The pilgrim town of Vennath festered on the outskirts of the Pale City. One of the sacred border towns, it was filthy and squalid and built from nothing but rubble scavenged from the ruined capital of Avan Lyr. It was a small town, but held no fewer than fifty thousand pilgrims at any given time, each seeking the communion, or favor, of the Angel Vellah. Priests and their supplicants tended to the pilgrims. Some watched over them like shepherds, guiding them on their journeys to and from the temples of the Pale City. Others stood on high pedestals along the streets and shouted prayers to their Angel and the Spire. They cried out to God and the pilgrims gathered at their feet to hear their words.
The city was deafening, but it fell to silence as Ambassador Osyth Barton, Herald of Vellah, walked its streets. His bare feet were black with mud, as was the hem of his silken robe. He was broad shouldered and tall, but walked with the gentle humility of an elder. His eyes were the soft grey of a winter sky and calm in spite of the horrors they had witnessed. His hands were clean and soft. As he walked the sea of bodies parted before him. Pilgrims and priests dropped to their knees and pressed their foreheads to the ground at his feet.
Osyth walked above them like a man in a dream, peaceful and distant. He looked at the prostrate men and women and saw only the backs of their heads and necks. It was a familiar sight, and one he never enjoyed.
Beneath the bodies were the curving, rolling streets of Vennath. They were rough hewn and honest. So unlike the streets Osyth knew from the Pale City. There, the ground was laid in marble, ripped from the earth by thralls and polished to an ice shine. They were extraordinary, but meaningless. The roads of Vennath, however, were hewn from old stones scorched black by the coming of God. They didn’t run in perfect, defiant lines cut through the earth, they obeyed its contours instead. They rose as the earth rose, and circled hills rather than pierce them. There was something pure about them, something rich. Structure in concert with the world. Harmony. Osyth was very fond of them.
The buildings in Vennath were similarly formed. They pressed on the winding streets and leaned on each other and always appeared on the verge of collapse. They seemed to Osyth able to stand only in support of one another, and he often wondered if the town would remain standing if a single stone was upset. He found the idea beautiful. A fragile town of fragile people, everything depending on its neighbor for survival. Each building on the verge of collapse, each pilgrim at the edge of damnation, and none of them able to stand without the whole.
Thousands of frightened faces peered from the crumbling buildings as he passed beneath them. They watched from the ragged clusters of windows and from behind cracks in the charred stone. They watched him, and if his eyes settled on theirs they would grow wide and vanish into the shadows like rats.
He paused when he reached the far gates of Vennath. He stood beyond the crowds and alone save for a few wandering priests. He could hear the streets far behind him and bustling once again, their chaos a muted storm in the distance. Here at the gates the world was still. Osyth gestured to a pair of kneeling supplicants and they nodded like fools and rushed to the gates and pushed them wide open and then hurried back to kneel. Osyth ignored them. He looked upon the Holy Lands instead.
They stretched for miles and miles, further than any human eyes could see. They were golden and long dead. The air that rolled across them was still cold from the night and smelled of dry leaves and dust. Osyth stood for a long time and watched the quiet world, so still and perfect. A world of calm, cool winds and limitless peace. He closed his eyes and felt the early sun on his back, he felt its warmth like a blanket draped over his shoulders. “Glorious, isn’t it?” he asked.
Silence answered him. He frowned, and looked at the ground where nine pilgrims were kneeling in the mud. One cradled the ragged stump of a missing hand beneath his tired body. Another wore a blood-crusted wrapping on her head that left only a single clear blue eye exposed. They were all half-starved and shivering in the cold morning. The oldest among them was twelve.
Osyth sat on the ground in front of them. One of them, a skinny boy with a shaved head, raised himself ever so slightly and peered at Osyth from the tops of his eyes. Osyth smiled at him and the boy’s eyes went huge and he snapped his head back to the ground.
“Come now,” Osyth said. “Am I that frightening?”
The boy was silent. His shoulders trembled.
“Look at me,” Osyth said, his voice gentle and calm. “All of you. Rise and sit here with me a moment.”
The children raised their faces and watched Osyth. “I know the journey you’ve been on,” he said. “Sit with me for just a moment, speak to me, then you can find your place inside. There is food inside, and water. Speak with me and it will be yours.”
The children brought themselves to sitting. They watched Osyth with the cautious, wild eyes of animals.
“Where have you come from?” he asked.
The children were silent. They looked towards the skinny boy. Osyth nodded and repeated his question, but directed it at the boy.
“Mayfaire,” the child said. His voice was soft and dry.
“Mayfaire,” Osyth replied. “That’s quite a journey. You’re very brave to have come so far. How many days have you been on the road?”
Osyth nodded. “That is a long time to be in the Holy Lands,” he said. “A very long time.” He looked at each of them. “I saw you coming down the road last night. I saw you all the way from the Pale City and I decided to come and greet you myself.”
“I see that there are nine of you here. But that’s not how many left Mayfaire, is it?”
The boy shook his head.
“And how many were in your group when you left?”
The boy lowered his eyes. “There were fifteen of us,” he said.
Osyth frowned. “And the rest were taken?”
The children all nodded.
“I’m very sorry to hear that. Very sorry.”
Another child, a girl with a threadbare scarf around her neck, spoke up. “They took my sister,” she said, the words all ragged and broken. “Sara. They came in the night. I told Esten we needed a fire, but he said we couldn’t have one.”
Osyth turned to the boy. “Are you Esten?”
