15 – A Rising Tide

Emine followed her brother up the final set of stairs. She held his cane, and when he stopped, she stopped. Their parents did not. Cosmin pushed ahead and Petra followed close behind and by the time the twins emerged onto the platform their parents were already standing in rigid conversation with a man the twin’s didn’t recognize. He was tall and heavily built, but wore little more than rags. The Magister stood beside them, looking harried and flush, and his armored rank of Palace Guard stood at attention a few paces away.

“Emine, Elias,” Cosmin called. “Come and greet the Ambassador.”

Osyth smiled at them as they approached. “My, my,” he said. “You’ve both grown so much. You’ve become adults!”

“Very near,” Cosmin said.

“It’s just amazing. You probably don’t remember me, do you?”

They both shook their heads. Emine could not take her eyes from the old bloodstain on the man’s chest. Elias kept his eyes on the ground.

“You were both so young when we first met,” Osyth said. “How old were they, Cosmin?”

“Three.”

“Three… such a good age. Wide-eyed and wonderful. I remember you both very well. We met right here on this platform. Emine, you were fighting with your father. You wanted to climb the last steps yourself and would simply not allow otherwise. I could hear you screaming from the stairwell. And when your father finally released you I remember you running onto this platform and nearly colliding with me. And you Elias…” Hearing his name, Elias looked from the ground and regarded the Ambassador for the first time. “You were the opposite. Quiet and peaceful as a lamb in your mother’s arms. You slept the entire time. Three years old… what a perfect age. Old enough to know of the world, but too young to know its pain. And now look at you. Both of you. Just amazing. Emine, you are the reflection of your great-grandmother Celeste, though I’m likely the only one who would remember her clearly enough to see the resemblance. And Elias… well just look at you. A Vireo through and through. Handsome as a statue. You have your mother’s eyes.” Osyth looked to Petra. “The same bright green eyes as her father.”

Petra recoiled at the mention of her father. Cosmin grabbed her hand.

“And how old are you now?” Osyth asked the twins.

“Sixteen,” Emine said.

“Sixteen,” Osyth repeated. “A good age as well, but difficult.”

“How old are you?”

“Emine!” Cosmin said.

“What?”

Osyth grinned at her boldness. “It’s fine,” he said, raising a hand to Cosmin. “And a fair question. He turned back to Emine. “I am much older than I look,” he said. “Much, much older, by the grace of the Spire.” He looked at Cosmin and Petra, then to the Magister. “I’m old enough to remember all the blood of the past. All those who have shaped the present. I remember…”

Elias had stopped listening to the conversation. Instead he looked with disgust at the line of the Palace Guard, wondering if any of them had been laughing at him days ago when he and Emine passed the Magister’s Palace. He imagined them smirking even now. Judging him from the shadows of their shining helms. He stared at them, and as he stared one of of the helms turned slowly towards him, the eyes now fixated on him from somewhere in the dark hollow. He immediately cast his eyes to the ground, and when he dared to look up the line was once again staring straight ahead, all watching the Magister who stood sweating like a condemned man. Cosmin and Petra stood beside him and Elias saw the strained expressions on their faces, the fear and anger they barely hid. Everyone so contrasted with the Ambassador, so calm in his strange stained robes. Behind him the banners and flags of the city caught in the morning breeze and danced along the eastern parapets. The sky beyond them grew brighter and brighter, but still no sun.

“…the world before the Spire, and the intolerance that burdened it. The cruelty. And I am young enough to know…”

Something twitched in the corner of Elias’s vision, something crowded into the dark corner of the platform. A silver mask hanging in the shadows. He squinted his eyes, not understanding the geometry of the shapes piled behind the mask. Stacked rolls of linen perhaps, or a rain-slick pile of branches, but there had been no rain… Then the pile shifted, and he realized he was seeing the long pale limbs of some creature all tucked upon itself like a spider in hiding.

“…how the cruelty of this new age has become a mirror of it. And how the only thing to save it is the love—” Osyth stopped when he saw the changing expression on Elias’s face. The boy had gone rigid. He reached for Emine and let out a soft cry and as he did so her eyes drifted to the corner where Jeremiah sat watching them.

The beast cocked his head slightly to the side, then rose and stepped to the center of the platform. Elias cried out again, louder, and Jeremiah stopped himself midstride. He saw the expressions on the twin’s faces and lowered his own face in shame. He brought one of his forelimbs up to cover his mask.

“Come now!” Osyth said. “I speak of the Spire’s love and here is a vision of it! There is no need to fear him. No need to cower. This is my dear friend! Come closer Jeremiah, come and let them see you.”

Jeremiah obeyed, but walked gingerly towards the group. Magister Hollis grabbed at his burned robe. He rubbed the blistered flesh on his shoulder, but said nothing. He hadn’t spoken since the family arrived on the platform. He found it difficult to look any of them in the eyes.

“What is it?” Emine asked, her voice sounding high pitched and childish in her ears.

“His name is Jeremiah,” Osyth said. “And he is one of the Ascended Seren. A true child of God.”

Jeremiah closed the distance between himself and the twins and then bowed low to the ground with an exaggerated, sweeping gesture of his two sets of forelimbs. The long fingers of his hands flowing graceful as a dancer’s. He held the pose and turned his mask up to the twins. Their faces were horrified, twisted in revulsion, and he let out a deep breath and hung his head once more.

“Now, now,” Osyth said quietly as he reached out to ruffle Jeremiah’s mane. “No need to feel ashamed. They’ve never seen the Spire’s work. You who should feel pity for them.” Jeremiah relaxed his pose and brought his hands all to the ground. His shoulders seemed to slump. “Why not show them something remarkable?” Osyth asked.

Jeremiah hesitated a moment, then stalked over to the nearest edge of the platform and climbed upon the barrier wall. He turned to the twins, then raised himself up on his hind limbs and splayed the other four in a doubled cruciform. He stood rigid as a plank, then fell backwards and out of sight.

Elias and Emine gasped. They all stared at the wall, but nothing there moved. There was silence. The wind shifted. The Palace Guard had all turned their heads to watch.

A hand appeared along the ledge, its long fingers scrambling from nowhere like the legs of an insect. Another hand appeared, then another, all moving like they were tickling the stones, then all at once Jeremiah rolled in a liquid motion from beyond the wall and back onto the platform. Once again he brought himself up and gently bowed.

The twins could not help but be impressed. Emine clapped and Elias whistled and Jeremiah patted his feet on the ground in response. He bounded up to them purring and they did not back away. He pointed to Elias’s cane with one outstretched hand and then turned up his open palm. Elias hesitated a moment, looked to Emine, then handed the cane to Jeremiah. The creature nodded his head, felt the cane’s weight for a moment, then balanced it on one finger. He made a clicking noise then flipped the cane and caught it twirling between his fingers in a slow looping motion, all the way to the pinky, then back to the forefinger, and back again. Jeremiah brought another hand up, then another, and another, and allowed the cane to spin the line they made, back and forth, faster and faster, the fingers twitching like centipedes. He shifted the hands and the cane twirled as if spinning down a stream. Then again to make them climb up in a set switchbacks.

Elias stared in wonder. Emine stood with her mouth open, speechless. Jeremiah saw this and his head bobbed with giddy laughter. He lowered all of his hands but one and then began spinning the cane so fast it could hardly be seen before throwing it high into the sky and out of sight. He waited a moment, brought one hand up over his head, then caught the cane on the tip of a finger. He held it there balanced, bowed once more, then lowered it to Elias, who clapped along with his sister. The look of terror never left the Magister’s face.

“See now?” Osyth said. “How wonderful. Thank you Jeremiah.” He turned to the twins. “I was speaking of love before, but how perfect to introduce Jeremiah like this. He is a product of love beyond measure. A love that can transform and elevate the body as well as the soul.” He smiled as Jeremiah spun in a tight circle before settling back down. He smiled at the twins as well. “All love is a thing to be cherished, you know. And when you find it in the world you must keep it and hold it as long as you can. You must always be grateful for it, and I see that you both are. I see it in the way you care for one another. It warms my heart. Truly. Not all siblings have that, you know. I certainly didn’t. My brothers would terrorize me when I was small. So much so that I would fear for my life when I was among them. They were such beasts. No love between us. None at all.” He shook his head, hesitated a moment, then his smile returned. “But now they are all blessedly dead. Praise the Spire.”

The twins said nothing in response.

“Such love,” Osyth continued. “This whole family. Holding together here above the chaos of your decaying city. You sail in a lovely boat above the ocean.” He paused to stare at Cosmin. “But you’ve never seen the ocean, have you Cosmin?”

“I have not.”

“It is larger than anything you can imagine. I grew up on its shores and never once got used to its enormity. It can be terrifying, the impression it leaves on the soul. It’s no different than staring into the heavens. You can see only as far as your mind allows, but you know that it just stretches on and on, into oblivion. Vast and impossible and powerful beyond reason. And you would think that something so vast, so powerful should be permanent, fixed in its proportions. But it isn’t. It changes all the time. The very height of the ocean rises and falls every day. Up and down, up and down. And not by a small degree! I remember the fishing docks that once ringed the estuaries of Insmos. The boats there were all held to planks with metal rings so they could slide up and down with the tides, nd at the lowest point they would be settled entirely at the floor of the basin. Just think of that. Something so powerful as the ocean, greater than anything you can imagine, and yet it can change. And do you know what’s even more astounding? The change is gentle. The waves grow stronger, bit by bit, breaking further and further along the shore, until the ocean has risen to its peak. And when it recedes the waves pull themselves back. Gentle as breathing, yet such incredible change. How powerful a force that can raise the water in the ocean? And yet it happens peacefully.”

Osyth’s face grew dark. The joy and wonder gone entirely. The face that was left seemed no more capable of mirth than a stone. The lips thin and downturned. The eyes unblinking, cold as glass, and staring only at Cosmin.

“But there are other tides,” Osyth said, his voice now low and sharpened. “Violent tides. They breach the shores like a marauding army, tall as the pines. They leave the world in utter ruin. I saw one once, you know, when I was very small. I watched from the cliffs of Orthos with my brothers and my father. The rain coming aslant and stinging our faces like stones. The sky gone all black and the ocean swelling like something alive and vengeful and the tide rushing in all at once and braking far beyond the docks and houses. It split the ocean walls. And when it finally pulled back it took the world with it, clawing and screaming, pulled to the deep sea.”

Osyth’s voice softened. A hint of the smile returned. “Do you see?” he said. “Some things seem so great that you think they can never change. But they always do. And the change can be peaceful. Calm as the gentle tides.” He looked to Petra and the twins for a long moment. “Or it can be terrible in ways you can’t imagine,” he said at last. “Change that can break the very world.”

Osyth returned his gaze to Cosmin. “One might think that it was only God’s will,” he said. “But sometimes it is ours. Sometimes we have the choice to keep the storm at bay. To welcome the gentle tide instead. Bloodless. Peaceful. Calm. I would not pass an opportunity like that… if one presented itself, of course.”

Cosmin said nothing. His jaw was clenched tight.

The first touch of sunshine crested the forest and landed upon the platform. It colored Osyth’s face in shades of gold and he closed his eyes against it and breathed deep and long. “And here, at long last, is the dawn,” he said. “Praise the Spire.”

He folded his hands behind his back and walked to the western edge of the platform where a cluster of metal horns hung like fruit just below the edge of the embrasures, their mouths gaping to the streets and plaza below. Osyth stood with his robes rippling in the breeze, savoring the waking city. Seeing it as it was for the very last time, and when he finally spoke the horns amplified his voice into a cold roar.

“Mayfaire!” he cried. “My suffering Mayfaire.”

His words carried far down the East Road and the crowd that pressed at its edges. Their faces all turned to his voice.

“Darkness has consumed you. It has consumed me as well. We have been lost inside of it, blind as newborns. This awful darkness of the heart. This darkness of the soul. So perfectly mirrored here in this cold city. This city without fire. Without joy. And without love… that worst of all.” He shook his head as the words echoed down the East Road. “It breaks my heart, this abyss here before me. This cold and loveless place that once held such promise. Now so far from the burning light of God. My precious Mayfaire… you ruin me…” His voice broke with these last words. He hung his head. And when he spoke again his voice was commanding, hard as iron. It crashed upon the buildings and stirred the crowd. “I will not abandon you again,” he cried. “I will walk this abyss at your side. At your side, do you hear! And together we will reach the light. All of us together. None apart! Do you hear me Mayfaire? None apart!”

He paused to look out over the city. The ocean of faces below him glowing red with the coming day.

“I have watched the glory of this world turn to ashes!” he screamed. “A world once cleansed by the fire of God. Cleansed of wretchedness. Of sin. Of intolerance and hatred and all the crimes of the forgotten age. That old world without hope. That world of treachery with no place for love. I have bled to keep the memories of those days from your eyes and hearts. I have killed for it! And still I see its shadow emerge. I see it here in your city. Festering with the dregs of your broken faith. The betrayal of it! You are betrayed from all sides and I will endure it no longer. You will endure it no longer. Today it ends. And here, on this day, the old fire of God returns to Mayfaire. I have brought it before these very gates! A Congregation of iron and the fire of God. I bring deliverance! I bring salvation! And glory!”

“Glory!” cied the faithful, the explosion of their collective voice powerful enough to bring tears to Osyth’s eyes.

“Glory!” he screamed, now trembling. “Here and now! With the coming of the dawn!”

At these words the gathering of shrouded figures moved from the base of the wall to the stonewood doors of the East Gate. They shuffled mindlessly, grins widening below blood-tinted eyes, hands grabbing at the iron bracings of the gates and together they pulled the doors wide open as the iron portcullis rose in a great grinding and the drawbridge beyond lowered in a heavy jangling of chains.

The perfect lines of the Veng came suddenly to life. As one, they brought silver trumpets from their belts and held them to their lips and filled the air with a piercing, buzzing cry so loud it made Emine’s teeth ache. She pressed her fingers inside her ears to dampen the sound and ran to the eastern edge of the platform to watch out over the forest road. Elias limped behind her and together they watched as a new column of soldiers formed at the edge of the treeline, heading for the city.

The drawbridge slammed against the far side of the city trench, and as it did so the first rays of the new sun cascaded through the East Gate and settled upon the crowd.

Osyth felt the warmth on his own face as he watched. “Finally,” he said as he turned to face Cosmin. “Finally it is time. I have to admit I’ve grown tired of all the waiting, but everything must be in its place. The pieces must all fit together and they must fit perfectly and that can only be achieved with patience. If my long life has taught me anything it is that. Patience until the future is inevitable. So here we are.”

Cosmin stole a glance towards the Palace Guard, then to the stairwell. He stepped out in front of Petra.

“I brought five thousand soldiers to your doorstep, Cosmin. Five thousand of the hateful Veng. Tell me, how many men and women are in your City Guard?”

“Five hundred.”

“Five hundred. Do you think they could stand against my army?”

“No.”

“And if they did, would they die?”

“Yes.”

“Five hundred souls.” Osyth shook his head. “And they aren’t the only ones who would fight for you, are they? As I hear it your allies are spread far and wide throughout this city. The hunters of the Sovern Lodge, for instance. As well as the scholars, the poets, and all the scientists that I tried to purge from this city a lifetime ago.”

Petra went rigid. She stepped towards the twins and grabbed Elias by the arm and backed them toward the stairwell. Jeremiah saw this and clawed his way around the platform to stand in their way. The Palace Guard remained standing at attention. Magister Hollis stood near them wringing his hands.

Osyth stepped toward Cosmin, and Cosmin backed away. From beyond the wall the boots of the Veng grew louder and louder.

“I know of everything you’ve done,” Osyth said. “The treachery. I burned the Scholam to the ground. And you rebuilt it. I destroyed the libraries, and you salvaged them. You, who never knew the past, think it was all so beautiful, something worth saving. But you are wrong. It was my world, not yours. And it deserved to burn.”

Cosmin’s eyes went to the Palace Guard. He stepped lightly to the side to put them at Osyths back.

“You think the faith is corrupted, monstrous,” Osyth continued. “I know that. But you have only seen the worst of it. You’ve seen Vellah’s infection as it spreads.” He held a hand to his chest. “Look at me, Cosmin. I am the Faith incarnate. Am I corrupted? Am I monstrous?”

“You are not human,” Cosmin said. He took another sidestep. “You look it, but you’re not. You’re something else.”

“Something greater,” Osyth said. “Something we can all strive to become. The faithful you know are just echos of a greater corruption. Their Angel is poisoned, and I am the cure. I am the rising tide. And I give you a choice.”

Cosmin gauged the distance to the Palace Guard, then the distance to his family and the beast that stood in their way. He nodded to himself and touched the sword hilt at his back. “And what choice is that?” he asked.

“Peace or death. You hold so many lives in your balance. I don’t wish for bloodshed, but I will do whatever it takes.”

“For your new world.”

“Yes. For my new world.”

“I don’t think I’m a part of it,” Cosmin said.

“You would damn everyone. Your City Guard, your family… even your precious Avarine…”

A tremendous, bellowing cry called out from the edge of the forest. It sent the hairs on Cosmin’s arms standing, it shook inside of his chest. It was mournful, chaotic, and desperately menacing, a cry of fury and harrowing damnation and it echoed far across the city.

Osyth paled. His eyes widened and he turned from Cosmin and ran to the eastern edge of the platform. Jeremiah whined and shook his head viciously from side to side, then leapt up and echoed the cry. He screamed again and again until his voice went hoarse and his call was answered with another bellow from the edge of the forest.

“No!” Osyth growled to the distance. “No, damn you, no!”

Cosmin looked to his family and began to inch towards then. Osyth stood fixated on the road and the strange yellow color that began to appear between the trees. He cursed again then ran to Jeremiah, climbed his back, and grabbed handfuls of his bristling mane. He spun the beast and looked once more to Cosmin.

“You think I’m your enemy,” he said. “But you’re wrong. I am your salvation, if you would only realize it.” He then turned and spoke to everyone on the platform. “Listen to me,” he cried. “All of you. Our fates are now linked. Stay strong for what comes next. Do not resist it. Do you all hear me? Stay strong. And Cosmin, remember what I said of the tide. There may still be a choice. Come, Jeremiah!”

And with that he pulled Jeremiah’s mane and guided the creature to the edge of the platform wall and in an instant they disappeared over the side.

Cosmin waited a heartbeat, then reared on Hollis. He grabbed the great man by the scruff of his robes. “What did you tell him?” he demanded.

Hollis shoved back and his great weight dropped Cosmin to the ground. “Get your hands off of me,” Hollis cried. “You traitor. You goddamn fool! Working behind my back… I should have known. I should have known, you schemer. And all the while telling me you had this city under control. You’re the reason they’ve come! You and the damn Avarine, whatever in the hell that is!”

Petra ran to Cosmin and helped him to his stand. His hand was bleeding again. “It wasn’t him,” she said. “It couldn’t have been.”

“Damn you both!” the Magister shouted. “Damn you!”

“We have to go,” Petra said. “Right now.”

Cosmin nodded, then looked to the twins. Emine stood staring at him and the Magister, too shocked to speak. Elias leaned over the eastern edge of the wall and when he turned around his eyes were huge. “Something’s coming,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Cosmin said. “We’re leaving.”

“I know, but look…”

He pointed toward a gathering of yellow robed figures emerging from the forest road. They followed some ambling, chained shapes and a large figure that walked behind the column of the Veng, though Emine payed them little attention. She was transfixed by the movements of the people in the yellow robes. They were strangely orchestrated, each in perfect concert with the others, but none moving in unison, as though they were separate parts of a single organism.

“What are they?” Emine asked.

“No,” Elias said. “Behind them, look.”

Emine followed the road until it disappeared into the forest. She squinted her eyes to see.

Another bellowing scream, closer now, and the trees began to shake.

Elias cried out.

Emine was too shocked to speak.

The creature that breached the forest was vast beyond any living thing Emine had seen or heard of. It lumbered from the mouth of the road, walking on the knuckles of its four clawed hands. Limbs thick as tree trunks, shoulders wide as a wagon. It had the same alabaster skin as Jeremiah, but was clad almost entirely in gold plate, ringed high and vicious at its core. And like Jeremiah it also wore a mask, though it was gold instead of silver, and bore the serene face of a child.

“What is it?” Elias whispered, but no one could answer him.

“Close the gates,” Petra whispered.

The creature bellowed once more then lurched further down the road Emine saw that it was harnessed to a carriage.

“Close the gates, Cosmin.”

“It can’t be him…”

“Cosmin you have to close the gates!” Petra cried.

The carriage was now all Emine could see. She could not take her eyes from it, so exquisite in the early morning sun. A vision of heaven. Windowless and palatial, it evoked a cathedral cut from a mountain of knurled marble all worked with twisting filigrees of gold. It filled the full width of the road and seemed impossible to be moving at all, but the behemoth pulled it with gentle effort and soon they were beyond the woods and rolling down towards the city. The yellow-robed figures undulated before it in their strange rolling steps.

“Get to the Barracks,” Cosmin said to Petra. “Take the kids. I’ll take the Palace Guard and get the gates closed. We still have time. But you need to get to the Barracks.” He turned to Hollis. “You too, Hollis. It’s the only safe place left.”

“Safe from what?” Hollis barked. “What’s in the damn carriage?”

Petra and the twins were already moving towards the stairwell.

“Cosmin you dog! What’s in the carriage?”

One of the Place Guard stood beside the door to the stairwell and as Petra and the twins approached he stood in their way. He planted the hilt of his spear in the ground, facing them.

“We’re leaving,” she said to him.

The guard made no motion to move.

“Stand down!” Cosmin shouted.

Two more of the guards left their posts and headed towards Petra and the twins. Cosmin walked toward them. “Stand down!” he repeated. “Have you gone mad? I need you with me. Now stand down!”

The blunt end of a spear staff sailed through the air and smashed into the side of Cosmin’s neck, dropping him instantly.

Petra screamed and another blow caught her across the back and sent her tumbling to the ground at Emine’s feet. A guard raced to her and pinned her to the ground with his armored boot. The pressure pushed the air from her lungs, and a wheezing rattle came out from deep inside her. She locked eyes with Emine. “Run,” she gasped before the boot pressed harder on her back. She mouthed the word again, then her face went blank and her head dropped.

Emine froze.

The world before her now slow and unknowable. Her body heavy, her legs sluggish, like moving through water in a dream.

The Magister screaming at the guards then caught in the back of the skull and he falls without trying to catch himself. She swears the ground shakes.

Her father lying motionless, his neck twisted, his head turned away from her.

Her mother’s eyes white between the half lids.

A screaming from somewhere beside her.

Elias.

The scream carries deep into her mind, shocking and violent.

Elias. They’re going to hurt Elias.

Another bellow from beyond the wall.

She grabs his hand. She wrenches him towards the dark archway of the stairs. Four steps away and they can make the distance. At the bottom of the stairwell is the crowd. Easy to blend into, hard to chase. Fistrin Alley two blocks away. Then the Ebeness to connect to the Circle Road, then the Barracks. The guards are heavily armored, they can be outrun. They can be outrun… She can feel her brother’s hand. Curled up and cold.

Three more steps.

Resistance. Elias’s coat ripped clean off his shoulders and it whips away and she sees only its shadow but his hand is in her hand and they are running together.

Two more steps.

Shouts and cries from the platform but she will not look back. A hand grabs for her and she turns enough to avoid it and she sees the stairs and nothing else. Nothing else.

