Chapter Four – The Road to Mayfaire

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.

“I wouldn’t.”

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.

Chapter Three – The Holy Lands

The sky above the Holy Lands was cloudless and perfect crystal blue. Sunlight burned across it unchallenged and fell sharp and harsh on the dead land below. It baked the old dead grasses further and further into dust.

Osyth was one of a precious few who could remember the age before the Spire fell to the Island of Lyr. He remembered the grasslands that surrounded the old capital city. He remembered the way they caught almost silver in the wind and the fresh smell that filled the air when they were trampled. The wildflowers and the bees that tended them; the birdsong at dawn when the ground was shining wet with dew and the insects calling forever in the night. He remembered a land alive and untamed, and he remembered the slow death that crept across that land when the Spire descended. How the sky went dark and swallowed the sun.

He had mourned the death of the land, even as he praised the coming of God, but over the years he came to see that the land was purified, not destroyed. It had been cleansed of its wildness. He now regarded the land with the same reverence one might save for a cemetary or chapel. He despised the name that the world had given to the old grasslands. They called it the Wastes, and Osyth had always found the name to be vulgar. It was not a wasteland, it was a sacred place, a world calmed by God.

The dead lands radiated from the Pale City, reaching the far coasts of the forbidden sea in the east and the jagged, bleached remains of the Barrens in the west. Green grass and new life only managed to gain a foothold at the far edges of the deadlands, most notably at the foothills of the Selvid Plateau in the south and the highlands cradling the Auric Mountain in the north. In these distant places rich dark earth and questing roots made their slow, ceaseless march into the Wastes, but where Ambassador Osyth rode, in the heart of the Holy Lands, the dead grasses stretched for long miles in every direction, and he sped over the rolling hills adrift in a sea of gold.

He rode on the back of an Ascended steed named Jeremiah, and an hour beyond Vennath Osyth pulled his reins and stopped him on the crest of a low hill. Osyth whispered into the ear hole of Jeremiah’s silver mask and the creature bowed to the earth and Osyth stepped from his saddle and turned to look back to the east. He knew the hill on which they stood. It was an unremarkable place, but it gave Osyth a pure and perfect view of the peak of the Spire as it rose in the far distance. Here the rolling lands were tall enough to hide the temples of the Pale City, and the broken roofs of the border towns.

Osyth cherished the view. He could see nothing but the Spire and the Holy Lands that it had created. Blue sky, amber grasses, and the Spire bright in the sun. Pure and perfect. Nothing existed of the Pale City. Gone were the wonders and the horrors, the Angels and their politics, the feuds and violence, the foul corruptions that were spreading in the souls and bodies of the faithful… all gone. Nothing remained in the world save the Spire. It brought tears to Osyth’s eyes. It was a bright and simple view of God and the earth and nothing more. A new beginning.

Jeremiah snorted with impatience. He nudged Osyth’s arm and Osyth smiled at him and patted him on the thick mane that sprouted from behind his mask. Osyth saw a coating of dust on the mask and took the sleeve of his robe to wipe it clean. Jeremiah cooed in response, but pushed Osyth’s hand gently away so that he could clean the mask himself. The creature was willful and fastidious, and Osyth respected his moods. Jeremiah reached to the satchels strapped to his long, bony body, his fingers moving spiderlike across them, until he found one in particular and undid the buckle and removed a silk polishing cloth. He brought it to his mask and scrubbed it up and down like a man toweling off after a bath.

Jeremiah had chosen the silver mask himself. It showed the bemused, peaceful face of a man and was nearly flawless in its rendering. The only difference being the twin sets of stacked eyes that Jeremiah peered through. The mask was one of the beast’s only decorations. Unlike many of the Ascended in the Pale City, Jeremiah disliked ornaments. He wore little besides a saddle, and a set of golden bracelets given to him by Osyth. One was bound to each of his six wrists.

They rode through the day. Jeremiah flew along the open fields faster than any horse and Osyth held himself tucked against the beast’s neck and among his whipping mane. The hair was coarse beneath Osyth’s hands and smelled like smoke and sweat. Jeremiah panted softly as he ran and his hands were near silent on the road. Osyth’s ears filled with the rushing wind and he watched the golden and blue world swirl around him and he watched the road beneath him race in a cloud of dust. The bone torch was strapped to the saddle behind Osyth. It’s flame flickered in the rushing air, but did not fail. It was a fire kindled through sacrifice and fed by holy pitch from the Angel’s own throat and it would take more than wind to extinguish it, if anything could.

They met a traveller on the road just as the sun began to fall in the west. Jeremiah smelled the man miles before he appeared on the horizon and growled his suspicions. Osyth calmed him with soft words and soon the tiny shape of the traveller appeared on the horizon. He dropped to his knees when he saw them and stayed that way until they were upon him. He wore black robes with the hood drawn down over his face. His feet were bare and bleeding.

