Emperor of Fire - Alfred Bekker - ebook

Emperor of Fire ebook

Alfred Bekker

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Emperor of Fire Fantasy novel by Alfred Bekker The size of this book corresponds to 483 paperback pages. His name is Dagger - and he is an assassin of the God Emperor of Arakand. When he is ordered to kill the members of a heretical monk brotherhood, he spares the immobilized cripple Baladus. A mistake he will bitterly regret. Soon Baladus leads a rebellion that shakes the Empire of Arakand to its foundations. And at the same time, the magic of the God Emperor, who saved Arakand in the past from the destructive power of the fire of the two suns, seems to be fading... Alfred Bekker writes fantasy, science fiction, crime novels, historical novels and books for children and young readers. His books made him known to a large audience.. The total circulation of his novels is more than 3.5 million print copies.

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Emperor of Fire

Alfred Bekker

Published by Alfred Bekker, 2018.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Emperor of Fire

Copyright

First words

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Epilog

Emperor of Fire

Fantasy novel by Alfred Bekker

The size of this book corresponds to 483 paperback pages.

––––––––

HIS NAME IS DAGGER - and he is an assassin of the God Emperor of Arakand. When he is ordered to kill the members of a heretical monk brotherhood, he spares the immobilized cripple Baladus.

A mistake he will bitterly regret.

Soon Baladus leads a rebellion that shakes the Empire of Arakand to its foundations. And at the same time, the magic of the God Emperor, who saved Arakand in the past from the destructive power of the fire of the two suns, seems to be fading...

Alfred Bekker writes fantasy, science fiction, crime novels, historical novels and books for children and young readers. His books made him known to a large audience.. The total circulation of his novels is more than 3.5 million print copies.

Copyright

A CassiopeiaPress book: CASSIOPEIAPRESS, UKSAK e-books and BEKKERpublishing are imprints by Alfred Bekker.

© by Author /COVER TONY MASERO

© of this issue 2018 by AlfredBekker/CassiopeiaPress, Lengerich/Westphalia in arrangement with Edition Bärenklau, edited by Jörg Martin Munsonius.

All rights reserved.

www.AlfredBekker.de

[email protected]

First words

"Only ignorance protects against magic."

"Don't punish the one who has already been punished."

From the Book of the Nameless God

"Don't kill what dies on its own."

From the Code of Honour of the Assassin Guard of the God Emperor of Arakand

"Everything can be moved by not acting."

From the writings of Master Zelados, the founder of the Order of the Knowing Brothers

Prologue

"We are the chosen murderers of the God Emperor of Arakand; the secret instruments of him to whom God gave power to banish the Second Light. We kill quickly and quietly, unrecognized and invisibly - and thus preserve the one who sustains the world."

So it came from five hundred throats. A dull, murmuring chorus of deep voices. Words that were spoken with solemn seriousness and echoed in the temple vault.

The men who had gathered wore robe-like coats.

Coats, as if made to hide weapons underneath and whose dark fabric made them appear like dark shadows in the flickering light of the torches.

A priest walked along the ranks of assassins newly ordained to serve the God Emperor. He wore a white robe. To each of the assassins he put his hands on the head and asked: "What is your name, murderer?"

"Dagger," answered the young man he was blessing.

The priest smiled involuntarily. "Really Dagger?" he asked.

"Like my professional tool."

"Who gave you that name?"

"I gave it to myself."

"And what is the name your parents gave you?"

"I grew up in the streets of Arakand. I never met my parents. And I don't know if they ever gave me a name."

The priest looked the young man in the eyes - and was shocked. There was something on his face that reminded him of someone. The priest became pale and literally flinched. The young man to whom he had just given the blessing of the assassins looked like his son, his younger brother and finally like his predecessor in office who had risen from the grave. The one to whom I once handed the cup of poisoned wine and who then returned the favor for this tasty drink by dying quickly and allowing me to become First Priest of Arakand, the priest remembered with horror.

An unpleasant memory. It was like a violent sting that was led straight into the center of his guilty conscience. Even a priest did not always act as the commandments of the Nameless God actually demanded...

The superior smile that had disappeared from the priest's face for a moment returned. The young man's face seemed to be changing in the meantime. His traits were now completely inconspicuous and had no resemblance to the priest's predecessor.

"You're a changer," the priest said. And his tone of voice was a relief.

"Many assassin brothers are changers."

For good reason, knew the priest. You can see their faces, but no one can describe them later. Anyone who looks at one of them recognizes someone else.

It was a dark spell attached to the Changers.

It was not surprising that up to this day they were often perceived as cursors and had almost been extinct in the past.

But they were made for the Assassin Guard of the God Emperor. And the first priest of Arakand rejoiced over each of them, whom he was allowed to ordain. For they were best able to carry out their Lord's mission as the Assassins' blessing formula required: unrecognized and invisible.

The first priest looked the young man straight in the eye. Impossible to say what colour they are, they seemed to change so quickly!

"Since I can't remember your face, I'll remember your name well - Dagger," announced the First Priest. "Just because there are so few of your kind left, you may have a steep ascent ahead of you."

The only career a changer can make in this city, the First Priest added in thought. In this respect, he has wisely chosen the profession of a killer...

"It would be an honor," said Dagger.

"When the ceremony is over, do not go out with the others, but stay here."

"As you command, sir."

The First Priest laid both hands on his head and spoke the words that the ritual required. "I bless your holy service, I bless your holy murders, I bless your silence over everything you do and everything you experience. May the Nameless God protect you, as He protects us all from the First Light of Heaven burning us. But protect the God Emperor of Arakand with your life, so that the Second Light of Heaven may spare us. Swear everlasting obedience and faithfulness in faith, Assassin!"

