They woke before the dawn. They broke camp as the stars faded above them and rode with the sun rising at their backs. Their shadows stretched long before them and the Wastes ran beyond every far edge of the world. The road remained empty, as did the sky, and the winds had gone completely and the world stood still as a painting. The only movement in the land came from Osyth, Jeremiah, and the swirl of dust that followed behind them.
Osyth watched the rising and falling of the land, but saw very little of it. His mind was elsewhere. He thought of the white rabbit and its tiny cloven heart. He thought of the grand designs of God. He questioned the limitations of his gift and considered staring into the eyes of Jeremiah to see if he could penetrate the beasts heightened anatomy. He wondered what Vellah himself would look like splayed out to his mind’s eye and if he could slice whatever heart beat in the Angel’s chest as cleanly as he had the rabbit’s…
His thoughts were interrupted by a whimper from Jeremiah. The beast’s pace slowed to a watchful saunter and he brought his head low to his shoulders and sniffed at the air. He raised a hand to tap Osyth on the leg. Osyth said nothing, but gave a slight tug to the reins. Jeremiah then pointed to the hill beyond and traced his finger from the western horizon. Osyth followed and saw that a trail was cut deep across the grasses.
He whispered to Jeremiah and they approached silent and slow. The line in the landscape grew as they approached and Osyth saw that it was made by something that had pressed a set of tracks deep into the land. The tracks were wide spaced and clustered, as if the thing that made them came charging at a gallop. They approached the road from the rise of a hill then collided with it in a great disturbance of rutted dirt and broken grasses before breaching the opposite side and vanishing over the hills. The departing tracks were wider and less controlled than those that approached and the grasses were crushed in a wider swath. Osyth knew what it meant and he shook his head. Whatever made the tracks was burdened when it left the road. Jeremiah hesitated. He sniffed at the dried blood on the ground and growled beneath his mask. Osyth watched the horizon then urged Jeremiah forward and the beast reluctantly obeyed, but not before he grabbed a handful of grass from the side of the road. He held the grass to his mask and smelled them a long time as he ran. He shook and growled when he finally released them.
When night fell they camped at the edge of a hillock and ate a small meal of dried meat and bread. Jeremiah whined at the meager supper and went to the saddle bags to sniff and paw at them in hopes of discovering another rabbit. Finding nothing, he sighed then set about patrolling the campsite. He removed his saddle without cleaning it and pressed himself low to the ground and slid into the grasses like a snake. He crept in a far circle around the fire, his mask shining just above the grasses, his eyes never leaving the surrounding hills. Osyth lay staring at the stars.
They were packed and on the road before the dawn. The sky was near black above them as they rode and land was bone grey beneath it. A night wind still swept along the hills and sent them rippling like some cold ocean before a storm. The world was calm besides.
The land changed as the sun rose. The low hills of the Wastes buckled into steep vales and peaked ridges of exposed stone. Skeletons of old scrub brush clustered along the ridges and the dead grasses grew thin and were then gone entirely. The soil became rust colored and course.
Osyth rode Jeremiah to a stone outcropping. It grew sharp and high from the earth like an exposed bone and the beast glided to its peak and Osyth walked him to a far ledge. Jeremiah rose on his hind legs and balanced along the cliff and Osyth saw the world sprawled out before them. The sun was once again on its descent in the west. The road twisted beneath it and pressed through the jagged land for miles before disappearing into a pale, tangled chaos that began far in the distance then stretched on far, far beyond it. Osyth patted Jeremiah on the flank and the beast dropped to the ground then slid over the edge of the cliff and ran towards the jagged horizon. They had reached the edge of the Barrens.
The Wastes were not the only land to be purified by the coming of God. The dark cloud that followed the Spire’s descent carried on the wind and spread far into the west. It held in the sky for what seemed an eternity and all life died in the sunless shadow beneath it. The Barrens had once been the eastern extent of the Central Forest of Lyr, but now existed as little more than a cemetery of fallen trees. They lay heaped over one another in great piles bleaching beneath the sun like desert bones. Very few remained standing, and most of those that did were the Stonewoods of the old forest. They were mighty trees and dense enough to defy their own deaths and they stood like mournful sentinels over the broken trees beneath them.
The sky tinted pink with the descending sun, then deepend to a slow burning red that lit the trees as though the forest was ablaze. Jeremiah stopped to howl at the setting sun, and far off in the distance, barely carrying to Osyth’s ears, the howl was answered.
The cry that reached them was deep and agonized and it raised the hackles along Jeremiah’s back. It sent chills through Osyth as well and he pulled the reins and stopped to listen. Jeremiah’s heart was pounding hard enough to feel through his sides. The beast craned his neck to its full strange length and cocked his head at the few sounds that came from the Barrens. A gentle breeze hushed across the fallen trees. The low din of the Great River coursed far below in the south. A Stonewood groaned under its own weight and a branch snapped somewhere far to the north. Osyth leaned down and ran his hand along Jeremiah’s mane.