Osyth spoke to Jeremiah and the creature bowed to let him down and he stepped to the dark figure and pulled back the hood. The man’s face was weathered and hard, he kept his eyes on the ground. A large patch of skin had been cut from his forehead in the shape of an inverted drop of blood and his raw skull was exposed inside the wound. A slick white painted red and bounded by ridges of flesh.

Osyth knew the shape well. It was an perversion Vellah’s own sigil, and it marked the man as a murderer.

“Don’t ask about my crime,” the man muttered. “I beg ye don’t ask. I’d not speak of it.”

“I know your crime.”

“Ye know what I did. The scar says as much. But it’ll not say how I done it. I’ll bear that on my own. No need to sting your ears with it. It’s unspeakable what I done.”

Osyth considered the man’s words. “Tell me why then. Why would you steal something so precious from God?”

“I don’t know, my lord. I just don’t. T’was horrible what I done and I can’t even say as to why I done it. They didn’t deserve it… oh God they didn’t, the poor things.” He pulled the hood back down to cover his face. “I took the Angel’s Communion too late. Maybe that’s the heart of it. I didn’t take the pilgrimage when I was young like you’s supposed to. I found God too late and It didn’t take root in me. Maybe I’m cursed, but I tell you the Angel’s blood didn’t take. I feel it in me, even now I feel it, but it feels like bugs under my skin. It don’t feel holy. It changed me, but… and my mind is just…”

The man shook his hooded head like an animal and knocked loose his canteen as he did so. It fell to the ground and its water gurgled out to the thirsty grasses. Osyth watched it empty. He retrieved his own skin and refilled the man’s canteen and placed it neatly beside him. He placed a hand on the man’s hooded head and the man went silent and his shoulders shuddered up and down.

“Am I cursed?” The words were barely formed.

“God does not curse his followers. He blesses them. And you need his blessing for what you are about to endure. You know what waits for you in the Pale City.”

The man cleared his throat. “Aye,” he said. “Forgiveness.”

“You’ll become Vacant.”

“Yes, lord. That’s my aim.”

Osyth looked at the man for a long time. “You know what that means?” he said at last.

“I do.”

“Do you though? Becoming Vacant is nearly unbearable, your mind will not endure it. You’ll lose yourself, even if you survive.”

“I couldn’t serve the Spire with the mind I got now. Let them break it if they have to, I see no other way to get myself back to God.”

Osyth nodded. “There is no other way,” he said. “Death would be easier, though. And more pleasant.”

“Maybe so. But death don’t get me where I want to be. It don’t get me nowhere even close.”

 

***

 

They eased their pace when the sun finally set and the shadowless purple light of evening was upon them. They climbed to the top of a hill and Osyth spun Jeremiah and together they watched the east and saw the world before them fading into darkness as night slid over the hills.

They stopped in a hollow in the curving earth, sheltered somewhat from the gusts that came with the night. Osyth slipped from Jeremiah’s back and cleared a patch of the dead grass and used Vellah’s torch to light a small fire. He tended the fire carefully, making sure to keep the fire within the bed he had made for it. The dryness of the Wastes was such that even a tiny spark could ignite a blaze that would consume the world around him. Occasionally fires would break out across the deadlands, lit by lightning and fueled by wind, and they left great swaths of charred, blackened land in their wake, but such events were God’s to create, and no others, and Osyth took care to keep his flame small as it rose and crackled in the night.

Jeremiah sat at the edge of the fire. His silver mask caught the light and reflected it back all broken and wild and Osyth watched him as he obsessed over the cleaning of the saddle. He ran his hands over every surface and worked with two cloths to get at the dirt and grime that had come with the day’s ride. The saddlebags were arranged in a perfect line beside him, placed largest to smallest.

The fire burned down to a bed of glowing coals and Osyth stood and stretched and walked over to the saddlebags. He undid the strappings, and with a few hushed words, brought out a small, trembling satchel. Jeremiah immediately stopped his work and looked towards the bag. A hole was made at its top and from the hole poked the frightened head of a white rabbit, its pink eyes darting wild. Osyth could feel it shivering. He spoke soft, low words and stroked its ears to calm it. Jeremiah clicked and growled as he watched the fragile creature and a milky saliva began to run from under his placid silver mask and drip down onto the saddle where he had been cleaning. Osyth raised his hand to Jeremiah and the beast let out a deep, frustrated breath, then lowered its head and wiped the leather. He continued his work, slower now, and Osyth could see that his top set of eyes were fixated on the rabbit from behind the mask.

Osyth returned to the fire and sat with the rabbit. It stopped squirming, though it sniffed frantic at the air with its ears pinned back against its head. It fixated on Jeremiah and would look in the direction of nothing else. Osyth couldn’t blame it.

“Be calm, little one,” Osyth said to the rabbit as he stroked it. “Be calm.”

He closed his eyes. He began to take deep, full breaths, holding each one for several seconds before allowing it to leave his lungs. He focussed on the sensations around him, the warmth of the fire, the night breeze in his hair, the silence of the deadlands. He felt the small rabbit as it calmed in its burlap sack. He drew his attention inward and concentrated on the rhythm of his pulse. He felt its ceaseless drumming; felt the steady flow of blood, a tiny stream, as it coursed through his body. He fell deeper into himself and soon the tiny stream was a river and once felt it was all he could feel and all he could hear. It was a river and then it was an ocean and he drifted in its tides.