One more step.

Elias’s hand is gone.

She reaches and finds only air. Turns to see her brother in the arms of one of the guards, his face red and terrified, his legs kicking. She cries out. A primal voice from somewhere deep inside her that she doesn’t recognize as her own and it is cut off by a sudden pressure in her chest. She does not see the weapon as it strikes her. She can only see Elias. Only him. The dark hair fallen over his eyes. The mouth screaming wide. And then he is gone. And now the sky and then the sky is gone and everything with it and she falls screaming into a world suddenly dark.

14 – The Magister

Magister Albed Hollis, enormous and uncomfortable, floated above the crowds as they gathered and swelled and spilled onto the East Road. He bobbed and swayed with the steps of his six throne bearers, grumbling to himself and swearing each time the faltered. “Step lively, you apes,” he grunted, and they were silent in reply.

A retinue of his Palace Guard marched with him, six in the front and six behind, stoic and proud in their gilded armor and high-crested helms. Spears were held in each of their hands and they pounded the ground with their hafts as they marched. The sound beat a fierce rhythm in the crypt silence of the morning and the crowds parted easily before them.

Magister Hollis shifted endlessly atop his throne. Every surface was cold, every angle cutting or constricting. He pondered climbing down to simply walk the streets instead, but thought better of if after a moment of studying the surrounding crowd. From his throne he saw nothing but a foul sea of bobbing heads. Dirty hair on dirty scalps. Dirty clothes on dirty bodies. The filth of the city all flowing in one direction like a reeking wash of flesh and rags. Many carried holy symbols and homemade relics. Fraying copies of the Book of Vellah held aloft in long-nailed hands. Broken shafts of wood capped with the pointed icon of the Spire. Naked backs with the blood drop sigil of Vellah flayed from the skin, some even welting and bleeding as they were lashed with flails of braided horsehair and shards of glass. Tears of rapture and the slobber of devotion slickening their faces. And those shining silver eyes.

“Fools,” Hollis said under his breath, though his face was strained. He held tighter to his throne. His gilded raft sailing above the muck.

His retinue reached the foot of East Gate, and the bearers knelt to lower the throne to the ground. Two of the Palace Guard approached and Hollis swatted away their hands as they offered to help him rise. “Back off, back off,” he groaned as he brought himself to his feet. He stretched and yawned, a giant even among the guards.

He stopped at the base of the East Gate. The immense stonewood doors rose above him and he looked to their heights then turned to see the crowds settling along the road. The first true light of dawn settled on their faces, soft pink fading to purple in the unbroken shadows. The eyes of the faithful shining silver in the early light… and damn, but there were so many of them… had there always been so many? Hollis watched them for a long moment. Those mirrored eyes all catching the dawn then reflecting it back in thousands upon thousands of pinpricks of light. As if field of dirty stars, unwanted and despised, descended from some foreign heaven to coalesce among the crowd.

“Fools,” the Magister repeated. “Damn fools.” He looked to one of his Palace Guard, a broad shouldered man whose face was hidden in the depths of his crested helm. “What do you make of them?” Hollis asked.

The guard turned to face Hollis. “My lord?”

“The faithful, idiot. What do you make of them? They seem more numerous than I remember.”

“I can’t say, sir.”

“No, I suppose you can’t. Not much good, are you?”

“Sir?”

Hollis waved the man away. “Idiots,” he said to himself. “Cosmin has you trained well, but damn if you’ve got much in the way of brains.” He headed for the stairs which led to his observation platform, but stopped when he saw the huddled crowd that formed around them. A group of cloaked figures, all clad in solemn grey, stood there in a loose circle. Their hoods drawn over their faces and their heads bowed to the ground, though some were cocked oddly to the side like curious dogs. They all stood facing the Magister’s Platform that crowned the East Gate, as if in anticipation of some event that may occur there. “What is heaven’s name,” Hollis uttered as he stepped towards them. The Palace Guard saw the figures and formed a column at his sides and back.

“You there!” Hollis called. “Step aside.”

The figures made no movement whatsoever.

Hollis frowned. He stepped forward, suddenly cautious. The guards to his sides raised their spears, but he motioned for them to lower them. He smiled. “No need for that,” he said. “It looks like some of our slower minded citizens have gotten lost.” He reached out to the nearest figure and placed a hand on his shoulder. He brought his voice low. “Move yourselves from my path now, you imbeciles, or I’ll drop you to the damn ground.”

Again, no movement.

Hollis grabbed the back of the man’s hood and pulled it back, then he spun the man around. “Look you damn fool, when I—”

Hollis faltered. The face staring at him was grinning dumb and slavering, the eyes not shining with the telltale silver of the faith, but pooled with blood instead. Dead eyes, blank and quiet as a doll’s, holding none of the apeish mirth in the grin beneath them.

“What is this?” Hollis said. “What devilry?” He slapped the man hard across the face, but the grin did not vanish. It widened to a great smile. The lips and teeth parting for a moment to expose the cavernous mouth and the absence of a tongue. Hollis stepped back at once, and all the other figures, more than fifty all told, turned to face him, grey hoods drawn low over their faces so that only those rictus grins were seen.

The Palace Guard fell immediately into action. They positioned themselves in front of the Magister, spears raised, feet planted hard to the earth. One among them barked out an order and they moved in a tight lockstep towards the figures, their boots loud in unison and cutting through the early silence.

But the figures only stood. The first among them turned his head back towards the Magister’s Platform where a silhouetted figure appeared at the edge. It stood watching a moment, then made a slight gesture, a wave of the hand, and the throng of hooded figures parted to allow the Magister to pass.

“What in the hell,” Hollis uttered as he walked to the stairs. His Palace Guard surrounded him, spears at the ready, but the figures made no movement whatsoever. They watched the ground with their bloody eyes, their grins never leaving their faces. The silhouette turned back from the edge of the platform, hands folded behind his back. The soft light of the morning caught in his robes, pale white and marked by an old bloody stain that seemed to emanate from his heart.

 

***

 

Hollis grunted with every step. He stopped often to catch his breath, and each time he stopped the line of guards behind him stopped as well. He labored to the top of the perimeter wall and leaned against the embrasure. When he looked beyond the wall for the first time his jaw went slack.

The line of soldiers stretched far into the distance before being swallowed by the forest. There was no movement among them but the flickering of their torches. “My God…” Hollis said.

A guard came behind him and opened the arched door that sat at the edge of the Gatehouse and Hollis pulled himself away from the wall and ascended the last section of stairs. His breath came is wheezing gasps. His hands scrambled for the iron banister.

“Why bring the damned Veng?” he said to no one. “It makes no sense. No sense at all. A damn army at the gates.

He emerged sweating from the darkness, stopping just beyond its threshold to catch his breath. Ambassador Osyth Barton stood at the western edge of the platform wall, watching him.

It took Hollis a moment to notice the Ambassador, and when he did his heart pressed impossibly hard inside his chest. He couldn’t bring himself to move. He opened his mouth, then closed it. He closed his hands as well, balling them into fists so tight the nails left small clefts in the meat of his palms. He trembled.

“Good morning, Magister,” Osyth said.

“Ambassador,” Hollis managed.

“Come, stand by me.”

Hollis obeyed. He looked briefly to the east where the soldiers lined the road, then walked to stand beside Osyth. The city spread out wide and waking far beneath them.

Jeremiah lay tucked into a dark corner in the northern parapet, but spilled out as Hollis approached. He stretched to his full height, all arms splayed to the sky, then dropped down to trot around the perimeter of the platform. His pale skin milky and smooth in the dawn light, his silver mask holding the pink sky in inverse, all the eye holes fixed upon the Magister.

Hollis watched the creature for a curious moment then turned away in disgust.

The Palace Guard emerged from the stairwell to set up a formation near the door, but they too faltered when they saw Jeremiah. Osyth didn’t spare any of them a glance. He watched the crowd as it grew and grew along the edge of the East road. “They all look so fragile, don’t they?” he asked. “From this great distance.”

Hollis stood at his side. He drew a silk cloth from his robes and dabbed it along his brow. He saw nothing fragile about the swarming crowd. To him they looked like a disturbed nest of ants. An infestation.

“This must be the way the Spire sees the world,” Osyth said. “Everything so delicate. Like motes of pollen riding a stream.” He stood silent for a long moment, bemused in thought.

Hollis thought of the flails and whips of the chanting faithful. The raw brands and the flayed skin and the shining of their jackal eyes. “Delicate,” he uttered with a cold laugh. “I’d hardly call them delicate.”

“You don’t agree? It not just the faithful down there, you know. It’s all of Mayfaire. The entirety of your city. Saved and sinner alike.”

“I’d still not call them delicate,” Hollis said. “Some of them, perhaps, but not all of them. Certainly not all of them.” He spared a look at the Ambassador as he said these last words. He saw the bare and muddy feet and the stained hem of the robes, the colors shifting there from rotten brown to ivory. The waist tied with a simple cord of braided twine, and no adornment otherwise. No jewelry, no rings, not even a button on the robe. The Ambassador held himself with a humility betrayed only by his sheer size. His broad shoulders and hard set jaw. Hands folded behind his back and standing now like a great monarch over a conquered land. A monarch without a crown. Naked, it seemed, save a tattered and stained robe. It was almost shameful to Holis. He turned his nose up.

Osyth followed the Magister’s gaze and turned towards him to expose yet another stain on his robes, this one the color of rust and spreading over his heart. Hollis frowned at it. “Cut yourself, have you?” he asked.

Osyth touched the stain and held his hand on it for a brief moment. He ran a finger through the tear in the fabric. “I met a group of pilgrims just outside the gates of Vennath,” he said. “It seems a lifetime ago, but it was barely more than a week. Isn’t that odd? They were all so young. So afraid. The poor blessed things. They’re always so afraid. I wanted to show them the gifts of the Spire, so I did this to myself. To show them a miracle. To give them hope.”

Hollis turned away from the Ambassador to keep his eyes over Mayfaire. He had no patience for the Spire’s miracles. “That’s an old trick of your’s,” he said. “If I recall correctly.”

“A trick,” Osyth grinned. “I suppose, if that’s how you want to see it. And yes, I have done it many times, but this time was special. So much has changed since I spoke with those pilgrims. So very much. In many ways they saw the end of me.” He smoothed out the robe. “I’ve taken to wearing this in remembrance. As a way to grieve my old self. A mausoleum for my best intentions.”

“What became of the children?”

Osyth shrugged. “I’m sure they are all dead.”

Hollis grunted. “Well I don’t see the point in that,” he said.

“And neither do I. There was a time, not long ago, when I believed that death is a result of heresy or disbelief. And that all suffering leads to grace.”

“And what do you believe now?”

Osyth looked up from the street and to the dawning sky. The clouds overhead had lost much of their crimson and were just beginning to turn a light gold. A color of glory. The sun was still below the horizon, but its light was not far away. “I believe you must be wary of the form that grace takes,” he said at last. “And I believe that a spider can hide behind anything, even vestments.”

“Sounds like you’re having a tiff with your Angel.”

Osyth smiled, but said nothing. He looked once again to the Magister. The oaken bulk of the man. Arms folded over his barrel chest and the deep green robes filigreed in gold and tufted in sable at the neck like the ruff of a vulture. His great bald head and sagging jowls pulling his mouth forever downward to scowl at the world.

“I admire you, Magister,” Osyth said at last. “Your boldness. And the efficiency under which you operate. Hard and smooth as iron. Able to speak as though I were nothing more than a visiting dignitary.”

Hollis did not take his eyes from the city. “You are a visiting dignitary, Osyth. And I’m not afraid of you. I stopped fearing you a long time ago.”

Jeremiah let out a low whine at these words. Hollis pretended to ignore him.

“Have you?” Osyth said. “And was that before or after I took your son?”

Hollis reared on the man. “Don’t speak of him,” he growled. “You damned foreign dog. I don’t care what monsters you pray to. If you speak of him again I’ll throw you from this wall.”

From the edge of the platform Jeremiah began to wail. And in one stride he was looming over the Magister. Trails of darkness writhed over his flesh like snakes and as he reached for Hollis the air began to pop and sizzle around him and the nails of his fingers grew long and hooked and sharp as knives and his wail grew to a screech that set Hollis’s mind to reeling. There were words hidden within the wailing. Words of bile and hatred not spoken so much as forced into the mind.

“Calm,” Osyth said as he held out his hand, and Jeremiah stopped at once, relaxing and lowering himself back to stand on all of his hands. The air calmed and the nails slid back and the darkness rippling over his skin faded then vanished in little crackles of light. Jeremiah huffed, then padded back to the edge of the wall to lay in its shadows.

The Palace Guard had no time to react at all. They stood dumbfounded along the edge of the platform.

“I apologize,” Osyth said. “That was unkind of me. I won’t mention your son again. Not unless you ask me to. Will that be ok?”

Hollis could only nod. His eyes stayed locked on the corner where Jeremiah lay. The placid silver mask shining within the shadows and staring. When he shifted his weight it too shifted. When he stepped to the left or right it followed.

“Pay no mind to Jeremiah. He is quite protective of me. And I of him.”

Again, Hollis simply nodded. The stone floor beside him was scorched black where Jeremiah’s hands had touched, and Holis felt a pain suddenly in his shoulder where the beast had nearly grabbed him and he found the robe there to be burned wide open. He touched the exposed skin and felt blisters already beginning to form.

If Osyth noticed he made no sign of it. “I’d like to speak to you about the army that stands just beyond your wall,” he said.

The Magister pulled the fabric of his robes to conceal the burn. He winced as he did so, then cleared his throat. “I’d like to speak of them as well,” he said.

“First though, tell me about the Reaches.”

“The Reaches?”

“Yes. And speak freely. I need truth from you, not platitudes.”

“I don’t…” Hollis frowned. “What do you want to know?”

Osyth said nothing.

Hollis hesitated. He looked once more in the direction of Jeremiah, then turned his attention back to the view of the city. He could see the twisting shapes of the Reaches unfolding into the southern sky, just before the endlessly spinning Water Wheels that hugged the river wall. “Well you can’t speak of the Reaches without speaking of the faithful. And they… well…” He breathed out hard, and shook his head. “Understand that my mind will always travel to commerce. Always. Trade is the pulse of this city.”

“It is indeed,” Osyth said. “This city has two heartbeats. And one of them is certainly trade.”

“Yes well, it’s the only one I hear. The only one that matters as far as I’m concerned, and I’m sure it’s why I’ve kept my position all these years. It would have been easy for you or that Angel to put someone else on my throne but you haven’t. I can only think that has to do with my ability to keep the trade routes flowing.”

“You would be correct.”

“Of course. Well, you see the faithful… their minds are… well they are so enrapt that they don’t do much good for commerce. Speaking freely, of course.”

“Of course.”

Hollis waved his hand dismissively towards the Reaches. “But you know all of this,” he said. “We tried employing them but it just didn’t take. They serve a purpose, but it isn’t helping the docks.”

“And what purpose is that?”

“Excuse me?”

“What ‘purpose’ do you see Vellah’s faithful serving? Those here who have taken the Angel’s communion.”

“I… I can’t say. Freely or otherwise. I think in terms of commerce, I’ve said that enough but it bears repeating. I think only of the merchants, the river, and the barges that all flow to the Pale City. I think of this city and its purpose and its people.”

“And Vellah’s faithful are not a part of that.”

“They are not,” Hollis said with finality. “But not without trying. Their minds just aren’t up to it.”

“They are good for praying and little else,” Osyth said.

“Those are not my words.”

“No. They are mine. And it grieves me to say them. I once believed in a great harmony here in Mayfaire, with its two beating hearts. One beats for trade. It is controlled by heretics and unrepentant sinners like yourself, but it beats loud and strong. The other belongs to the faithful. It beats for God and the glory of the Spire, but has grown so dim as to barely be heard. The dischord between the two is my great shame. I fought to keep the faithful undisturbed while the heretics held to their commerce. You prayed to greed while they prayed to Vellah, and I saw a city where the faithful grew in love and devotion while the goods flowed from your docks. It was a lovely picture, but ultimately quite flawed. I see it all very clearly now. Even more so from this height.” He turned to Hollis. “These past days in the Reaches have been tragic for me,” he said. “But also very enlightening. I’ve seen what the district has become. I’ve heard the dying rhythm.”

“Well it’s no fault of mine,” Hollis said, rubbing once again at his shoulder. “I’ve followed all of your damned rules. Those streets are governed entirely by the Angel’s decrees, not mine. The Vacant are undisturbed in the district as you well know. They keep the holy laws and I do not intervene.”

“So why the decay?” Osyth asked.

“You’ll have to take that up with your Angel. It’s his blood in their veins, not mine.”

“I intend to take it up with him,” Osyth said. “But his blood, rotten though it may be, is not entirely to blame. There is something else in your city, Magister, something insidious. Have you heard of the Avarine?”

Hollis waved his hand. “A fairy tale,” he said.

“If only it were,” Osyth said. “If only… I have a sister, did you know that? Her name is Prudence, and she is a sister to me only in name and for that I am thankful. She is a foul, insane thing. Utterly possessed, though I don’t know by what. She is talented though. Very, very talented. She has learned things about your city. Things that have been hidden from you. Terrible, terrible things. Unforgivable. And it is why this army has been summoned. Your city needs to be cleansed.”

Hollis was silent for a long moment. When he tried to speak again he found himself barely able to unclench his jaw. He chanced a look towards Jeremiah and saw the beast drawn back as if to pounce. “But… the docks…” Hollis stammered. “Damn it Osyth I feed the Pale City night and day. I run the goods that you will get from nowhere else. Nowhere else!” His face deepened to red, his jowls shook with his every word. “Mayfaire won’t survive another of your damned… purges. You would break everything. Everything!”

“Some things must fall for others to rise,” Osyth said, his voice calm and soothing. “But you need not worry, Magister. You are necessary to me… and beloved. Heretic though you may be. You serve a great purpose. You are not the one I’m here for.”

Hollis followed the Ambassador’s gaze. The swarming road was just beginning to clear as the crowd found their place at its borders. A small group stood out as they walked down the center road. The crowd was giving them a wide berth, and occasionally he could see heads drop low in respectful bows to the man and woman who led them.

“Cosmin,” Hollis whispered.

“Indeed.”

“But what issue could you have with Cosmin? He keeps the peace.”

Osyth ignored the Magister’s words. He seemed caught in some thought or vision just beyond the city, or far beneath it. “I’ve done terrible things,” Osyth said at last. “In Mayfaire, and to you, but I’ve done them in the name of love. I know you don’t understand that, though I pray that someday you will.”

“I doubt that.”

Osyth smiled. “Someday you may feel different,” he said as he continued to watch Cosmin moving along the road. “There is a storm coming to your city, Magister. I ask that you weather it at my side. And when it has departed I ask that you help me to bring harmony back to Mayfaire. You keep the first heart beating, and I will save the second.”

“And betray the Commander of my City Guard.”

“Cosmin does not command in your name, Magister. He commands in the name of his father. His loyalty has never been with you.”

“They are fierce, well trained,” Hollis said, shaking his head. “There will be casualties if you war with them.”

“Yes, there will be. There is always a price for justice. But there is reward as well. I told you that I would not mention your son again unless you ask it of me. Would you like to know what became of him?”

“I—yes of course, but…”

“How long now has it been since he left with me? Twenty-six years?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Yes, of course,” Osyth said. “Again the strange swiftness of time.” He closed his eyes for a moment to think. “Marcus would have been thirty-two now, wouldn’t he?”

Hollis nodded. His eyes were glassy.

“He was a strong boy, Magister. Willful, brave, and so very strong for a child. Like his father before him, no doubt. Do you ever think of the leader he would have become?”

“I think of little else.”

“Marcus Daverne Hollis,” Osyth mused. “A name fit for a king… Marcus the Great. Marcus the Unyielding.”

Hollis wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his robe. The gold threading left red scratches on the sides of his face as he did so. “Please stop,” he said.

“Your son is still alive, Magister.”

Hollis’s breath caught in his throat. His heart pounded suddenly so hard it caused his vision to swim. “You…”

“Marcus is alive. I can take you to him and you can know him and all that he has become. That is what I am offering you. That is your reward. You can join me in what is to come. You can be the keeper of the first heart of Mayfaire. And in exchange you can once again know your son.”

Hollis couldn’t speak. Tears ran freely from the corners of his eyes. He bit the inside of his cheek, an old trick to shock his nerves, to fight the grief, but it did little besides tint his mouth with the taste of blood.

Osyth waited. “I’ve never lied to you, Hollis. I’ve done terrible things to you, but I’ve never lied.”

“Tell me what you want,” Hollis managed. “Name your price.”

“Your loyalty. That is all.”

“And if I refuse?

“You are free to do so. And all consequences will be yours to bear.”

Hollis leaned on the ledge of the platform. The stones there were damp and cold. He looked to the east where the soldiers were lined and where the sun would soon shine above the trees. The sky hazy and peaceful, the morning clouds that knew nothing of suffering or loss as they drifted along. Birdsong rising from the fields beyond the city, ignorant and lovely. Hollis looked to his own hands and the rings that studded them. The largest among them bore a profile of a young boy, though the gold was so worn the delicate features were all but lost, leaving little more than a lumpen phantom shape behind.

“Is he happy?” Hollis said at last. “My boy. Is he happy? Has he been treated well all these years?”

“Yes,” Osyth said. “He lives like a king.”

Hollis wiped his eyes once again. He cleared his throat. “The trade routes of this city depend on thriving markets, wealthy merchants, and a healthy populace. They do not work out of fear or intimidation. You know that as well as I do. You tried those tactics once and the docks froze.”

“I remember.”

“Well, I can promise you a fruitful trade, but not if you declare war on my city.”

“The Veng are here for a single purpose. Your city will be fine.”

“You can promise that?”

“I have no desire to see Mayfaire suffer. None. I only want this city to thrive.”

Hollis nodded. “Then you have it. My loyalty. In the name of my son.”

“In the name of your son.”

Far below the crowds had finally settled. Tens of thousands of bodies, faithful and heretic alike, were pressed against the sides of the quickly emptying East Road. The dark shapes of the vacant patrolled along the curbs, barking or hitting the stones with their clubs if anyone dared breach their line.

Only one family still walked the road and they did so with no deference to the Vacant whatsoever. Cosmin and Petra walking side by side, heads high and proud, leading their children. Elias did his best to keep his strides even. He kept his left hand tucked in his jacket and held his cane in the middle of its shaft, not allowing it to touch the ground. Emine walked at his side, the silk of her dress shimmering like a jewel. They vanished beneath the edge of the platform and Hollis knew they were approaching the stairs. His heart began to quicken.

“Mind the twins,” Hollis uttered. “In whatever foul thing you are planing with Cosmin… be careful of them. They don’t need to be a part of it. Elias especially. That poor boy has suffered enough.”

“I doubt the son of a powerful, wealthy man knows much of suffering,” Osyth said.

Hollis laughed in spite of himself, a cruel laugh, chill as the wind. “That boy is his cold mother’s reflection yet he’s grown up in the shadow of his father. And through no fault of his own he’s a poor and twisted thing. Unfit for his own family name in Cosmin’s eyes. That has been made quite clear. The command of the Guard is passed from father to son, you know.”

“I know it very well.”

“Well Cosmin is the first to break it. He sees no leader in Elias. He is handing his dynasty over to his First Lieutenant.”

“To Adrian Redwyn,” Osyth said.

