The Killing Fog
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The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the Kingfountain series conjures an epic, adventurous world of ancient myth and magic as a young woman's battle with infinite evil begins.
Survivor of a combat school, the orphaned Bingmei belongs to a band of mercenaries employed by a local ruler. Now the nobleman, and collector of rare artifacts, has entrusted Bingmei and the skilled team with a treacherous assignment: brave the wilderness's dangers to retrieve the treasures of a lost palace buried in a glacier valley. But upsetting its tombs has a price.
Echion, emperor of the Grave Kingdom, ruler of darkness, Dragon of Night, has long been entombed. Now Bingmei has unwittingly awakened him and is answerable to a legendary prophecy. Destroying the dark lord before he reclaims the kingdoms of the living is her inherited mission. Killing Bingmei before she fulfills it is Echion's.
Thrust unprepared into the role of savior, urged on by a renegade prince, and possessing a magic that is her destiny, Bingmei knows what she must do. But what must she risk to honor her ancestors? Bingmei's fateful choice is one that neither her friends nor her enemies can foretell, as Echion's dark war for control unfolds.
Release date: March 1, 2020
Print pages: 404
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The Killing Fog
Bingmei awoke in the darkness before dawn to the sound of wind. The sky was marbled with heavy clouds that hung low, obscuring the nearby mountains normally visible through the upper windows. Leaves were chased from the limbs of crooked trees and herded into the courtyard, scraping and rasping against the stone as they went. The air had the smell of ice, the portent of a storm. The season seemed to have shifted overnight, sliding toward winter. Too soon. A spike of worry pierced her chest. Her parents were still not back from their journey. An early winter meant death to anyone caught in the vast wilderness.
Bingmei rose and ate her morning meal of fish and yarrow tea, anxious to be in the training yard. Practicing saber techniques usually tamed her fears, but as she swung the sword in the usual arcs, her eyes kept straying to the spruce limbs swaying wildly above the quonsuun’s high walls. Raindrops pattered her head, reminding her of the shift in the weather. She worked until her arms and wrists were sore, her knees aching from holding the stances so long.
Grandfather Jiao came to watch her practice. She knew he was there because of his smell—warm bread with sugary honey drizzled on the crust. A peek revealed that he stood at the edge of the training yard, smiling indulgently as he stroked his long white beard. Her nose never lied, which was why she was unnerved to note a vinegary edge to his scent. Was it worry? Had the sudden change in the season alarmed him as well?
After practicing for several hours, Bingmei climbed the wooden ladder within the training yard to reach the outer wall of the quonsuun. Patrolling it with a pike was Zizhu, who kept his eyes on the horizon. The interior roof was heavily curved, which helped protect the guards against the drifts of snow that would soon pummel the mountains. A fierce wind rippled his cloak, as if determined to yank him off the wall and throw him down to the gorse below.
He turned as she walked toward him. “Get down, young miss!” he said with a scowl. “You’re light enough to blow away!”
She hated being reminded of her size and gave him a scowl in return. “I’m not a leaf to be blown away,” she said. “What have you seen?”
The low-hanging clouds veiled the ridges. Rumbles of thunder sounded in the distance.
“I can’t see a thing,” Zizhu complained. “They could be hiking up the trail from the fjord, and I wouldn’t know it.”
“It doesn’t help that you’re half-blind, Zizhu.”
“Blind? Come closer, and I’ll rap you with my pole!”
“You could try, Zizhu, but how would you hit me if you can’t see? You might fall and stab yourself with the pike.”
“Another insult! You should respect your elders.”
She gave him a grin. He smelled like chestnuts. “When you’re too old to climb the ladder, then I’ll start respecting you, Zizhu.”
“Agh, you are cruel, young mistress.” He smirked at her, shaking his head. “Your parents named you too well!”
Bingmei smiled. Their banter was all in good humor. Her name meant “ice rose.” It wasn’t that it suited her because her skin was so pale, although it was, or because she was beautiful, because she wasn’t. Her face was too big, and she was too short and skinny.
No, Father had named her Bingmei, a rose that blooms in winter, because he wished for her to embrace her thorns.
Her parents owned the family ensign, the security and bodyguard business her grandfather had started when he’d served the ruler of Yiwu. But boundaries between the kingdoms shifted like the winds and the river deposits.
The banner of their ensign was a mountain leopard, which were more common in the mountains where Grandfather had grown up. Her family had a reputation for their martial skills. They were feared by the lawless groups of Qiangdao, who owed allegiance to none of the kings and who pillaged caravans or snuck into towns to rob the estates of the wealthy. Each season, emissaries climbed up the mountain to the quonsuun, seeking their help.