 

***

 

The greatest miracle that came to Osyth Barton came by chance, if such a thing as chance exists in a world of miracles.

It happened months ago. He had been in his quarters, deep in the Pale City, praying in the dim hours before dawn. He transcended the need for sleep years before and often used the quiet hours of the night for meditation and reflection. Vellah was much the same, although he preferred to spend his evenings walking endless circles around the Bone Crater at the base of the Spire. Being so close to God would send the Angel into fits, clouding his mind and pulling his ceaseless presence away from his flock. It gave Osyth precious time for his own thoughts, and he would watch from his tower window until he saw the tangled shadow of Vellah clamoring around the skulls of the Bone Crater before allowing himself to relax.

On some nights several of the other Angels would circle the crater as well. They would usually make their own circuits, though occasionally they walked together and conspired with one another. Some nights—the nights that would make even Osyth shudder when he thought about them—the Angels would hold some unknowable discourse with the Spire. They would shed their robes, and join into a screaming, howling chorus directed at God. The sounds would send chills down Osyth’s spine. Shuttering his windows did nothing to deaden the noise, and on those horrible nights he would flee from his study and retreat to his cellar where the thick stone walls and hard packed earth would calm the wailing. Thankfully those nights were rare.

It had been one such night when, deep in his cellar, Osyth exercised his blood control to calm his pulse. The Angel’s cries had been harrowing. They conjured an irrational panic inside the Ambassador and he fled to his basement. He sat with only a lantern in the darkness and he fought against his panic. He reached inward, heard his pulse, found his blood, and then… then he found something else, something unexpected.

He found Vellah’s blood as well.

The howling chorus of Angels sent vibrations through Vellah’s blood and Osyth could feel it dancing inside of his own veins. It was always there, of course. Like all of Vellah’s children, he had taken the holy communion. He had consumed the blood of his lord, but he had never been able to feel it. He knew it was always there, but it was hidden from him and then all at once he could sense it as if it were a different substance altogether, something pitch black and shivering. And as the howling of the Angels shook the walls and his pulse raged out of control he reached out with his mind and found Vellah’s blood as it polluted his own veins and he held it.

The chorus of the Angels filled his ears as though they encircled him instead of the Spire, as if they were in the dank cellar beside him, howling in the lantern-light. They screamed and Osyth screamed and he held Vellah’s blood but it was like holding wet lightning that seethed through his body and he could not release it. He vomited. His vision swayed and the screaming was so loud he felt as if his ears would rupture. He convulsed. He dropped to the ground. And the world went dark.

When he awoke the world was silent once again.

He raised himself from the cellar floor. He was cold with sweat, soiled, and aching. A warm trickle of blood leaked down his forehead. He sat up and leaned his back against the wall. He took a deep breath and his ears were ringing and his head felt as if it were doused in flames. No, he realized, not his head. It was his eyes. They were burning but there was no pain. There was only a feeling of change. Something was there that had no been there before.

He needed to see himself. There was something about his eyes. Something changed and he needed to see them. He removed one of the polished braces from his armor and brought it to his face along with the lantern. And there, in the flickering light, he stared at his reflection and saw nothing but his familiar face. The same as ever. The eyes flint grey and unyielding. He saw them, and then he saw beyond them. And further still. Far, far beyond.

He had been blessed that night. He been given a new and terrifying gift, praise the Spire.

 

***

 

He took a deep breath. The smell of his small fire came back to him. The cold night air. The dead grasses of the Holy Land. He listened to the gentle crackling of the burning reeds. The dry rustling of the wind moving across the hills. The thick, wet sound of Jeremiah licking his lips. He felt the ground beneath him. He felt the burlap sack in his lap and the warm rabbit inside.

He opened his eyes.

The rabbit was staring at him. It had calmed in his grip. It sniffed the air and watched him in surrender. Osyth raised the rabbit up to his face and fixated on the creature’s eyes. They were milky pink and rimmed with delicate white eyelashes. He stared into them. And then, far away from the Pale City, and far away from the mind of Vellah, he stared beyond.

It only took a second, just a sliver of a moment, and the animal opened entirely before Osyth’s mind. It’s anatomy was written before him, laid bare and splayed open like a living diagram. Osyth cried out in spite of himself. It was a beauty he did not think possible on the earth and he knew that he was seeing the creature as God saw it. He saw it as a single thing and a system of miracles and he saw the impossibility of it, the eternity of its design. Beautiful beyond reason. And such a simple creature, a rabbit. So easily overlooked. But now, beneath perception, he saw it as the thousand miracles it truly was. He saw the heavy cables of muscle, the harmony of nerves sparkling with light. Bones that fit together so perfectly, held with sinew pulled tight as bow strings.