“Indeed, though I suppose none of that matters anymore. Not if your Veng have their say. But the point stands. That boy lives with a shame no one should endure. That is suffering enough. Wealthy and powerful indeed,” Holis scoffed. “Neither has benefitted Elias. If anything they have only caused more him more pain. I doubt the urchins in Riverside deal with such things.”

“No, they deal with much worse. Shame and desperation are not evenly met. Both are tragic, but one is never seen without the other.”

“Perhaps.”

“You need not worry about the twins,” Osyth said. “They are of no concern to me. Cosmin is the one I want. The only one.”

13 – Home and the Dawn

The din of the bell calls across Mayfaire, ringing and bellowing and dragging the sleeping masses into the cold air of consciousness. Many wake like newborns, fumbling blind and confused and caught in their cauls of sheets and blankets. Rising in the cold. Running hands across the walls. Touching the mirror, the gilt frame of a painting, hard edge of a bureau, then finally, blessedly, the shuttered window. But they are not greeted by the dawn. Only a deeper night, a keening bell.

Now struggling into clothes they can barely see. Hands and heads and legs in search of stubborn openings. Buttons and belt loops missed. Shoes on the wrong feet. Tentative steps in lightless hallways. Searching the yet darker kitchens for food. The stagnant smell of cold ashes in the oven, the even stronger scent in the hearth. Memories of hot meals and warm nights of laughter and stories beside the fire. Now searching for coats and quilts to fight the cold and now the children are crying. The bell tolling all the while.

The roads are filling. Ash grey before the dawn. Huddled families crawl nearly sightless from the caves of their dark homes. They gather in the streets. They point towards the East Gate and shamble toward it, neighbors nodding to one another in shared misery, but remaining quiet. They are all afraid.

Silent too are the crowded, twisting streets of the Reaches, but there is no fear in the air. Here there is only the silence of reverence, though it is thrumming with a feverish excitement. The faithful walk the roads in in the clothes they slept in. Some drag filthy blankets, some are near naked. There is no time for dressing, no time for food, or thought. They gather and move as one. A migration of ragged birds. A blissful flock of souls crawling towards the rising sun.

 

***

 

Breathless from running, Dace reached Cosmin’s house and pounded on the door. She called his name between deep breaths and wondered if her voice was loud enough to carry past the tolling bells. Above her, unseen in the darkness of the eaves, a silent and slender figure shifted and dropped within striking distance of her throat. Its blade drawn, its cold eyes watching her every move.

She pounded on the door again, then stopped to listen. Some small commotion sounded just beyond the door, a stumbling in the dark, a turning latch, and when the door finally opened it was Petra, not Cosmin, who stood in the doorway.

“Dace?” Peta hissed. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I have to speak with Cosmin.”

Petra turned to look into the dark house behind her. “He’s coming,” she said.

“Can I come inside?”

“No.”

“Petra, please.”

“No Dace, goddamn it. You can’t come inside. You can’t fucking come inside.”

“Look, Petra just—”

Petra slammed the door shut. When it opened again Cosmin stood alone in the doorway. “What is it?” he said, his voice urgent and strained.

Dace nodded to the dark house. “That was pleasant,” she said.

“What is it Dace?”

“I was at the wall.”

Cosmin stepped forward and grabbed Dace by the shoulder. “What did you see?”

“It’s not the Congregation… It’s a damn army. Isaac called them the Veng.”

If fear came to Cosmin he did not allow it to show. “How many are there?” he asked.

Dace shook her head. “I can’t say, but they filled the damn road all the way through the forest. We couldn’t see their end.”

Cosmin paused. “They weren’t in ranks?”

“No. A single line, two abreast. When they reached the trench the line split and they marched to either side of the road and just stood there.”

“They stopped at the trench?”

“Well they certainly weren’t going to jump into it…”

Cosmin did not hear these last words. He was staring off into the darkness. He shook his head.

“What is it?” Dace asked.

“They came within range of the wall…” Cosmin said. “You said they split and walked to the sides of the road?”

Dace nodded.

Cosmin covered his mouth with his hand and rubbed at the stubble on his cheeks. He stared at the ground and then up to the sky. The bell continued to call throughout the city but Cosmin no longer paid it any attention. “If they meant to assault or siege us they wouldn’t have come marching to the damn wall,” he said. “They wouldn’t stand in range of my archers… No, this is something else. They’ve created a path.”

“A path for what?”

“The Congregation, possibly.”

“Then why bring soldiers?”

“I don’t know… Leverage, maybe. They could be planning some negotiations with the Magister…”

“And you’re willing to risk that?”

“What choice do I have?”

At once the bells stopped. The last ring held in the air for a long moment in echo against the waking city. Profound silence followed, not even the morning birds dared to break it. Cosmin looked towards the east, then to Dace standing in the dark and the cold. She looked suddenly frail to him, unfamiliar lines of worry webbed across her face. A door opened behind her and a pale face peeked out and then a figure emerged and shuffled down the road. Another followed. Petra called for Cosmin from the shadows of the house. Her voice was cold.

“You better get back to your sweetheart,” Dace said.

Cosmin ignored her. “You said you were with Isaac?”

“I was. He went off to the Barracks. He said something about getting everyone there.”

“Good. You need to go there as well.”

“I’d rather not,” Dace said. “That place smells like an old boot.”

“Please, Dace.”

“Please? Why Cosmin, I’ve never heard you say that word. You almost sound desperate. I don’t know what to say.”

“Just get to the Barracks.”

“Thanks, but I can take care of myself.”

“Yes you can,” Cosmin said. “But that’s not why I’m asking. We may need your help… I may need your help.”

“Oh I’m sure you will,” Dace said. “I hope you’ve tucked away some coin.” She peered once more into the house then winked at Cosmin. “Give my love to Petra.”

“I’ll be sure to do that.”

Cosmin watched Dace vanish into the slow greying streets. When she was gone entirely he whistled, short and crisp, and the shadow among the eves fell without a sound and stood before him. “You heard all that?” Cosmin asked.

“I did,” Sasha said. “She’s a foul thing.”

“You heard what she said about Isaac?”

“Yes.”

“He’ll be at the Barracks for the next few hours. I need you to stay with us.”

“You aren’t going to the Barracks?”

“No. We’ll be expected at the Procession… all of us.”

“And you intend to go.”

“I do,” Cosmin said.

“Do you think that’s wise?”

”They wouldn’t have come to the Gate if they came for war. This is something else.”

Sasha nodded. “You’ll be on the Magister’s platform.”

“We will.”

“I can’t get there without being seen.”

“Get as close as you can.”

Sasha vanished without another word. Cosmin looked after her a moment, then watched the huddled groups as they came and went. The pale greying of the predawn held inverse in reflection upon the dew covered street and the silhouetted figures, silent and hesitant, seemed to Cosmin to be wading a dim river rather than walking upon a road. They shuffled head down like penitents, cloaked and miserable and stalking towards some judgement at which they could only guess. And there appeared to be no end to them. They spoke in hushes or not at all and the sounds of their feet on the stones were lonesome and frightful and Cosmin found himself longing for anything, even the damn ringing of the bell, to cure the dismal silence.

He closed the door, and fell back into his lightless house.

 

***

 

Emine dreamt of a horse.

A camargue, dapple grey and standing in the forest alone. She walked to the animal, patted it, and buried her fingers within the course hair of its mane. It made no movement, no sound, and when she removed her hands from the animal they were sticky and red with blood. And the horse began to tremble. And looking once again she saw the spear which pierced the beast’s length, the mirrored blade jutting out between the ribs and just below the spine. She saw also the golden bell which had been hung upon the haft of the spear. She reached for the bell but as she did so the horse’s trembling turned to a shudder and the bell began to ring. She stood beside the horse and held it and wept for it and tried to speak but her voice was no comfort at all but something loud and frightening that caused the horse to shake harder still and the bell rang louder and louder. And now she was far beyond the forest. Now in the midst of the Barrens, on a road she had never known, and the bell was ringing so loud and so clear that it echoed against the deadfall and sang out across the world. And clutches of hungry, vile things were listening. They hid in the wracked trees, desiring the flesh of the horse and the bones and all the soft warmth beneath and they were wild with the smell of the blood and they sucked at their teeth and clamored closer. And the horse began to cry. It stamped at the bloodwet ground where a book lay torn open and filthy. Beside it a broken cane. The reins now in Emine’s hands and she pulling hard against them but without strength to move the beast and the bell is ringing and ringing and she could save the horse if only it would stop shaking but it is scared and so is she and it will never stop shaking and the hungry things are creeping closer and closer to the sound…

“Emine.”

Her mother’s voice. Far away. The dream faded, leaving only some lingering sense of dread and the memory of the bell. She gasped the cold morning air. She opened her eyes.

“Wake up, Emine.”

The room was dark and she could barely make out the shape of her mother sitting at the foot of her bed, her neck bowed low and a hand to her face. “It’s too early,” Emine muttered.

“Yes it is, but you need to get up.”

“There was a bell in my dream.”

“It was ringing from the Colosseum,” Petra said as she stood. “I’m surprised it didn’t wake you.”

“What?”

“The Congregation has arrived. You need to get up and get dressed. Get your brother as well.”

Emine didn’t move. She looked at her mother without understanding. “What?” she asked again.

“The Congregation is here.”

“They’re early…”

“Get out of bed, and get dressed Emine. Wear something formal. That blue dress, maybe. The silk one.”

“Its torn.”

“What?”

“The blue dress. It’s torn.”

“I don’t care.”

Emine hesitated. “It’s too cold for that dress,” she said.

“Put it on, Emine. And wear an overcoat if you’re cold. We’re expected on the platform with the Magister… in front of the entire damn city. You have to wear something nice.”

“The whole city?”

“The whole city. Now get dressed and be quick. Get your brother up as well. He’s probably been dreaming of bells too.”

“I’m sure he hasn’t,” Emine said. “His dreams are always the same.”

“Just get him up.”

Emine watched her mother vanish into the hall and the house beyond. She tossed the blankets from herself and sat on the edge of her bed with a groan. The bare wood floor was ice beneath her feet. A faint whisper of light blossomed from her window and she used it to navigate to the great lumpen pile of clothes beyond the foot of the bed. She found a single wool sock and rolled it into a ball and stalked across the hallway to the entrance to her brother’s room.

“Elias,” she said.

“Nghhhh…”

“Elias,” she repeated, louder.

“I’m sleeping,” he groaned.

Emine smiled. She could just make out her brother’s face in the faint light, serene and framed against the pillow and the dark blankets, a clear target. Emine gripped the balled sock, and flung it across the room, hitting Elias square in the face.

“Damn it Emine!”

“Get up or I’ll put a stone in the next one,” she said then went back to her own room.

She went to her closet and felt through the darkness for the feeling of the silk dress. She sat it on the bed, then wrinkled her nose at it. “Ugly damn thing,” she said, then dressed in the half light before finding her way to her mirror.

“Elias!” she shouted as she tied back her hair. “Are you up?”

“Yes.”

“It’s awful quiet over there.”

“I’m up.”

Emine walked across the hall to find her brother still tucked warmly in his bed. She grabbed a handful of his blankets and pulled hard, exposing his skinny limbs to the morning air. Elias let out a yell.

“Monster!” he screamed and grabbed for the covers. When Emine pulled them out of his reach he swung at her instead. She darted away, laughing.

“Enough,” their father’s stern voice called up from the house below. “This is not a day for laughing. Get dressed. Now.”

Elias jerked the blankets from his sister’s hand and threw them onto the bed. He stumbled sullenly over to his dresser and started to choose from the neatly stored clothes inside of it.

Emine walked back to her room. “Wear something fancy,” she called as she went.

“What?”

“Something nice. We have to stand in front of the whole city apparently.”

Elias appeared immediately in Emine’s doorway, leaning against the jamb. “The whole city?”

“That’s what mom said.”

“Fuck.”

“I know. She’s making me wear this awful thing.”

“Why?”

“Because she wants people to think I’m a delicate, pretty thing…”

“No, why are we getting in front of the city?”

“Didn’t you hear the bell?”

“What bell?”

“The Congregation is here, dummy. Everyone has to go watch them arrive, and we have to stand with the Magister. Don’t ask me why.”

“They’re here?”

“They are.”

“Damn. They’re early.”

“No shit. Now get dressed.”

 

***

 

Petra stood in the kitchen. She watched from the window above the water basin as more and more people filled the streets, all heading in the same direction. A dusty stone sat on the edge of the sill and Petra thought of the day, so long ago, when Elias found it in the earth beyond the city wall. He brought it so carefully to her, holding it in his tiny hands, convinced it was an egg. She put it into her pocket and when they got home she rinsed the dirt away and turned it in the sun while Elias told her of all the things it would become. She set it in the window where she promised the warm sun would hatch the egg, and there it sat for a dozen years.

She heard Cosmin approach, but didn’t turn. He stood beside her and reached for her hand and held it. She rested her head against his shoulder. “Is it too late?” she asked.

“For what?”

“For anything.”

“I don’t know.”

They watched out the window for a long time. Sounds of shuffling and soft voices drifted down from the twin’s rooms in the upper hall.

“You think we’ll be safe with you at the Gate?” Petra asked at last. “Safer than the Barracks?”

“I want you close.”

“That’s not an answer.”

Cosmin kissed her on the top of her head, then rested his cheek in the same place. “They’re not in a martial formation,” he said. “They marched to the trench, and that’s where they’ve stayed. It’s a sign of diplomacy and it will be suspicious if we are not there to greet them. We don’t need any scrutiny.”

“What do you think is going to happen?”

“They’ll make a big show of marching into the city. Then they’ll head to the Colosseum.”

“And then?”

“They’ll likely call the Magister and treat with him. They’ll have their ceremonies, relight the fires in the city, then tomorrow morning they’ll call everyone into the Colosseum for the Census.”

“And then they’ll leave?”

Cosmin was silent.

The dawn edged to blue beyond the rippled panes of the window, but it brought no comfort. The city beyond filling with a cold light, a paleness. “I feel like something is changing,” Petra said. “I’ve felt it since the torch came. Like I’m seeing everything for the last time.”

Cosmin pulled Petra to him and held her. He felt the rough wool mantle draped over her shoulders, smelled the faint woodsmoke perfume of her hair. He looked briefly into her eyes but couldn’t bear the sight of them, so pale green and questing, so he kissed her instead. His hand travelling to the back of her neck to hold her. She grabbing handfuls of his coat to pull him closer. Together now with foreheads pressed together and eyes closed in waiting. There were words to say, but neither spoke.

Emine and Elias stepped down from the upper landing to find their parents in embrace. Embarrassed, they went silently to the parlour. Emine’s dress rustled against the wicker sofa as she sat. Elias walked to the shuttered window to the left of the hearth, his cane tapping along the hardwood floor. Neither spoke. Emine looked to the cold ashes of the fireplace. Elias opened the shutters to watch the slowly waking world.

“Elias,” Petra called from the kitchen. “Be sure to grab your coat.”

Elias turned from the window and went searching the rack by the door. Emine turned to her parents who now stood apart. “How long will this take?” she asked.

“As long as it takes,” Cosmin replied.

“And what are they doing? Just walking down the road?”

“Yes. They’ll all walk to the Colosseum.”

“And we have to stand there and just watch them?”

“We do. The whole city does as well.”

“That’s stupid.”

Cosmin couldn’t help but grin. “Yes it is,” he said. He walked to the parlour and gestured for Emine to get up. She sighed and stood and smoothed out her dress. “You look very pretty,” Cosmin said to her.

“I’d rather be asleep.”

“So would I.”

Petra walked to Elias and held his cane then helped him slide his arms into his overcoat. She brushed his hair by the light of the entryway window. Cosmin walked to them and Emine followed and soon they all stepped from the lightless house and onto the brightening road.

The sun was still hours from cresting the horizon, but the eastern grey sky had shifted to a cool purple and gave them light enough to see. They walked down the center of the road, Cosmin and Petra leading with Elias and Emine behind. Cosmin set their pace, swift and deliberate, and did not look back once to see if Elias was struggling.

Sasha crept along the rooftops beside them, her eyes on Emine and the growing crowd that surrounded her. On the blue dress that fell from beneath the overcoat and swished in the dim light with her each step, a blossom of color on an otherwise dismal sea of grey, its swimming, careless movements somehow echoing the confidence of the girl beneath. Sasha barely spared Elias a glance. His crooked gait so contrasted with that of his sister, his presence dark and nearly shapeless, head down, cane tapping along the road.

And far beyond the family, beyond the filling streets and the East Gate and the great crowd amassing there in the shadows of the wall, beyond the city itself and the New Forest and the burning miles of soldiers, at the break of the Holy Lands where the Barrens pressed against the living world, the earth began to shudder.

12 – In the Tower of the Sun

The twins turned from the East Gate and headed for home, passing only inches away from Isaac as they did so, neither sparing him a glance. Elias limped slow down the road, Emine matched his pace. They spoke in low whispers to one another and stole glances over their shoulders toward the Gate and the crowd that formed there. Concern and fear marked their faces though Emine made more of an effort to conceal it than her brother. They passed Isaac and their evening shadows stretching long and thin as they following them down the road.

A slender woman, smelling of blooming flowers and ash, came to stand beside Isaac. She made no sound as she approached. She stared after the twins with dark, humorless eyes.

“Hello Sasha,” Isaac said.

Sasha nodded. “You saw the horse,” she said.

“I did.”

“The Guard will try and get it to the Barracks.”

“Yes they will.”

“Cosmin will not want it walking through the city.”

“No he won’t.”

“I trust you know what to do.”

Isaac said nothing. He hesitated, let out a breath, then nodded.

“It’s just an animal Isaac, it does not deserve your pity.”

Isaac turned towards the East Gate. He held his hand to shield the sun from his eyes and watched the crowd of City Guard that gathered around the horse. Their faces grim. The horse shook its head and floundered, then righted itself. “It found its way home,” Isaac said. “After all that. Alone out there and bleeding… Imagine that. How scared it must have been. And to run through the Barrens alone…”

“It’s only a horse.”

In the distance the horse struggled against one of the Guard. It thrashed against its reins and bucked as high as its wounded flank would allow. The movement seemed to cause it greater pain and it pulled itself up and Isaac saw the whites of its terrified eyes, huge and rolling. “I know,” Isaac said.

“How many of the Vacant did you kill the other night to save Cosmin?”

“Five.”

“Did that trouble you?”

“No.”

“Then neither should this. Only another animal. Now take care of it.”

Isaac turned back to watch Elias. The boy was stopped in the street, leaning on his cane, and pretending to examine a shop sign. Emine waited patiently at his side. “Elias is tired,” Isaac said. “And very likely in pain. He’s been walking all day.”

“He’ll be fine, Sasha said. “I’ll see them both home. Now take care of the damn horse.”

Sasha did not wait for a reply. She brought her hood down then set out along the street in hidden pursuit of the twins, just one more figure in the dwindling streets, though Isaac could have spotted her in a crowd of thousands. He didn’t know anyone who moved quite like Sasha Lon, the strange fluid gait, somehow both graceful and serpentine.

When Isaac approached the City Guard they had only just settled the horse into a stilted walk. They coaxed it gently from the gate and led it down the East Road. Crescents of blood marked the stones as it went, little half moons of crimson. The saddle too was marked with blood, as was the guard who carried it. The guard with the horse’s reins spoke to the animal as he went.

Isaac stood in the center of the road and watched them near. They regarded him curiously, this unassuming man with a tattered cloak draped over his shoulders. One called for him to step aside and when he didnt the whole group stopped. Isaac waited a moment, took a deep breath, then stepped forward.

“What’s this?” the man holding the reins said.

“I’ll take him,” Isaac said.

“You’ll what?”

“I’ll take him.”

“Oh you will?” the man laughed. “Like hell. This here is a Sovern horse. It goes to the Barracks.”

“No it doesn’t. I’ll take him.”

“You don’t seem to be understanding me,” the man said. “This is Guard business. Now move along before I drop you to the damn ground.”

Isaac kept his eyes on the road. He took another breath.

“Let him have the horse Errol,” a voice said, its tone raised in alarm. “For fuck’s sake give him the reins.”

The guard looked at Isaac as if for the first time. The hair fallen over his childish face, the bright eyes, the scars and the wrapped armor, the blades shining in the shadows beneath his open cloak. The guard faltered. He handed the reins of the horse to Isaac without hesitating then bowed his head to the ground. “Terribly sorry, sir,” he said. “Terribly sorry. I didn’t recognize you is all. The horse is yours.”

Isaac said nothing. He took the reins and guided the horse back down the road and passed beneath the East Gate. He crossed the drawbridge, then followed the road to the edge of the New Forest. He spoke to the horse the whole time and stopped once when it faltered as if it could walk no further. He waited for it, brushed its tangled mane, then led it once more into the forest.

When he returned to the city he returned alone, his eyes red and ringed with tears.

 

***

 

The amber light of dusk fell over Mayfaire and the world beyond and Isaac watched it deepen and change from the Tower of the Sun. He sat perched on the tower’s edge, just beyond the pillard walls of the guard post that occupied the crown. He held his knees to his chest and relished the cool evening wind as it rolled over his body. To his left he could see down to the wide Magister’s Platform that occupied the roof of the East Gate. To his right the perimeter wall stretched toward the distant southern edge of the city, ending out of sight at the edge of the cliffs and the river that surged far, far below. Before Isaac were the low fields of Mayfaire, and beyond the fields rose the great wild of the New Forest, its lush green rolling over the horizon and seemingly covering all the visible world and Isaac allowed himself to pretend for a moment that indeed it did cover the entirety of the world. That there were no Barrens, no Wastes, no Pale City… no horrors in the night. No Spire. There was only a sea of lush green with Mayfaire resting at its gentle heart.

He thought of the horse. The dead and headless body he did not have the strength or time to bury. The eyes blank in judgement and he reflected within them. He the executioner. Killer now of the innocent, the wayward, and the scared.

He opened his hand and looked at the arrowhead he had pulled from the horse. The twisted steel formed in a triple blade so the flesh could not be sewn back together. A menacing thing, vile and bloodstained. He needed to show it to Cosmin, but he wanted to throw it from the edge of the Tower and watch it disappear into the trench far below. He wanted it gone from the world. The poor horse. The wretched thing. Staring with those eyes.

A howling now in the distance, the sun setting. An evening chorus of birds and insects beyond the city wall. Silhouettes of bats above the treeline, the circling of swifts and whip-poor-wills. The western horizon fading and the city in shadow. No fires, no lights. A darkening in the eastern sky, first cobalt then to utter dark and darkness is all that Isaac sees and all that he can think of. There is but a single flame burning in shadows of the city, burning in the depths of the Colosseum, but its light is not safe or sane. It is a poison, and the huddled shapes around it are poisoned and they wear the skin of men but they are not men and their veins too are filled of poison and the light to which they pray is no light at all but a beacon in the dark for something even darker and it’s inside of them and it’s inside of me…

“No.”

Isaac closed his fist around the arrowhead. He winced at the pain. He felt the blood running between his fingers, his own blood now mixed with that of the horse. He stood. A damp wind came from the east, smelling of earth and autumn, and he breathed deep of it and closed his eyes.

He sat for a long time. Long enough for the night to cool and for the stars to emerge and color the sky.