“Pay it no mind, my friend,” he said. “It cannot harm us.”
Jeremiah shook his head and made a hollow clicking sound in protest. Osyth told Jeremiah that there were foul, sad things in the Barrens and that they were more deserving of pity than fear. A familiar lecture, but one Jeremiah never understood. Eventually the beast huffed in frustration and continued his course along the road and the world turned a deep violet before fading to dark.
The night was clear and the moon cast cold light enough for Jeremiah to see and they rode without stopping. The sea of fallen trees was ghostly in the moonlight, a boneyard stocked by butchers ethereal and of an appetite unknown to the world of men. Shadows darker than the sky laced along the deadfall. They reached out to the road and to whoever dared trespass upon it and both rider and steed silently longed for the peace of the Wastes. Osyth thought of the Spire and the white rabbit and the near constant burning behind his eyes. Jeremiah thought only of beasts.
A darkness grew on the horizon. It was thick and impenetrable and swallowed the moonlight. They came upon it slowly and it rose higher and higher into the sky until it consumed all the light there was. They stopped in the last moonlight at the edge of the darkness and were met by the smell of damp, fertile soil and the sounds of night insects and a singing of frogs. Jeremiah shook excitedly and clapped his hands and Osyth patted him on the flank. He said a single word and they slid into the lush darkness of the New Forest.
The greatest works of man can seem impossible when viewed through the filter of time. The efforts of their construction are forgotten and what remains often stands in defiance of ordinary logic and understanding. A single, fragile person is capable of very little on their own. Each knows this in their bones and they are all humbled by it. A single person can till fields, write music, bear children, build walls… With little strength, two hands, and a meager lifetime they can only accomplish so much. Two, however, can build a house. Ten can make a church. Twenty, a temple. And here, in the midst of the deadlands, the men and women of Mayfaire had built an entire forest on the ashes of the Barrens.
The New Forest astounded Osyth. It stretched for miles in every direction with Mayfaire and the Great River at its heart and was so hungry for earth that it even crept down among the sharp cliffs that straddled the river and deposited small pines and wildflowers in the crevices of the rocks. It stood as an impossible oasis in the deadlands, a heresy against the Holy Lands without question, but a wonder besides. Osyth reached out and grabbed a handful of leaves that whipped past. They were thick and waxy and he crushed them and smelled their air. It was bitter and fresh.
Osyth knew very little of how the New Forest had been created. He doubted if any living person knew. The story of its genesis had been, like all of the heathen histories, purged when the city was claimed for the Spire. He alone had overseen the burning of the libraries when he led the First Congregation to the city. The forest had been much smaller at that time, the young trees barely reaching halfway up the High Wall that surrounded the city. He remembered being startled by the forest when he first laid eyes upon it. It seemed unreal that a land so bright and green could exist within the borders in the Barrens, but there it was: a thriving, new landscape. He even remembered his delight when he heard the first birds singing in the trees.
That was forty-two years ago, when Osyth had first arrived in Mayfaire. He rode at the head of a great army from the east and found a city dizzy with celebration at his coming. They believed that his army marched from the lost capital city and that the long hoped for reunion with the east was at hand. They did not know that Avan Lyr had fallen entirely and that a new city, a holy city, had risen from its cinders. And they knew nothing of the coming of God.
Osyth educated them.
As the Ambassador of Vellah he had the honor of bringing news of the Faith to the lost cities. He was the first to tell them of the secrets of divinity. Of how men and women could find immortality in life, and how they could know the truth of the Spire. Upon his arrival in Mayfaire he called for a great gathering in the colosseum, one that every man, woman, and child in the city attended. Tens of thousands of people filled the stands and every eye was upon Osyth as he walked to the center of the arena.
He wasted no time. Nine soldiers from the Pale City followed him and when he stopped they circled him and drew their swords. The audience fell to a hush. Osyth spoke to the soldiers and turned his face to the heavens and each stepped forward and drove their blades deep into his body. The audience cried as he staggered and fell. The circle of soldiers knelt to him and he righted himself and pushed himself to standing with the blades sprouting from his body and a pool of blood spreading beneath his feet. Cries of disbelief and wonder erupted from the audience, then grew to a roar as he began to pull the swords from his body one by one.
The entire crowd was standing by the time the second blade was removed, and they were on their knees when the last one fell to the ground. Soaked in blood, and with a pile of swords at his feet, Osyth smiled, and opened his arms to receive the people of Mayfaire into God’s embrace.
