CHAPTER 3 The Red Purge The gryphon's head was slick with blood. A body hit the ground. It was lifted up. A head snapped right. Blood ran again. The body crashed down. Lukesh circled his victim and seized him again by the collar, hauling up his face to torment. The Czar's fist made pulp of nose and jawline. His knuckles came back bloody. He tossed the man down a third time, then raised his foot to stomp. Along the wall of Zirako, where the Grey Tower battlements loomed above a magma vent, he stalked his crawling foe. His foot came down on spine and kneecap, and with each thud escape was thwarted. Behind them, on the sun-baked slabs of the promenade, a row of guards and ministers stood stoic. They looked only above each others shoulders. Practice had made perfect. They had learned to look the other way when the Burning Czar was in his rage. Lukesh kicked the man over and brought his fist down hard. His victim stopped crawling. The Czar straightened and opened his fist to look at the stone tablet held there. Its well-cut glyphs ran red with blood. He wiped his other hand and spat first words to the man below. "The tablet is a fake." * * * * * "A fake?" Amalia sat up in bed and hugged her knees. Beneath rough Dorgrad blankets the general's ribs were bandaged and her grazes daubed with salve. The others stood or sat around her, some bedridden or bandaged like herself. They nursed the wounds of insect bites and poison stings. It was their third morning in the barracks, after nights of fever and exhaustion. Nils nodded. "The Guild of Geologists have confirmed it. A near-perfect replica, forged by conjuration magic. The glyphs were altered only slightly. Instead of west, they pointed east." He smirked, finding humour somewhere in this disaster. "The real Weapon is probably in the Prosperos Sea, as far from Avarath as Dorgrad itself." K'Jol polished his mantis blade trophy. "Whoever made the fake has just declared war on the Czar." On a bed beside him, Theo tentatively removed the splint from his leg and winced. "But I felt something... when I held the stone... It was real." "The conjuration," murmured Seiyr from behind a stack of paper. The engineer had turned her own bunk into a makeshift work desk, and for the last seventy hours poured over charts and reports. "The stone was of the same material and resonated with something. The fake tablet acted as a geomantic compass. It didn't lead to the Weapon, but it led to something like it... something touched by the divine." "The insect queen," mused Takeda. The East-Man had busied himself the last few days by helping the Ipari. They had gone through the quarters of Foreman Henvit together, and discovered the traitor's deranged journals. "Henvit's ravings spoke of her as a god." Another squad rushed past the barracks window, swords and armour clanking. For days Chambers Nine and Fifteen had been awash with activity. More troops were being called in to help explore the hive tunnels. A scattering of drones remained and Warden Bracht had both hands full with the systematic cleansing of the tunnels. The hive was half the size of Dorgrad, burrowed in tandem with the mineshafts, its every extent concealed by Henvit and his co-conspirators. "That bug was no god," Rakar grunted as Arania peeled a dressing from his newly healed chest. Seiyr glanced at Theo, a thought occurring. But she did not voice it. "Any luck with the conspirators?" Arania asked, but was met with Nils's shaking head. "Three other foreman have been arrested. But the ringleader was a Commissar. An Avian named Knox. He fled Dorgrad before the attack. The Ipari are hunting him now." Rakar stood and stretched his back. "The first of many hunts to come." * * * * * Czar Lukesh closed his hand around the tablet and slammed his fist into the man once more. There had been a brief reprieve - a moment in which his victim offered explanations. He had been tricked. K'Larr had used an advent - convinced him the tablet was real. But when all was said and done, what mattered innocence? The loyalty of the mess beneath him was not in question. All things were theater. The blood that flecked the gryphon-head gargoyle was there for the people. The punishment enacted was there for the ministers and guards who witnessed it. The silhouette of a leader, and the one who had failed him, was only for the eyes of the desert. There so the cultists of the Insect Queen, the Draken revolutionaries who had burned Avarath, and the followers of K'Larr would know that vengeance had awoken. His victim stopped moving. Lukesh wiped his mouth and nose. His skin was already burning. Tossing the tablet away he cleared his throat and stared down at the man before him. "Lut Sar. I promote you to High Inquisitor of Kaustir. Find the men who wronged you. Find the men who betrayed me." A sword drew from his belt sheathe. Lukesh ran the narrow blade across his palm, slicing flesh and shedding blood. His fluid mixed with his fellow Nocturne's, blood to blood, pledge to pledge. It was the Kaustir way - an oath of wrath. He closed the fist and splashed more drops upon the battlements. "Death to our enemies." Then he turned and trod the bloody path back to his inner chambers, as the new day sun rose above the desert. The Red Purge had begun.