The city, ghostly blue in the moonlight, lay before him. To his back the dark and distant canopy of the New Forest rippled in the breeze. The winds carried the solemn sounds of the night, the dim, eerie call of a screech owl somewhere in the south, the warm rolling sounds of crickets in the fields below. Then something else… something rhythmic, growing louder. The hard sounds of boots on stone…

Isaac jumped up without a sound and slid into the tower guardpost. He cocked his head towards the opening of the spiral staircase in the center of the floor. He listened. The sound grew louder. Thudding now and scraping. A wailing joined the footfall, dry and mournful, then turned into the low growl of the Vacant.

Isaac drew his sword.

The growling stopped.

“Put your cock away,” a dusky voice whispered from below. “I know it’s out.”

Isaac looked at his sword. He smiled to himself, then sheathed it.

A grinning face appeared from the void of the stairwell. Moonlight fell over the dark hair and wolfish eyes.

“Boo.”

“Hello Dace,” Isaac said.

“Dace? That scoundrel?” She hopped up the last few steps, and stepped onto the platform, her dark robes flowing after her along with the pungent, sweet smell of alethia. She bowed low to the ground, arms out like a marionette. When she returned to standing her eyes were bright, her face mocking serious. She whispered. “Your old friend Dace is nowhere to be found, dear Isaac. She’s long gone. Tonight you have been visited by a ghost.”

“A ghost?”

“Indeed! A spirit of the old city. A joyful wraith that brings fire, and music, and everything else we’ve been denied. I even have a few lovely ladies in tow.” Her smile grew and she called down the stairs. “What say you, fair ladies? Ready to forget the Days?” She held her hand to her ear and waited for a reply. When none came she turned back to Isaac. “They’re quite shy, these girls. They’ve had enough of this darkness and so have I, damn it. I say we build a roaring fire in this dismal tower and dance with these beautiful women.” She craned her neck back to the stairs. “Hurry it up, ladies! We haven’t got all night.”

The void of the stairwell replied with silence.

“They must have gotten lost,” Isaac said with a grin.

“Aye, must have.” Dace said. She made a show of patting her jacket and pants, then frowned. “And wouldn’t you know it! l’ve forgotten my flintspark as well. Isn’t that just the way of things? Now here we are in the darkness with no women, and no fire… I suppose the next thing you’ll tell me you don’t play an instrument.”

“I don’t.”

Dace groaned. Isaac watched her, the smile not leaving his face. “What are you doing up here?” he asked.

“Bringing a little joy to your night. I thought that was clear.”

Isaac said nothing. He waited.

Dace winked at him, though some of the mirth left her face. “I heard about the horse,” she said at last.

Isaac nodded. “You have good ears,” he said.

“I do. And lots of them. All over the city.”

“What did you hear?”

“That a wounded Sovern scout horse came to the gate. And that you took care of it.”

“Did they use my name, your hundred ears?”

“I don’t think many people know your name, Isaac. You aren’t a very social person.”

“What did they call me then?”

“What does it matter?”

“I’ve heard the names they have for me,” Isaac said, his voice gone soft. “I can’t say I care for any of them.”

“Oh I don’t know, I’ve heard a few good ones. I rather like ‘Nighthawk,’ don’t you? It has a bit of menace to it, some poetry.”

“Most of them call me a freak.”

Dace hesitated. “They don’t understand you,” she said at last.

“Do you?”

Dace grinned. “Of course not,” she said. “But I like you, and that’s enough. I knew how you would react to that unpleasantness. You have an strange conscience for someone so… talented. You know that?”

“It didn’t deserve to die,” Isaac said, his voice soft and almost lost in the wind. “Animals never do. Not ever. It was alone and it was scared.”

“Tell me about it.”

“It was a scout horse,” Isaac said. “A camargue, dapple grey with a white mane. A beautiful horse…” He wiped his eyes. “It was struck seven times along its flank. Deep wounds.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the arrowhead which he handed to Dace. She turned it in the moonlight. “The Congregation does not have archers,” Isaac said. “They never do.”

“Then who fired this arrow?”

“I don’t know. The shots were clustered, fired together as if from a rank.”

Dace threw the arrowhead to the ground as if it burned her hand. Isaac fetched it and tucked it back into his pocket. “I don’t even want to think about what that means,” Dace said. “Does Cosmin know all of this?”

“He does. Sasha will have told him by now.”

“She was here?”

“Yes.”

“So why didn’t she go and kill the damn horse?”

“A group of City Guard were clustered around it. She would not have wanted to get near them. She doesn’t like people.”

“She’s a viper,” Dace said in disgust.

“We are very much alike, Sasha and I.”

“You are nothing alike, Isaac. Sasha is cold blooded. She has no friends.”

“Neither do I.”

“And what about me?”

Isaac turned his head to the ground, embarrassed. He said nothing.

Dace broke the silence. “It’s a good thing you were here,” she said. “What you had to do was awful, but if you hadn’t been here they would have taken that horse through the city. It would have been chaos.”

“It was only by chance. I was keeping an eye on Elias. His sister brought him to the wall. They were watching out to the forest when the horse came.”

Dace considered this. “Does Elias know about you yet?” she asked. “Does Emine know about Sasha? Do my sweet niece and nephew have any idea that you two are watching over them?”

Isaac shook his head. “We’re very careful.”

“I’m sure you are. Cosmin is a strange man, isn’t he? He has reasons for everything, but I can’t figure any of them out.”

“He doesn’t want the twins to feel different. He doesn’t want them to know that they could be in danger.”

“He’s the one who put them in danger in the first place.”

“I suppose he doesn’t want them to know that either,” Isaac said. He stepped to the edge of the tower and rested his elbows on the ledge. The city was spread out beneath him. “He has his reasons.”

“You follow him too blindly, you know.”

“I owe everything I have to him. My very soul.”

“Well I think you give him too much. When do you find time for yourself, you dull son of a bitch?”

Isaac smiled. “When I’m alone,” he said. “In a secluded tower, on a peaceful night’s watch.”

“Ha! Well I’m happy to interrupt it. It’s too damn peaceful if you ask me. You need some company.”

Dace walked beside Isaac and together they watched out over the veiled city. A shambling pack of Vacant slipped from an alley along the East Road then disappeared somewhere into the dark. Dace spat towards them, then reached into her overcoat to pull out a metal flask. She waved it in front of Isaac, uncorked it, then took a long pull before offering it.

Isaac refused the drink with a wave of his hand. “You’re taking a risk having that during the Days,” he said. “If one of the Vacant gets a whiff they’ll have you flensed.”

Dace wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. “I’d talk my way out of it,” she said.

“I doubt that.”

“It’s all nonsense, isn’t it? Illogical. They call strong drink a sin, and tell us that god calls it evil. But if it’s on our island isn’t it from god to begin with? Why would he hate us for drinking his own creation?”

“Not he,” Isaac corrected. “It. The Spire isn’t a man. And they don’t believe It made the world. That’s from the old faiths.”

“Old faiths, new faiths. It’s all garbage. The old ones were fairy tales, and the new ones are the dreams of monsters. I just want the Days to pass.”

“We all do.”

“How long has it been now? Four nights?”

Isaac nodded.

“Four nights without fire, or music, or a damn drink at the tavern…”

“Three more to go.”

“Aye,” Dace said as she stared towards the hulking shadow of the Colosseum. “Then we have those beasts to entertain. And other, nastier things if that arrow tells us anything.” She walked away from the city view and crossed the small platform to face out into the eastern wilderness. Isaac followed, and together they watched the dark lands. The wind danced over the forest and caressed its leaves. The moonlight reflected from them as they twisted and spun and the forest appeared to glisten in the darkness.

“Are you worried?” Isaac asked.

“About what?”

“The Congregation. They’re coming early… they’ve never been early before. And the horse…”

Dace brushed the idea aside with a wave of her hand. “I see no reason to worry,” she said. “Mayfaire is important to the Pale City. I don’t know the last time you ventured down to the docks, but the merchant barges are alway running down the river. Almost day and night. Salt from the mines of Selvid, lumber from the forests, spices from the plateau, wheat and grain from the southern farms… all sorts of shit, and all the time. The Pale City would likely starve without Mayfaire.”

“But the horse…”

“Who knows? Maybe they want to show some force. Maybe they want to intimidate us. Maybe Hollis has been lazier than usual, and the shipments have been getting lighter.” She took another drink. “I’m not worried about the Pale City. If anything I’m worried about Cosmin. You know he came to me the night Redwyn almost died. He gave me a pretty hefty target.”

“Hollis,” Isaac said.

“You knew about that?”

“Cosmin needs him gone.”

“So why didn’t he go to you?”

“You know why. He doesn’t want him dead.”

Dace nodded. “Well, I told him that it would likely come to that. The Magister will not leave his seat without a fight. It will get ugly. You have to find an angle to use, some weakness to grab hold of.”

“And what would that be in Hollis?”

“Hollis is easy,” Dace said. “His son is his weakness. Or the memory of his son, at least. It’s the only soft part of his old foul heart. Any mention of Marcus and the Magister folds up like a doll. I don’t know how to exploit that yet, but I’ll figure it out.”

“That’s very cruel, Dace.”

“Yes well… life is cruel sometimes Isaac. You of all people should know that.”

“Yes, but we don’t have to be.”

Dace thought for a moment. She sighed and looked at Isaac. He was staring far off into the distance, his eyes glazed, his black armor catching no reflection from the moon. “You sweet thing,” she said at last. “You know it’s too late for thoughts like that.”

“I’ve never been cruel.”

“That would be a matter of perspective, don’t you think?”

“No,” Isaac said. “There is no cruelty in death.”

“There is if you don’t welcome it.” Dace said as she uncorked the stinking flask of Alethia once more and tipped it back. She wiggled the flask in front of Isaac, and was surprised when he took it. “Careful with that now,” she said. “You think the faith is dangerous…”

Isaac took a small sip and regretted it immediately. He broke into a fit of coughs that brought the foul drink burning up into his throat and nose. He retched, and Dace doubled over in laughter. “It isn’t for everyone,” she said.

“It isn’t for anyone,” Isaac said in between coughs. “Good god, did you fill your flask with torch oil?”

“No, but there may be some in there. I won’t tell.”

“Better off not knowing,” Isaac said as he filled his mouth with water from his canteen. He swished the liquid and spit it out over the side of the tower and stayed there for a moment to catch his breath. He looked out over the moonlit fields, the dark void of the forest.

“I can get you your own flask if you’d like,” Dace said. “You can clean your blades with it in between sips.”

Isaac didn’t hear the words. He was focussed on something deep in the forest, a faint flickering. A dimness barely registered, like a dusty star that fades when seen. “There’s a light out there,” he said at last, the words nearly a whisper.

Dace followed his gaze. She stared for a long moment, before bursting out in laughter. She slapped Isaac on the shoulder. “I think that liquor got a hold of you quick!” she cried. “It’s got you seeing things.”

“Quiet,” Isaac hushed. “Far at the edge of the forest, look. It’s getting brighter.”

Dace’s next words caught in her throat. The light had grown from a faintness to a small patch of glowing woods. It was nearly lost at the horizon, but as the two watched it grew ever so brighter. And larger.

“Merchants maybe?” Dace asked. “A caravan returning from the Pale City…”

The light coalesced into a burning line, snaking its way through the distant forest, growing longer.

“They’re here,” Isaac said. “The devils are here.”

He stormed over to the northern edge of the tower and called down from its heights. “The Congregation!” he shouted down to the guards posted along the wall. “The Congregation comes!”

Voices rose from the gatehouse. Figures ran to the edges of the wall. They stopped for a moment, then cried out in alarm. A shouting came from further down the wall followed by the bellow of a deep and solemn horn. The sound blared across the quiet night, and was answered by another horn and together they filled the air with their cry, and soon were answered from deep within the city as a thunderous toll rang out from the heights of the Colosseum. The horns fell silent, drowned out by the deep and mournful tolling of the bell.

“Look how many…” Dace whispered.

Isaac was silent. He watched the growing line of fire in the forest as it illuminated the curves of the Eastern Road, growing longer and longer as it reached out for the city walls. “That isn’t the Congregation,” he said at last. “It’s a damn army.”

“Cosmin is prepared for this,” Dace said, raising her voice to be heard over the violent clamor of the bell. “He’s been stockpiling the Barracks since the torch arrived. As much grain as he can get. Carriages too. I think he’s planning to get the Avarine out of the city.”

Isaac was shocked by Dace’s boldness. “Yes,” he said. “He is.”

Together they watched the growing serpent of fire as it crawled down the forest road. It grew closer, a sharp and vibrant river of light, explosive inside of the vast darkness of the forest that contained it. The bell roared in the night, and crying voices could be heard calling out between its outbursts. The Guard were swarming along the city wall, pressing themselves along the ramparts to see what was marching towards their city. The burning light resolved itself as it reached the edge of the treeline and the first of the torchbearers emerged. Flickering orange light danced across their gleaming silver armor.

“Soldiers,” Dace said. “I didn’t think Vellah had soldiers.”

“He doesn’t.”

“Then what the hell are those?”

“The Veng,” Isaac said.

“The what?”

Isaac only shook his head. He stared at the shining soldiers as they marched from the canopy of the forest and out onto the open plains before Mayfaire. He spun and quickly dropped down the first steps of the staircase. “Go and tell Cosmin,” he said. “Do it right now.”

“Where are you going?”

“The Avarine will need to get to the Barracks. Now is the only time. It’s what Cosmin wants.”

Dace nodded. She turned once more to the east and to the burning line of soldiers. They came two abreast down the forest road, each one holding a torch above their heads, the light somehow violent and shocking in the night. Her eyes hurt to watch it. She couldn’t move. She watched as the first of the soldiers reached the deep chasm that surrounded Mayfaire, the entire line halted as he did so. They all stood for a long moment, then in perfect unison the lines split down the center as the Veng marched to either side of the wide road then turned as one to face the city. There they stood motionless and silent while the great bells rang and rang through the stirring city.

Dace was frozen, rapt in bleak wonder of the burning path with its light so shocking and bright it reached her in the heights of the tower with strength enough to cast her shadow in broken lines across the stone ceiling above her. A burning light that stretched through the far forest where it lit the trees from within, dull but ferocious, like molten iron seething just beneath a layer of ash, a terrible serpent of flames that pressed past the horizon seemingly without end. The bells echoed in her ears, her hands trembled, and in despair she forced herself away from the tower’s edge and dropped into the stairwell and ran.

11 – Emine & Elias

From the furthest branches of a great oak Emine watched the activity in the Barracks courtyard. It was made small by the distance, the men and women hurrying along in miniature, the wagons like toys. The full expanse of the courtyard yard a tiny, dusty stage on which some harried drama was unfolding. She heard the muted orders called through the distance, punctuated a single time by her father’s voice, rising deep and commanding across the yard, strong enough to send chills down her back. That bellowing voice so disconnected from the father she knew, and she wondered, not for the first time, if there were two Cosmin Aurels in Mayfaire. One loving and quiet, a soft spoken man who still called her “Emmy” when all others had ceased, who insisted on meeting her friends and eyed her with suspicion if any happened to be boys. The father she knew. But the other… he was frightening and mysterious, a man existing beyond her world. Unsmiling and purposeful, a man that people bowed to. The bearer of some grave weight she couldn’t understand.

“Have you seen enough?” a voice called from the ground.

Emine looked down between the branches to where her twin brother sat. His skinny legs were laid out on the grass, the left one forever turned. In his lap was a thick, yellowed book which he flipped through delicately with his right hand while keeping the left, so clumsy and of little use, hidden beneath the leather binding. A stonewood cane leaned on the tree beside him.

“Keep your voice down,” Emine hissed as she descended the tree.

Elias shrugged. A warm breeze flitted through the copse of trees and ruffled the pages and he cursed at it and closed the book until it subsided.

Emine dropped to the ground beside Elias, followed by a rain of leaves and tree bark. Elias brushed them from his legs.

“You’re not exactly quiet yourself,” Elias said.

“Shaking a few branches isn’t the same as shouting.”

“You’re right,” Elias said. “It’s worse. Lots of people shout, you know. But can you think of an animal that would shake an entire damn tree. So which of us is drawing the most attention?”

Emine didn’t answer. She sat in the grass beside her brother and looked at him with familiar frustration. Elias smiled back at her and stuck out his tongue. “You’re too old to be climbing trees, you know.”

“I was watching the Barracks..”

“You’re too old to be playing spy as well.”

“I’m not playing anything,” Emine said. “Something is going on. They’re unloading a bunch of merchant wagons.”

“What were they carrying?”

“Tons of stuff. One was full of barrels.”

“Big barrels or small?”

“Mostly small.”

“Were they marked?”

“Yeah some had red tops.”

Elias thought for a moment. “Lamp oil,” he said. “That’s strange.”

“Why is that strange?”

Elias kept his eyes on his book. “Who needs lamp oil during the Days? No one is lighting anything. It just seems strange. Did you see any larger casks? Ones with black tops?”

“Yeah I think so. What’s in those?”

“You’re not much of a spy, you know that?”

“What’s in the other casks Elias?”

“Pitch. It’s what they use for torches. That’s just as strange as the lamp oil.”

Emine nodded. She looked in the direction of the Barracks though all she faced was a stone wall. The sun filtered through the trees and danced across her face. Elias plucked a leaf from her hair then threw it at her. “I knew something was happening,” she said, batting the leaf away. “Dad’s been acting so strange. I knew we’d see something.”

“You saw a bunch of wagons carrying supplies.”

“Oil and pitch though? You said it yourself, that’s strange.”

“What about the other wagons? How many were there?”

“Lots. A dozen at least, but it looked like more were waiting on the road.”

“And were they all carrying incendiaries?”

“What?”

“Things that burn.”

“No,” Emine said. “Only one. The rest were carrying pretty boring stuff. Lots of grain and food…”

“So dad is supplying the Barracks with provisions,” Elias said. “Nothing more.”

“But they waited for the faithful to get to the Colosseum before they started moving the wagons. Why would they do that?”

Elias turned back to his book. “Because if they moved them any earlier the Vacant would have been out prowling around,” he said. “Who knows what those things would do.”

“Yeah, but the wagons all started moved when the Colosseum bell stopped ringing. They were waiting for it.”

“So what if they were?”

“So they didn’t want the Faith to see what they were doing. They’re planning something.”

“Did you see dad?”

“Yeah, he was talking to Adrian.”

Elias wrinkled his nose. “The Miraculous,” he sneered. “Do you still think he’s handsome now that he’s missing an eye.”

“Quite,” Emine said. “I think he looks distinguished.”

“I think he looks like a villain.”

“You’ve never liked him.”

“I’ve never had any reason to.”

Emine left the conversation alone. She stood and brushed the dirt from her pants. She kicked Elias. “Get up,” she said.

Elias closed the book. “Where are we going?”

“Somewhere else. Now get up.” She reached down and Elias offered her the book, followed by his arm. She took both and helped him to his feet. He staggered slightly and leaned against her for a moment then bent down for his cane. Emine put the book in her backpack. “You want any water?” she asked.

“Nah.”

“You feel like more walking?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“I mean, really… how do you feel?”

“I’m fine,” Elias said. “Stop asking.”

“Sorry.”

Emine led them gently through the copse of trees. She turned back often to check on Elias and broke low branches so they wouldn’t whip through the air behind her as she passed. Elias stumbled twice and waved Emine off when she moved to help him. He swore at the uneven ground and tested it with his cane before each step.

They soon emerged onto the barren width of the Circle Road. The marble walls of the Magister’s Palace rose high in all directions before them, but neither spared it more than a passing glance. Elias stopped at the edge of the road to brush himself off, sighing as he did so. Emine ignored him. She looked down both directions of the road before turning right.

“Where are we going?” Elias asked.

Emine shrugged. “North, I guess.”

“Can’t we go around the Palace?”

“We could,” Emine said. “But do you really want to walk that far? Come on, it’ll be fine.”

Elias hesitated a moment before following his sister down the center of the Circle Road. Emine stopped to let him catch up, then kept her steps small to stay beside him. “It’s so strange to see the roads empty,” she said. “It’s so quiet too…”

“I like it.” Elias said. “The whole city seems quiet. It’s nice.”

“It’s quiet because everyone is terrified,” Emine said. “You saw what the Vacant did next door.”

“I’m not saying I like the Vacant. I just enjoy the peace.” He made a short sweeping motion with his cane across the road. “Just look at this,” he said. “There’s no one else around. It’s nice.”

“You just don’t like other people,” Emine said.

“I like some people. Most of them are idiots.”

The road curved, and brought the golden gates of the palace into view. A pair of guards stood sentry at the gate, proud and stoic in their high-crested helms, polished spears shining in the afternoon light, radiating menace. Their heads slowly turning as they watched the twins pass, dark eyes staring from the slits in their helms. Elias dropped his head and stared at the road. He took his cane from the road and held it causally, more like an ornament than a tool, and tried as best he could to stifle his limp. He tucked his left hand into his coat and passed the gates in silence.

A low murmuring sounded from the pair of guards behind them, followed by stifled laughter. Emine bristled. She hoped for a moment that Elias hadn’t heard them, but knew he had.

“Assholes,” Elias said under his breath, and when the road turned from the sight of the guards he allowed his weight to fall back on his cane and took his hand from his coat. His pace slowed again.

“You don’t know what they were laughing at,” Emine said.

“Of course I do. You saw how they were staring at me. I told you I didn’t want to go this way.”

“They stare at everyone. It’s their job.”

“Yeah, but you know what they’re thinking when they look at me. I fucking hate it.”

Emine watched the road for a long time, then shook her head. “I know what they were laughing at,” she said.

“Yeah, I do too,” Elias said.

“Not you, Elias. It isn’t always about you. I heard what they said, you didn’t.”

“And what did they say?”

“Well… the one said ‘I’m a fucking idiot.’ and then the other said ‘Yeah, me too.’”

Elias couldn’t help but grin. “You’re so stupid,” he said. “That isn’t even funny. If you’re going to lie you may as well make it funny.”

“It’s no lie,” Emine said. “That’s what I heard.”

“How about this,” Elias said. “The one says ‘I slept with your mother last night,” and the other says ‘but… that’s impossible! My mother’s been dead for years.’ and then the first guy says, and he looks the guy right in the eyes, ‘Well then… that explains the chill.’”

“Elias that’s disgusting,” Emine said laughing. “It’s not even original.”

“It is so. I just made it up.”

“You absolutely didn’t.”

“I absolutely did.”

“Well either way it’s completely gross.”

“Don’t blame me, blame the guard! Those guys are sick. They’re necrophiliacs.”

“They’re what?”

“Nevermind.”

They followed the Circle Road northwest, beyond the sprawling grounds and sheer walls of the Palace. The buildings on either side of the road became opulent and stately as they went. Buildings of governance, of law. Robed men and women standing in small groups beneath the shade of columned porticos as pages and messengers scurried among them, weaving and landing among the groups before fluttering off again like flies at a banquet. Emine and Elias watched the activity as they passed, but none in the yard returned more than a hurried glance.

Another row of trees marked the edges of the Judicium, and the deep plaza at its side led to the high pillars of the Forum where hundreds more of the robed figures were gathered. There was little order to their number, though several voices rose above the crowd and seemed to be guiding some sort of debate. One voice roared above all the others, and the twins stopped for a moment to watch at the great form of Magister Albed Hollis, resplendent in his green robes, heavy arms flailing and pointing in fearless accusation at those surrounding him, his voice crying loud and sure. The face gone all red with shouting, the heavy jowls wet with spittle. Gold rings catching in the sun and shining on each of his fingers.

