The Spire descended on Avan Lyr in the year 280, and with it came the end of the Age of Hope. Cosmin’s great grandfather, Corvin Aurel, stood at the east wall of Mayfaire, one among thousands, and watched silent as the plume of smoke pushed itself from the capital city and into the evening sky. Avan Lyr was leagues away, but the smoke appeared to be emerging just at the borders of the Central Forest. The scale was all wrong. Nothing could be so vast.
The cloud grew and grew. A slow, relentless pillar connecting the horizon to the heavens. Rippling like liquid and ringed in silver looping clouds that themselves began to spread and float to the growing blossom at its crown. And the darkening sky above it all. A warm breeze touched those standing along the wall. The air was acrid and electric, and with it came a gentle haze that held in the air. It was all so gentle. The whole day. A slowly climbing cloud, a slowly changing sky. The horizon fading stone to slate then vanishing altogether. The graceful crawling of this new sky as it reached out to the west.
The sunset that came to Mayfaire that day was beautiful beyond words. The hazing in the air shifted the sky all blue and red and swirled with the deepest violet. A few final rays of the sun broke the haze and touched against the borders of the clouds in ribbons of silver and gold. The whole city watched from whatever heights they could find. They kept their backs to the eastern sky and the growing mire that could barely be a sky at all.
Dawn rose dim and sickly. The sun was lost among the reeking clouds and the light it cast was yellowed and hazy and by noon it was no brighter than dusk. The city beneath the sky was dark and silent and the people were dark and silent in turn.
There was no panic. Not at first. The city stood somber and waiting. Scouts were sent to the east, but none returned. Rangers spread out to find the borders of the growing clouds, but the news they brought was grim. A week passed and the sun did not shine. Another week, then another. And leaves of the forest began to wilt. A month passed. And the first of the southern crops began to fail.
The sun did not shine above Mayfaire for over a year. Riots broke out as food holds emptied and soon a great famine claimed the city. Disease followed, as it always will, and the defeated people of Mayfaire had no choice but to leave their city in search of lands where the sun was still shining.
Many did not find it. Rumors spread of the clouds ending near the southern Selvid Plateau, and of thriving green lands to the west near Hardûn, or far to the north by the foothills of the Black Mountains. None were confirmed, but the desperate people of Mayfaire fled their city and became refugees in their own lands. Corvin Aurel mustered the exodus, but was killed before he could leave the city. His son Trevans was born somewhere on the migrant road to the south.
Mayfaire, now populated only with its unburied dead, stayed behind.
Life staves off death, and when the people of Mayfaire left their homes they unknowingly invited the decay of abandon. It started simply: a tiny dripping of water from a loose tile in a roof, an insect-ridden beam in need of replacing, mortar baked brittle beneath the sun. A hundred thousand small annoyances, but with no one to fix them they grew into calamities. Small leaks turned to floods that rotted wood in the hot summer and cracked foundations in the freezing cold. Old beams collapsed, masonry crumbled, and soon entire buildings fell and the city withered beneath the sick golden haze of its new sun.
Rats took control of the streets. They feasted on the abandoned dead and grew hale and abundant then turned on one another when there were no more bodies left to eat. Soon their bones joined the piles of those they feasted upon and in the end the city was home only to flies. They drifted fat and lazy through the air and stayed until there was nothing but dust beneath them and then they departed as well. They scattered beyond the walls on fruitful journeys into the dying forest, and Mayfaire was left in silence.
And there the city sat, cold and still beneath a vile sun, and when the first men and women crept back to the city they were vile to match. They were twisted, horrific things shuddering from the ashes of the east. They nested in the old ruined city. They dug burrows beneath it and bred in the old bones of the dead and climbed to the tops of towers to screech at the night. They were the firstborn children of the Spire. A new life that God gave unto the world.
For years, and in lands untouched, Mayfaire’s refugees watched as the sky grew brighter and brighter in the north. Scouting parties took timid journeys into the newly formed Barrens and came back with tales of the monstrous things that infested the dead forest and the old city at its heart. They also told of the sun shining bright and clear on the city streets and with that news the displaced people would not be deterred.
The reclamation of Mayfaire was led by Silene Halwyn Aurel, Corvin’s widow and Cosmin’s great grandmother. She reformed the broken City Guard and assumed its command. She did so unchallenged. She won the loyalty of the Sovern, a once proud militia, and led them all to the north and ten long years after the city was abandoned the first settlers returned to Mayfaire.
