges with a branding iron. His statement of ownership was a simple tattoo—a lot less painful, but no less damning. Those who knew what to look for could find it. And once an assassin started to lose his hair, he was as good as dead. For the sign was known and feared everywhere.
“Shave off your beard, then wash. Dress in that loincloth over there.”
They left him alone.
Emilio shaved carefully, trying not to nick his skin. He had to go off into the unknown. Risking infection would be stupid. A check of his scalp showed that the guard had been diligent as well. The skin felt soft and whole.
He rubbed his smooth chin. He never wore his beard long, only as long as the width of his little finger. Having it gone entirely felt strange.
He put on the loincloth, a simple strip of white cloth.
The guards returned. “Let’s go.” They tried to take him by the upper arms.
He moved away. “One question.”
They looked at him.
“Is my mare—Reina—still alive?”
“Yes, she is in the council’s stables, being cared for.”
“What will you do with her?”
“That is no longer your concern, assassin, but—,” the guard’s fierce gaze softened the tiniest bit, “since she is worth a fortune, there is no need to worry about her. She won’t be harmed.”
It seemed that this was the best he would get. He nodded in acknowledgment.
The guards took his arms and led him into the corridor and through the dungeon. They passed countless dark and silent cells. Either their occupants had been forgotten and died, or they were simply empty.
Keeping track of their way was difficult. The ancient magisterial palace of Eterna was a gigantic heap of stone, built over millennia, with countless towers, buildings, and additions. In some parts, signs provided information regarding one’s whereabouts. He had been there on missions before and knew how to orient himself.
This section was completely unmarked. Once they reached an area without windows, even Emilio’s almost perfect sense of direction quickly grew confused. There was no way that the guards knew all these passages by heart.
He started to pay attention and realized that both guards were tapping the fingers of their free hand against their leg. They were following a rhythm, perhaps a song. For a brief moment, he contemplated confusing them so that they would lose count and have to start again. Then he might be able to break their code.
He caught himself in time. It didn’t matter anymore.
They stopped in the middle of a bare corridor. The stone looked older here. In his cell, it had been yellowish and a bit dusty—the same yellow sandstone that most of Eterna had been built with. It shimmered golden in the sunlight of spring, a false promise to naïve visitors. Over summer, the yellow darkened to dirty ocher, revealing the city’s tainted soul. Then the autumn rains came, washed away sin and worse, and restored the place to its false splendor.
The walls surrounding them still were golden, but the stones shone as if a giant had compacted and polished them. What was this place? They hadn’t passed an intersection or a door in a while, and the bare corridor extended in front of them.
“We have to blindfold you now.”
That might prove interesting. Most people failed to do it correctly, and there were a few tricks he could use.
They put a sack of densely woven black fabric over his head and covered his eyes with an additional strip of cloth that they tied at the back of his head. He realized that they knew his tricks, too.
Their grasp became firmer as they led him on.
“We are not allowed to make you stumble, run into a wall, or hit your head. So stride out! We haven’t got all night.”
They took a few more turns. After several hundred paces, they finally stopped.
The blindfold was removed.
Emilio looked around and found himself in—a cave?
“Behold the Stairs of Eternity,” the guards intoned and let go of his arms.
Emilio turned in a full circle.
How had they got into this place? The rough walls surrounding them didn’t show any openings. Far above his head, they formed a domed ceiling that looked ready to cave in anytime. And in the center of the open space…
“The future is uncertain. Thus the steps leading up are translucent and hang by a thread from a fog of possibilities. With every moment, the present becomes the past and petrifies according to the whims of fate, thus the stairs leading down consist of irregular stone.”
Had they drugged him? This couldn’t be real. And there was a flaw in their argument.
“Since we live in the present, why is the floor beneath our feet made of stone?”
The guard waved his hand negligently, and Emilio wished he hadn’t asked. The floor and the walls vanished, and they stood over a chasm of nothingness. With all visual orientation gone, it took a moment for Emilio to realize what was happening.