The road opened up as they turned east. Carriages greeted them at the edges of Highton, and the large, stately buildings of the High Circle were replaced by tall and narrow row houses that crowded in tight along road. Shops occupied the lower level of most of the houses, and sparse crowds of people meandered along them. The businesses were nearly all shuttered. Few people spoke.

“Where are we going, anyway?” Elias asked.

“I don’t know,” Emine said. “Maybe the east wall? We could maybe get up to the ramparts, depending who’s on duty.”

“Why do you want to go up to the wall?”

“Do you have a better idea?”

“I guess not. Everything is closed. We might as well just waste our time on the wall.”

“The Colosseum is open,” Emine said. “You could go and pray.”

“Ha ha.”

They reached the plaza that sprawled before the main entrance to the Colosseum. The crowds along the road kept their distance from the cut stones of the plaza, which sat empty in its enormity, like a desert planted in the middle of the city. Emine stopped for a moment to stare across it to the crumbling shape of the Colosseum and the raised arm of the statue of Vellah cresting the high edge and reaching into the heavens. Voices, strained and screaming, drifted in a great muted chorus from the building and echoed dim and violent across the plaza. Grey, stalking shapes of the Vacant patrolled the Colosseum gates, only darkness beneath their hoods. One of them stopped and it’s cowled head snapped in the direction of the twins and Emine shuddered and clutched Elias’s arm. He turned to see the Vacant far off across the plaza. If it frightened him he made no sign of it. “Come on,” he said and led them away from its distant gaze.

They stopped beyond sight of the Colosseum. A low wall curved into the shade of a row house and they sat on it and watched the meager crowds passing on the East Road. Emine looked in the direction of the Colosseum then turned back to stare at the ground, her dark hair falling unkempt over her face. A small beetle crawled into her view and she spat towards it for no reason, missing it by a large degree and hitting her shoe instead.

“Gross,” Elias said.

“Sorry.”

Elias ran the end of his cane along the road and drew little shapes in the sand and dirt that gathered in the creases of the paving stones. Emine wiped the end of her shoe on the inside of her back of her pant leg. “Do you think it’s like this in other places?” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, all of this. The faithful and Vacant and everything… the Census… is it like this everywhere?”

“I think it’s worse,” Elias said. “The other cities are all closer to the Spire, I think. Orthos, Innsmos, Aurton… and if they’re closer they’re probably a lot worse off. I don’t really know.”

“What about the west?”

“What about it?”

“They’re used to be cities there.”

“Not anymore,” Elias said “They’re all gone. You’ve seen the Barrens.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Why are you asking?”

“It’s all just so awful,” Emine said.

Elias was silent for a long time. Another beetle came crawling along the ground and he sat the end of his cane in front of it and let it crawl up towards his hand. He watched it for a moment, then let it crawl off into the bushes on the other side of the wall. “We’re lucky,” he said at last. “You know that?”

“Why?”

“The Census only takes kids, and we aren’t kids. And they probably wouldn’t take us even if we were. They usually only take them from the Reaches. From the families of the faithful.”

“How many do they take?” Emine asked.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s strange, don’t you think? That no one will talk about it? Not even mom and dad. It’s like they thought it wasn’t going to happen or something. And now that it’s here they’re completely silent. People are coming to steal kids away and they won’t even talk to us about it.”

“They usually only take kids from the Reaches. I told you that.”

“So?”

“Well, it really isn’t our problem then. It doesn’t really affect us.”

“But we live here too,” Emine said. “It affects the entire city.”

“It doesn’t though. We just have to suffer through the Days and avoid the Vacant. The rest is just a bunch of ceremonies for the faithful. We just have to ignore it until they leave.”

“But they leave with children,” Emine said. “They steal kids from Mayfaire.”

“No,” Elias said. “Not from Mayfaire. From the Reaches. It’s different… It’s not like they are going to break into the house and take us away. It doesn’t happen like that.”

“I hope not.”

“I’ll fight them off for you.” Elias said with a grin. “I’ll make sure they won’t take you to the Wastes.”

“Like I need your help.”

“Who else?” Elias said as he brandished his cane like a sword. “You think you’re Avaryne will save you?”

“Avarine,” Emine said. It rhymes with ‘mean.’”

“Yeah well, Avaryne, Averine… either way its a fairy tale.”

“You don’t know everything,” Emine said.

“And you don’t know anything.”

“This from someone who never leaves the house.”

“I’m out here now, aren’t I?”

“You are,” Emine said. “And aren’t you glad?” She gestured at the empty streets, the shuttered businesses, and towards the ruins of the Colosseum. “Isn’t it lovely?”

“The River’s Jewel!” Elias said. “I had no idea all the joy I’ve been missing.”

They hopped from the wall and walked around the edges of the East Road. They passed along the narrow roads that separated the eastern districts and stepped past the cold forges of north Riverside. At noon they stopped at a stall above the Southern Market to purchase some dried fruit and salted meat. They looked longingly at the bakeries with their drawn windows and empty ovens.

Emine kept a close eye on Elias as they went, always watching for the telltale signs of pain that he had learned to so deftly hide from the world. The slower pace, the frequent stops to look at something that he feigned interest in, the silence. He was squinting into the distance now, watching the slowly growing shape of the East Gate. He leaned hard against his cane.

“You still want to go to the wall,” Emine asked.

“Yeah, why not?”

“It’s a long climb to the top.”

“I’m fine, Emine. Stop asking.”

“Sorry.”

The sun peaked in the midday sky and their shadows disappeared beneath them as they made their way down the wide channel of the East Road. Crowds meandered along the sidewalks, but with no shops to welcome them they simply walked without purpose as if in some daze, aimless, but preferring the sunny street to their own dark homes. They mostly walked in small groups or pairs. A beggar sat in a doorway, but made no attempt at alms. He simply watched the world pass him. A skinny dog loped down the road beside Elias and kept pace with him for a time before turning down a shadowed alley. Emine watched it go. She whistled after it, but it disappeared from sight without turning its head.

The East Gate continued to grow at the road’s end, and soon the twins found themselves nearing its base, the city wall stretching huge and endless to either side. A guard stood sentry at the foot of the gate, and the twins made their way across the Perimeter Road and approached him.

“Masters Aurel,” the guard said to Emine with a small bow. He turned to Elias and bowed a second time. “What brings you to the Gate?”

“Boredom,” Emine said.

“Ha! Ain’t it so. Nothing to do but wait during the Days, and waiting is bad for the spirit.” He gestured to the looming gate, and shook his head. “But I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place to heal your boredom. Yonder gate is closed and she won’t open until the damned Congregation comes.”

Emine stared up at the immense set of stonewood doors behind the guard. They crested higher than the city wall, and were set into a stone gatehouse nearly as vast in proportion as the old Tower Scholam.

“We’d like to get up to the wall,” Elias said.

“Oh?” the guard said. “Well, I suppose that could be arranged.” He looked Elias over and frowned. “It’s quite a climb, young master.”

“He’ll be fine,” Emine said.

The guard shrugged. “Of course, of course. I meant no offense.”

“It’s ok,” Elias said. His hand was once again hidden inside his coat.

“I’ll not stand in the way of the Commander’s own. Head on up, see the sights, and by the heavens don’t slip or do anything stupid. There’s patrols there who may come, but they’ll recognize you and leave you be.”

“Thanks,” Elias said, walking past the guard.

“My regards to your father,” the man said before turning back to watch the roads.

The stairs that emerged from the side of the gatehouse were steep, and Elias took them slowly. Emine stayed behind him, ready to stop him if he should slip. She carried his cane, and watched as he used his good hand to support himself on the ledges before bringing his feet to each step one at a time.

The New Forest was settling into the the golden light of afternoon by the time they reached the top of the wall. Emine looked at it with concern, calculating the time they would need to get back home before the curfew. Elias, breathless, was trying a large arched door that rested at the side of the gatehouse.

“What are you doing?” Emine asked.

“We’ve come this far,” he said between deep breaths. “Might as well go all the way.”

Emine smiled and looked up to the very top of East Gate. “You want to go to the Magister’s platform?”

“I would if the door weren’t locked.”

“Did you try knocking?”

Elias laughed. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “You think that overweight hound is up there now?” He banged on the door. “Hey! Magister Hollis! Open up you big bastard!” He thought for a moment. “I’ve got a roast duck for you!” He cried. “Sweets as well… a whole sack full!” He pressed his ear to the door, and waited. Emine giggled and Elias held a hand up, gesturing for silence. He turned to Emine, his face serious. “I lied about the duck and the sweets,” he whispered. “So he’s going to be pretty mad when he comes waddling down here.”

“Here,” Emine said as she handed back the cane. “You might need this.”

Elias took the cane and held it once again like a sword, his curled left hand high in the air and his legs apart in riposte. “Best to stay behind me,” he said. “He’s likely strong as a bear when he’s hungry.”

Without warning a cry from somewhere along the wall. A piercing shout, followed by calls from the gatehouse. The twins spun to watch as a small group of City Guard gathered at the edge of one of the guardhouses. Others were calling out and running along the wall to where the twins stood.

“We didn’t do anything…” Elias said.

“It’s not us,” Emine said as the guards approached. They were scrambling along the walkway with their eyes locked to the road outside of the city wall. Emine and Elias stepped from the doorway and leaned into the crook of an embrasure to stare out towards the New Forest and the road that split through it. A shape ambled down from the forest, solitary and  lurching.

“Drop the bridge!” one of the guards cried to the gatehouse as she neared the twins. “Drop the bridge!”

Her cry was answered immediately. Sounds of heavy chains, the groaning of old metal gears. Emine and Elias pressed themselves against the edge of the wall as the drawbridge lowered, colliding with the far bank of the city trench with a thunderous boom. A deep rattling of chains sounded from the gatehouse, then a grinding of metal on stone.

“They’re raising the portcullis,” Elias said. “They’re opening the gate…”

The shouting guard reached the twins, but paid them no attention. She was fixated solely on the approaching figure. Two more guards came behind her, but instead of stopping they rushed down the stairs to the foot of the gate.

“What is it?” Elias asked the woman.

“A horse, young master,” she said without taking her eyes from the road.

“What?”

“Oh no,” Emine said. “Oh heaven…”

The creature limped through the shadows of the forest road and came fully into view. It was riderless, its saddle ripped loose, drawn by its own weight to hang at the horse’s side which shined crimson with blood. A cluster of arrows, quill-like and shaking with each limping step, sprouted from the horse’s flanks.

The ground beneath them began to shudder as the doors of East Gate opened. Voices cried out, guards ran through the opening gates and flooded into the gatehouse tunnel, and the woman beside Emine stood and watched. She waited in silence, her eyes never leaving the foot of the gates far below. A guard emerged back out of the gates. He let out a sharp whistle, then made a series of hand gestures directed at the woman. She watched them, nodded, then gestured back to the man, an open palm she turned into a fist. He nodded and ran back through the gate.

The woman saw the shock on the twins faces. “It’s belongs to the Sovern,” she said. “It’s a scout’s horse.” She watched as a group of guards ran across the bridge to meet the failing animal. One grabbed its reins while the other ran to the wounds and both were red with blood in a matter of moments. “It’s bad news,” the guard said. “You need to get home.”

10 – Miraculous

A line of merchant wagons, damp with morning dew, sat waiting before the sealed gates of the Barracks. The drivers were wrapped against the early autumn cold, blankets draped over shoulders and pulled close to goose-prickled necks, faces hard set, cheeks rosy. Gloved hands holding loose to the wagon reins. Steam rising from the flanks of the horses and clouds of their breath hanging in the dawn. They shook their heads and snorted impatiently and stamped at the paving stones beneath them. Cosmin spoke to them as he passed. Soft and calming, he called them by the names of their merchant houses, “There, there, Nabor,” and “Ease now, Baskiv,” and a dozen others. He patted their warm muscled necks and ran his hand through their bristling manes. His other hand was held against his chest, bandaged and aching in the cold.

Cosmin peered beneath the stretched canvas bonnets of each of the wagons, took stock of the cargo, then went to each driver and paid them in full. His words to the merchants were gracious, but a depth of resentment simmered beneath each one. The vultures. They all sensed his desperation. They claimed alignment to his cause, then immediately inflated their prices. They said the Days increased demand, said these were dangerous times and required more labor, said they knew he would understand. And he did understand. He understood that they were little more than carrion birds. Creatures gleeful of misfortune that wore the humble skin of men. Petty, scheming little beasts. It didn’t matter. He paid them whatever they asked. He paid them for the grain they brought, and for the barrels of fuel oil, or the casks of pitch. He paid them for the salted meats, dried fish, medicinal herbs, bandages, blades, shields, and a hundred other necessities. He paid them for their goods and he paid them for their secrecy. He needed both, no matter the cost.

When all was accounted for Cosmin walked back down the shadowed road and through the column of wagons and horses. He raised his good hand to signal the guards along the Barracks wall. They cried out to the gatehouse and in a moment a deep groaning filled the air as the stonewood gates heaved inward. An orange line of sun, violent against the soft grey shadows of the morning, broke from between the great doors. It spilled onto the street and widened as the doors widened. It cast itself in a halo around Cosmin and he held his hand up and squinted his eyes against it as he stepped towards the vast parade yard of the Barracks.

Hundreds of City Guard were stood at attention inside the yard, all bathed in the warm light of the morning sun. They stood in loose ranks, and immediately broke into action as the doors opened fully and the first of the wagons rolled across the threshold. The soldiers directed the merchants through the dusty yard and formed assembly lines to unload all of the goods.

The work was fast and precise, and overseen by a single man who stood stern and proud in the midst of the activity, like a stone rooted in a field of blowing grass. Soldiers and supplies and wagons buzzed around him, but he stood firm with his hands behind his back as they passed. The shadow of a guard tower stretched across the yard and the man stood beneath its darkness. The sun held no part of him, save a single sliver which crossed his face and touched upon his one good eye. A crimson patch covered the torn flesh of the other. A half-circle of men and women, each as stone faced as their leader, stood around the man. Cosmin approached the group, and they bowed to him as one.

“Lieutenant Redwyn,” Cosmin said. “A word?”

Adrian Redwyn nodded to his group and they dispersed into the yard. Cosmin noticed the crimson bands tied around each of their arms as they parted. “You’ve quite a following,” he said. “They’ve taken to wearing their Lieutenant’s colors.”

“I never asked it of them.”

“It’s become something of a rally symbol around here,” Cosmin said as he looked around the yard. He saw the small red bands on a number of the soldiers. “You’ve inspired them. You know what they call you, don’t you?”

“Redwyn the Miraculous,” Adrian said with a sad shake of his head.

Cosmin smiled. “Indeed,” he said.

“I did not ask for that either.”

“I’m sure you didn’t. But it isn’t every day that a man returns from death.”

“I wasn’t dead.”

“You were damn close, Adrian. Damn close.”

Captain Redwyn grunted. He watched the wagons as they were being unloaded. He counted them and frowned. “How many more wagons?” He asked.

“Six.”

“Not all grain, I take it.”

“No. Two of them need to head for the armory, you’ll see them. Another is for Doctor Halliwell.”

“Heavens hold her,” Adrian said. “I doubt the Guard have known a finer medic.”

“They haven’t,” Cosmin replied. “She’s the best there is. You know that better than anyone. You have her to thank for your life.”

“I’ve thanked her many times,” Adrian said. “Though it will never be enough.” He looked at Cosmin’s bandaged hand and gestured to it. “Seems you may need to see her as well.”

Cosmin turned the hand over and frowned at the wet, rusty stain that darkened it.

“I hope you made the bastards pay for that.”

Cosmin opened and closed his hand and turned it in the sunlight. He felt the tightening of the stitches, and the familiar burning pain beneath them. “They paid for it,” he said.

“I’d rather lose an eye than a hand,” Adrian said with a grin. “Can’t hold a sword without a hand. Can’t draw a bow.” He scratched at the skin beneath his patch.

Cosmin nodded.

“The Vacant are frenzied for some reason,” Adrian said. “One of my patrols nearly came to blows with them at the northern wall. Damn beasts don’t know their boundaries. They think they own the whole damn city.”

“During the Days they almost do,” Cosmin said.

“Well the Days don’t last forever. And we’re going to have one hell of a cleaning up once they’re done.”

“Yes we will. They won’t go back to their holes quietly.”

“I’m sure they won’t,” Adrian said. “And by heaven I look forward to it.” A wagon marked with a burning tree pierced by twin blades rolled into the courtyard. It was met by a heavyset, bearded soldier who led the horses by their reins towards the Barracks armoury. Adrian’s eye was fixed on the wagon. He opened his mouth to speak, but Cosmin didn’t give him the chance.

“We need to be prepared,” he said. “And provisioned.”

“Provisioned, yes. But this…” Adrian gestured to the flurry of activity in the courtyard. The gangs of City Guard unloading wagons, the stockpiles of supplies. “This is something else entirely. I know you keep your secrets Cosmin, but the Guard are starting to talk.”

“I’m sure they are. I know they need answers. But I can’t give them any if I don’t have them myself. I sent two Sovern scouts into the East when the torch arrived. Fast riders. With any luck they’ll be back tonight and I can address everyone at assembly tomorrow morning. You will all know what I know.”

“They were not the only riders that went out that night,” Adrian said.

“Is that a question, Lieutenant?”

“It’s a fact.”

“It is,” Cosmin said smiling. “You’ll make a good Commander someday, Adrian. Now that you’re back among the living. A good Commander knows the value of information. Yes, other riders went out. Four more of the Sovern. Hunters though, not scouts. I sent them West. I won’t say anything else about it. You don’t need to know everything.”

“Everything,” Adrian laughed. “I doubt even Petra knows everything.”

Cosmin didn’t reply. His attention was on a wagon with a red crescent moon painted along its bonnet. A line of soldiers pulled the last of the casks of pitch that it carried and the driver took up the reins and began to steer the wagon back towards the gate. Cosmin shouted across the yard after it. His voice stopped all the activity at once. Hundreds of pairs of eyes turned to watch him.

“Stop that wagon,” he ordered Adrian. “It stays here. So do all from Houses Oswulf and Nabor. Get the horses into the stables, and send the wagons for any repairs they need. I want them all working like new.”

“You have wagons now as well?”

“Fifteen in total.”

“And from Oswulf and Nabor… You’ve been calling in some favors, old friend.”

“They are aligned to our cause,” Cosmin said. “Now get them to repairs. Time is against us.”

Adrian watched Cosmin for a long moment. He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, then walked towards the departing wagon. Cosmin watched him go, then called to him once more. Adrian stopped and turned. The sun catching on the edges of his armor, tracing the crimson patch and the knotted scars around it.

“It’s good to have you back,” Cosmin said.

Adrian Redwyn smiled, though it was shrouded in some sadness Cosmin could not place. “This is where I belong,” he called back. “Here. Among the living.” And then he was swallowed up by the activity of the yard.

Cosmin had no time to consider the words. “Are you preparing for a war?” a voice asked from behind him.

He turned and saw Doctor Halliwell, her graying hair pulled to a bun on the back of her head, her white tunic missing several buttons and drifting open at the neck. She wiped her hands on a towel draped over her shoulder.

“I’m always preparing for a war,” Cosmin said.

Halliwell waved away the words. She reached out to his wounded hand and carefully turned it. “I saw you out here and figured I’d have to come to you,” she said. “Most people seek out a doctor when they’re hurt, you know?”

“It was days ago,” Cosmin said.

“Not from the looks of that bandage. Come on.”

Cosmin hesitated. He watched another wagon approaching through the gate. The crossed scythes of House Nabor were painted on its canopy.

“It won’t take long,” Halliwell said, sensing his hesitation. “You only need to see me if you want to keep your hand. I won’t insist on it.” She walked back towards the open archway of the clinic without looking behind her.

Cosmin sighed, and followed.

 

***

 

The hand was still sore and Cosmin winced as Halliwell removed the last of the bandages. They had clotted against the wound and stung as they were pulled away.

Halliwell was frowning and making no attempt to hide her disgust from Cosmin. He followed her gaze to his hand and frowned as well. The wounds were ragged, and crossed the full width of his hand. Halliwell’s stitches, just days old, stood out black and stark against the red swelling of his palm.

Halliwell made a dissatisfied clicking with her tongue, then bent down and sniffed at the hand like a dog searching a muddy yard.

“Does it smell?” Cosmin asked.

“Yes,” Halliwell said. “It smells sour, and in need of washing.”

“Any infection?”

“No, but you aren’t out of danger yet. Are you taking the predelle I gave you?”

“Twice a day,” Cosmin said. “It tastes like death.”

“Did you hear that, Brinn?” Halliwell called down through the empty clinic.

Brinn poked his head from around the corridor. “Hear what?” he called.

“The Commander find your tincture unappetizing.”

The clinic alchist came into full view and walked down the hallway between rows of cots. His tunic was pristine, his hair tight cropped around his cherubic face. “Well there’s a reason we boil it in wine first,” he said as he approached. “But no fire means no boiling, and that means you have to chew it raw.”

“It’s foul stuff,” Cosmin said.

“Well,” Brinn said. “You only have to take it if—”

“If I want to keep the hand,” Cosmin said as Halliwell mouthed the along with the words. “Yes I’ve heard that already.”

“Feisty this morning, isn’t he?” Brinn said to Halliwell.

“Always,” Halliwell said. “And yes, Commander, it is foul stuff. But it’ll keep you from getting infected.” She turned the hand again and dabbed at the wounds with a cloth. Cosmin sucked in a hard breath.

“How is it?” he asked.

“Not bad. But not too good either. One of the cuts reopened. I’ll need to stitch it back up.”

“Fuck.”

“I told you not to use the hand.”

“I haven’t.”

“Yes you have,” Brinn said. “That’s why it opened back up.”

Cosmin glared at the man. Brinn let out an exasperated breath and went back down the hall.

“He’s right,” Halliwell said. “You need to keep this hand in your damn pocket. Otherwise it will never heal. You aren’t young anymore Cosmin. You have to take better care of your body. Keep the hand dry and in your pocket, and keep taking the predelle. Give it another week or two. How’s the pain?”

“Bearable.”

“Brinn can give you some opelum. It will help.”

“Keep it,” Cosmin said. “How are your supplies?”

Halliwell laughed. She called down the hallway, “How are our supplies, Brinn?”

“We should be fine for a decade or so,” Brinn said without turning.

“At least,” Halliwell said to Cosmin. “You’re stocking my clinic like you’re preparing us for a siege. I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me why.”

“I’m preparing us for the worst.”

“For the Congregation?”

Cosmin ignored the question. “I have a bad feeling, Layne. I don’t like to get caught off-guard. The stockpile is a precaution. I’ve taken several.”

“Well I don’t like you taking them for me. This is my clinic, Cosmin, not yours. If there is something I need to prepare for then I need to know what it is. You’re unloading supplies on me like the whole damn city is going to be coming here. You know that there are other clinics in Mayfaire, right? Not just this one.”

“You know that you’re different,” Cosmin said.

Halliwell shook her head. She stood and walked over to a cabinet and began digging through its contents. She returned with new bandages, thread, a long needle, and a bottle of clear liquid. She set them neatly on the cot next to Cosmin.

“No alcohol in the city during the Days,” she said as she uncorked the bottle. “But I don’t think the Vacant will find their way into the Barracks do you?”

The smell of the alethia penetrated deep into Cosmin’s head, forcing him to cough.