"I swear it by the power of the Nameless God and my life," Dagger replied.

"So now you belong to the Guard of the Assassins. A brother among holy murderers. Only death or the end of the world can release you from the covenant of this holy brotherhood."

"Only death or the end of the world," Dagger dutifully repeated the words that had been taught to him at the end of the training for the formal reception ceremony.

*

LATER, WHEN ALL THE others who had been consecrated that night had already left, Dagger still remained in his place in the temple vault and waited. A servant of the First Priest had begun to extinguish the torches. Dagger saw the First Priest standing next to the cuboid altar - next to him a broad-shouldered, towering figure in a dark habit. The hood was pulled deep into the face, so that only dark shadows could be seen underneath.

Dagger recognized him anyway, because he wore the brass-colored amulet of the Assassin Master. Balok was his name. Dagger had completed most of his training with him.

The light of the moon fell through a window into the interior of the vault, which belonged to a side temple of the imperial palace. When Balok turned a little more to the First Priest, the moonlight reflected in his amulet and let it light up.

It was a holy border moon night, as it was customary for ceremonies of this kind. The characteristic black stripe that seemed to divide the moon was clearly visible through the window.

This strip stretched across the entire sky from horizon to horizon in an east-west direction. Sometimes the moon rose in the southern half of the sky, sometimes in the northern half. Sometimes he would cross the border in one night. And sometimes it opened so that the sky's edge cut him off. If he stayed like this all night without switching to one side or the other, one spoke of a holy border moon night.

Priests and scholars calculated the dates of these nights well in advance. And the sale of corresponding calendars was one of the most important sources of income of the priesthood of the Nameless God.

Dagger didn't know much about his past. He suspected that his parents had fallen victim to one of the changer persecutions that had taken place in the past.

He had lived with a woman for the first few years. An ordinary human woman, whom he could also only darkly remember. She took him in. But the black fever had taken her away. And from then on, Dagger had been on his own. The characteristics of a changer had not only been a disadvantage for him. After all, they had made it possible for him to survive as a thief.

He couldn't even have said the name of that foster mother. But he remembered the sound of her voice. And how she had said to him: "You must have been born on a border moon night, otherwise you wouldn't be alive anymore."

The sound of these words and her voice had accompanied him all his life.

Whether he had really been born on a border moon night or whether she had only said that to express how lucky he had been to survive the persecution to which his parents had fallen victim, Dagger did not know.

But at that moment, he involuntarily thought about it.

*

THE CONVERSATION BETWEEN Balok and the First Priest seemed to be taking place. At first there was just a soft whisper between the two men, too softly that Dagger could have understood a word. Finally it became louder, and scraps of words reverberated up to Dagger. Then the assassin master bowed. He walked away in a hurry.

When he came near Dagger, he stopped for a moment, looking in his direction. The light of the border moon fell so that the darkness under his hood was illuminated. A face covered with pockmarks became visible. The eyes flickered restlessly.

Even we are not immune to the dark magic of our own kind, Dagger thought.

Balok was also a changer. The pockmarked face, which Dagger saw a single heartbeat, actually belonged to a beggar who had been stabbed by him when he was a young boy. For a few coins that the street urchin could live on for a whole month.

The smallpox face disappeared, making way for indeterminate, almost soft and fat features.

"The Nameless God be with you, assassin brother," Balok whispered.

Then he walked away.

Dagger still heard the door of the side temple falling into the castle behind the assassin master, heavy and dull.

The sound echoed several times in the vault. The servant of the First Priest had extinguished all torches in the meantime. Only the border moon gave light.

The servant also left the temple.

"Come here, assassin brother," demanded the First Priest.

Dagger obeyed. The priest also stepped forward and received the just blessed assassin brother in the middle of the cone of light. His white robe seemed to shine through it.

"Take this," said the priest, reaching out his hand. An amulet lay on it. At first glance, it looked like an ordinary Arakandian silver coin. But the engraving differed considerably. A series of signs could be seen on it. The cipher of the priesthood, recognized Dagger. Created for secret books that should not be accessible to any ordinary person... No one except the members of the High Clergy was allowed to learn this particular scripture. And whoever taught it to outsiders was punished with death and damnation in the hereafter.

"What's that?"

"A distinguishing feature. You're a changer. I can hardly remember your face either, let alone recognize it. And I don't want to rely on the sound of a voice alone. There may be a situation where I need to be sure I'm with no one but you in front of me, Dagger. You understand me?"

"Yes," said Dagger.

"Then I will ask you to show this amulet."

"I'll always carry it with me."

"If you lose it, you lose your life, Dagger. If you keep it, it opens many doors. and it allows you to serve the Emperor in a very special way."

"Yes, sir."

"The God Emperor... and me!"

Dagger's hand enclosed the amulet. It felt cold.

As unusually cold as the wind that blew at him as he left the temple and stepped outside. Arakand, this huge city by the sea, was known for its mild climate. Only very rarely did the cool winds from the north or the south make it to this place in the middle of the world. And when it did happen, it was a good sign, because it meant that the Second Light was far away and did not prepare to burn the world and bring the sea to the boil, at least within the next year.

Dagger stopped. In the night alone between the expansive, imposing buildings of the imperial palace, which was laid out like a city within the city, with its own harbour, which enabled the emperor of God and his entourage to escape if necessary, the various walls, each more than twenty steps wide, which surrounded the city on the land side, were likely to be broken through by a foreign army at some point.

Dagger looked at the sky.

The border, which stretched from horizon to horizon like an arch across the sky and separated the northern half of the world from the southern half, was also clearly visible at night. And the moon was still cut right in the middle of it.