As she stood on the wall, she turned her head and gazed down at her home. No one knew who’d built it. The thick stone walls and meiwood timbers were solid, and although speckled with lichen, they had defied the ravages of time and weather. While the roof tiles had been patched over the years, the curving slope did well under the onerous weight of snow. Some ancient civilization had constructed the quonsuun and many of the cities within their world. It was unknown what had become of the ancients, but their buildings had outlasted them, and so had the symbols they’d engraved in their architecture and art. Like the leopard, a creature that had come to symbolize the taming of cruelty. When her father and mother had arrived at their destination, having successfully protected the caravan they’d been hired to accompany, the leopard symbol was received with joy and gladness.
What the sign had meant originally, no one knew. There were some creatures depicted in statuary and ornamental designs that still mystified those looking at them. Did those kinds of animals even exist anymore? Had they ever existed?
So much of the world was a mystery to Bingmei. Where had her ancestors come from? Why were so many languages spoken throughout the kingdoms? Why was so much of the year spent in shadow, the other in light? No one understood, but the change had been attributed to the dragons of myth—the light half of the year was known as the Dragon of Dawn, the dark half as the Dragon of Night.
Worry began to bubble up again as she sniffed the cold, sharp air. If winter came too soon, her parents wouldn’t be able to finish their journey. She didn’t want to spend the Dragon of Night without her parents, trapped in the quonsuun without news of their adventures.
The rain began to fall in earnest then, striking at Bingmei and Zizhu viciously as the skies began to seethe.
“Have you seen any sign of the fog?” Bingmei asked worriedly, wiping a drop that had landed on her nose.
“No, young miss. Try not to worry. They’ll be back. I thought I heard a noise in the distance. I know it must be them.”
“Shout when you see them coming,” Bingmei ordered.
He frowned at her. “I am Zizhu, a free man! You cannot order me about, little miss! You are only ten years old.”
“I’m twelve! Now promise me you’ll shout, or I’ll throw stones at you from down below!”
“If I thought you could hit me, I’d be worried,” he said. “Now get out of the rain before your petals fall off.”
She bounded back to the ladder, glancing into the distance one last time, but her view was impeded by layers of storm clouds. A shiver ran down her back.
The storm made practicing in the training yard unpleasant, so Bingmei worked on her fist techniques within the quonsuun itself. It smelled like spoiling fruit, but she burned incense to banish the stench. Only Bingmei could smell it, but a feeling of unease hung in the air, which had everyone agitated.
Grandfather didn’t seek her out, but she saw glimpses of him on and off throughout the day. Pacing. Watching the walls and the storm raging outside, his hands clasped behind his back. It was unlike him to brood, which only heightened Bingmei’s sense of dread. Servants splashed through the courtyard as they ran for cover between their duties. The quonsuun housed twelve servants, but most of the living quarters were vacant since the bulk of the warriors had gone on the mission with her parents, leaving Zizhu and seven others to guard it in their absence.
After the storm ended, late in the afternoon, Zizhu called down from his post on the wall, his cloak hanging heavily on him, drenched with rain. “They’re coming! They’re coming! I see the ensign!”
Bingmei ran out to the courtyard, nearly slipping on the wet stone tiles in her eagerness. Water dripped from the edges of the roof, pattering noisily down the drainage chains. None of the lamps had been lit yet, for fear they’d be extinguished in the storm, but they would be. She saw Grandfather emerge from the quonsuun, a relieved smile on his face. A delicious smell accompanied him.
Perhaps all would be well after all. Perhaps she’d worried for nothing.
“You see them, Zizhu?” Bingmei called up. “Are you sure?”
“I’m not blind, no matter what you think!” he shouted back. “They’re not far off. Unbar the doors.”
Servants of the quonsuun were suddenly rushing around. Some scampered up rickety ladders, beginning to hang the lit lamps from the iron stays. Others rushed forward and raised the heavy crossbar holding the door closed.
Bingmei hurried forward, bouncing on the balls of her feet in excitement.
As the servants set the crossbar down and began pulling the heavy doors open, the smell of fresh rain-soaked grass filled the courtyard. She saw the group marching toward the gate wearily, heads bent low against the weather. No doubt they’d marched through the storm to get there by dusk. They would be tired, surely, but she hoped Mother and Father would have enough energy to tell her and Grandfather stories of their journey. Just a few minutes and they’d be home.
Then the wind shifted, bringing the smell of the group rushing to her. The smell of rancid tubers afflicted her, making her eyes water. The overpowering stench made her step back, gagging.
This was not the smell of her parents. It was a death smell.
Bingmei’s heart pounded fast as she stared out into the gloom of the failing light. She recognized the family banner, the depiction of the leopard. But her nose could not be deceived.
The pretenders had her parents’ leopard banner. What did that mean?
“Shut the door,” she said in a strangled voice, shaking her head.
Grandfather arrived next to her, hands clasped behind his back. “What’s wrong, Granddaughter?”