The stairs were spinning in a constant slow circle like the hands of a clock, the translucent steps of the future turning into stone steps and sinking away into the past. Or then the stairs formed the center axis while he and the guards revolved around them counterclockwise and upwards. Both perceptions could be true—or neither.
“This is time,” Emilio whispered, staring into the darkness beneath his feet, then up at the fog of possibilities.
“Go!” The guards pointed to the stone steps leading down.
Emilio felt panic. His head was bursting with millions of questions, and he was afraid, more afraid than he had ever been in his life.
Focus on the mission. Just go. Whatever happens, nothing matters anymore.
Crossing over the emptiness seemed to take forever. The stares of the guards drilled into his back. He felt his teeth chatter. From fear? Or was he cold?
Then he was there. He forced himself not to look back and stepped onto the stone step that was solidifying right in front of him, changing the present into the past. The moment his bare foot touched the stony surface, his perception lurched and he was temporarily blind.
He waited. Was this death?
Evidently not. His vision gradually returned, and he found himself on a narrow winding staircase similar to those in towers or spires. The mystic stuff had vanished. In the wall behind him was a locked door.
He looked up.
“DOWN!” a voice weighed on him.
That direction didn’t look appealing. The light was bad, probably provided by flickering torches stuck into wall brackets once every turn. Cobwebs covered the craggy walls and ceiling, and debris littered the equally dilapidated stairs.
Emilio shivered in the cold draught that rose from the depths of the past.
I am the most dangerous thing in here, he told himself.
He took a careful step, then another one. After a few turns, he found the first opening. How far did he have to go?
He carefully checked what lay behind, keeping his cover as any well-trained assassin would.
He saw rolling hills and meadows lit by brilliant sunlight.
The draught wove around him, whispering in his ear. Just continue…
So he went on. Every time he found another doorway, he heard the whisper again. How far into the past did they expect him to go?
By then, he was freezing and also spooked. The ghosts he encountered now and then didn’t bother him much. They were focused on themselves and their broken dreams and rarely interested in the living.
But he also met a few odd fellows—an ancient man who looked like a monk and held an hourglass, a tall hooded figure in a black cape carrying a scythe, and several other creatures that weren’t supposed to exist.
I must be getting delirious. So they have drugged me after all.
Nothing else made sense.
Suddenly, he stumbled and caught himself at the last moment. Damn! His palms were scratched. And he was too tired to proceed and losing body heat fast thanks to his shaved head and bare body. With nothing to drink and no food, it was only a matter of time until he took a fatal misstep.
Another doorway came into sight. It opened on a dark and dismal land. A snowstorm was raging, wailing like mourning banshees while it tore at the hills and trees.
Please not here! I hate snow. And I can’t stand the cold…
A large section of the step beneath his foot broke away. Emilio tried to find his balance, failed, and fell through the doorway. Expecting to land in a heap of snow, he was surprised when his surroundings suddenly tilted again.
The effect was not as bad as when he had entered the stairs but still confusing.
Is that a carpet beneath me?
“The devil curse those blasted stairs!” he suddenly heard a shrill voice. “I ask for a prince, and they send me an assassin?”
Emilio looked up groggily.
His graceless fall had ended at the feet of two young women clad in the sensible attire of forest people—leather trousers, a long silken tunic, woolen capes, and thigh-high boots.
One was a lovely, well-rounded brunette with concerned green eyes.
The other was spitting mad and looked more like a demon than the skinny girl she probably was under normal circumstances. Her fiery red hair stood on end with indignation, and her green eyes blazed like the fires of hell, their gaze scorching.
“Get off the rug, thug! You are useless to me, no matter what those damn stairs were trying to achieve. I should never have listened to my stupid counselors!”
She turned on her heel and stormed out of wherever they were.
Would you like to read on?
Wolf of the South – The Stairs of Eternity
by Isa Day
Released May 2018
available as ebook (printed edition will follow)
ISBN ebook: 978-3-906868-07-3