They found their city in ruins, but it was their city, and under the appointed leadership of House Hollis they began to rebuild it. They started first with the lower districts of the Reaches and Riverside, as well as the High Circle where the buildings of governance and law resided. The northeast quarter of Highland was also rebuilt, as it was the most untouched from the years of decay.
Dûngate, the district to the north of the Reaches, suffered terribly in the years of abandonment, as did the winding streets of Loton in the far northwest corner of the city. Plans were made to resurrect these crumbling neighborhoods, but they never took shape. The resources of the city were simply too precious, the new population too small. The revitalization of the city ended at the borders of the devastated districts and over time the names of Dûngate and Loton were forgotten and they became collectively known as the Abandoned District.
The city grew, the New Forest was seeded, and the first games returned to the Colosseum, and all the while the Abandoned District say empty and broken. A haunted remnant of an older age. A memory best left forgotten.
Cosmin walked the ruined streets without pity. The district should have saddened him. It saddened most people. But he found himself with no time or pity for sadness. He mustered only a bleak contempt, but even that was half-hearted. He saw the ruin and he saw past it. Houses fallen upon themselves. Stone walls sagging as though they were made of wax. The wood rotted from doors and windows and the moon playing at the open hollows and deepening them into wailing mouths and eyes.
Cosmin saw none of it. He walked down the center of the overgrown street and made no effort to hide against the buildings. He limped slightly. The moon was low and bright before him. His pulse hammered and his ripped hand throbbed in time and he suffered waves of pain coming from beneath the bandage, now warm and wet. Droplets of blood fell to the street and ran behind him in a thin trail. He could hear the blood patter on the stones. He didn’t stop. Let the beasts follow him if they must. Let them follow all the way to the steps of the Lodge. That would be one hell of a sight. One absolute hell of a sight.
He grinned at the thought. He whipped his hand in a small arc and left a swipe of blood on the ground. He spat. “Sniff that you bastards.”
The road buckled over tree roots and broke open in patches of wild grass before him. An owl watched unblinking from the crumbled eve of an old tavern, its head following his approach, its eyes shining gold in the moonlight. Graffiti was written upon the walls of the tavern and Cosmin stopped to read it. The owl watched him for a moment, shifted uncomfortably, then flew from the eve, a silent ghost on its way to haunt the ruins of another building. It had plenty to choose from.
Cosmin paid it no mind. He read the graffiti and couldn’t help but smile at the words written bold and black across the wall.
Eldonnis was here.
That was all they said. Letters large enough to be read in the moonlight. A simple claim of existence. They were fading, the paint chipped, and Cosmin wondered just how long ago they had been written. And whatever became of the brave and bold Eldonnis?
More graffiti appeared as he walked down the road. Words written large and small and in many paints by many hands. They covered fallen walls and the ridges of old archways. One set written vertical on a cluster of pillars standing like a ribs above a pile of old grey brick. Another painted across the paving stones at Cosmin’s feet. Most of the words simply proclaimed that their authors had written them. Undeniable proof to the world that someone had made it this far into the haunted streets. Some were personal boasts, others were vulgar accusations, some were grim confessions. A few were the naive vows of young love. One simply said Fuck the Pale City. Cosmin liked that one quite a bit.
Ollon + Nevid Forever.
Virgula is a slut.
They all made him grin and for a moment he forgot about his bleeding hand. He forgot about the Ambassador and the darkness of the city and the awful weight of the letter in his pocket. The graffiti felt joyous to him in spite of its vulgarity. It was all irreverent, and defiant, and it was everywhere. It showed him the strong will and fighting restlessness of Mayfaire’s youth. He needed that. Mayfaire needed that.
He caught himself wondering how he would react if he found that Elias or Emine had written any of them. Elias, he knew, would never be bold enough. He would only venture this far into the district if his sister had dragged him, and even then he wouldn’t deface a building. Emine, on the other hand… well Emine could have written any damn one of them. He was sure of it. What he wasn’t sure of was the pride he felt at the thought.
He passed through the outer blocks of the district, the graffiti thinning as he went. He still found worlds written along the deeper streets, but the joy seemed to have left them. The words became mean and fierce. Kill the Motherfuckers, said one. Blood and Fury, said another. One, written in tall thick letters simply said DEATH. It raised gooseflesh on Cosmin’s arms.
He saw another scribbling on a wall, the letters large and half-hidden by the heaped remains of an old home. Two words, Will Rise, but more appeared as he came closer.