Bingmei covered her mouth and groaned. “It’s not them,” she said, shaking her head, wanting to banish the horrid stench. “It’s a trick. It’s not them! Close the doors.”
“Do as she says,” Grandfather commanded.
The servants, looking worried, began to push against the doors.
There was a clattering noise, startling them, then a crash as Zizhu landed in the courtyard next to her. His pike had fallen first, the noise jarring everyone. One of the servants screamed. Zizhu tried to lift his head, his eyes dazed in pain and surprise, but Bingmei saw the arrow protruding from his chest. He slumped back, his chest falling still.
The servants shoved hard at the doors. Bingmei went to help as the group outside charged toward them. Shouts and yells from outside added to the confusion. The servants managed to wrestle the doors shut and were fumbling with the crossbar when something heavy smashed into the wood from the other side, knocking them back. One of the doors inched open, preventing the crossbar from fitting into the cradle. The smell that came through the gap made Bingmei want to vomit. A flash of metal, a saber, cut through the gap—and through one of the servants holding the beam. He cried out in pain and dropped his end.
They had lost the protection of the walls.
Grandfather looked at Bingmei. “Get my saber and the cricket!” he said, his face contorting with emotion, his cheeks twitching with barely suppressed rage. Bingmei vaulted from her position, rushing back into the quonsuun like the wind. She heard voices, shouts. The few remaining guards came rushing past Bingmei to defend the compound.
Panic urged her on. The smell filling the courtyard was horrible, but she sprinted to her grandfather’s room. His saber was suspended on the wall, the meiwood hilt capped in gold. The saber, a relic of the forgotten past, had seen many years of duty.
She pulled it down and then found the little box that contained his wooden cricket. It, too, was made of meiwood, and she knew it was magic. Artifacts like this were as coveted as they were dangerous. But her grandfather had let her play with the cricket before. She knew how to invoke its power. Perhaps this was what the Qiangdao were after. She had no doubt that these were some of the infamous brigands who roamed the world seeking prey and ill-gotten gains. Why would they dare attack a quonsuun? She took the box and stuffed it into her pocket, then grabbed the saber and hurtled back toward the training yard.
Voices. Threats. Laughter.
“You’ve returned at last, Muxidi?” rasped Grandfather Jiao.
“Only to bring you their heads, old man,” said the leader of the Qiangdao. Bingmei arrived just as a leather sack, bulging and dripping, was flung at her grandfather’s feet. It brought a whiff of a smell. A smell she recognized as her parents, mixed with the stench of death.
She stared at the bag in shock, unable to believe what she was witnessing. The guards who had passed her moments before lay sprawled on the ground, some still twitching as they died, others motionless. A band of ten Qiangdao stood in the area, wearing the thick leathers and hides favored by the thieves. There were no colors in their clothes, no fashion. They smelled like rotting flesh.
“Your ensign is ended!” shouted the leader to her grandfather’s face. “You killed my grandfather. So now I take my revenge on you and on your seed. Die, old man!”
Bingmei, still frozen, watched as the leader brought up his saber to strike off her grandfather’s head. She still gripped his weapon in her hand, her body too frightened to move.
The killing blow came, but her grandfather ducked at the last moment. With a blur of his fists, he struck at the leader, knocking him down to the wet stone tiles. He was old, but he was not powerless. Two of the bandits yelled and attacked him. Grandfather twisted, evading a thrust, and struck back. He took down one of them and kicked the other in the knee. The crack of breaking bone snapped Bingmei out of her haze.
She raced forward just as the leader’s saber sliced down her grandfather’s front. Muxidi used both hands to amplify his force, one on the hilt, one atop the blade. She gaped in shock as her grandfather sagged to his knees, his eyes wide with pain and surprise. If he’d had his own weapon . . .
Turning his head, Grandfather saw her charging toward him. The grief on his face ripped at her heart. The wound was mortal. She could see the grin of satisfaction on the bandit’s face. Then he pulled his sword free and kicked Grandfather down.
A scream came out of Bingmei as she charged the man. She yanked the saber out of its scabbard. There was no hope of winning against so many. But if she died killing this man, it would be a good death. Why not join her parents beyond the Death Wall? And her grandfather too? They would go together.
Muxidi saw her in time, and he effortlessly blocked her thrusts and slashing motions. How could he not? She practiced daily, but she was only twelve. Tears streaked down her cheeks. He was toying with her, letting her expend her energy. His ruffians formed a circle around her, boxing her in. They laughed as though her efforts were an enjoyable diversion. If only she could steal a little blood from the man before she died.
But Muxidi wouldn’t grant her any. He mocked her as he defended himself, holding her off as if she were a dandelion seed dancing in the wind.
“Are you the daughter?” he said. “No wonder they were too ashamed to speak of you before they died. You’re pale as a ghost. Look at her!”