It was a living, breathing miracle and Osyth perceived it with a gift unlike any other the Spire had bestowed. A gift that allowed him to watch life in bewildered rapture. That allowed him to observe the machinations of God. To understand them. To connect to them.

And more…

He watched the creature before him and a darkness was there and it was something he could steer. Some black knot of malice that he controlled. A feeling foreign and painful.

And the true nature of his gift was revealed to him.

With nothing more than a passing thought he located the rabbit’s heart. It was so easy to find, like a drum sounding in the forest. He found it and he reached out and he envisioned it splitting open.

And the rabbit convulsed in his grip. It let out a ragged cry that set Jeremiah to whimpering and it thrashed in Osyth’s grip and blood gurgled from it’s mouth and smeared across its white fur. It kicked and kicked and one of its feet tore through the burlap sack and left a streak of blood on Osyth’s robe. It cried again and it’s pink eye rolled and it bit out but there was nothing to bite and its body surged one last time before dropping limp. Its small head rolled backwards and its ears touched Osyth’s knee. Its eyes went calm and glassy.

Osyth stared at the dead rabbit for a long time. His hands were shaking.

Jeremiah began to whine and paw at the ground and the noise pulled Osyth from his thoughts. He untied the collar of the bag and took out a small knife and opened the rabbitt’s throat. He walked to Jeremiah with the rabbit and held it by its feet and Jeremiah’s tongue came slithering through his silver mask to catch the raining blood.

Once drained he made a few incisions across the rabbit, cut off its feet and hands, and removed its skin which he set on the ground beside the fire. He then sliced along the thin exposed muscle of the rabbit’s stomach to release its innards. He let them fall onto the skin and brought the bundle close to the fire so he could see it in the flickering light. He stirred through it with his knife until he found the rabbit’s heart. It was sliced perfectly in half.

He speared one of the halves with his knife and ate it. He kept the other half with the rest of the innards and gave them, along with the skin, to Jeremiah who was reaching out politely with one upturned hand.

 

***

 

The rabbit, once cooked, was delicious. The air was cool against Osyth’s face and a gentle wind caressed the hills and he could see the faint dancing of the dead grasses as they rippled in the breeze. A waning moon had risen over the horizon and Osyth stared at its opal light for a long time. Jeremiah purred contentedly by the fire as he licked himself clean.

Osyth smothered the small fire and laid down in the grass and stared up at the cloud of stars that filled the sky above him.

He stared into the heavens and wondered from where in their endless expanse the Spire had fallen. He knew that he watched the true house of God and felt a longing so deep inside his heart it caught the breath in his throat. He stared at the shimmering abyss as if it were inverted before him. As if he had see it wrong his entire life. Like a fool, he believed the stars to be high above him, something to long for and reach for, but now he saw that heaven had never been above him, it was below. He was stuck to the world like a fly on the ceiling. He simply had to let go of the earth and fall into the heavens as the Spire had fallen to Lyr.

The stars swallowed his thoughts and he slept for the first time in thirty years. He slept and he dreamed of fire and God. He dreamed of blood and howling Angels and a deathless peace. He saw the Spire, and beneath its shimmering surface he saw it tremble.

Chapter Two – The Light of Vellah

The Angel Vellah sat on a throne of rusted iron and gold. His many fingers wandered the metals and lingered upon them from time to time to find the places where the iron touched the gold. It calmed his fractured mind. He felt the cold purity, then pitted decay, then purity once more. Back and forth, on and on. Each existing in defiance of the other and neither giving way. The fragile soul of the world.

Embroidered robes covered the immensity of his coiled body. They were purple and white and trimmed in gold and they draped from his many shoulders like tapestries and carpeted the ring of stairs that led to his temple floor. A tangle of limbs, all pale and finely veined, sprouted from beneath the robes and clutched the throne beneath him. Most of his eyes were rolled back in their sockets. A thin line of drool ran from the far corner of his mouth.

He was exhausted. A sermon had only just concluded in the temple and he had played host to a great sea of the faithful. They flooded his temple as the sun rose and they left harried, exhausted, and hoarse from screaming. Ninety-three had died during the service. Roaming Acolytes gathered their bodies, shrouded them in crumpled gauze, then carried them to the fane behind the temple where they would be repurposed.

Vellah watched the bodies as they were trundled away. He thought of their swollen souls, fat with faith and devotion, drifting to the starving maw of God. He thought of the endless hunger of the Spire.

The Acolytes were feverish in their work. They ferried away the dead and then washed away the blood and the vomit that spread across the temple floors. Vellah smiled at their work. It had been an exceptional sermon, the clear evidence of which was spilled in pools across the room. The Acolytes scoured the floor with water tinted with scented oils and swept the slurry into the iron grates at the end of the aisles. Streams of excrement, blood, and holy water ran together in the carved troughs beneath the temple and Vellah entertained a notion to capture them in a cistern before they dissolved into the cursed ocean. It seemed to him a shame to lose such sacred liquid.