Then he stopped in the middle of the street. And his stomach turned and his pulse quickened. He read the words again and again.
The Avarine Will Rise.
His blood felt cold in his veins. He walked to the building and ran a hand along the letters. They were written on a crumbling veneer of old stucco and Cosmin took his eyes from them long enough to find a piece of rubble at his feet and he gripped it and used it like some primitive hammer and beat at the words until they were smashed and erased from the side of the building entirely.
He let the stone fall from his hand. He stepped back and looked at the wall. The words were gone, but they had been there and that was all he could think about. His hand was aching once again. A drop of blood fell from the soaked bandage. The wind picked up and came cold down the street and a swirl of dust rose with it, barely visible in the moonlight, faint as mist. A howling sounded in the distance. “Goddamn,” he said.
Two streets further and the graffiti vanished altogether. He saw signs of trespass, broken bottles, broken windows, refuse in the overgrown streets, but very few people ventured deep into the Abandoned District and soon the buildings were left only to the familiar destruction that only time and the elements can provide. Teenagers can deface buildings with their misguided fury. They can destroy walls, and smash in doors, but only time can truly turn a city into a ruin.
Or at least that’s what Cosmin thought.
He emerged onto the dimness of the West Road and looked up to see the shattered heights of the Tower Scholam silhouetted against the waxing moon. A fierce, solid building sat across the open street. Its stones were dark with age, but it was otherwise untouched by the ruin that surrounded it. It sat back from the road and a wide slope of stairs led up to a heavy set of arched Stonewood doors that sat beneath a pillared eve. The slim figure of a woman stood beside the doors. She had a bow drawn on Cosmin as he approached.
“Hail!” Cosmin shouted as he stepped across the road. “Hail Sovern huntress.”
“Who comes?” the figure shouted in a high, clipped accent. She did not lower the bow.
Cosmin stopped and raised his hands. He heard the sounds of other bows being drawn from the shadows around him. “Cosmin Aurel.”
The woman lowered her weapon at the name. She was shadowed beneath the eve, but Cosmin could see the swirling of tattoos that covered the lower half of her face. She did not bow as he approached. “Hail Cosmin,” she said.
She let out a short whistle and Cosmin caught the movement of three other figures from the corners of his vision. All lowered their bows at Rhoa’s signal. They went still once again and vanished as though they had never been there at all.
She must have seen the surprise on his face. “The Lodge is on edge,” she said as she knocked hard on the doors. “The Days are here early. There is something bad in the air.”
“Yes,” Cosmin said. “There is.”
Rhoa pushed the doors open and nodded for Cosmin to enter.
The Lodge beyond the doors was grim and silent. It had always been a raucous place and now it sat as still and dead as the surrounding district. A fire pit dominated the center of the building’s great room though it held nothing but cold ashes. The dark shapes of several of the Sovern were seated in benches around the pit. Cosmin could only just see them. They did not speak or nod as he passed, they only stared.
Rhoa stepped in front of Cosmin and led him through the room and out to a wide arched hallway and a vast courtyard beyond. “He’s been waiting for you,” she said.
The sky was above Cosmin once more. He could see the green grass, nearly blue in the night, as it stretched out across the yard and he could see the great silhouette of a man standing at its center. Rhoa stopped at the edge of the courtyard and Cosmin walked alone. The great man had his hands folded behind his back and was staring up at the night sky. He did not turn as Cosmin approached.
“Figured I’d see you,” Baltar Keyne said. He had the same accent as Rhoa, a holdover from the northern ancestry that many of the Sovern shared, though his was a rolling baritone.
“I need your help,” Cosmin said.
“I figured that as well.”
The moon seemed to brighten. It hung in a sea of stars so illuminated and vast they made the sky seem dirty with light. Baltar stood beneath them, feeling their expanse. His breaths were smooth and steady.
“It’s a lovely night,” Baltar said. “Crisp, and cool.”
Cosmin walked beside him and they both stood watching the sky for a long moment, they were small and frail beneath it. “It’s a terrible night,” Cosmin said at last.
“Indeed it is. But can’t it be both? Lovely and terrible at once? The fires are out, but the stars are burning for us.”
Cosmin turned and studied the man beside him. “You’re calmer than I was expecting.”
Baltar considered this. He scratched his beard and Cosmin saw the peaks and ridges of a hundred scars running along the man’s arm. One in the shape of a crescent moon was deep in the meat of his hand. “Calm,” he said. “I am far from calm.”
“You hide it well.”