A sign, thought Dagger. And it must have been the sign of my birth. The nameless God has meant well with me and my fate...

He spread his arms.

At that moment he felt that the power of the Nameless God himself flowed through and filled him like never before in the short, hard life he had led so far.

He led me and guided my destiny, he thought with awe. In the years he had lived in the winding streets of the city like a wandering shadow, scurrying from niche to niche, trying to hide as best he could, faith had kept him alive. The fact that he had now entered the holy service of the God Emperor filled him with deep satisfaction.

There was no doubt in his mind that he would perform this ministry in absolute obedience. Until death or the end of the world...

Chapter 1

years later ...

"Dagger!"

It was the voice of the Assassin Master Balok.

"Yes?"

Dagger had retired to his regular hour of rest after the strenuous exercises he completed in the morning. It began when the First Light was at its zenith and ended when it no longer touched the sky.

Dagger blinked. The Second Light was at noon itself so that its rays shone straight through the high window into its barren room.

The room itself was more like a monk's cell. There was a bed, a table and a chair. On the table was a little book bound in leather. It contained excerpts from the Book of the Nameless God. Every Assassin got it when he started his service. On the wall hung his weapons: a long, narrow sword, a short, wide one; Daggers of various designs and sizes, throwing stars and a one-hand crossbow. Next to it hung on a hook the wide coat, which was supposed to hide all these things, and a leather-coated doublet, which consisted of several layers of very densely woven different fabrics and was supposedly largely stab-resistant. The test to the example had avoided Dagger however at all costs. A good assassin struck before his victim could even give a single thought to possibly still defend himself.

Dagger rose, unlocked the door and stood in front of Balok.

As they were both changers and knew more about the dark magic of their kind than most of the other inhabitants of Arakand, both assassin brothers avoided direct eye contact. At the same time, they tried to maintain a facial expression that was as unspecific as possible. A rigid, uniform facial expression without any particular expression reduced the influence that the sight of a changer’s face had on the other person. This was proven beyond doubt, even if not even the greatest scholars of Arakand could have said what the exact reason was. It just seemed to be a consequence of certain laws of nature.

It was not easy for a changer to hide his special characteristics. But Dagger had learned this in his early youth like hardly any other of his kind. Otherwise it would have been impossible for him to survive.

And yet one could never be completely sure, because it was always up to the viewer to recognize the changer. The changes of the face happened in his thoughts. And these were not controllable for the changer. The only thing he could do was to observe his counterpart closely and avoid anything that would awaken those thoughts and memories.

Changers always did this to each other.

It was an imperative of consideration. Even when two changers were not kind to each other, they usually stuck to them. It was not only the solidarity of the few survivors among themselves. It was also the simple realization that the other person was at least as capable of evoking unpleasant faces from his own memory as he was of himself.

"Thou shalt go up the east tower," Balok said. "You're expected at the top."

"A mission?" asked Dagger.

Baloks smile was so restrained that someone who didn't know him wouldn't have noticed.

"You need dagger," he said.

"This is how I will do my sacred duty," Dagger declared with almost solemn earnestness. As usual, he wanted to take up his weapons, put on the belt and the hanger with the most different bags and cases, not to forget the back case for the long sword, whose straps carried over the shoulder had flaps for different small Daggers and throwing stars, not to forget the suspension for the one-handed crossbow, held by two straps on the leg, which just measured a three-quarter cubit.

But Balok put his hand on his shoulder. "No," he said with great certainty. Dagger looked at him in astonishment. The eyes of both men met for the first time in a direct way, but only for a short moment. Just look in the eyes. Ignoring the face, it went Dagger through the head. Balok had not only taught him the craft of an assassin, so that Dagger was able to kill inconspicuously like hardly any other of these holy professions. He had also taught him how to resist the gaze of another changer if necessary. Something I could only learn from another of my kind knew Dagger.

"This is not a holy murder as everyone else was before," Balok said. "It would seem unusual for me to interrupt you in your hour of rest and visit you here in your cell."

"What is it?" asked Dagger.

"The commandment of silence has always been a great good for us assassin brothers."

"I've never broken it."

"In this case, this commandment has a much greater meaning than all the other times you have used your weapons in the service of the God Emperor and for the preservation of the world."

Dagger knew Balok as a sober man. One who wasn't prone to pathos and passion and seemed as cold as a dead fish to outsiders. Balok had never emphasized the importance of her ministry. He saw himself as a handyman of death. He did his job and didn't expect any glory for it. It would have been unpleasant for him to be exposed simply because of his changer nature. If someone like Balok spoke with such a meaningful tone, it really wasn't a matter like others.

And Dagger, who during his time, having grown up in the streets of Arakand, had learned to judge others and to attach importance to every change, immediately noticed this, of course.

"I'm getting on in years," Balok said. "In the near future, I will change to veteran status and end my life, which I have led as an inconspicuous murderer, as an inconspicuous citizen of Arakand."

"You have more than earned this status, assassin master," said Dagger. "Though I regret that you will no longer hold your important office."

"I'm expected to propose a successor," Balok continued. "The decision does not depend solely on me, since the Emperor of God himself has the last word in this matter. But in the last two hundred years it has not happened that the succession proposal of an outgoing Assassin Master has been rejected. The god-emperor could always be sure of the loyalty of his holy murderers - which never applied to his bodyguard, the city guard or the priesthood!"

Dagger swallowed.

He had never thirsted for office and dignity, he had never given any thought to the possibility of leading others. It had always been enough for him to carry out his ministry with faithfulness and great conscientiousness and to lead a safe and secure life himself. As safe as it was possible for a changer in Arakand. Since he had been ordained an assassin brother, the fear had disappeared from his soul. The fear he had felt so often in all the years he had roamed the streets of Arakand and lived from thefts. A fear that had kept him alive at the time, but would later have been nothing more than a paralyzing poison.