They came in droves. Osyth preached at the colosseum every morning and soon he had the building converted into a temple of Vellah, the new patron Angel of Mayfaire. During his sermons he spoke of the glory of the Faith and the divinity of the Angels. He told of his sorrow for those who lived in the previous age, the lost souls who lived and died without knowing salvation. He told them for his hope of a reunited island that lived only for the glory of God. He told them of life everlasting.
He stayed in the city for a full year and oversaw its transformation. He led great purges of the old, obsolete histories. He cleansed the city of its heathen institutions and leaders. He met personally with the lords of the great merchant houses and asked each of them to pledge themselves and their kin to the Spire. In turn, he granted them access to the rich trade route to the Pale City. They bowed without question.
It had been a glorious year, and when he finally departed he left behind a city teeming with new devotion. The lingering ghosts of Mayfaire’s past had been burned away and the city had been saved, praise the Spire. He left the redeemed city and a cavalcade of new followers left with him. They chanted their devotion as they stumbled from the city to march on foot through the deadlands at his heels. They would become the very first pilgrims of Mayfaire, the first to meet Vellah and take his holy communion. They were beloved, but they were not the only ones who left with the Ambassador.
His last act before leaving Mayfaire had been to conduct the first Census of the city. Once more he had called the populace to the colosseum, but instead of preaching, he descended the high pulpit and walked among them. With careful deliberation he selected Mayfaire’s most promising sons and daughters from among the flock and he honored their parents by taking them to the Pale City where they would be presented to his lord. No one dared to protest.
The children screamed when they were brought before him and cried as they were loaded into the gilded carriages that would carry them away. It broke his heart, but he knew that they were each destined for a greater purpose. It was the sacred duty of all of Vellah’s cities to bear such fruit, and it was Osyth’s duty to harvest it.
The forest road widened ahead of them and the black canopy of trees grew thin and finally parted altogether. The night sky was bright with the moon and the stars and colored a faint orange in the west, as if a fire burned somewhere in the distance. Jeremiah noticed the brightening sky and sniffed the air and snorted. His pace quickened and the sounds of the forest were lost to Osyth as wind rushed his ears. The canopy rejoined over their heads and cast them back into darkness, but the glowing could now be seen from between the trees and as they rounded a final bend in the road the world opened wide before them and at last they beheld the city of Mayfaire.
Torches were lit along the heights of the city wall and small shadows walked among them and when they passed they became silhouettes and Osyth could see the spears they carried and the proud posture of their office. They patrolled the walls and Osyth could see them also on guard along the battlements of the East Gate. Behind them grew the slender roofs of houses. Candles burned in many of their windows though the buildings themselves were dark and jagged against the night sky. Above everything loomed the Colosseum of Mayfaire. It rose over the shadows of the houses and the guarded city walls like a decaying sun.
Osyth could remember a time when fires burned in every one of the thousand arched hollows that wrapped the Colosseum. They were lit at dusk to glorify the building as a beacon to God. Now they served only to illuminate the building’s decline. They still burned in the hollows, but great patches of darkness wove among them and marked the places where the Colosseum was crumbling in on itself. One particular void began at the top of the building and ran in a deep wedge all the way to the stone courtyard below.
Osyth watched the building for a long time. He remembered it as it was. He mourned what it had become.
He said a few words to Jeremiah and together they trotted down the road that led to the East Gate. They were spotted immediately and a lone guard called out their arrival from the heights of one of the towers. Her cry was answered from further down the wall and soon a commotion stirred along the night watch and their patrols were halted as the strange beast and rider approached.
They did not recognize him, nor did they recognize the torch, and in that moment Osyth knew that the city was truly doomed.
Osyth marched Jeremiah across the wide plaza before the East Gate and stopped him at the edge of the deep, lightless trench that ran around the city. Sounds rose from beyond the gates though they were muffled in the night. He heard shouting and laughter and somewhere far away the muted shrill of a crying baby. There was music as well, soft and floating. All the sounds of a living, thriving city. He shook his head.
“Who goes there?” a voice shouted from a window in the gate house.
Torchlight filled the room behind the man, but he was little more than a shadow to Osyth. He had a bow drawn and an arrow nocked and aimed. “Who goes there?” he said again, this time with some alarm. More voices called along the wall, more shadows appeared, and in a moment there were a dozen archers aiming at Osyth.
“Do you not know who I am, friend?”
“I ain’t your friend, and the gate is drawn. Get back to the woods. And take that fucking thing with you.”
Jeremiah huffed. Osyth looked to the man and found his eyes.
“I haven’t been spoken to like that in some time.”
The man laughed. It was cruel and harsh. “Oh you haven’t, friend? Well I can say more if you like. I can call you a—”
The man’s head jerked. His body twitched.
Another twitch, it rolled his body from the neck down. His nose began to bleed. He spasmed and released the arrow as he did so and it flew right at Osyth and pierced his chest. The man disappeared from the window. He dropped to the floor and someone ran to him and voices began to shout in the gatehouse.