“You can thank your wife’s sister for this particular brew,” Halliwell said.

“You got it from Dace? By heaven, be careful with it then. It could burn right through me.”

“That hand needs the strong stuff, trust me. Now hold still.”

She held a cloth under his hand and poured the liquid on the torn wound. The pain was immediate. Cosmin clenched his jaw and kept silent.

“Well that should teach you to not grab the sharp end of a weapon. Honestly I don’t know what you were thinking.”

“I wasn’t thinking,” Cosmin grunted.

“You’re too old to fight. You know that. Now stop wiggling.” She snipped the torn stitch away from the swollen hand and pulled it through the edges of the wound. Her hands moved remarkably fast and precise as she worked. There was a sureness to the movements, a familiarity. “I can have Brinn give you the opelum,” she said. “It works fast.”

“Save it. Just get this over with.”

She nodded, and set about closing the wound. “I saw you talking with Adrian,” she said. “How is he?”

“Alive, thanks to you.”

Halliwell worked silently, not taking her eyes from the work. “How does he seem to you?”

“Arrogant and stern,” Cosmin said with a grin of pride. “Same as he always was.”

“You don’t think he’s changed at all?”

“I saw him smile briefly,” Cosmin said. “I suppose that’s something new. Why do you ask?”

Halliwell hesitated. “No reason,” she said at last.

Cosmin watched the needle for a few seconds then turned to stare out the window. He winced silently at each stitch. “I’ve never known a stronger man than Adrian Redwyn,” Cosmin said. “To defeat death like he did. To pull himself back from the edge of it by willpower alone. Such incredible strength… such conviction. If I had a hundred soldiers like him I could storm the Pale City. I could topple the Spire itself.”

“I’d wait for this hand to heal first,” Halliwell said as she snipped the long ends from the waxed thread and inspected the stitches. She nodded at her work, then began to wrap the hand in a new bandage. “And I’d be careful placing so much hope on a single person. Adrian is an inspiration, I’ll give you that, but he is still only a man.”

“He is unafraid of death,” Cosmin said. “And that makes him more than a man. Especially in these times. It takes away any power the faith can have. It makes him a true enemy of the Spire.”

Halliwell was silent. She finished wrapping the bandages and tucked the end to keep it from falling loose. She opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it. She held Cosmin’s bandaged hand for a quick moment, and turned it to inspect the wrapping. She did so delicately, like a mother checking that her child’s shirt is tucked in, then patted the back of the hand. “Keep it dry,” she said. “And keep it in your pocket. Let those young men do the lifting.”

Cosmin smiled and thanked her. He rose and put the bandaged hand in his coat pocket. He exaggerated the gesture, and winked at the doctor.

“Very good,” Halliwell said, though she didn’t smile.

“I’ll do my best to keep it there,” Cosmin said. He left the clinic and Halliwell rose from the cot as he did so. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes questioning. She stepped to a deep window between the rows of empty cots and stared into the parade yard outside. Lieutenant Redwyn stood in the far distance, a dark shape outlined among the dust and the sun. His back was to Halliwell. She watched him and watched him. She didn’t hear Brinn as he approached.

“Bad news?” the man asked.

“Hmmm?”

“You only stare out the window like that after bad news. What did Commander Aurel say?”

“It’s just…” Halliwell started before shaking her head.

Brinn’s face darkened with concern. “Tell me,” he said.

“I think about that night a lot…”

“We all do,” Brinn said, his voice dropping quiet.

“We have a strange profession. Do you realize that? Our actions, here in this clinic, exist at the edge of so many possible futures. We hold the knife. We dictate life and death, right here, in these rooms. We stand at the intersections.”

Brinn had no words in response. He shifted uncomfortably and brushed at his tunic sleeve.

“Adrian Redwyn should have died that night,” Halliwell said. “It was one of the only times I’ve ever made a decision like that. One of the only times I’ve interfered in the natural way of things, and that isn’t something I take lightly, you know. Not at all. There was just no possible future for Adrian Redwyn except one of suffering. He was nothing but a corpse. All broken and bleeding, his mind gone… and you gave him enough opellum to kill an ox.”

Brinn swallowed. “And here he stands,” he said.

“Indeed he does. Here he stands. And do you know what Cosmin said? He said that Adrian was healed by his own will. He said Adrian didn’t fear death and his fearlessness is what saved him.”

“Well that’s not even a little true is it?”

Halliwell shook her head. She brought a hand up to her face and held her cheek. “I’ve never known a man so terrified of dying. Never.”

“I was there,” Brinn said.

“And so was Cosmin.”

“Yeah, well… Sometimes we only see what we want to see.”

“I know,” Halliwell said. “And I think that’s what has me worried. Cosmin has placed so much hope on Adrian. So much hope… I’m afraid it’s blinded him.”

“Not just him,” Brinn said. “It’s been all of us. You and me included. It’s been incredible seeing him heal… just incredible. Seeing someone return from the brink of death like that. It’s miraculous.”

“But do you believe in miracles, Brinn?”

“I know that there are things we can’t explain.”

“Cosmin thinks it was will power. He thinks it was fearlessness and determination. But we both know that just wasn’t true. Adrian Redwyn was beyond hope. He was slipping away. All he could think about, all he could talk about, was death. And then that disease took hold of his mind and all he could do was babble and cry. All night long… Like it was eating him up. Just pleading to an empty room…”

“A lot of dying people talk to themselves when they’re at the end,” Brinn said. “They talk to themselves, or to loved ones who aren’t there, or to an empty room.”

“I know that. So I dismissed it. We all did. And then there was that awful night… He was just so far gone. Absolutely lost to us… and then he just started to heal. You call it a miracle, but damn it I don’t believe in miracles. But I just accepted it. How could I not? I was beyond happy. We all were. Just ecstatic. We celebrated his recovery and then we all moved happily on with our lives. New recruits for the Guard, the clinic expansion… life just moved on… But we never stopped to think about how he survived. I know it wasn’t my treatments.”

“So what do you think it was?”

“I’m afraid to even say it.”

Brinn opened his mouth to speak, but Halliwell jerked her hand up and silenced him. “I know how that sounds, Brinn. And so help me if you keep looking at me like a crazy old woman I’ll boot you right out into the yard. Something brought Adrian Redwyn back from death and it wasn’t me and it wasn’t you. It wasn’t will power or fearlessness, or whatever Cosmin has allowed himself to believe. We can’t be so blind. We just can’t. He was pleading to the darkness when he was dying. He was begging for his life.”

“And now he lives,” Brinn said.

“Yes,” Halliwell said. “And now he lives.”

“And you’re worried that Redwyn is… somehow tainted? But you know that he isn’t. We checked his blood five times. His eye is clear. If he was given the Angel’s blood we would certainly know.”

“I know…” Halliwell said. “Something just doesn’t feel right about it. It never has. And now the Congregation is coming early…”

Brinn was silent. The room was silent as well and in the silence his mind wandered to dark, unfathomable places. “We checked…” he said. “No one said it, but we were all worried and we checked. His blood is clear. Whatever you’re worried about…”

“I’m worried about what he was saying to that empty room when he was dying,” Halliwell said. “He was begging for his life. Begging for it. And…”

“And what?”

Halliwell turned to face Brinn. All humor gone from her face, her eyes pleading. “What if something heard him?” she said. “We don’t know everything that lives in the Pale City. What if something was listening to him beg… And what if it answered back?”

9 – Morning Star

Six riders head out from the Sovern Lodge, four run the forbidden roads to the west. They wait until they are far beyond the sight of the city to light their torches. They breach the far borders of the New Forest and set out among the Barrens. One carries a letter.

In the east two scouts race along the Pilgrim Road. They ride lean and harried, tucked against their horses. They are they eyes of Mayfaire, the eyes of Cosmin, and they make for the Holy Lands. The stars are fading in the eastern sky above them. The moon is in decline.

In Mayfaire there is only a faint cusp of grey on the horizon. It is dim, but the brightening sky tells of the dawn and of the sun. And the city turns to it and waits.

The light does not spread to the Reaches. Here the night seems endless. Here it is dark and rank. Forever rotting. The air is wet and stale and stays so even with a breeze. Insects swarm. The sewers are overflowing. The day’s first light seems held forever away.

 

***

 

Osyth stood watching the district spread out before him. Deep lines of worry on his face. Broken piles of stained glass at his feet. Such misery. He flipped a piece of the glass with his toe then bent and picked it up and held it against the moonlight. The face of a golden and smiling sun lay rendered in the glass, edged in deepest blue. A broken sun in a midnight sky. He threw it back to the ground.

An empty temple rose behind him, a hulking building all ringed in archways and stone buttresses that reached spiderlike to the wide and desolate plaza beyond. Osyth stood framed in the grand doorway of the temple. Cool air drifted from the building, some draft conjured from the enormity of the rooms within and it caressed and caught in his robes. It carried with it the temple’s scent of incense and the heavy lingering musk of thousands of unwashed bodies. All the scents of the faithful. Osyth was thankful for it. It was a true scent, and pure. A relief from the miasma he endured in the streets of the Reaches.

Those unwholesome streets and their buildings knotted like the hives of unhealthy insects. The vileness of them.

“This is not the city it is supposed to be,” he said to the lingering night.

The words roused a sleeping Jeremiah. He crept from a dark crevice in one of the temple antechambers and stood and stretched and shook himself before trotting to the entryway. He saw Osyth silhouetted within the pitched frame of the door. He went to him and nudged him on the arm. Osyth did not turn.

“Not now, my friend,” Osyth said. “I would prefer these moments alone.”

Jeremiah huffed and slid back into the shadows.

A howling came from the streets and with it came the dark shapes of the Vacant. There were three of them, and they broke from the wall of buildings and came scurrying down a pale granite road that cut across the plaza. They carried a body between them, bound and struggling. Osyth watched as they approached then stood tall as they dropped to their knees on the stairs below him.

“This way,” he said. He turned and walked into the shadowed building and the Vacant followed with their prize.

The room had once been a small chapterhouse that extended from the rear of the temple nave. It was round and without windows and the curving stone of the walls reached up to the bones of a once exquisite ceiling. Deep carved arches of stonewood were laced into a pitched crown high above the floor. They held true, but in support of nothing. Broken plaster and a glittering of mosaic was still stuck to their edges, but the rest of the old ceiling lay heaped about the floor. Whatever pattern once held in the tiles had been long since shattered, forever lost, though now a new design, one of a faint predawn sky, was caught in the polished scattering of the tiles and reflected a thousand times among the rubble. There was little in the room besides.

Osyth entered and the Vacant followed. They dropped their burden to the ground and it winced as they did so.

“Careful,” Osyth said, but the Vacant only tilted their heads at the word.

“Is good, lord?” one of the Vacant growled through clicking teeth.

Osyth walked to the kneeling figure and pulled the shroud from its head. Strands of dirty brown hair rose with the hood then fell across the frightened face of a young man, bound and gagged. His eyes shining silver in the moonlight.

“Poor thing,” Osyth said as he knelt before the man and brushed the hair from his face. “Look at me, child. Do you know who I am?”

It took the man a moment, but he nodded furiously.

“Then you know that you’ve no reason to cry out when I take this gag from your mouth. You are quite safe here.”

The man hesitated. He looked at the three standing Vacant, their hunched shoulders and slavering mouths, then back to Osyth. He nodded once more, reluctant.

Osyth reached behind the man’s head and untied the knot of the gag. Once it was removed he stayed kneeling. He looked into the man’s eyes and saw himself reflected in them, two dark patches in the dirty silver of the man’s eyes, frail shadows beneath the stars. He smiled, and the man smiled with him. He untied the bindings that held the man’s hands then gestured for him to rise. The man stood and Osyth waited until he was standing before he rose as well. He towered above the man. He turned to the Vacant as they paced behind him.

“You may leave us,” Osyth said, and the Vacant crept from the room with their heads bowed. Jeremiah growled from somewhere in the temple as they passed, then slid into the chapterhouse. He walked in a small tight circle, then walked it again, before folding his limbs neatly beneath his body and nestling down with his side pressed against the curve of the wall. He stared at the man for a moment, then turned away to rest his head on a piece of tiled plaster. He took a deep sighing breath.

The man watched Jeremiah. He shuddered at the beast’s movements. Osyth place his hands on the man’s shoulders and smiled again. “You are quite safe here,” he said again.

The man dropped his head. “Of course, my lord. Of course.”

“Tell me your name.”

“Veric, my lord.”

“It is good to meet you, Veric. You may call me Osyth.”

The man nodded again, but kept his eyes on the floor. He rubbed his wrists where they had been tied. “If… If I done some harm against you my lord—I mean Osyth. If I done anything against you I—I just can’t say… I live only for the Angel and his blessings sir. My life is God’s life and if I done some harm…”

Osyth laughed, warm and friendly. He shook his head. “Dear Veric you have done nothing. It is I who need to apologize to you. I asked those foul things to be gentle, but they have no idea of the word. You’re sure they haven’t hurt you?”

The look of terror would not leave the man’s face. He trembled. “Not hurt sir, just a bit thrown.”

“Good. Do you know why you’re here?”

“No sir. For the love of the Spire I’ve no idea.”

Osyth smiled. “And neither do I,” he said. “Not yet. I only asked the Vacant to find someone of faith. I gave them no other instruction. I left the rest to the will of God… and they found you. Of the tens of thousands you are the one they brought. And you are faithful, aren’t you? I can see the shine in your eyes. You’ve taken Vellah’s communion. You belong to him.”

“I do, sir. My heart and my soul. I love the Angel Vellah. Love him with all I have.”

Osyth watched the man for a long moment. “And does he deserve your love?” he said at last.

Veric’s eyes went huge. He did not answer.

“I would like to speak openly with you,” Osyth said. “And I would ask you speak openly to me in return. Can you do that?”

“Aye.” The word was barely above a whisper.

“Good. You are important to me, Veric. I need you to know what’s in my heart. What’s in my soul. It is important for what is to come next. I must speak to you without fear, and you must do the same for me. Fear keeps us quiet. It keeps our wilder thoughts hidden. Keeps us caged. I wish to be free of that tonight. I have much on my mind.”

“You can say anything to me, sir. I daren’t speak a word of it to no one.”

“Of course you won’t. Of course. I’d like you to tell me something first though.”

“Anything, sir. Anything at all.”

“I’d like you to tell me about the Reaches.”

“What would you have me tell?”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty two, sir.”

“Stop calling me ‘sir,’ Veric. My name is Osyth.”

“Sorry… Osyth.”

“Twenty two… And you’ve lived here your entire life?”

“Aye, near every breath of it.”

“Was it a good place to grow up? Did you know any kindness?”

“It…” Veric hesitated. He looked to the ground.

“Be honest with me.”

“It used to be better. Now it’s an awful place… if I’m to say the truth of it.” He raised his face to Osyth’s and saw nothing but a gentleness in the Ambassador’s eyes, an urging to continue. “People here is mean,” he said. “So you get mean to match. Lots of fighting. Lots of cruelty. The rules here are hard, and the Vacant watch you, sure as anything they watch you. They’ve eyes and a nose for sin.”

“And what of the rest of Mayfaire? Do you ever venture out to the rest of the city?”

“I been out sometimes, sure. Draped a blanket and pretended to be a beggar, or gone out at night. It’s hard to do it. The rest of them in this city looks at us like thieves. They don’t like us, not a bit, so you have to hide.”

“And what did you see?”

“The rest of the city ain’t like the Reach. Not even a bit. There’s people laughing. There’s music… they live like kings, but they’re none of them saved by the blood. They’re all damned. And we can’t be wanting after the damned. There’s sin in that… in wanting like that.”

“But you do want it, don’t you? A better life.”

Veric hesitated.

“I’m not here to judge or condemn you.”

Veric shrugged. “Sure I want fine food. Sure I do. And a warm place in the night. No fights, not havin’ things stole… Sure. But that’s our lot here, ain’t it? That’s our price for what’s next.”

“And what is that?”

Disbelief crossed Veric’s face. He looked as if he couldn’t understand the question. “Paradise,” he said at last. “That’s what. A life with the Angels. A life that don’t end in death.”

Osyth was silent for a long time. He watched Veric, looked deep into his eyes. When he finally spoke the words were hoarse. “I hate what the Reaches have become. I can say that with honesty. They are nothing like they should be. Nothing at all. I’ve been coming here for forty-two years. Ever since the First Congregation and every Census that followed. Forty-two years. And when I first came I was amazed at what I saw. Simply astounded. This city fell to the edge of ruin, you know. Mayfaire was abandoned after the Spire fell. Completely abandoned. I arrived here decades after the first settlers came back. They saved this city from oblivion. It is truly amazing, the tenacity to do that. The fire that it takes to reforge a broken city. And to do it all without the love or knowledge of God. Without the promise of immortality. I never understood that. How extraordinary to strive for greatness knowing that you will die and be forgotten. How truly extraordinary.” He shook his head. “This district was once the home of artists and musicians and scholars. Did you know that?”

“No, sir.”

“It was. This very temple was a great library once. It held nothing but lies from the old world, but it was beautiful. The entire district was beautiful. A place of grand design. It’s funny to think of it that way. It was beautiful when I first arrived and it was beautiful when I left. And every time I have returned I see it fall further and further into decay until now it is a place so foul I can hardly recognize it.”

“The Reach is a mean place,” Veric said. “Mean as they come, but it’s holy. These streets belong to God.”

“They do, Veric. They belong to God. This entire world belongs to God. But you are not seeing God’s work here. You are seeing the work of the Angel Vellah.”

“Aye, but God speaks through him.”

“Does he though? I once thought that the suffering in this city was a necessary suffering. That it is the crucible through which devotion is formed. The only road to salvation. So I became blind to it. I accepted it as the path to grace. This is Vellah’s belief and it became my belief as well. It is the rock on which he has built his cities, and they have all suffered the same. They are all wretched and falling apart. The buildings, the streets, and the people to match.”

Osyth turned from Veric and looked up to the dark sky that showed through the arches of the ceiling. Stars still hung there, clustered in the dark at the western rim. Osyth watched them for a long time. Veric watched as well though he did not know what he was looking for.

“Something happened to me in the Holy Lands,” Osyth said at last. “Something divine. A true miracle. And now I wonder if it changed the way I see the world or if the world has always been this way and I had not the eyes to see it… It always comes down to the eyes, doesn’t it? I wonder how I would see the streets of Vennath now. I’ve always thought of those streets as a true reflection of faith, but I wonder if they would also be foul. And what of the Pale City itself… I wonder. I wonder…” He turned from the stars and looked at Veric. The man was holding his hands in a knot at his stomach. “Do you believe in providence?” Osyth asked. “Do you understand that word?”

“I… I believe in God. Nothing else.”

“Then do you know why God placed you here before me? You, and no other.”

“No, sir.”

“Because you were meant to be here. Right now. Just at this moment. And here you are.”

“Yes, sir.”

Osyth laughed. “Yes indeed,” he said. “The Vacant are such foul things. Hardly a touch of the Spire left in them, and yet even they can be Its instruments. Do you know how they came to be? Do you know what they are?”

“Aye, they’re murderers. They all killed somebody. That’s the one thing you can’t do. All sorts of reasons to kill someone I figure, but don’t none of them matter. You kill and you get pushed out of the Reach. No way around it. Only way back is to pray to them priests in the Pale City. Repent to them and if they listen you can come back Vacant. Vellah forgives you then. He loves you again like you was never wrong.”

“They take all of their blood,” Osyth said. “Did you know that? That’s how it’s done. Every drop. Vellah is in that blood. And when the blood is all gone the bond is broken. Most people die… and they all lose their minds. Every single one. You don’t realize how your soul comes to depend on the Angel’s presence, and when it’s gone… It’s like taking the sun out of the sky.”

“I can understand that, sir.”

Osyth smiled. “And why is that?”

“Because they’s life in the communion. And health. The Reach is nasty but you’ll not find anyone sick here. Not a one. And people live long. There’s a man I know is well over a hundred. He remembers the city before the Spire even. He was old when he took communion and he’s still here. Others too. The Angel’s blood does that.”

“Yes it does. It also twists people’s minds. It makes them cruel. It pollutes the souls of the people it touches. It infests them.”

“But the blood’s in me,” Veric said. “And I ain’t cruel.”

“No, you are not. And you are young and strong, and your mind is your own. You are very rare, Veric. You are the providence of God and that foul beast Vellah does not deserve your love.”

Veric took a step backward. “I—” he started. He looked at Osyth, at the gentle face, then he looked to the door. “My lord Osyth… Vellah is an angel of the Spire. This city belongs to him.”

Osyth stepped forward. “Vellah is an abomination,” he said, all humor gone from his voice. “He is lost.”

Jeremiah stirred.

“That’s heresy…” Veric said, his words quivering. “Heresy like I never heard.”

“Yes it is. The Vacant would punish me for it, wouldn’t they? Would you like to call them back? Would you like to see what Jeremiah will do to them if they come near me with their clubs?”

Veric stood slack jawed. He started to speak then stopped himself.

Osyth folded his hands behind his back. He stepped away and softened his voice. “Be calm, Veric. I said I wanted to speak to you openly, freely, and that is what I’m doing. I know it is hard to hear. You are faithful and the Spire loves you for that. You are also misguided, and that is something that no one wants to hear. Tell me something, how old were you when you took the pilgrimage?”

“I… I was very young. I don’t remember much of it.”

“Do you remember how many children arrived with you at the gates of Vennath?”

Veric paused. “Seven, I’d guess. We left with more, but that’s how many survived the road.”

“And how many came back with you?”

“Just three of us. Me and a boy and a girl. They was brother and sister if I remember.”

“And do you know what happened to the others?”

Veric hesitated. “They weren’t meant for the communion,” he said. “They weren’t worthy of it.”

“Vellah ate them,” Osyth said. “He always eats a few, and he eats them alive. He starts at the feet because he enjoys the screaming. What do you think of that?”

Veric was silent.

“Is that the blood you want wrapped around your soul? Tell me.”

Veric could only stare. Osyth placed his hand on the man’s shoulder.

“There is no divinity in that. There is no grace at the end of that suffering. It is cruelty and nothing besides. And it is the only thing I will share with you, though it is not the worst. Vellah’s faith is gone. The love of the Spire is corrupted inside of him. It’s changing him into something awful, and his flock is changing with him.”

Veric looked at his own arms. Turned them in the faint light. He looked at the lines of the veins, dark against the skin. He shook his head slowly. He swallowed. “It don’t always feel right,” he said at last, the words quiet. “Not for me at least. I don’t ever say nothing about that. And I remember that city and it didn’t feel right either. There was dark things there. The streets and buildings were all so clean and pretty but there was dark things. Some of em just walking out in the daylight. It didn’t feel holy. It sure didn’t. But what could you do? There ain’t no world for me but this one. And I’ve the communion in me now. I can’t take that back.” He looked up Osyth. “I never had no choice to begin with.”

Osyth looked at the man. He shook his head slowly. “No you didn’t,” he said. “But you have a choice now.” He stepped close. He looked into Veric’s eyes. “Tell me, what color were your eyes before the communion? Do you remember?”

“Aye. They were blue, same as my sister’s. Blue like the sky.”

“Would you like to see those eyes again? To see who you are without the Angel? I can reveal that man to you. I can bring him back. I believe that is why you are here tonight. That is why God brought you to me. That is the choice you have.”

“You can take away the communion?”

“I believe I can, by the grace of God. Do you want that?”