Dagger would have had nothing against spending the rest of his days as a simple but acknowledged murderer, until perhaps at some point the signs of old age would have made it impossible for him to perform his service in the usual quality.

The Assassin Master's announcement hit him completely unprepared.

"Lord, I do not know if I am worthy of this honor."

"You don't have to worry about that, Dagger. I'm sure you're cut out for it.  And it would be of great concern to me to know that the leadership of the Brotherhood is in good hands."

"You know, I always try to do my duty as best I can."

"Yes, I know that. So that the Emperor of God also becomes aware that you are the right man to succeed me, you will put special effort into the mission that will be given to you now."

"So it's a particularly important murder," concluded Dagger.

Balok nodded. “It must be more important than anything you've ever done. Even I wasn't informed about the details. I don't know who it's about, nor do I know of any circumstances. But I have been instructed to remind you once again of the Law of Silence..."

"...that I will never break!"

"... and which in this case should also be observed towards the First Priest. This also applies to prayers and confessions for the relief of the soul. As far as this matter is concerned, you will have no recourse to it."

That was unusual and made Dagger now nevertheless attentive.

The assassins' principle of silence did not normally apply to the First Priest. For the first priest, for his part, had taken a vow of silence over all the events in the palace, which of course also affected all the affairs of the assassins.

"I'll take it as it comes," Dagger replied.

*

THE ASCENT TO THE EAST tower of Arakand was no small task even for a well-trained assassin like Dagger. No tower in the whole world stretched closer to the arch of the sky's border than this one. Nowhere else in the world were you closer to the two sunlights than up here at noon.

Dagger arrived at the top, breathed deeply, looked around - and was overwhelmed.

Never before had Dagger seen the city in whose alleys he had spent his whole life the way it was possible from up here: the largest city in the world, once the centre of a vast empire that was now limited to the area within its outer walls.

It was said that more people lived in this city than in all the neighbouring empires combined. The massive, titanic walls had battlements wider than the widest streets, dating from the time of the ancient empire, and up to that day traversed dozens of lands in a straight line. More ships lay in the port than anywhere else below the sky and the two lights of the day, and the golden domes of the cathedrals and temples testified to the immense wealth that was at home behind the walls of the city.

While the days of the glorious empire may have long gone and the city, compared to its past glory, only appeared as a shadow of itself, it was still by far the richest city in the world. Merchants from Arakand dominated the sea trade, and the location on the only strait that allowed passage from the ocean of the north to the ocean of the south washed a constant stream of gold and silver into the city treasury with the customs duty of countless ships passing the Strait of Arakand.

There was also a second river that brought wealth and prosperity to Arakand. These were the pilgrims who came to pray in the temples and cathedrals at the feasts of the Church of the Nameless God that the approaching Second Light would not burn the world.

Arakand lay on a peninsula that was completely separated from the walls of the city from the rest of that continent, which was also called the belt of the world, because it stretched parallel to the dark, east-west arc of the sky. Just as the vast arch in the sky marked the border between north and south, the belt of the world divided the two oceans.

At the battlements of the tower, Dagger saw the shape of a man.

The God Emperor! it drove through him shuddering.

The ruler wore dark, flowing robes. Gowns as black as the night, for the night had an important characteristic in common with himself: only the Emperor of God and the nightfall could banish the Second Light for a certain time when it was approaching the world dangerously.

But while the night could only keep this spell for a few hours, the emperor of God was able to keep it for years. Sometimes for decades or even longer.

The skull of the God Emperor was completely hairless.

It was shaved, so you could see the tattooed mark of his choice.

Since the First Light was still at its zenith, it cast no shadow. Only the shadow of the Second Light was visible. It didn't go quite as high up in the sky as the first one.

Both suns were almost equal in size.

They almost looked like twins.

However, this had not always been the case. Dagger could remember that the Second Light was barely a tenth the size of the sun disk of the First Light at the time his memories had awakened.

But over the years, the Second Light had grown larger and larger. In a long cycle, it repeatedly approached the world and threatened to scorch it. It was not yet so far, but anyone who looked at the sky could see that it was not long in coming.

Then the day had come when the Emperor of God stopped the Second Light in a holy ceremony and sent it back.

The sustainer of the world, it went Dagger with pleasant shiver through the head. What an honor to serve him. Deep gratitude filled him. Gratitude and unshakable faith in the power given to the Emperor of God for the salvation and preservation of the world.

The Emperor of God, whose gaze had previously been directed across the battlements into the distance, now turned around.

Dagger knelt down.

The Emperor of God looked at him, and Dagger did not dare to raise his gaze. It was the first time he was so close to the ruler of Arakand. He was filled with a feeling of prejudice.

"You're  Dagger, I suppose," said the god-emperor.

"Yes, sir."

"Get up and come closer."

"Yes, sir, but..."

"I fear not the sight of a changer. "In all the years of my reign, I have looked into such terrible abysses that even your face cannot frighten me."

"Yes, sir."

Dagger obeyed and approached. Even now he hardly dared to raise his eyes, for nothing would have been more distant from his intention than to awaken some hidden terror in the soul of his counterpart. At the same time, however, the Emperor of God did not seem to avoid eye contact with the Dagger at all. Dagger felt the ruler's gaze burning on his skin. It was torturous.

"Did I tell you to stop? Come even closer, Assassine!"

"Yes, sir."

"Come next to me and take a look over the battlements. You don't need to know why you kill. It is enough to be aware of what you are preserving."

"Yes, sir."