Baltar crossed his arms against his chest. “Have you any idea how my hunters love their fires? They are a great weapon for us, and now they have all gone cold.” He turned to face Cosmin, the teeth woven into his beard rattled as he did so. “Some hope dies with the flames. It always does.”
“I think that’s the whole point.”
“Of course it is. The Faith loves us to be desperate in the darkness. We are meant to lose hope. But what then? What replaces hope when hope is lost?”
“Fear,” Cosmin said. “Sadness.”
Baltar nodded. He turned back to the stars. “Indeed. But my Sovern do not understand fear or sadness. I’ve broken them of both. They are butchers. And when they lose hope something darker than fear or sadness replaces it.”
“Something you put there.”
Baltar nodded. “Perhaps. Or perhaps it was always there and I simply know how to wake it. Whatever the source, each of my Sovern have a fire inside of them. One that burns when all the rest go out. But it is a black fire, and not one that I am prepared to stoke. Not tonight. So I wear a mask of calm. They see it and they are calm in turn.”
“It’s very convincing.”
“Yes, well. It’s been worn many times. We all put them on, do we not? Some of us wear many. Your own masks have been on for such a time you may not remember the face beneath them.”
“I can remember.”
“I hope that you do. Ere all be lost. Now tell me what happened to your hand.”
“I grabbed one of their clubs.” Cosmin raised his bandaged hand and turned it. It was soaked through and glistening in the moonlight. “By the wrong damn end.”
“Ha!” Baltar roared. “Did you now? Most clubs have handles, you know. Even those of the Vacant. A fine handle on every one of them, I’m sure.” He shook his head. “You never were much of a fighter, old friend.”
Cosmin grinned. “It was dark.”
“I don’t doubt it. It looks terrible.”
“It feels worse.”
“Just wait til it gets infected. I can slice it off if you’d like, clean and neat. I can do it right now. Save you some trouble.”
“I’ll see Halliwell,” Cosmin said. “For this I‘ll prefer her blades to yours.”
“As you wish. How many attacked you?”
Baltar’s eyes raised. “Six? And you fought them all off with the wrong end of a club. Very impressive. You’ll have to tell me what happened. It sounds worthy of a tale.”
“Ha! Isaac happened. I damn well bet he did. By heaven, I wish I had been there to see that cat of yours slip his tether. He’s as strange as they come, but I love to see him fight.”
“It wasn’t much of a fight.”
“I don’t doubt it. I imagine he cut them down like weeds. Did you get any of them with your backwards club?”
“One. Once I spun it around.”
“Well I’m surprised he let you get that one in. Must have felt bad for you.” Baltar craned his neck to look behind Cosmin. “Did he follow you here? I’d like to hear the tale if he’d work the nerve to speak to me.”
“He’s getting rid of the bodies.”
“So it happened in the Circle then?”
“At the southern edge of the market.”
“Bad luck. Damn bad luck… I suppose he needs a few hands.”
“He does,” Cosmin said. He pulled out the letter from his coat pocket. “So do I.”
Baltar took the folded parchment. “Looks important.”
“How fast can you get a rider to Hardûn?”
Baltar frowned. He turned the letter in the moonlight and saw the name scrawled on the back: Tristan Valdere. He let out a low noise, not unlike a growl.
“One rider?” He shook his head. “I’d never send just one.”
Baltar scratched at his beard. “Well, let’s just see.” He turned to the dark Lodge behind and bellowed. “Evanine!”
A figure broke from the shadows near the arches of the Lodge and strode towards them. She wore a single sleeve of armor on her left arm that rose to a spiked pauldron on her shoulder, polished bright and menacing. A ring of bones radiated around her neck and her shining hair was pulled back from her face by two long curving bones. She looked at Cosmin and nodded curtly.
“How fast can you make the ride to Hardûn?”
“Five days.” Her voice was clear and sure with a hint of noble draw. “If I ride alone, and unencumbered.”
“You’ll not go alone.”
Baltar nodded. “Will that work?” he asked Cosmin.
“I don’t see a choice.”
“Good,” Baltar said before turning back to Evanine. He handed her the letter. “This goes to Valdere, he’s the king… or whatever they have there.”
“Consol,” Cosmin said.
“Whatever the hell he is. He’s the old man in charge. That wax seal will get his attention.”
Evanine nodded, and tucked the letter into her pocket.
“They will see you coming,” Cosmin said. “An emissary will come to meet you across the chasm. Tell them I sent you. Use my name and show them the seal on that letter. Do not give it to anyone but Consul Valdere. No one else, do you understand?”