He looked once more at his arms. “Yes,” he whispered.

“Look at me, Veric.”

The man brought his gaze to Osyth and looked into the Ambassador’s eyes. They were pale grey, only just kissed with a metallic shimmer. They were kind, honest eyes. Trusting and wholesome. And as Veric watched they shifted from that pale grey to a familiar sky blue.

Veric opened his mouth to speak, but his throat was locked tight. His eyes grew wide. He began to claw at the air and then the hands turned back and he tore at his shirt and the skin beneath it.

 

***

 

Osyth saw the map of the body laid out before him and he guided himself along it. He walked upon the land of flesh and bone, he swam through the maze of nerves. He saw the eddies of blood and the pounding of the heart and he drifted within them. He listened. He tested the currents, felt their rhythms and harmonies and found a concert in balance. Only it was not a perfect balance. There was a hint of dischord in the notes. Some key within the music that was off pitch and out of tune, something screaming when all else sang. Osyth heard it and in the hearing it coalesced and he knew it to be the ache of Vellah’s blood. Opalescent and swimming dark. An abhorrent galaxy of its own that pierced and suckled upon all it could touch and once Osyth found it the rest of the inner world went dark and misted beneath him. He held the blood. Gripped it all invisibly and entirely and held it and somewhere far in the darkness he heard the drum of the heart speeding up and the cords of slippery muscles as they tensed. Tendons stretching taut. And somewhere far, far away he heard a screaming. It started in pain then turned wild and braying. Screaming and laughing and crying all at once and it rose and rose and then there was a ripping of skin and a far distant smell of iron. Osyth ignored it. He tore at the Angel’s blood and split it from all its rooting. He found the edges of the body and opened new lines to the cold outer world and he pulled the foul blood of Vellah like worms from the soil.

 

***

 

Veric was screaming and screaming. His chest and face and head were clawed in rough raking lines and hands were full of blood and skin and clumps of his own hair and the nails of the hands were driven deep into his palms. His jaw clenched on his tongue and snipped it clean off and the blood filled his mouth and poured from his chin and his screams were bubbled and wet. He snapped at the air like a chained ape. The teeth clacking shut over and over. He caught his lip and more blood flew and he screamed and soon he was nothing but biting and gnashing and screaming.

Jeremiah held him by the wrists and ankles. He had seen the man’s body go rigid and the hands begin to claw and he sped to Osyth’s side then swept behind the crazed man and held him. Blood spattered along his hands and arms. He growled and cried out to Osyth.

The sound reached somewhere deep in Osyth’s mind and his eyes shifted from that fair sky blue to their own grey. It took him a moment to understand what he was seeing. Veric was in the throes of a violent fit, held aloft by a whining Jeremiah. There was a dark shining pool at the man’s feet and lines of the same fluid were running from cuts across his neck and thighs and from the undersides of his arms.

Osyth took a step towards Veric and Jeremiah whined as he did so.

“Keep a hold of him,” Osyth said as he came close. He looked into the man’s eyes and saw that the shine had left them.

Veric tried biting at Osyth’s face. He was babbling and crying out and the hair and eyes and teeth all unhinged and there was little there but madness and pain.

Osyth frowned. He peered into the man once more. His grey eyes gone blue to match and he saw the map of the body stretched before him once again and something was alive and explosive within the man’s skull. A lighting storm flickering along the tangles of the brain and the core of the storm so bright it didn’t flash at all but only burned with some cosmic intensity like the heart of a violent sun. Osyth found this and he held it and peered within its webs to the places where the storm seemed to stem and he snipped at them. He darkened them with razor flicks of his will and soon the light was calm. Soon it was pulsing steady, relaxed. No longer a maelstrom. Now only a calm and soothing tide.

Veric eased in Jeremiah’s grip. A line of bloody drool ran down the side of his mouth. A faint grin was spread upon his face.

Osyth’s eyes swam back to grey. He stepped back. He looked to Veric.

“Let him go,” he said to Jeremiah, and the beast opened all of his hands and Veric stood there on his own, his arms still held out far to his sides as though waiting for an embrace.

“Veric?” Osyth said. “Can you hear me?”

The man mouthed some slow dumb words, but they were lost and gibbering, barely a moan.

Jeremiah grunted and slid out his own tongue and pointed to it then pointed down to the ground. Osyth followed and saw Veric’s cloven tongue there among the shining darkness of the Angel’s blood. He frowned. He knelt and looked at the pool on the ground. He didn’t dare touch it.

“Did any of this get on you?” he asked Jeremiah.

The beast held his limbs in the moonlight and looked them over. He shook his head.

“Good.”

Osyth looked at Veric a long time. He walked to the man, as close as he could without stepping in the puddle. The eyes were sky blue, even in the dawning grey light, but there was nothing there of the man besides. Nothing but a grinning waxen face and a body swaying soft on bloody legs.

Tears filled Osyth’s eyes. He couldn’t keep them away. He looked upon the gift that God had seen fit to place before him. A feeble, empty thing. A soul lost entirely.

“Oh Veric,” he whispered. “What have I done?”

Veric only stood and grinned. His eyes were fixed on the wall at his side or perhaps to something far beyond them. They were rolled and gawking, nearly all the white exposed. They seemed to register nothing. The brows raised high. The mouth moving up and down without sound or comprehension.

“Poor soul,” Osyth said. “Poor, poor soul. Have I stolen you away?”

Veric blinked slowly. A few strands of hair were caught in the eyelashes and Osyth brushed them away. He touched the man’s cheek.

“Can you not even look at me?”

The eyes snapped to Osyth. Fast and deliberate. They locked on him and held.

Osyth faltered. He stepped away and the eyes followed. He stepped to the right and the eyes moved to match. They were empty and dumb, but seemed governed by some hollow will.

“Look at Jeremiah.”

The eyes jumped again, straight to Jeremiah. The beast growled.

“The floor.”

And they went.

“Now to the sky.”

Veric bent his head slightly and the eyes shot to the ceiling and he stared blind beyond the arches.

“Put your arms down.”

He did so.

More tears fell down Osyth’s face. He wiped at them with the edge of his sleeve. Jeremiah circled behind him and whined from over his shoulder. “My God…” Osyth said. “My God.”

 

***

 

The sun breached the horizons of the brightening East. It spilled over the grasses of the Wastes. It spread through the heaping deadfall of the Barrens then crested the canopy of the New Forest. It chased away the night and the stars and the moon and tinted the grey eastern sky in pink and gold. Finally it touched upon the waking heights of Mayfaire.

One of the Vacant watched the sunrise from the center of the Colosseum plaza. She stood alone, her head tilted to the sky. Blood on her hands and face. She held the broken ankle of a man dragged from the cold forges above Riverside, a man who had died hours before, though the Vacant did not know it. He died even before she had cracked his ankles, long before the rough stones of the city streets scraped the hair and skin clean from the back of his head as he was dragged. A streak of blood lay in her wake and there were similar streaks painted throughout the city. They all led to the colosseum.

Below the market of the High Circle a small gathering of Vacant congregated to investigate the stench of their own blood. The alley was clean, but the smell lingered and they pawed at the ground and brought their noses to it and breathed deep of the damp stones. They growled, and spoke in rough barks to one another. Something had happened. Some sin had fouled the alley, but it was one they could not trace.

A solitary figure watched them, perched among the rooftops.

The sun rose higher in the sky. It settled on the tops of the four watchtowers along the eastern edge of the wall where the City Guard still held their patrols. Each tower held a watcher, and each watcher sat in reverie of the sun.

A trindlebacked woman stood in the belltower of the Colosseum, a thick rope clutched in her hands. Her back was to the dawn and the western sky reflected in her dull shining eyes. A great bell filled the tower beside her, shifting imperceptibly in the morning breeze. She watched the edge of the Colosseum without blinking, eyes fixed upon the arches that crowned there. She waited. Her heart pounding in her chest. The sun crept higher. An orange sliver of it touched upon the highest edge of the arches and the woman saw it and heaved down on the rope with all of her weight. Her hearing was shattered years ago, but she could feel the pressure in the air when the bell began to ring. It collided against her in waves, beating harder and faster as she wrenched the rope again and again.

The tolling of the Dawn Bell rang across the city, and life began to stir.

It began in the Reaches. The ringing echoed along its failing streets, doors creaked open, and the faithful poured out into the cold morning air. Most had not slept at all the night before, compelled instead to stay awake in huddled prayer. They filled the streets of the Reaches, and soon a great swelling of bodies reached the city’s arterial roads like streams draining to a river. The South Road and the Second Circle filled entirely, and the current ambled slowly towards the Colosseum.

Osyth emerged from the temple and crossed the empty plaza. Jeremiah strode at his side and behind them walked Veric. He stood tall and proud. His steps were sure.

The faithful shivered in the cold air. They pulled wool blankets and threadbare robes over their shoulders and looked up at the warm light crawling down the heights of the Colosseum and waited for its warmth to reach them. Their eyes glimmered in the dawn. They recited prayers under their breath as they walked through the city. They passed the shuttered stalls of the Lower Market, and the noble houses and tended gardens of the Circle. They traveled beneath the watching parapets of the Barracks where sentries from the City Guard leered at them in open contempt. They moved slowly, purposefully, and they all rept towards the Colosseum.

Osyth, Jeremiah, and Veric walked at their heart. The crowd parted before them and when they saw who stood in their midst they all dropped to the ground. Osyth did not stop them or tell them to rise. The three walked along the waking streets and crossed the Colosseum plaza and passed through the golden tunnel that led to the arena floor. The crowd swarmed behind them. They swarmed the archways that lined the Colosseum’s sides and stumbled through the building’s inner dark before filing out to the rows upon rows of benches. They pressed against one another, all facing a great mountainous throne that rose impossibly high from the arena floor. They cowered beneath a vast and mighty statue that stood at its peak.

The Colossus of Vellah was a masterpiece. It was rendered in marble and stood as tall as any building in Mayfaire. It depicted Vellah as beautiful and strong and perfectly human. His face was concealed beneath a many-horned helm though enough of it was exposed to show the hard jawline, the full lips. He was clad in a scaled suit of armor and a cloak was draped over his shoulders, the wrinkles of which were so perfectly rendered that they looked soft to the touch. The Angel’s hands were bare, and one was placed upon the hilt of a sheathed sword. The other reached towards the heavens, the palm upturned, the fingers slightly bent, as if he were receiving a gift from above. The gesture was one of loving, of longing, and it had always stopped Osyth in his tracks.

He stared at it now. It was a masterpiece, and it was of his own design. He had personally overseen its creation, bringing in the most skilled artisans from the Pale City to realize his vision. The artisans had worked for over two years, suffering every wrinkle and fold, and when they were finally finished they had created a picture of Vellah so beautiful and mighty that any who looked upon it felt overcome with the Angel’s glory. A statue so divine that it would galvanise the city of Mayfaire and show them a pure vision of their lord, and the truth of the Spire’s grace.

The statue of Vellah was magnificent. It was perfect in every way.

It was also a lie. For the fierce figure that crowned the throne of Mayfaire, the benevolent warrior king that stared into the heavens with love and conquest in his heart, was not a rendering of the Angel Vellah at all.

It was a statue of Osyth. And he walked the great height of stairs that led to its feet and once there he turned and faced the faithful of Mayfaire and they all fell to their knees before him. Jeremiah sat at his side like a statued lion. Veric stood and watched and saw nothing at all but he grinned at the world entire. A trace of blood welled in his perfect blue eyes.

 

~

And so we conclude Part One. Thanks for reading this far! Make sure you’ve read “The Death of Adrian Redwyn” before heading on to Chapter Ten. I added this chapter later, so there is a chance you may have missed it.

 

8 – The Sovern Lodge

Hey everyone, before we get to this next chapter I’d like to take a second and welcome some new readers! I had an unexpected (and very awesome) bump from a Reddit post last week and I picked up a few fresh new faces to follow our adventure. Welcome to Mayfaire! We’re very happy you decided to join us.
I’d like to also remind everyone that this novel is growing and evolving as it is posted, so please don’t be bashful about feedback. I’m very interested in your thoughts… they help shape the book! Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email and don’t forget to sign up for notifications so you can stay in the loop. And, as always, happy reading!
-Mat

 

8 – The Sovern Lodge

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.

“Hail Rhoa.”

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?”

“Six.”

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.”

“Isaac happened.”

“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.

“How fast?”

“One rider?” He shook his head. “I’d never send just one.”

“How fast?”

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.”

“Six, then.”

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.”

“How far?”

“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.

“Cosmin!”

“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.

7 – Petra Vireo Aurel

Petra stood alone in the parlor. A row of shuttered windows lined the room and a scant light drifted through the vanes. It traced the long wicker couches and the planked floor beneath them. A fireplace was built into the center of the wall and the moonlight caught on the stones of its chimney and vanished into its hearth, the darkness of which hid a wrought iron rack and the doused remains of a woodfire. The room smelled of wet smoke and ashes and Petra stared at the cold remains of the fire for a long time. She tried to remember the last time they had all sat around it, but found that she couldn’t. She touched a hand to her face, then walked to the fireplace and ran her fingers along the stones of the chimney. One of the stones shifted loose and she slid it from the others and reached into the cavity where her fingers touched upon a small key. She pulled it from the hole and turned it in the moonlight for just a moment then slipped it into her pocket and replaced the stone.

A floorboard creaked behind her. She turned to see Emine on the second floor landing. The girl stood in a splash of moonlight from the open atrium window and appeared insignificant in the dark, fragile and wraithlike. She was dressed in a long white shirt with her skinny arms and legs poking from beneath it and seemed to Petra closer to some craned river bird than her daughter. Her hair was down and half fallen on her face. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

“How long have you been there?” Petra asked.

“I just came down.”

“Aren’t you cold?”

“I’m fucking freezing.”

“Emine.”

“Sorry.”

Petra watched her daughter. The girl looked like a stranger in the dark and there was such distance between them and the distance did not narrow as Petra stepped closer. A rough wool blanket was draped along the back of one of the couches and Petra grabbed it as she passed. “You should be in bed.”

Emine came down the stairs. Petra draped the blanket over the girl’s shoulders and they stood facing one another with Petra raising her face slightly to look up to her daughter’s eyes. She reached out and folded back the edges of the blanket so the wool didn’t scratch against the girl’s neck. She brushed the hair from Emine’s face and set it behind her ear and maybe it was the frail light but she saw her husband’s features so plain on the girls face it shocked her. The dark and far-set eyes and the thick brows above them, the narrow nose. The girl had become beautiful, in a reluctant way, and Petra could see only Cosmin in her face. There was no shadow of herself to be found. Petra took her hand away and most of the hair fell back down.

“I can’t sleep.”

Petra nodded. “What about your brother?”

Emine shrugged. She stepped past her mother and to the parlour window beside the hearth. She pulled open the shutter, ever so slightly, and Petra came and stood beside her and together they watched the empty streets. The fog had come and gone.

“Did you see what they did to Mr Farrell’s across the street?”

“Did you?”

“Well I can see his door,” Emine said and pointed. “Look at it. They must have broken in… I thought I heard someone screaming.”

“It’s quiet now.”

“They probably killed him.”

“Emine.”

“What?”

“They don’t just break in and kill people. You’ve heard too many stories.”

“But look at the door.”

“I see it. They may have smelled smoke, or seen some light. You don’t know.”

Emine said nothing.

“I’ll check in the morning,” Petra said. “I’m sure everything is fine. I don’t think Mr Farrell has even been home. I think he’s been gone.”

Emine nodded. Another sweep of her dark hair fell over her face and she guided it back behind her ear. She looked over to the door.

“Where’s dad?”

Petra hesitated. She followed her daughter’s eyes and saw the rack where Cosmin’s coat should have been. “He left.”

Emine turned to her mother. “He went outside?”

“It’s nothing to worry about, Emine.”

“Nothing to worry about?”

“He went to move the Guard from their patrols. His position protects him.”

“His position? You think they care about that? About his title?”

“Keep your voice down. Please. They enforce the faith, and your father enforces the law. He’ll be fine. They won’t touch him. They wouldn’t dare.”

Emine looked back out to the street and shook her head. “I hate them,” she said.

“So do I.”

“Why do we put up with them? With all of it?”

“You know why.”

“No I don’t. It’s awful. They’re awful.”

“It’s only for a week. One week, and then they go back to the Reaches.”

“It isn’t just the Vacant, or the Days… it’s everything. It’s all just so awful.”

You have no idea, Petra thought, but didn’t let the words leave her mouth. “Yes,” she said at last. “Yes, it is. All of it.”

“The City Guard could fight them…”

Emine,” Petra hissed and pulled her daughter away from the open window. “You can’t talk like that. By heaven if someone heard you…”

“You know it too. You know how awful it is. So does dad. So does everyone. There aren’t that many of them. The Guard could get rid of them so fast. They could—”

“Emine the Faith is so much bigger than you realize. The Guard can’t do anything.”

“Maybe they can’t,” Emine said. “But others can. What about…” She hesitated. “What about the Avarine?” She said this last word timidly, in a whisper.

A chill ran down Petra’s spine. She froze. “What did you say?”

“The Avarine. They could do something. They aren’t afraid—”

“Where did you hear that word?” Petra’s voice was cold.

Emine paled.

“Where did you hear it?” Her hands shot up and grabbed Emine by the arms. The blanket slid to the floor. She stepped close to her daughter, all delicateness was gone from her voice. She still spoke in a whisper, but it was urgent, sharp. “Was it spoken aloud? Someone you know said it? Tell me.”

“I… I don’t know. I…”

An old fear came to Emine’s face. The strange and beautiful woman in the moonlight had vanished and Emine was suddenly a little girl again, fragile in her mother’s presence. She was no longer sixteen, she was five, she was caught hitting her brother, or stealing candy. Confusion and tears welled in her eyes. She shrank away from her mother’s anger.

Petra watched the transformation and softened. “I’m sorry,” she said, and let go of the girl. Red marks washed away from Emine’s arms where her mother’s hands had squeezed. “You cannot say that word. Do you understand me? You cannot say it. The Days are dangerous. That word is very, very dangerous. You cannot say it.”

Emine nodded furiously and Petra brought her close. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I’m so sorry. I’m just on edge, ok? Forget that word. You cannot say it.”

Petra tried to hold her daughter, but the girl’s arms stayed at her sides and she soon straightened and pushed her away. Emine wiped her eyes, said nothing, then turned and vanished up the stairs.

 

***

 

The door to the cellar was just beyond the kitchen, and Petra eased it open and reached into the darkness for the banister. There was hardly any light at all and she had to slide her hands searching down the wall. She guided herself down the narrow set of stairs, the air chilling as she went. She walked barefoot. She tested for each step, toes first, until she felt the cool earthen floor beneath her.

The cellar air was damp and heavy. Old earth, failing wood. It was the scent of a crypt, but Petra took a deep breath of it and was comforted. It reminded her of shelving preserves in the early autumn, of fetching garden tools in the spring, and she stood at the foot of the stairs for a long moment to breathe the air then sat down on the last step.

Two thin rows of barred lattice windows ran along the top edge of the ceiling to allow twin patches of the blue moonlight to fall on the cellar floor. The light was dim, but enough to see and she waited on the step for her heart to calm. She looked at the scattered memories that lay around her. A broken pile of flower pots. The peeling remains of a toy wagon. Then she looked to the shadowed rear of the cellar, to the places where the light never touched. She stood. She pressed out the wrinkles of her shirt. There were such terrible things yet to do. Gone was the old warm comfort, the autumn and the spring, and now the cellar was only a darkness to be passed on the way to darker places still.

The wine rack at the back of the cellar was tall and made of rusted ropes of iron and draped with an old threadbare rug. It was unremarkable. The mouldering remains of what could have once been a pair of wooden shelves sat beside the rack, and the corner they all piled against was lightless at any time of the day. Petra doubted if the kids had ever ventured far enough into the cellar to stumble upon it.

She found the far corners of the rack then braced herself and pulled and the greased wheels rolled easy and the rack pivoted from the wall. It made only a faint rolling sound as its weight shifted and Petra stepped behind it and stood at the door it concealed.

The lock made a gentle click when the key was turned. Another turn and she heard the faint sliding of metal. She pushed against the door and it slid open without issue and she stepped beyond its threshold and let it slide shut behind her.

The darkness beyond the door was so total and complete it felt as though it had form all its own. As if it wrapped itself around her, velvet and weightless, and held itself there like a phantom. Panic followed. Petra’s reached for the walls to but they were closer, much closer, than she expected and her knuckles scraped against them. The darkness was closer still. It was holding her, suffocating her, and she wished for only a flicker of light to chase it away but knew that even the smallest shine from the edge of the door could betray her, even here, so she urged the thought away and pressed her eyes tight against it. Colors blossomed and vanished beneath her eyelids. She pressed her fingers against them and rubbed and the colors exploded all at once and lingered long after she had opened her eyes once again. They dissolved slowly into some faint radiance in the distance and she held her breath and stared at it for a long time though she knew that in this hell there was no distance at all to stare into. No distance save down, but when she looked down she saw nothing at all.

“Stop it,” she whispered.

She reached out for the walls again and steadied herself. She caught her breath. She stepped forward with her hands running the walls until she touched upon the smooth stones of an archway. Her feet found the edge of a carved step and once found she found the next and the one after that. She followed the stairs as they spiraled down and down into the earth, each turning sharp to the left, until finally the ground was flat once again.

The air turned from musty to foul as she passed the threshold of the unseen room. There was the mineral reek of coal smoke, and the heavy scent of stale ash and cinder. Something putrid clung to the air as well, something distant and rotten that carried along with the smell of the smoke. Above all else was the iron tang of blood.

The candelabra was where she had left it, only a pace or two from the arch. She bumped into it with her arm then ran her hands up to the candles that crowned it. She reached into her pocket for a small flintspark and struck it against itself, sending a rain of sparks into the air. They were magnificent in the dark and hurt her eyes and were caught in a thousand reflections throughout the room then fell back to darkness. She struck it a second time and the oiled wick at the center caught.

The light grew with each candle. At first a dull glow, it soon became brilliant and cascading throughout the room. It cast along rows and rows of shelves with lines of glass. It spilled out over two desks at the rear wall, one covered in piles of papers and the other holding a series of jars filled with dark fluid and the preserved bodies of rats. A third desk in the corner was bare save a row of notebooks and an inkwell and a pen. In the center of the room was a pit of dead coals and above the coals hung a great round kettle with a globe of delicate glass suspended above it. The globe was stained red from the inside and a dozen or more filament tubes ran from its shimmering center and four of these tubes were still glistening with blood. They all ran into the arms of a lifeless young boy strapped to a table beside the coal pit.

Petra couldn’t take her eyes off of him.

He was so young. No older than five.

So, so young and Petra could not help but wonder what the twins had known at five. Only love and games and endless questions and tears and laughter and it had all been precious to her and now so long gone. She looked at the boy again. The lines of his ribs beneath the skin, the sunken cheeks. She remembered Elias at the same age. Then she remembered him at six, then at seven.

Tears filled Petra’s eyes and she made no effort to keep them away. They spilled down her cheeks and she couldn’t help but wonder, not for the first time, what the child’s name had been.

She walked over to him and brushed his dirty hair away from his face and frowned at a set of bruises on the boy’s nose and along the high edge of his cheek. She touched them lightly, inquisitively, not knowing how they formed or how she had not noticed them before. They were harrowing on the child’s face. Marks of an undeserved, abhorrent violence and when Petra finally realized their origin she buckled to the floor with grief.