Dagger stood beside his ruler at the battlements. Just like the Nameless God, the Emperor had no name. He took it off at the enthronement. After that he was only the God Emperor, predecessor and successor of other God Emperors whose task it was to banish the Second Light.

The emperor made a far reaching gesture and Dagger followed him with his gaze.

The sky was cloudless. You had a wide view from up here. It reached in the east to the other side of the seaway named Strait of Arakand, where the Chain End was located.

The Chain End was the name of the only part of Arakand on the east bank of the strait. The Chain End may have been larger than most of the capitals of the other empires on the world's belt, compared to Arakand it was hardly a village. Strictly speaking, it was a fortress that served only the sole purpose of controlling the eastern shore of the Strait from Arakand. The name came from the fact that a chain led from the palace harbour over the seabed to this fortress. With the help of powerful winds, it could be stretched and then blocked the most important sea road in the world, so that no ship could pass it.

"Now look west, assassin," the Emperor of God commanded him, stretching out his arm. "Look beyond the outer city wall, which bears the birth name of one of my ancestors, which would be an outrage today, since the name of the emperor may never be mentioned again after enthronement. But in the course of time, some customs have changed."

The ruler smiled superiorly.

The way in which the God Emperor approached him confused Dagger. It was not customary for the ruler to speak personally with subordinates. And that was especially true for the Assassins. The ruler's conscience should remain clear. What his assassins did was necessary, but if possible, the sustainer of the world should not be associated with it.

But Dagger had meanwhile understood that the matter he was to be charged with was apparently not very comparable with his previous work.

"Look over the walls to the west, Assassin! From here you can see the tents of the barbarian princes who regularly besiege our city and then leave without having achieved anything, because otherwise too many of their warriors will be brought into the city by secret smugglers and recruited here as mercenaries of the city guard". The God Emperor smiled as Dagger looked into the distance and blinked against the bloated Second Light. It would fill half the sky if it got close to the world. "There's no danger from outside to Arakand, Dagger. It has been besieged since I can remember, and my grandfather stood on this tower and watched as the barbarian armies were repeatedly disbanded. Not from firing at our catapults. Not by the martial arts of our mercenaries. But by the dreams of the barbarians themselves. Because the longer they stay out there in front of the walls, the stronger their desire to live on this side of the wall becomes. And this dream of living well in the richest city in the world is stronger than anything else. No barbarian army can match it. Not in a thousand years, my good Dagger. No, the danger comes from within. From the dark, winding alleys or even from the palace itself." The emperor pointed with his index finger to his forehead just below the place where the sign, consisting of countless interwoven ligatures, began, which had been burned into his head. "Danger begins in the heads, Dagger. False doctrines, false thoughts, speculative theories, unholy sciences that contradict the teachings of the Nameless God. All this cost Arakand his empire. And it could ruin the city completely if these things were given free rein. Do you understand what I'm getting at, Dagger?"

Dagger swallowed.

He didn't understand. He was only filled with the belief that the God Emperor did the right thing and that it justified every sacrifice and every crime to protect him and to ensure that he could perform the banishment rituals that sent away the Second Light. Everything else did not count. The alternative was the end of the world. A scorched land, a boiling sea and a lost future.

"I am a simple murderer," Dagger confessed. "Untalented in spirit. The only thing I know anything about is the silent killing. And whomever you have chosen as your sacrifice, O Lord, I will send to hell."

"Your assassin master is very fond of you. He wants you to be his successor."

"I'll do as I'm told, no matter what my rank."

"If you weren't loyal, I wouldn't even welcome you here, Dagger." The Emperor of God pointed into the distance to the besiegers. "I have given you one reason why these barbarians will never take Arakand and at best leave with a ransom and at worst without their best men. But I will give you a second reason why Arakand was never conquered and will not be conquered in the future. "Neither from the barbarians nor from the more powerful empires, who would certainly have the means to begin a more effective siege!" The Emperor of God clenched his hand to his fist and struck it against his chest: "I am the reason, the Emperor of God. Wherever the Nameless God is worshipped, wherever the Empire once ruled, it is believed that it is the Emperor of God who sends away the Second Light. These fools know perfectly well that if, against all probability and their military incapacity and not least against their notorious quarrels, they managed to overcome these walls, defeat our warships and conquer the palace, it would be their own downfall. At the latest, when the Second Light approaches and burns their foreheads and blinds their eyes, they will realize that I am the only one who can avert this danger."

"Let us all hope that faith will remain widespread and that our city will have only pious enemies," said Dagger.

"You are smarter than you pretend to be," the Emperor of God stated. He looked at Dagger in a way that made him see immediately what was wrong with him. No one had to explain it to him, there was no need to say a word about it. Who does he like to see now? A heretic he sentenced to death? Dagger thought. There were so many of them. But why should he feel guilty about it? No, it has to be someone he really did wrong, otherwise his reaction wouldn't be so violent. Not with him...

At the beginning Dagger had already thought that the God Emperor's insensitivity to the sight of his changeling face was based on the fact that the sustainer of the world had such a pure heart that no one whose face had to frighten him appeared to him in the traits of a changeling.

But it didn't seem that way.

"Do you know why I'm receiving you up here on this tower, Dagger?"

"No, sir."

"Because it's the only place I can be sure no one's eavesdropping on us. The palace has ears, they say. And I have learned time and again that secrets can hardly be kept within these walls. But the things I have to discuss with you now must remain secret at all costs."

"Yes, sir."

"You won't talk to anyone about this. Not even with the First Priest."

"Balok already made that clear to me."

"You have certainly heard of the Order of the Knowing Brothers."

"They run several poor people's hospitals in the city."