His thoughts were interrupted by the groaning of his temple doors. He pulled his mind back to the present and felt a familiar tickle in his veins, the pulse of his Ambassador. He turned all of his eyes to watch the man as he approached. He noticed the mud staining the man’s robes and the circle of blood covering his heart.

“Osyth,” the Angel said. His voice was deep and rolling. “Come here and let me see you. Let me see the beauty that the Spire has given the world.”

Osyth stopped halfway to Vellah’s throne and bowed low to the ground. Vellah made no sign of noticing the gesture.

“You’ve been to the gates of Vennath.”

Osyth stood. “I have, my lord.”

“And why do such a thing? Why sully yourself among the swine?”

“I went to greet a group of pilgrims.”

“Of course you did. Of course. You love the little things, don’t you? The little sweets. Just look at how you’ve debased yourself for them.”

Osyth looked at his bloody robes. He said nothing.

“And were they amused?” the Angel asked. “Did they smile at your tricks?”

“I showed them the gifts of the Spire, my lord.”

Vellah laughed. The sound drifted through the cavernous temple. It was rattling and wet. “Gifts? What do you know of gifts? You lick at scraps while I sit at the feast. Do not speak to me of gifts.” He waved one of his hands to brush the thought away. “You are precious to me, child, and precious to the Spire. But do not flatter yourself. You have no true gifts. Know that you are beloved and take comfort in it. Weak, but beloved. Think of the cities that have fallen to your words. How many lives have you brought into my light? Even today, how many of these lambs came to my temple by your designs?”

“None, my lord,” Osyth said. “None at all. These pilgrims are here for you and the glory of the Spire. I am a only messenger.”

Vellah grinned. “Well said, my little snake. And quite true. They are here for me, and they are here for my love. Look here.” He pointed to a pair of his Acolytes carrying a shrouded body between them. “This one has filled so completely with love that it popped.”

Vellah watched the Ambassador’s eyes as they followed the body. He felt the tiny rise in the man’s pulse.

“The poor dead thing. It came in here at your behest, I’m sure. Another soul seeking salvation. She was not to my liking though, so I twisted her veins to knots.”

Osyth’s pulse hammered. Vellah chuckled to himself. Delightful. Simply delightful. The song of the Ambassador’s sorrowful blood. It coursed and thrummed with pity. A music summoned through words alone, and now it rattled and danced in the man’s veins. Divine and discordant. Vellah relished it. He hummed along to its rhythm and tapped a claw and smiled.

Then the music dropped to a flutter. Then stillness. Now a calm ocean where there had once been a storm. Vellah frowned.

Impressive.

Troubling.

“You have learned more control.”

“I have, my lord.”

“And what else have you learned? What other trifles did the Spire see fit to give to you?”

“Nothing, my lord.”

“Nothing,” Vellah said. “How sad. I never thought you worthless, but the Spire must see otherwise. God has granted you only a broken reflection of my own gift.”

The Angel’s smile returned as he briefly considered killing his Ambassador. It would take no effort at all. Just a simple thought and whatever threat was growing inside the man would be  gone in a rain of blood. A lovely image, but impossible. Vellah needed Osyth… for the moment, at least. He needed him for Mayfaire, but once that business was complete he planned to scour the man’s veins for any trace of Ascension that he had somehow missed. He would listen to the blood. He would know if Osyth was growing beyond his rights and he would kill him for the trespass. Perhaps he would kill him simply for the trouble.

“A broken reflection,” the Angel repeated. “Nothing more.”

“No, my lord. Nothing more.”

Vellah shifted on his throne. “Devotion is your gift, old friend. It always has been. Your gift is clarity and purpose. I cannot say why God gave you this weak power over your blood. It almost seems insulting. And I cannot say why It gave you nothing at all when you last Ascended. The Spire is mysterious.”

“I know this, my lord.”

“Yes, I suppose you do. I suppose you do… but it is no matter. Your weak heart does not concern me. Other things concern me. Bigger, more dire things. Your sister Prudence has told me very troubling things about Mayfaire… very troubling. It seems your little jewel must be brought to heel.”

Dozens of Acolytes had been busying themselves throughout the temple as Osyth and Vellah spoke, but with these last words their muscles tensed and their bodies bolted upright and the brooms and urns they held fell clattering to the ground. A collective moan escaped their lips and drifted through the temple. They turned as one and crept towards the Angel’s thone.

Vellah held them by their blood. He orchestrated their movements and they closed on him like ants to honey. They came from all the corners of the temple and clustered around the Angel’s throne then intertwined themselves at his feet.

“Yes indeed,” he said as he spilled from his throne onto the web of bodies. “Brought to heel. Culled and punished. I’ll not have disobedience. The Spire detests it.” Groans escaped the Acolyte’s mouths, but they were uncontrollable, only air pressed from the lungs. They were silent otherwise, and once the Angel was settled upon them they squirmed down the stairs on their hands, elbows and knees. They moved in perfect harmony. A single organism, a wriggling carpet of bodies. Several were crushed under the Angel’s weight as they went, but those nearby filled the sudden gaps and the liquid movement of their descent was not disturbed. A scattered trail of bodies littered the stairs in their wake. Vellah paid no attention to them.