She had given the boy the bruises herself. She did it when she suffocated him.

Her hand travelled uncompelled to her heart and she clutched at her chest and wept.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Heaven, I’m so sorry.”

There was nothing she could have done. She couldn’t complete her work without fire. It just didn’t work without the flames and the boy would have died painfully. She had gone too far with him and needed to finish, but she couldn’t do anything without fire. It was all she needed and it was all she couldn’t have.

And her thoughts turned to Osyth and then they turned to ice.

She stood and looked at the boy once more but she looked above the bruises and at the eyes instead. Those damn eyes that were still shining like dusty mirrors even after death. They caught in the candlelight like a dog prowling the dark edges of a fire.

She folded the lids down over them. Then she undid the straps and withdrew the tubes from his veins. She found a rag, wetted it with her tongue, and cleaned the lines of dirt and sweat from along the borders of the boy’s face. She tried to close his little jaw as well but it kept softly opening so she left it alone and he appeared to her as though he were singing, eyes closed and mournful.

The boy was so light, more like a bird than a child, and she lifted him from the table and set him down on the stone floor. An iron trapdoor was worked into the ground a short distance away and she pulled on its chain. The door rose, and a foul smell, heavy with rot, rose with it.

Petra was on her knees looking once again at the boy. His hair was sticking in clumps to the stones beneath his head. She wanted to say a few words, but nothing came. She opened her mouth once to speak, but her throat was locked as if it were threaded through a noose and she could do little but gape stupidly at the corpse. She settled on simply bending low to kiss him on the forehead a second time.

She slid the boy forwards until his feet dangled over the pit. The legs followed and soon she held him in a sitting position at the edge of the opening. She tried guiding him gently into the hole, but she lost her grip when his weight shifted and he fell without ceremony to the pile of bones and decay far below.

It was a pit of failure, of depthless tragedy, and she couldn’t allow herself to think of the others that the boy was joining. She couldn’t bear it.

She went to a large bucket near the pit and scooped out heaps of ash and quicklime into the opening. The powder was caustic, and she knew her hands would blister from touching it but didn’t care. She felt deserving of the pain.

She set off the chain and the door fell back over the pit. It clanged into its rut and the sound filled the chamber and echoed against the walls and then faded away. A funeral toll for the unloved. A passing bell, a death bell, lych and corpse bell all at once and as she rose to her feet she could see nothing in the world save the iron door and the abyss beyond it and a pitch-black part of her soul wanted only to open the door a final time so she could fall beneath it and lay surrendered there burning in the dark beside the boy and crowned atop the rest.

She stood without moving for a long time. So long that she didn’t notice when the first candle sank low in its brass cradle and went out. Nor did she notice the second. Eventually the smoke caught her attention and she looked at the light failing around her and turned to leave.

She wondered how much more blood would be on her hands before it was all over but she knew the answer before the thought was fully formed.

As much as it takes. All of it. Every drop.

It made her shiver, but she knew it was the truth.

She walked to the foot of the spiraling staircase and blew out the candles. She ran her fingers blind along the wall once again and started up to the cellar.

6 – Birdsong

Petra kept a small garden on the roof of their house. It started as a place to grow some of the more obscure ingredients for her work, but eventually grew to include tomatoes, hot peppers, two species of squash, and the few hearty fruits that could stand the wet springs and scorching summers of Mayfaire. Cosmin had never paid much attention to it. He watered it when she was away, and pruned the vines if asked, but he always did so without thought. They were tasks to be completed and nothing more. Until one day when he found a great green worm with orange stripes sitting on a tomato vine. He watched it for a long time and never saw it move. He poked at it with a broken stick and it shifted clumsy on its vine.

He mentioned it to Petra who said it was likely a velsin worm, a devourer of tomatoes, and if he saw it again he should kill it. A week passed before he found the worm again and by then it had sprouted clusters of shining white orbs from its back. Curious, he brought the worm to Petra who told him not to kill it after all. She said it had become infested with parasites and when they hatched they would kill the worm and then go flying in search of others of its kind. It was horrific, but the tomatoes would benefit from the horror.

It was then that Cosmin started paying attention to the garden. He began to see it as a place of balance. A place of life and consequence and no illusion of morality. It was a place of intention and outcome that required occasional intervention to thrive. The leaves fought slow wars for sunshine. The roots invaded and intertwined against one another. The soil was fed with dirt and shit, and sometimes even teeth and bones, but the plants grew all the larger because of it. There were nutrients in the mud and in the bones. There was sacrifice there as well. There was a cycle of life feeding on life. There were marauding hordes of insects, and there were insects who ate those insects and there were parasites that helped and those that hurt. There was balance and it was always shifting and there was no good and there was no evil.

And Cosmin knew Mayfaire to be the same. He knew foul men who had murdered for just reasons, and he knew generous men who gave only out of corruption and spite. There was love in Mayfaire and there was hate, but it was human love and it was human hate and it all existed in its own flawed harmony.

And then there was the Faith.

Cosmin had once watched a blight take hold in Petra’s garden. It started low on a tomato vine where it bleached the leaves and withered the roots then spread up to the flowers and the fruit and dropped them all to the ground to rot. The blight reached another plant and another until finally it had befouled the entire garden. It sought only to consume, to destroy, and Cosmin knew that if it was indeed a part of nature it was an abhorrent part and one to be despised and broken. It did not belong in the balance.

Such was his city. He knew the endless shifting lines, the flawed harmony, and he knew the blight that threatened it. And that was all. So when he left his dark house for a dark street and passed rows and rows of dark houses he could not understand where he walked. It was a city he did not recognize. There was no balance and there was no blight. There was nothing at all. No people, no fires, no light, and no sounds save the distant howls from the Vacant. It was as if the city had fallen in some far gone year and he was only there as a revenant, some detached spirit clinging to a vanished place that he was no longer a part of but merely an audience to.

He drifted along the streets of the High Circle and past the stately homes that occupied it. Each was faced in brick and trimmed in painted wood with doors and shutters to match and he knew them all to be shades of aqua green and blue but in the moonlight they were only a spectrum of grey. The cobblestone beneath his feet was grey as well. It was slick and shining wet in the night and a soft fog began to drift down his street and the moon vanished inside it and the grey deepend to near black. Cosmin slowed and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Twice he stopped to listen to the howling Vacant, and twice it sounded as though they were getting closer.

The houses grew tighter around him. Their brick facades became darkened and stained with age and the paint on the doors and shutters became chipped and broken. A smell of garbage drifted on the fog along with the reek of some distant sewer. The skeleton of a carriage lay overturned, one wheel split and the others removed. Cosmin knew the street. It marked the edge of the Circle and the beginning of what had once been the district of Hargate. It was little more than a squalid fringe below the Circle Market and would soon give way to the expanse of the Abandoned District that pressed in behind it.

The fog drifted in patches. It brightened the road then faded back then brightened it again. It was as if it the night itself were breathing and by the time he reached the Market he found the night so dark that he could barely see. He walked with a hand running against the building facades then stopped beneath a shingled awning to wait for the world to brighten once more. Something moved in the house behind him, but when he turned to the noise he saw nothing in the darkness. Another chorus of howls drifted in the night. Now closer.

The fog lifted entirely and the world was bathed in the cool blue light of the moon. It was bright enough to cast a hard shadow of the awning on the ground and Cosim stepped from beneath it and into the moonlight which shocked him with its clarity. He stood at the southern end of the Circle Market. To his right he saw empty carts and stalls along the edges of the road and the rows of shuttered shops behind them. To his left he saw the tiered fountain at the center of the lower market plaza. And off in the far distance, just a black mass on the horizon, he saw the dark climbing heights of the Reaches

He walked to the fountain. It was fed by a high cistern and it gurgled and spat in the dead night and Cosmin watched its flowing water for a long moment and found some peace in the movement. It seemed to be the only motion in the city besides his shadow creeping along the ground and the slow roll of the fog. He touched the surface of the water and watched the moon’s reflection ripple and dance on its surface. He looked to the Reaches, there growing like some tumor from the southern edge of the city, and any peace within him faded away. Again the distant Vacant began to howl.

***

 

Cosmin was twenty years old when the first of the Vacant came to Mayfaire. There were seven of them and they had been led to Mayfaire by a jovial priest named Hellig. The priest had travelled on foot all the way from the Pale City with the pack of Vacant tethered behind him. He whistled as he emerged from the New Forest and was singing by the time he had reached the East Gate. The guards had no idea how to react to his sudden appearance and refused him entrance to the city. The Vacant, dark clad and snapping at one another, tugged at their tethers and paced the edge of the eastern trench. Hellig was not put off. He simply said that he understood. That of course, of course he understood, and who wouldn’t be alarmed at the sight of such things. He called across the trench and asked for whatever authority the guard answered to. They sent immediately for Cosmin.

Hellig was once again singing to the Vacant when Cosmin appeared at the gate. He looked down at the strange gathering and Hellig stopped his song and smiled up at him. He greeted Cosmin by name and told him that he was at Mayfaire by the holy decree of Vellah himself. He said that there were things to be discussed and that they should be discussed face to face and not by shouting across a void. His smile widened when Cosmin asked about his charges. He said they were children of God.

They met in a guardhouse at the southern edge of the city wall. The priest tied the Vacant to a hitching rail outside and spoke to them in a soft voice to calm them. A group gathered some distance beyond and the Vacant sniffed the air and growled at them from beneath their hoods.

Cosmin led the priest to a small room inside the guardhouse with a single arched window and they sat opposite one another at a rough hewn table made of oak harvested from the Barrens. Hellig ran his hands along it and said it was lovely. His eyes were shining in the dim light. He carried with him the heavy musk of wild animals mixed with some cloying sweetness of incense and perfume. He spoke of the Angel Vellah’s displeasure with the pilgrims that were coming to the Pale City from Mayfaire and Cosmin listened gravely to his words. The priest expressed his sadness at the inherent sin inside the pilgrims and said that Mayfaire must, of course, be riddled with sin as well. For how could such miserable things come from a faithful city? He patted Cosmin’s hand and smiled. He said that Mayfaire needed a peace that the City Guard could not create. He said that the Vacant were the judicators of the faith and how fortunate it was that they were now welcome in the city. How very, very fortunate.

Their numbers increased ever since. They would come in ragged groups from the Pale City and soon they were patrolling the entirety of Mayfaire, from the southern docks all the way to the North Gate. They sniffed their way through the cargo holds of the merchant barges and scoured the stalls and shops of the markets. They entered homes at will. They punished without mercy.

Cosmin’s father, Avar Aurel, commanded the City Guard in those foul days. He watched helpless as his men and women clashed again and again with the Vacant. He watched as the markets and merchant docks grew quiet and the streets bloody. He watched as the city itself turned desperate and fearful. He became desperate and fearful as well.

And then Ambassador Osyth appeared from the New Forest carrying the torch. And the city went dark before him.

The year was 62 AG. Osyth had been gone for fourteen years and was returning for the Second Census. He was expected. The city knew what to do when he arrived and the horns cried out from the city walls and all the fires went dark as he rode his beast through the empty streets towards the Colosseum.

Avar and Cosmin travelled to the Colosseum the day after Osyth arrived. They were accompanied by Albed Hollis, the Magister of Mayfaire and they all met with the Ambassador before the dawn. Osyth greeted them like old friends. He held Cosmin by the shoulders and remarked on how much he had grown. He asked about Cosmin’s sister Lilith who had just turned eight, and he asked about Magister Hollis’s dear son Marcus, who was only five. He asked about them like a loving grandfather but his eyes were cold and Cosmin wondered a long time after if the Ambassador had already known all that was about to happen.

Avar and Magister Hollis greeted Osyth in kind. They bowed to him. They told him of the glory of Mayfaire, but expressed their displeasure with the Vacant. Avar said they were killing at will and without reason to which Osyth said they were blessed by the Angel and whatever reasons they found were reason enough. He said this smiling. Magister Hollis then said that their raids were disastrous to the trade routes to the Pale City, to which Osyth stopped to listen. Hollis knew the depths of Vellah’s greed. He knew the extraordinary appetites of the Angel and he knew Mayfaire’s position as the hub of the western trade route. He knew how to get the Ambassador’s attention.

The Congregation came from the Pale City seven days later. They were a motley parade of over two hundred Acolytes and priests and at dawn the morning after their arrival Osyth led the entire population of Mayfaire to the Colosseum to perform the Census. He gave a sermon where he told the city of his sorrow at the behavior of the Vacant. He told them that he had met with the leaders of Mayfaire and that a peace had been agreed upon and that on the eve of the Congregation’s departure the Vacant would all go to the Reaches where they would stay. The Reaches, he said, would become a holy site in Mayfaire. The streets would be sacred and all of the faithful were welcome to claim them as their own. The Vacant would keep the peace in this new holy district and any who lived under their laws would be blessed. The Angel would smile upon them. He said that the Vacant would hereafter only be permitted in the rest of the city during the Days of Darkness, the sacred days that foretold the coming of the Congregation. He praised the wise leaders of Mayfaire and their conviction. He said that he would ask only a small price in return for this great favor. He said that every good thing in the world had a price. That these costs were no costs at all but merely the harmony of life made manifest. He said that sacrifice and redemption were two sides of a single coin and that the one is inseparable from the other. That to ask for a gift of any measure free of cost is to ask for disharmony. It is to ask for a coin of a single side and there can be no such thing. Who could bear to ask for something so unnatural? And how should the world respond if you did?

So Osyth named his price. And Cosmin never saw his sister Lilith or Magister Hollis’s young son Marcus again.

Osyth left the following day with the Congregation and the horrible fruit of the Census. In his wake the borders of the Reaches were established. The trade routes soon flourished once again, and the Vacant abandoned the streets of the city, only to return when the torch returned and only then for seven days.

Magister Hollis retreated to his Palace in shame and hid in the duties of his office. He became despotic and solitary, a man devoted to greed and wretchedness and little else besides.

Avar Aurel killed himself the following winter. Cosmin buried his father in the frozen soil of the New Forest and said no words over the grave. The following day he put on Avar’s uniform and walked to the Barracks and before the gathered might of the City Guard he rose to the position his father abandoned. He was twenty-three.

 

***

 

The fog rolled back and swallowed up the moon. The world went dark once more and the unhealthy heights of the Reaches vanished into the distance and Cosmin wondered just how long he had been staring at them. He spat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked across the plaza to where he knew the market ended but saw only the faint shapes of buildings in the near dark. He felt the letter in his pocket. He thought of the Lodge. The fountain beside him gurgled endlessly but there was no other sound in the night and Cosmin stalked to the edge of the plaza to leave the Market behind. He found the opening of a wide street and turned down it and walked without looking. He thought of the Congregation, of the Ambassador. He thought of his wife, his children. All the planning, the risk…

And the night lark sang out in the dark.

Cosmin froze.

Silence. Then two soft chirps, twip, twip, a pause, then two more.

Cosmin’s blood ran cold. The fog shifted. And six hunched shapes ambled down the road in front of him.

Shit.

He hadn’t heard them come.

Shit.

One of them howled, a deep cry that brought the hairs on his arms to standing. Another took up the cry and the rest followed and they quickened their loping gait and came for him.

He spun and made for the plaza. He stumbled for the fountain and the Vacant poured from the mouth of the street behind him. The fog lifted once more and did not return and in the sudden light Cosmin could see the frightened staring faces that crowded the windows above the plaza. They were all drawn by the howls.

Shit, shit, shit.

The night lark sounded again. A silhouette moved against the night sky. It ran across a building just south of Cosmin. It called from a lightless alley. There would be no windows there, no faces to watch.

He backed away from the fountain and made it halfway across the plaza before they were upon him.

SIN,” cried one in a wet growl that broke the tomb silence of the night. Its voice was ragged, clipped. “SIN.”

Cosmin raised his hands, palms out, and kept backing towards the alley. The Vacant began to circle and Cosmin considered running through them before realizing how foolish it would be. They would show no mercy if they were goaded. They would beat him to death.

“I am Cosmin Aurel,” he called as they closed on him. “I command the City Guard.” He took another step backward toward the alley. “I am heading for the outer patrols. I mean no harm.”

They carried with them some deep animal stench, heavy and soiled. One stepped close and sniffed at him. He could see the edges of its wild, ravaged face beneath its cowl. The inverted tear drop carved into its forehead. It raised its club up and pressed it into Cosmin’s chest. The thing was shaking. They were all shaking.

“Commander,” it said in its trembling low growl. “What does it command in the Days of God?”

“Death!” another cried. “No command. No commander. Only death for its sin.”

One of them let out a moan at the words. The pungent reek of urine rose in the air.

“Peace, brother,” the first replied as it snapped its jaws. “Not death. Not death for this trespass. To walk God’s streets at night is not death.”

“He walks in sin,” another voice cried, this one high and graveled. “Sin of its feet, sin of its flesh.”

“Yes, yes,” the first replied. It turned to Cosmin and clicked its teeth. “We bash the feet. We kill the feet for their steps in the Angel’s night.”

“You will not!” Cosmin roared. The robed, hunches figured stepped back briefly at his voice, and he took another two steps in its wake. “I have passage. Find your master and they will confirm it.”

Another chirp came from the night lark.

“Master?” the first of the Vacant cried. “No master tonight. We are the master.” It pounded its chest. “I am the master,” it said. “And he, and he. All are the master.” It raised its club to Cosmin’s face. “But not you. You walk when there is no walking. Not in the Days. It is sin, and to sin is to bleed.” It drooled at the words. “You bleed for us. You bleed for God.”

A flash of silver caught briefly in the moonlight. Something small and spinning flew from above and hit the first of the Vacant in the side of the neck. It winced and dropped its cudgel on the ground and brought its hands clawing to its throat and the knife that was suddenly buried there. It opened its mouth to cry but only a weak gargle came and the others stepped back as it fell to its knees in the darkness.

Cosmin shoved hard against the pack, pushed from between them, and shot into the alley. He reached for the dropped club as he ran and grabbed it by the barbed end by mistake. He grunted as it sliced into his skin, but didn’t loosen his grip.

Another flash of metal whipped by his face, close enough that he could feel the wind come off it. He heard a cry from behind, but didn’t turn.

He took another few steps into the alley, and shifted his grip on the club. His hand was wet with blood, and burning, but he held it tight and raised it as the pack roared towards him.

They came thrashing mad down the narrow alley, clubs swinging blindly in the dark, striking every surface they could reach. The lane was tight and forced them into a column. The front two came side by side, screaming towards Cosmin who stood his ground, hands tight on the club.

A slender shadow fell into the alley behind the pack. It made no sound whatsoever. It made a single stride then fell against the two Vacant in the rear. A flash of metal, then another, and the things were on the ground. The sudden silence caused the first two to falter. They turned and Cosmin raced towards them and brought the cudgel down hard and loud on one of their skulls. It made a hollow sound, grim and satisfying, and the thing collapsed. The shadow descended quietly on the last of the Vacant and Cosmin watched as its head simply rolled from its shoulders. The body stood for a short moment longer, as if in disbelief, then toppled to the ground at Cosmin’s feet.

A slight man, dressed all in black, stepped into the thin moonlight that fell upon the alley. He walked to the bodies, and knelt among them to wipe his blade on their robes. He stood and bowed to cosmin.

“I hoped it would not come to that,” the man said as he sheathed his sword. His voice was soft and quiet.

“It’s good to see you, Isaac,” Cosmin said, his heart hammering in his chest. “I was hoping you were the little bird I was hearing.”

 

***

 

They dragged the bodies into the alley. Isaac, though he stood barely as tall as Cosmin and substantially thinner, pulled five of the bodies before Cosmin could manage one. He sat them into a neat row then attempted to help Cosmin but was scolded away. He retrieved the severed head instead and rested it in the lap of its former body. He turned it so it faced away from him.

Cosmin knelt to catch his breath, his forearms resting on his thighs. Blood ran from his torn hand. Isaac watched the bleeding then took a knife and cut a length of fabric from the bottom of his cloak and gave it to Cosmin who grunted his thanks. He wrapped the hand starting around the thumb and pulled it all tight and tucked in the loose end then opened and closed his hand several times. He took a deep breath. The hand was already throbbing. He pushed himself to standing and winced as he did so. Isaac watched him and said nothing.

Cosmin looked at the row of bodies and shook his head. “Damn.”

“I watched you leave,” Isaac said. “I thought you might need my help.” He gestured to the Vacant. “Their blood is up. I’ve never seen them so agitated.”

“Neither have I.”

“I was at the wall when the torch came. I couldn’t believe it. I ran to your house as the fires went out to keep watch on Elias. Sasha was already there. She said she could watch them both so I followed you. Elias is safe with her there.”

Isaac stood before Cosmin with his head bowed like a man condemned. As if he had committed some trespass that begged forgiveness and Cosmin found himself wondering if there had ever been such ferocity housed in so humble a person.

“I would not have left my watch if Sasha had not been there,” Isaac continued as he stared at his feet. “I feared that something could happen tonight, so I came to the house. I know to not let him from my sight if there is some threat in the air. I know that. But I couldn’t leave you to the Vacant. Not when they are wilding like this.”

“Isaac…” Cosmin began, then stopped and shook his head. He put his hand on Isaac’s shoulder. “Elias is safe with Sasha watching over him. He is safe.” Isaac did not look up. “I forgive you for leaving his watch.”

Isaac nodded, then raised his head. “You’re heading to the Sovern Lodge,” he said. “To find Baltar.”

“I am.”

“I’ll stay here. More of the Vacant may come if they smell the blood. I can deal with them if they do.” He said this casually, as if the enforcers of the faith were no more than flys to be swatted away.

“I’ll send a few of the Sovern to help you get rid of the bodies.”

Isaac considered this. “Most of the Sovern are brutes,” he said at last. “They lack subtlety.”

Cosmin grinned. “There are a few of them who know how to stay quiet. I’ll send them and they can help. Be nice to them.”

Isaac nodded. “There is a lot of blood,” he said. “I’ll drain the bodies into the sewer, but there is already a lot on the street. I should have been more careful.”

“Do what you can,” Cosmin said. “I’ll do the same. Break their necks if more sniff their way to you. Don’t draw anymore blood.”

He walked to the row of bodies. One lay with its cowl down and its face caught in the moonlight. It stared at the sky with dead, milky eyes. Matted hair was stuck to its face and its mouth gaped stupidly from the dark nest of its beard. Its lips were gone entirely, likely chewed away by the gnarled teeth they should have been covering. The inverted teardrop on its forehead was cut deep and the edges of the flesh were pulled back and smooth from scarring. The exposed skull was the color of old parchment.

“Strange to see them beneath the hoods,” Isaac said as he stood beside Cosmin. “Strange and sad.”

“Sad?”

“It’s just a man,” Isaac said. “And barely that. He couldn’t be more than eighteen. Look at him.”

“I am looking. I see a monster and nothing more.”

“I see both,” Isaac said as he bent down and pulled the cowl over the Vacant’s face. He then reached under its arms and carefully slid the body a short distance down the alley to a sewer grate. He leaned it forward and rested it on its knees then dropped its neck down and sliced open the artery at its throat and held it there so the blood could drain into the sewer. It looked like he was helping the thing to pray.

Cosmin watched them for a long moment then turned and started down the alley. He could hear the blood as it fell through the grates. The sound chilled him more than the night air and he walked without turning back.