"Yes, they do. But among them there are also thoughts that are capable of destroying the faith. "And we just discussed how important it is that this does not happen."

"Lord, who shall I kill for you?"

"First and foremost, it is about a certain community within the Order. It consists of twelve men and lives in a house near the outer wall at the end of the alley at the Temple of Holy Fire. The brothers of this monastery deal with forbidden arts. That's all you need to know, because what does the Book of the Nameless God say? Only ignorance protects against magic."

"Which one of these monks shall I kill?" asked Dagger, who seemed a little confused.

"All. Kill them all. Let no one live, for one is as dangerous as the other."

Dagger was a little surprised. It was unusual for a single assassin to be hired to kill such a large number of people at once and all alone.

But there were certainly good reasons for this, and Dagger did not dream of doubting them.

"Exactly two people know the details of this mission, Dagger - you and your God Emperor. "Do your job well, and I will gladly release Balok into veteran status and take up his proposal to appoint you his successor."

"Yes, Lord," said the Dagger, bowing in deep humility.

Chapter 2

That night the moon was only a lying crescent - so narrow that its glow was only very weak. Like a barque he crossed the sky border during the night and let it shimmer in a strange way.

Dagger waited for the hours before the first sunrise, that dark part of the night before the first light came on in the east, followed shortly afterwards by the second. In his case, however, the direction in which it could be seen in the early morning was different. The Second Light also rose in the north, but its ascent point changed, approaching and moving away from the First Light over the years.

Arakand was a city where it was never completely dark. The beacons on the city walls and the harbour towers burned all night, and the taverns, whorehouses and some temples were bustling with activity until dawn.

Nevertheless, these early hours before the two suns rose were the best time for an assassin to carry out his mission.

A couple of city watch mercenaries came along the narrow alley, apparently on their way to the outer wall, where their shift probably began shortly. Like a silent shadow, Dagger hid in a house niche. It was better if no one noticed him, no one remembered a single shadow lurking in the night. Nothing in the course of his eventful life had passed into the flesh as much as remaining invisible.

He waited until the mercenaries turned around the next corner and were no longer visible. Their heavy steps and the clang of their weapons and armor faded away in the darkness of the night.

Dagger continued his way.

At the end of the street he found the House of the Knowing Brothers. Small and inconspicuous, it stood between two much larger buildings: the Temple of Holy Fire and a warehouse belonging to one of the wealthy and influential merchants of Arakand.

Dresois was his name, and his coat of arms with the ornate ligatures of his trading house graced the gable.

Since the moon stood south of the sky border that night, its pale light shone straight onto the coat of arms of the House of Dresois.

Valuable spices and huge quantities of equally valuable sugar were stored in the warehouse, so guards were set up. But they weren't very attentive. Even if they weren't asleep, it was no problem for Dagger not to be noticed by them. One of the guards saw  Dagger as he crossed the street. The guard was sitting at the door of the warehouse, and his snoring mingled with the mewing of one of the many stray cats that roamed the alleys of Arakand at night, chasing rats and other rodents even in the remotest corners.

There had to be at least one other security guard at the warehouse. Actually. But it was known that the men were paid so little that they did not take their duties very seriously. Some did not even stay in their post for the time actually prescribed.

The really good men served in the city guard, as Dagger knew. And the better ones in the Assassin Guard of the God Emperor.

Dagger had reached the other side of the street. The shadow in front of the House of the Knowing Brothers devoured him completely.

From the temple next door there were chants. Apparently, even at this time of night sleep, the nameless God was still being worshipped there.

Probably some of the brothers were singing. But it would never have occurred to him to do his bloody work in the temple. He decided to wait for her.

The door of the house was not locked. This was typical of the communities that belonged to the Order of the Knowing Brothers. I didn't want anyone to find a locked door when they were in trouble. This was one of the well-known theorems of the Knowing Brothers.

Dagger entered the house. A warm breeze blew through the open windows. Since the Second Light had grown again, it hardly cooled down during the nights. Only when the sea winds blew over Arakand from the north or south, a cooling breath could still be felt. The alabaster curtains on the windows were rolled up. The stuffy air should escape at night. Moonlight and the glow of torches behind the painted temple windows in the immediate vicinity mixed with the light of a candle on a table.

There was a man in a dark robe sitting there.

The face was wrinkled and grey, the head smooth shaved and hairless, as it corresponded to the order tradition of the Knowing Brothers.

The monk looked up from the leather-bound folio in which he had previously read. He froze. The flickering candlelight made shadows dance over his wrinkled, wrinkled face.

The monk had just opened his mouth halfway and had not even exhaled when the Dagger was already with him.

With lightning-fast, smooth and almost silent movements, the Dagger grabbed him, grabbed him, drew one of the numerous blades he carried with him with the same movement and put them at the monk's throat.

"Where is everybody else?"

"In the temple," whispered the monk. "It is the night of the farthest southern moon, and they perform the prayers until the dawn of the First Light."

Although Dagger was a deeply religious man, he had little knowledge of the prayer rituals of the Knowing Brothers. He only knew that they held a whole series of other occasions for prayer in addition to the public holidays. And these occasions were different for each of the many monastic orders that belief in the Nameless God had produced over the ages. It was as if they wanted to outdo each other in their piety and to stand out as much as possible from ordinary believers as well as from other religious communities.

What prayer rules the Order of the Knowing Brothers had knew about this, as little as about their misguided teachings or forbidden arts, which had led to their now falling out of favour.

"Is there nobody in the house but you?"

"No one," said the monk. "Everyone's in the temple."

"Good."

The monk swallowed.

It was the last thing he did, because Dagger killed him with a stab so cleanly guided that his victim could neither scream nor bleed heavily.