“Esten was right,” Osyth said to the girl. “They would have seen the fire and smelled the smoke. They would have taken all of you.” He looked at each of them. He watched their frightened, tired faces. “You are all so brave. So very, very brave. And just look at how far you’ve come. You are worthy of God’s love, otherwise you would not be here right now. Take comfort in that. The Spire smiles on you.”
The girl nodded, but her eyes were rimmed with tears.
“That doesn’t make it any easier, does it?” Osyth said quietly, and they all shook their heads. “You loved your sister and the Spire took her from you. Just like it took your hand, and your eye,” he said gesturing to the bandaged children. “God takes, and takes, and takes… And sometimes it feels like It takes too much.”
He studied their faces for a long time. The sunken cheeks and the matted hair. They looked like runaways, all showing signs of a neglect that ran deeper and longer than their five days in the Holy Lands. It hurt Osyth’s heart to see them.
“I know where you’ve come from,” he said at last. “I know Mayfaire. The faithful are not loved there. Life is not easy in the Reaches and it is all you have ever known. And then you came through the Holy Lands and you suffered there. And now you come kneeling in the mud of Vennath and you will find hardship here as well. You will find it for the rest of your lives.” He raised his voice, and there was joy in it. “But do you know that there are great rewards after this life?” he said. “Great rewards. The Spire demands suffering, but it gives so much in return.”
The children were unmoved. Osyth smiled.
“I’ll show you.”
He drew a dagger from beneath his robes.
“My name is Osyth Barton. Do any of you recognize that name?”
Their eyes all went wide. Several of their mouths dropped open.
“You’re the Ambassador,” Esten whispered. “You’re one of the Ascended.”
“Yes I am. But do you know what that means? Do you know what it means to be Ascended?”
“It means you can’t die.”
Osyth laughed. It was lighthearted, contagious, and the children laughed with him. “It means much more than that,” he said as he raised the dagger to his chest. “Watch.” The children gasped as he pushed the blade between his ribs, all the way to the hilt. Blood blossomed across his white robes.
“The Spire takes,” Osyth said. “But It also gives.”
He pulled the dagger from his heart and let a trickle of blood fall from the blade into his cupped hand. The children leaned in to watch it. “The Spire gave me life, and it gave me the youth that I had lost. It gave me other gifts as well.” As he spoke, the blood in his had began to spiral. It ran like a snake around his palm and laced between his fingers and then twisted around his wrist and arm. “This is a gift from the Spire. It’s a small one, but it gives me control of my body.”
“Like the Angel?” one of the boys asked. His eyes did not leave the spiraling blood.
“Far from it,” Osyth said. “Vellah can control his blood in ways you can’t imagine, though you will understand a little when you take his communion. And some day, if you are truly worthy, you may touch the Spire and Ascend. You may receive its gifts.”
The children could not take their eyes from the spiraling blood, or the red stain that had spread through Osyth’s robes. He smiled at their wonder.
“This is such a small miracle,” he said. “Look behind me. Do you see the Spire rising from the Pale City? Do you see how high it reaches into the heavens? The Spire is God and it is a miracle beyond all miracles. It exists just as you and I exist. It is here with us, always here and not hidden in the stars. Just look at It. Do you see how mighty It is?”
The children nodded.
“It is the source of all the good in this world. It creates suffering, but it also creates miracles, and they are yours if you are worthy to receive them. Always remember that, especially when you see things in the Pale City that frighten you. Not all of God’s creations are beautiful. Some of them can be… difficult to see. And sometimes even the best of God’s creations can lose their way in the world. Stay strong and brave, and believe in the good things. You all have my blessing.”
Osyth stood and the children stood with him. They followed him through the gates of Vennath where a priest was waiting on the other side. He was fat and smiling. His white hair drifted in the morning wind and his eyes shined like dirty glass. He bowed to Osyth and then studied the children.
“Wonderful,” the priest said as he walked among them. His voice was deep and giddy. He patted the one-handed boy on the shoulder and took no notice when the child recoiled. “Such strong souls. The Angel will be so pleased to see your faces. He will be so very pleased. Just look at all of you. So strong. And how bright your eyes are…” He cupped the chin of one of the pilgrims and studied her eyes. “Magnificent. Look how wild and fierce. He will bleed that out of you, and you will cherish him for it. Soon your eyes will shine like mine. They will shimmer and shine!” The priest turned to Osyth. “How fine of you to greet these wandering souls, Ambassador. They have no idea the honor they have been given. I will see them safely through the village.”
“See that you do.”
“Of course, of course,” the priest said. “The little cherubs.” He opened his arms and the children gathered around him. “Wonderful of you to greet them, just wonderful. To see them in this unruly, graceless state. Wild little pups who’ve never known the whip.” He smiled to Osyth, his eyes glittered from the shadow of his cowl. “Were we all so unloved once?”
“Yes,” Osyth said. “A lifetime ago.”
“Indeed,” the priest muttered. He bowed low to the ground and the children bowed along with him. “How fortunate to find light in all that darkness,” he said. “Praise the Spire.”
He turned and his small flock trailed behind him. Together they walked towards the dank streets of Vennath. The priest stopped suddenly a few paces away from Osyth and drew up his hand pointing to the sky. “Dear me,” he called out. “Dear, dear me. I nearly forgot. Forgive me, Ambassador but I quite nearly forgot. An Acolyte from the temple was in my chapel this morning. He was looking for you. How could I have forgotten? The Angel Vellah requests your presence. I daresay, it must be something quite important to seek you all the way out here. We rarely see the Acolytes.”
Osyth thanked him and the priest bowed one final time before hurrying off. The children hurried after, though many of their heads stayed turned to stare at the Ambassador as they went. They stumbled over one another and the priest scolded them and they chased after him and Osyth watched until they were out of sight.