Laughter followed. She screamed at him, trying again to stab him. He parried her strike easily, then kicked her in the chest, knocking the wind out of her.
She lay on the wet stones, seeing her grandfather swallow. He stared at her, the final smell of him washing over her. He couldn’t speak, but she could see the urgency in his eyes. The plea. He wanted her to run.
“You aren’t even worth killing!” the leader said. “But I don’t want to be haunted by any ghosts!”
He was going to kill her. And all the rest of the servants at the quonsuun. There would be no one left to claim a blood debt against him. Her parents had only one child—her. Only she could avenge them.
Bingmei remembered the little box in her pocket. She fished her hand into her pocket, opened the box, and felt the small wooden cricket.
She gripped it in her hand and rubbed it with her thumb, invoking the magic. She smelled the rich, beautiful aroma of the wood as the power of the artifact enveloped her. Its magic infused her, thrumming outward from her hand. And she leaped, springing out of the circle of killers, rising in an arc to land gracefully on the sloping rooftop of the quonsuun.
“Shoot her!” yelled the leader, his voice drained of humor.
Bingmei rubbed the cricket again, and the magic made her spring even higher, clearing the peaked roof of the ancient dwelling. She heard the twang of a bow, but she landed safely on the other side of the wall. Shouts and commands to find her, to kill her, filled the courtyard behind her.
But it was dark.
And it was impossible to find a cricket in the dark.
Bingmei sat on a wooden bench, feeling the sway of the boat as the smell of the salmon in the nets filled her nose. The fisherman and his son adjusted their ropes, positioning the scalloped sail to take advantage of the wind, which seemed to change its mind spontaneously. The stars were partly masked by the tall peaks of the mountain fjord.
Zhuyi and Mieshi, her bond sisters in the ensign, were asleep on the bench across from her, huddled in their cloaks. The fisherman and his son had agreed to sail during the night to hide their group’s movement from prying eyes. Kunmia Suun preferred to travel in secrecy.
Bingmei shifted her gaze to the front of the boat, where her master sat beside the fisherman. One of the few women to run an ensign, Kunmia had become her teacher, her adopted mother, her mentor, her friend. It was Kunmia’s ensign that had come to Bingmei’s grandfather’s quonsuun in search of survivors once the Dragon of Night gave way to the Dragon of Dawn. Bingmei had watched them arrive from her hiding place in the abandoned, plundered building. She’d lived there for months, hiding from Muxidi and his men and surviving on what little food she could steal. The Qiangdao had disposed of the dead by abandoning the bodies outside the quonsuun to be devoured by the wild animals prowling there. The only thing she had left of her family was her grandfather’s saber and the meiwood cricket. At first she’d feared Kunmia’s ensign were Qiangdao, but their smell had assured her that they could be trusted.
For four years Bingmei had trained with Kunmia Suun. This was the first voyage she’d been allowed to make with the ensign. They’d spent the summer crossing the deep fjords into the wilderness, looking for the ruins of another quonsuun. They’d found it, but it had already been plundered. However, they’d managed to secure some artifacts for their employer. They were on their way back to Wangfujing, their journey nearly at an end.
Kunmia smelled like thyme and the subtle fragrance of peonies. She was soft spoken but very serious, her long hair wound up on her head, bound with leather ties. She was never without the meiwood staff she cradled in her arms, an intricately carved weapon that was of ancient origin, its story lost to history. Her eyes were severe, her mouth neutral. She would not be at ease until their duty was fulfilled.
Honor meant everything to Kunmia, and because of that, it meant something to Bingmei as well. Under her tutelage, Bingmei’s skills had improved. With her grandfather’s saber and meiwood cricket, she felt she could defeat any foe. Even Muxidi. She itched to face off with the brigand, but Kunmia still thought she wasn’t ready to kill. And she disapproved of revenge.
“When we reach Wangfujing,” Marenqo said, his head bent low, his arms wrapped around his knees, “I want one of these salmon. Roasted on a strip of cedar.” He enunciated each word carefully. He was looking at Kunmia but mostly talking to himself as he always did. “A little bit of parsley. A pinch of salt. White pepper, of course. Cooked to perfection. Just a little pink. That is what I want.”
“You are always thinking about food,” Lieren said, snorting. He was not a tall man, but although he was well into his fifties, he was just as fit as the youngest on the fishing boat. His eyes scanned the dark shoreline, looking for light.
“And you, my friend,” Marenqo said, “eat your food much too quickly. You don’t even enjoy it.”
“I am an efficient eater. There is no sin in this.”
“There is a sin. You don’t taste the food. How many years have I watched you, shoveling the bowl into your mouth, as if it were a race? As if your belly were that of a starving man?”
“Hush,” Kunmia said, trying to forestall another round of teasing.
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