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… 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.
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. Do you think they could stand against my army?”
“And if they did, would they die?”
“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.
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.
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.