The monk sank back against the back of his chair. He was sitting there with his arms hanging down. The light of the candle flickered slightly. The warm, yellowish glow made the dead man's face appear soft and relaxed.

Dagger closed his eyes so that one could believe that the old man had simply fallen asleep over the reading of the thick folio. The trickle of blood was barely visible and looked like part of the shadow pattern created by the restless candlelight.

Dagger put the weapon back. A short stiletto that had proven itself many times over. ‘Safe Sting’, he called this weapon from the collection of daggers and knives he carried with him when he pursued his profession. Many assassins had a very special, almost personal relationship to their weapons. No one who did not belong to the brotherhood of the Assassin Guard could even understand this.

I'll wait for the others to arrive, thought Dagger. So I will have to work very quickly and precisely. After all, I'm dealing with them all at once.

Dagger took a look at the book that was open in front of the monk on the table. The assassin frowned in confusion when he noticed that they were not columns of letters and words written on the pages, but...

Ciphers!

Numbers!

Sometimes they were mixed with letters, strokes, strange and completely unknown signs. But the numbers were in any case in an overwhelming majority compared to all other kinds of signs that could be seen on the opened pages.

It had to be black magic or that forbidden kind of mathematics that tried to predict the course of the stars and was certainly a sin against the belief in the Nameless God, because it questioned his power over the stars and the sunlight.

Perhaps this was the reason why the Knowing Brothers had fallen from grace and the Emperor of God saw a danger in them that had to be encountered immediately. But all this was none of his business, as he well knew.

Just kill, and don't look, Dagger remembered one of the propositions taught to him during his training at the court of the God Emperor.

And yet - the numbers and signs in the book seemed to exert a strange magic on Dagger. An influence even he himself was helplessly at the mercy of. Or was it just plain curiosity?

Anyway, he turned the page.

The art of reading and writing had been part of his education. A murderer had to be able to read, because sometimes this was the only way to track down a victim. He was also expected to speak several languages. Understanding all the idioms spoken in the streets of Arakand was probably impossible. But whoever wanted to commit a clean murder did well to understand at least a few of them and to be able to read them.

Dagger saw a drawing with many numbers and characters. A sketchy representation of the world, as if a bird that had flown to the stars had looked down upon it. The monk had a talent for drawing, thought Dagger. Some of the Knowing Brothers hired themselves out in the streets as portrait artists to collect money. Not for themselves, of course, but for the hospitals and food for the poor that the order maintained.

Dagger saw a bullet surrounded by a ring. That was the world. A smaller sphere was the moon. Lines showed him circling around the world and the world around the First Sunlight and both sunlights around each other. The names on the individual elements of this picture left no doubt about what he saw.

But every child and every uneducated beggar would have recognized this immediately, because there were stone reliefs in many places in Arakand, which showed similar representations.

It was the power of the Nameless God and the ruler chosen by him who kept the stars on their orbits and especially made sure that the two sunlights did not come too close to the world.

Dagger had already heard that some were obsessed with calculating the course of the stars by means of forbidden arts. But would that still have been an adorable God if his will could be predicted by mathematical witchcraft?

It's outrage, thought Dagger and slammed the book. His pulse accelerated. The years in the streets had made him fearless. There were very few things that could really scare him. Among them was the fear of becoming a victim of magic.

Once, when he was still a young thief on the streets, a somewhat quaint looking woman with a piercing look had offered him a drink that was supposed to make his changer qualities disappear. Instead, however, he only felt sick. He couldn't remember what happened after that. He woke up in a side street at some point. There was hardly anything left of his already very modest possessions. Not even his boots had been left to him.

Once more, he swore he wouldn't if that happened to him. For a second time, he wouldn't be so easily influenced by magic. No matter who cast that spell.

And since the book in which the stabbed monk had read was undoubtedly about forbidden magic, Dagger feared that these powers could now take possession of it.

Only ignorance protected against the influence of magic, as tradition has it. I should just stick to it, thought Dagger.

*

DAGGER SAT DOWN ON one of the other chairs in the room and waited. He positioned himself in such a way that he was barely visible. He disappeared almost completely in a shadow.

When the light of the first sun appeared already behind the horizon and a comforting glimmer appeared to the whole city in a very strange light, the songs in the temple stopped.

Now it couldn't take much longer.

Dagger waited patiently until the monks returned from the temple. He heard their voices and steps. Dagger loosened the special weapon, which he called  ‘Safe Sting’, and the one-handed crossbow he wore on his belt.

The door opened. The first monk entered. A rather obese, tall man, of whom little more than a silhouette could be seen.

Dagger heard them talking.

"Why is the candle out?"

"Brother Estus seems to have fallen asleep."

"Apparently our songs weren't loud enough to keep him awake."

The door slammed shut. This was the moment Dagger had been waiting for. No one had noticed him yet. And still none of the monks had understood that their confrere had long since entered the realm of the Hereafter Transfiguration - provided that the judgement of God did not banish him into the hellish heat deep under the earth.

Dagger ripped out the one-handed crossbow. It clacked when the bolt penetrated the fat giant's forehead, puncturing the skull bone to penetrate the brain. No scream came from his throat. He fell to his knees, then fell to the floor with a muffled sound reminiscent of a falling flour sack.

Even before the fat giant hit the ground, Dagger had killed two more monks by throwing rings. A third died through a throwing dagger before he could reach the door. The Assassin had dropped his one-handed crossbow, quickly pulled the short sword on his belt and the long one he carried over his back. With a combination of extremely accurate and quick blows and stings, he killed several monks within moments.