A single Acolyte stood apart from the crawling mass. His purple robes were edged with silver, and Vellah puppeted him across the temple floor to a large burning bowl, one of hundreds spread throughout the temple. It was held in the bronze grip of a statue and a wet sludge of rendered fat burned in its basin. The man reached out with bare hands, grabbed the bowl, and lifted it from its pedestal. His skin sizzled against the metal.

The undulating bodies of the Acolytes carried Vellah to the bottom of his stairs then locked themselves together into a platform. Vellah went to their edge and then slid to the temple floor. He crawled to Osyth.

“I’ve known about these troubles for some time,” he said. “As have you, I’m sure. But it seems as though they only get worse. And this insurrection, well… It’s beyond my patience. Far, far beyond.”

The Acolyte approached holding the burning bowl. His hands cooked against the metal and his eyes were wild and tortured, but Vellah held him entirely, so he walked without making a sound. Tears rolled down the man’s cheeks. His steps were calm and smooth.

“Look at this,” Vellah said to Osyth. “Look how fragile. How weak. Do you see it?”

The man stopped at Vellah’s feet. Small tremors shook his body. His hands crackled.

“I see him, my lord,” Osyth said. “He is a true servant of your temple.”

Vellah considered the words. He watched the man for a long moment. He smelled the burning skin and looked at the man with black, pitiless eyes.

“Do you know him, Osyth? Do you recognize him? Is he, perhaps, one of the children you saved in some forgotten year? Do you know his face? His name?”

Osyth was silent.

Vellah’s released his invisible grip and the man began to shake uncontrollably. His smouldering hands had gone from blistering red to black and the cuffs of his robe smoked where they touched the bowl.

“He is an insect,” the Angel said without taking his eyes from the man. “Unworthy of the baptism he is about to receive. He stands on his own now, and just look how he trembles.”

The Acolyte began to convulse with pain. His shuddering body made tremors across the surface of the rendered fat and small waves began to spill over the edges of the bowl. They fell through the air in burning clots and one ignited the cuff of the man’s robe. Another had begun to consume his hand. Vellah watched this and rolled his tongue over his dark lips. He reached out to feel Osyth’s blood, to taste the music of its rhythm, to see how his puritan responded to the suffering on display.

He found only calm, even pulse. Another disappointment.

Yes, something would have to be done with the Ambassador. Something was different inside him. Vellah didn’t know when it had happened, but something was wrong.

A whimper teased its way through the Acolyte’s jaws and Vellah returned his attention to the man. “You are a woeful little thing,” he whispered. “You stand at the brink of godhood and you cry over pain. It makes you squeal like a babe… a frightened, mewling calf. Do you think that God desires the weak?”

The Acolyte clenched his jaw. The pressure split several of his teeth, but he did not flinch. He kept his eyes fixed on Vellah. He stood with his back straight.

“Your pain is a leash. It keeps you tied to a world of slavering dogs. God does not want dogs among his chosen. He wants wolves. Do you understand?”

The man kept his eyes fixed. His face was hard set.

Vellah grinned. “We will see,” he said. “Now slip that leash, little dog. Become my light.”

With hands like blackened bones the Acolyte raised the bowl high above his head. “My life…” he grunted. “My life… for God.”

He tilted the bowl. A thick cascade of glistening fat poured down his head and coated his robes, chased by a wave of fire. It rolled over the man’s body and swallowed him in a bright and burning cloud. He fought to stand calm. He cried prayers to stifle his mind, but his mind snapped and the prayers turned to gibbering and then became nothing but howls.

“Hush,” Vellah said as he reached into the man and locked his vocal chords. “Hush now, give yourself to the flame. Let it consume you.”

The man’s robes sloughed from his body in burning ribbons and a foul smoke filled the air as his skin blistered and peeled away and his hair sizzled into ashes. Vellah was fascinated. He found himself quite fond of the young Acolyte in spite of himself. There were very few earthly sensations as horrid as being burned alive and yet this man, through sheer will and faith, was still standing on his own. Impressive.

It wouldn’t last long. Soon the tendons would tighten on their own and send the man reeling to the floor. Vellah extended a small limb and rifled through an inner fold of his robes. He produced a torch made of carved bone and polished silver. A cup sat at its peak, held in place by a pair of silver hands.

He spat a thick, dark fluid into the the cup then reached out and touched it to the man’s burning forehead. The fluid burst into flame. Vellah admired it for a moment, then turned back to the Acolyte, felt for his steaming blood, and pulled him hard to the floor. The man’s body twitched. It smoldered and smoked.

“Ride now,” Vellah said as he handed the torch to Osyth. “Take my light to Mayfaire. Tell them that the Congregation approaches.”

Osyth gripped the torch and bowed. “It will be done,” he said, and then turned and walked back across the temple and past the prostrate forms of the other Acolytes. They had come untangled and were all staring at the burned husk on the ground as Vellah bent low over it. Jealous beyond measure, they watched as the Angel cradled the man and carried him past the throne and through a rear door in the temple. They listened to the man’s breathing, though it was little more than a whisper and soon it faded altogether.