“Don’t speak to me like one of your Guard,” Evanine snapped. “It’s a letter. I’ll deliver it.”
“It’s the most important thing you have ever held,” Cosmin said. “It is more than parchment and ink.”
Evanine dropped her gaze. She turned to Baltar. “It will be done,” she said to him.
Baltar was watching Cosmin. He was silent for a long moment before turning back to Evanine. “Take Bishop and Foster,” he said. He looked around the dark courtyard for a moment and a grin spread across his face. “Gris is going with you as well.”
Evanine opened her mouth to protest, but Baltar held up a hand and stopped her words. “He’s going. You need brawn as well as speed.”
“I’d rather take an ox.”
“Ha!” Baltar roared. “You hear that Gris? Evanine has called you an ox.”
“I’ve called her worse things,” a deep voice called back.
“An ox,” Baltar said. “Well he’s nearly as strong as one, and twice as stubborn. He goes. Now get moving.”
Evanine let out a sharp breath and then strode off towards the Lodge. She called three names as she went, and three figures, two lean and one towering, broke from the shadows and followed behind her.
“How far have you cleared?” Cosmin asked as the huntress and her cadre disappeared into the Lodge. “Really cleared. Not just enough for a few riders. Enough for a group.”
“You plan on marching on Hardûn?” Baltar asked with a grin. “I thought it was to be the other way around.”
“Well past the Fortress, and the old roads to Lainn.”
“What about the Gorge?”
Baltar frowned and shook his head. “We’ve widened the bridge, but not enough for any force to cross it.” Baltar hesitated for a moment. “It’s a bad place… but you know that. The damned Pikes as well. We’ve torn down the ones near the road, but they stretch on for miles. It’s a haunted corner of hell, I’ll tell you that. Haunted and evil.”
Cosmin didn’t seem to hear the words. “How many can cross the bridge at a time?” he asked.
“Not many. Ten on horses, no more.”
“Is it wide enough for a carriage?”
Baltar shook his head. “Not even close,” he said slowly. He lowered his voice again. “What are you planning, old friend? What was written on that parchment?”
Cosmin ignored the question. “I’ll need two more riders,” he said. “Scouts. They will go east and find out what’s coming from the Pale City.”
“You already know what’s coming.”
“No,” Cosmin siad and his voice dropped low. “I don’t. Something is wrong. Something devilish is happening, and I don’t know what it is… the torch came early. Three years early. And the Vacant are frenzied… And suddenly the Days are here and that means the whole damn Congregation will be here as well.”
“Let them come,” Baltar said. He spoke the words not to Cosmin, but to the entire courtyard. “Let them come and let them go. Damned things. Fucking monsters.” He turned back to Cosmin and looked down to the man’s eyes. “We’ve endured the Census before. And we can do it again. You can get things back together when they stomp off to their damned city. We’ll get the roads clear. We’ll stick to the plan. And by heaven the Avarine will—”
“Enough,” Cosmin said, and the force of his words stopped Baltar mid sentence. The great man seemed to shrink. The shadows near the Lodge tensed. “You know better than to say that word.”
“There is no one to hear it!” Baltar said with his arms spread out, his palms open. “No one, save my Sovern. And they are loyal as any who walk this island. Your great secret is safe.”
“I saw it written on a building,” Cosmin said as he took a step towards Batar. “Not seven blocks from here. Written. In letters as long as my arm. That secret is not safe. And it is dangerous. And with the torch arriving early…”
“By the stars…” Baltar said. “You think they know?”
Cosmin was silent. When at last he did speak his words were calm, calculated. “I’m taking precautions. That letter was a precaution. Insurance. The scouts are a precaution as well and they must be sent out tonight. I need to know what’s coming from the Pale City. If it’s a census we will endure it.”
“And if it isn’t?”
Cosmin took a breath, turned and began to walk towards to Lodge.
“Isaac is in an alley at Forsith and Vale,” he called behind him. “Blood was spilled so take water. Be quiet as you go.”
“Quiet?” Baltar shouted at Cosmin’s back. “You hear that my Sovern? We are to be quiet!” He slipped the warhammer from his back and in a fluid motion brought it slamming hard against the stone ground at his feet. It shattered a great rock with a popping sound that echoed deep and angry across the Abandoned District. He laughed as he did so, and the others in the courtyard laughed with him. The sound followed Cosmin as he passed through the darkness of the Lodge and out to the darker streets beyond.