One of the monks grabbed the poker by the fireplace, which had hardly been used in times of increasing second sunlight and probably had not been used for years. One blow of the long blade knocked the poker out of his hand, the short one killed him instantly and almost silently. The blades were swirling. Blood splattered, a head rolled over the floor. The last of the monks died with a dagger in his back just as he reached the window.

Then there was silence.

Hardly twenty heartbeats and a dozen dead monks, Dagger thought, - not a bad job! Every stroke, every thrust, every throw and also the shot with the one-handed crossbow had sat. The worst mishap an assassin could have caused was just hurting his victim. That was dirty work. Killing was quick and silent. Everything else was a disgrace to any honourable career killer.

With such a large number of victims, however, it was already a real art to actually implement the rules of honourable murder, as they were traditionally upheld in the Assassin Guard. A single unsuccessful throw with a dagger, a single imprecise sword blow or thrust could turn a murderous work of art into an ordinary slaughter, as it occasionally happened among rival port gangs.

But Dagger was satisfied with his work.

And he hoped that his master, the all-powerful God Emperor of Arakand, would be so. However, during the long years he had served as an assassin brother, Dagger had discovered that his clients hardly appreciated the art of honourable murder. In higher places, people were mostly satisfied when the victim was certainly dead. In special cases, an assassin was expected to provide evidence, such as the victim's head. In this case, however, this was not the case. No one will expect me to carry twelve bloody skulls in a sack through the streets of Arakand, thought Dagger as he began to collect his weapons again. The first sunlight rose quickly. He had to hurry. But with an assassin who was self-respecting, speed never came at the expense of care.

He briefly wiped each of the weapons with a cloth he carried with him for this purpose.

Suddenly the sound of a distant, weak voice made him twitch. And at the same time it fell from his eyes like scales.

There are only 11 of them!

One of the monks had to be alive. Perhaps he had stayed behind in the temple to continue his devotion into the morning. Or he hadn't been here that night for some other reason.

With the Nameless God and the two sunlights, how could this happen? Dagger thought. He hated it when things didn't go as planned. But as many times as he counted the bodies, there were only 11. One monk was missing.

"Brother Estus?"

The voice came from the upper floor. It was very weak and hard to hear.

That had to solve the mystery! Brother Estus had apparently lied to him when he claimed that all the other monks of this community were in the temple. Why did he do that?, asked Dagger to himself. There had to be a reason.

"Estus?"

The second call was almost a cry, though still a very weak one, so that it could hardly be heard more clearly than the first.

Dagger carefully went up the stairs leading to the upper floor. The wood creaked quietly. As carefully as Dagger might move, these noises were simply unavoidable.

"Estus? I thought... already, you had... forgotten me", Dagger heard the voice say, whereby always after a few words a pause arose, as if the speaker had to draw breath first.

On the upper floor,  Dagger followed a narrow corridor - and the voice of the unknown last monk.

The door to the room, where he was apparently in, was half open. Dagger entered.

He held the Safe Sting in the right. In the confinement that prevailed up here, a knife was a better weapon to handle than a sword. Depending on his needs, the assassin could ram the stab into his opponent's body, slit his throat or sling the weapon.

When he entered the room, it was already quite bright. The day had started in Arakand, and the first carts with freshly baked bread were already heard in the distance, mostly pulled by more or less stubborn mules and donkeys.

Dagger slowly moved further into the room and saw a figure curled up in a bed. An overgrown cripple with thin, aged and powerless looking arms and legs. At first, Dagger thought he had a child in front of him, but the head and face belonged to an adult man. Only his body was completely underdeveloped in terms of size and muscles.

The cripple was lying on his side and bedded on half a dozen pillows. He rolled his eyes to see Dagger. Except for his eyes and the lips and tongue, he did not seem to be able to move any other part of his body on his own.

The hands were clawed around linen cloths that were supposed to prevent them from getting sore. Years ago, the predecessor of the current First Priest had been struck by the blow and had spent the last months of his life in a similarly helpless state. However, only one half of his body had been affected by the cruel paralysis.

The poor creature the Assassin Brother was dealing with was apparently paralyzed. And apparently for a very long time. Otherwise the condition of the arms and legs could not be explained. The linen robe worn by the paralytic showed enough of it to show that this man's limbs consisted only of skin and bones. There was almost no musculature. As if he had never used his arms and legs before, Dagger thought. He seems to have been defeated by this suffering since birth. A whim of nature or a curse of the Nameless God who met this creature because of the sins of his parents...

During the years in the streets of Arakand, Dagger had met many cripples who hired themselves out as a beggar. Some he had killed and robbed, others he had made friends. But never had there been such a pitiful creature among them as this man, he thought.

"Estus? It is you, isn't it? If you don't pat my back off soon, I'll choke on my slime! Why didn't you get here before? The others should have been back from the temple by now. The first light is already dazzling my eyes. Put me another way..."

Apparently he still can't see me, recognized Dagger. He didn't move. Do not kill anything that dies of its own accord - at that moment he had to think of this axiom from the codex of the Assassin Brothers.

"You're not Estus," the cripple suddenly said. "Otherwise, you would have answered already."

"Are you a monk?" asked Dagger.

"So he's a stranger. The sounds I heard from below now make a different sense."

"I asked you a question."

The cripple tried to say something, but a coughing fit swallowed his words. His chest was rattling. His head turned red. So dark red that it was confirmed once again for Dagger, which could not really be overlooked. Without help he dies, he thought.

How could he, as an honorable assassin brother, kill such a man? That was unthinkable.

Dagger recalled the words of his assassin master Balok: "We do not obey any law, we break every rule that is common among civilized people to serve a higher purpose. So it is all the more important that we scrupulously observe our own code."

Words that had burned their way into each other's consciousness.

Die on your own and take this difficult decision away from me,