Chapter One – Pilgrims

The pilgrim town of Vennath festered on the outskirts of the Pale City. One of the sacred border towns, it was filthy and squalid and built from nothing but rubble scavenged from the ruined capital of Avan Lyr. It was a small town, but held no fewer than fifty thousand pilgrims at any given time, each seeking the communion, or favor, of the Angel Vellah. Priests and their supplicants tended to the pilgrims. Some watched over them like shepherds, guiding them on their journeys to and from the temples of the Pale City. Others stood on high pedestals along the streets and shouted prayers to their Angel and the Spire. They cried out to God and the pilgrims gathered at their feet to hear their words.

The city was deafening, but it fell to silence as Ambassador Osyth Barton, Herald of Vellah, walked its streets. His bare feet were black with mud, as was the hem of his silken robe. He was broad shouldered and tall, but walked with the gentle humility of an elder. His eyes were the soft grey of a winter sky and calm in spite of the horrors they had witnessed. His hands were clean and soft. As he walked the sea of bodies parted before him. Pilgrims and priests dropped to their knees and pressed their foreheads to the ground at his feet.

Osyth walked above them like a man in a dream, peaceful and distant. He looked at the prostrate men and women and saw only the backs of their heads and necks. It was a familiar sight, and one he never enjoyed.

Beneath the bodies were the curving, rolling streets of Vennath. They were rough hewn and honest. So unlike the streets Osyth knew from the Pale City. There, the ground was laid in marble, ripped from the earth by thralls and polished to an ice shine. They were extraordinary, but meaningless. The roads of Vennath, however, were hewn from old stones scorched black by the coming of God. They didn’t run in perfect, defiant lines cut through the earth, they obeyed its contours instead. They rose as the earth rose, and circled hills rather than pierce them. There was something pure about them, something rich. Structure in concert with the world. Harmony. Osyth was very fond of them.

The buildings in Vennath were similarly formed. They pressed on the winding streets and leaned on each other and always appeared on the verge of collapse. They seemed to Osyth able to stand only in support of one another, and he often wondered if the town would remain standing if a single stone was upset. He found the idea beautiful. A fragile town of fragile people, everything depending on its neighbor for survival. Each building on the verge of collapse, each pilgrim at the edge of damnation, and none of them able to stand without the whole.

Thousands of frightened faces peered from the crumbling buildings as he passed beneath them. They watched from the ragged clusters of windows and from behind cracks in the charred stone. They watched him, and if his eyes settled on theirs they would grow wide and vanish into the shadows like rats.

He paused when he reached the far gates of Vennath. He stood beyond the crowds and alone save for a few wandering priests. He could hear the streets far behind him and bustling once again, their chaos a muted storm in the distance. Here at the gates the world was still. Osyth gestured to a pair of kneeling supplicants and they nodded like fools and rushed to the gates and pushed them wide open and then hurried back to kneel. Osyth ignored them. He looked upon the Holy Lands instead.

They stretched for miles and miles, further than any human eyes could see. They were golden and long dead. The air that rolled across them was still cold from the night and smelled of dry leaves and dust. Osyth stood for a long time and watched the quiet world, so still and perfect. A world of calm, cool winds and limitless peace. He closed his eyes and felt the early sun on his back, he felt its warmth like a blanket draped over his shoulders. “Glorious, isn’t it?” he asked.

Silence answered him. He frowned, and looked at the ground where nine pilgrims were kneeling in the mud. One cradled the ragged stump of a missing hand beneath his tired body. Another wore a blood-crusted wrapping on her head that left only a single clear blue eye exposed. They were all half-starved and shivering in the cold morning. The oldest among them was twelve.

Osyth sat on the ground in front of them. One of them, a skinny boy with a shaved head, raised himself ever so slightly and peered at Osyth from the tops of his eyes. Osyth smiled at him and the boy’s eyes went huge and he snapped his head back to the ground.

“Come now,” Osyth said. “Am I that frightening?”

The boy was silent. His shoulders trembled.

“Look at me,” Osyth said, his voice gentle and calm. “All of you. Rise and sit here with me a moment.”

The children raised their faces and watched Osyth. “I know the journey you’ve been on,” he said. “Sit with me for just a moment, speak to me, then you can find your place inside. There is food inside, and water. Speak with me and it will be yours.”

The children brought themselves to sitting. They watched Osyth with the cautious, wild eyes of animals.

“Where have you come from?” he asked.

The children were silent. They looked towards the skinny boy. Osyth nodded and repeated his question, but directed it at the boy.

“Mayfaire,” the child said. His voice was soft and dry.

“Mayfaire,” Osyth replied. “That’s quite a journey. You’re very brave to have come so far. How many days have you been on the road?”

“Five.”

Osyth nodded. “That is a long time to be in the Holy Lands,” he said. “A very long time.” He looked at each of them. “I saw you coming down the road last night. I saw you all the way from the Pale City and I decided to come and greet you myself.”