Osyth ran a finger along the arrow, but did not remove it. He drew the torch from the saddle and held it high above his head.
“My name is Osyth Barton,” he said, and his voice carried strong to the heights of the wall. “I am the Herald of the Angel Vellah. I am his voice. I am his messenger. And I carry his light.”
The shouting in the gatehouse ceased. The archers all lowered their bows.
“The Angel’s eyes are upon you. Your penance begins tonight. The Days of Darkness begin tonight. Now lower this bridge and welcome me. And welcome the penance that I bring.”
No one dared to move. Hushed voices spoke in the gatehouse then rose to shouts and the shouting reached the archers and they too began to cry and soon they were running along the wall and yelling to the patrols of guards and a lonely horn, shrill and mournful, began to sound in the night. It was joined by another horn, this one sounding from one of the towers, and then another from a guardhouse, then another and another, and soon they were crying out over the entire city.
A heavy, hollow crash came from the East Gate, followed by a great turning of chains. The drawbridge lowered and reached over the trench and the iron portcullis behind it was raised. Jeremiah stepped onto the drawbridge and crossed the trench and entered into Mayfaire with Osyth sitting proud in his saddle and all the fires of the city went dark at his approach.
It began at the East Gate. The horns called from the ramparts and their wailing carried through the streets of Mayfaire and darkness followed them. Men and women of the City Guard ran along the heights of the wall and snuffed out the torches at their posts. Then the columned braziers lighting the city streets were extinguished, then the candles that burned in thousands of windows across the city. Smoke rose through the night and the crying horns did not let up.
Doors flung open at the taverns and public halls lining the East Road and nightblind crowds wandered into the streets like lost children. They stumbled against themselves and called out through the smoke and the dark and fought their way towards their homes.
Jeremiah loped down the center of the road and any that saw him shuddered and turned and ran. Osyth watched the fleeing crowds in silence. The arrow stuck out from his chest and he looked for all the world like some dreaming martyred saint riding bemused in the midst of the chaos and the growing dark. He held the torch above his head and soon it was the only light on the East Road. It cast a halo around him and Jeremiah and stretched their shadows along the empty road. Doors locked as he passed them, windows shuttered, and the fires that dotted the Colosseum blinked out before him.
And still the horns cried in the night, still the darkness crept. It flowed down the Cardinal Roads then fanned out to the streets and alleys that ran like veins through the city districts. It swept across the Lower Market as ovens were doused and the lanterns of the night stalls were blown out. It silenced the foundries north of Riverside and the ceaseless workings of the boat houses along the Merchant Docks. It went on and on until every corner of the city was dark.
And a chorus of deep, beastial howls sounded from the depths of the Reaches. They carried on the wind like the clouds of smoke and joined the awful horns and the city was crying and screaming all at the same time.
Adrian Redwyn stood alone on the southern edge of the Barracks wall. He listened to the frightened city and watched as the darkness rolled across it. He watched the stately buildings of the High Circle go dark, and saw the lights vanish in the Magister’s Palace one by one. The Barracks courtyard behind him was already in shadow.
The whole city smelled of smoke. It was damp and thick and stung his single eye. A ragged hole was all that remained of the other, and he was surprised at the tears that welled from somewhere in the knot of his scarred flesh. They pooled and leaked from beneath his patch and he dabbed at them absently and thought of how strange it was to have no eye with which to see the world, but still tears to weep for it. The thought made him smile in spite of himself. How peculiar an image. Some great tragedy that was all his own.
A group of shadows ran on the street below. There were six of them huddled together, a family perhaps, and Adrian watched as one stumbled then fell to the ground. The group stopped. A child began to cry. Soft, urgent voices answered and soon the child was in someone’s arms and they scurried down the road and away.
“Run as far as you can,” he said to the night. “Run and run and run. It will do no good.”
Voices shouted from the Barracks courtyard. They called for Adrian. They needed his guidance, and answers, but he had none of either to give. Not now. Now he listened to the wind and to the horns and the rising howls. He listened for her voice to come crawling into his mind. He stood for a long time with his eye closed and the smoke filling his nose and he waited.
And then she was there, a gentle winter chime.
Adrian, she said. My pet. My favored.
A wave of chills spilled down Adrian’s back.
“My lady,” he replied.
We are coming, child. There is much to do.
“You come too soon,” Adrian said.
Too soon, my sweet? Why too soon?
“I’ve only saved a handful… only a precious few. There are still so many left.”
They are corpses, my pet. They are rotted. We are coming, and there is much to do.
“Yes, my lady.”
Do you love me, child? Do you cherish me?
“Yes, my lady, yes,” Redwyn said as he felt the tears welling once again from his torn socket. “My life is yours. My heart and soul.”
Then listen, and rejoice.