Silence.

“I see that there are nine of you here. But that’s not how many left Mayfaire, is it?”

The boy shook his head.

“And how many were in your group when you left?”

The boy lowered his eyes. “There were fifteen of us,” he said.

Osyth frowned. “And the rest were taken?”

The children all nodded.

“I’m very sorry to hear that. Very sorry.”

Another child, a girl with a threadbare scarf around her neck, spoke up. “They took my sister,” she said, the words all ragged and broken. “Sara. They came in the night. I told Esten we needed a fire, but he said we couldn’t have one.”

Osyth turned to the boy. “Are you Esten?”

“Yes.”

“Esten was right,” Osyth said to the girl. “They would have seen the fire and smelled the smoke. They would have taken all of you.” He looked at each of them. He watched their frightened, tired faces. “You are all so brave. So very, very brave. And just look at how far you’ve come. You are worthy of God’s love, otherwise you would not be here right now. Take comfort in that. The Spire smiles on you.”

The girl nodded, but her eyes were rimmed with tears.

“That doesn’t make it any easier, does it?” Osyth said quietly, and they all shook their heads. “You loved your sister and the Spire took her from you. Just like it took your hand, and your eye,” he said gesturing to the bandaged children. “God takes, and takes, and takes… And sometimes it feels like It takes too much.”

He studied their faces for a long time. The sunken cheeks and the matted hair. They looked like runaways, all showing signs of a neglect that ran deeper and longer than their five days in the Holy Lands. It hurt Osyth’s heart to see them.

“I know where you’ve come from,” he said at last. “I know Mayfaire. The faithful are not loved there. Life is not easy in the Reaches and it is all you have ever known. And then you came through the Holy Lands and you suffered there. And now you come kneeling in the mud of Vennath and you will find hardship here as well. You will find it for the rest of your lives.” He raised his voice, and there was joy in it. “But do you know that there are great rewards after this life?” he said. “Great rewards. The Spire demands suffering, but it gives so much in return.”

The children were unmoved. Osyth smiled.

“I’ll show you.”

He drew a dagger from beneath his robes.

“My name is Osyth Barton. Do any of you recognize that name?”

Their eyes all went wide. Several of their mouths dropped open.

“You’re the Ambassador,” Esten whispered. “You’re one of the Ascended.”

“Yes I am. But do you know what that means? Do you know what it means to be Ascended?”

“It means you can’t die.”

Osyth laughed. It was lighthearted, contagious, and the children laughed with him. “It means much more than that,” he said as he raised the dagger to his chest. “Watch.” The children gasped as he pushed the blade between his ribs, all the way to the hilt. Blood blossomed across his white robes.

“The Spire takes,” Osyth said. “But It also gives.”

He pulled the dagger from his heart and let a trickle of blood fall from the blade into his cupped hand. The children leaned in to watch it. “The Spire gave me life, and it gave me the youth that I had lost. It gave me other gifts as well.” As he spoke, the blood in his had began to spiral. It ran like a snake around his palm and laced between his fingers and then twisted around his wrist and arm. “This is a gift from the Spire. It’s a small one, but it gives me control of my body.”

“Like the Angel?” one of the boys asked. His eyes did not leave the spiraling blood.

“Far from it,” Osyth said. “Vellah can control his blood in ways you can’t imagine, though you will understand a little when you take his communion. And some day, if you are truly worthy, you may touch the Spire and Ascend. You may receive its gifts.”

The children could not take their eyes from the spiraling blood, or the red stain that had spread through Osyth’s robes. He smiled at their wonder.

“This is such a small miracle,” he said. “Look behind me. Do you see the Spire rising from the Pale City? Do you see how high it reaches into the heavens? The Spire is God and it is a miracle beyond all miracles. It exists just as you and I exist. It is here with us, always here and not hidden in the stars. Just look at It. Do you see how mighty It is?”

The children nodded.

“It is the source of all the good in this world. It creates suffering, but it also creates miracles, and they are yours if you are worthy to receive them. Always remember that, especially when you see things in the Pale City that frighten you. Not all of God’s creations are beautiful. Some of them can be… difficult to see. And sometimes even the best of God’s creations can lose their way in the world. Stay strong and brave, and believe in the good things. You all have my blessing.”

Osyth stood and the children stood with him. They followed him through the gates of Vennath where a priest was waiting on the other side. He was fat and smiling. His white hair drifted in the morning wind and his eyes shined like dirty glass. He bowed to Osyth and then studied the children.

“Wonderful,” the priest said as he walked among them. His voice was deep and giddy. He patted the one-handed boy on the shoulder and took no notice when the child recoiled. “Such strong souls. The Angel will be so pleased to see your faces. He will be so very pleased. Just look at all of you. So strong. And how bright your eyes are…” He cupped the chin of one of the pilgrims and studied her eyes. “Magnificent. Look how wild and fierce. He will bleed that out of you, and you will cherish him for it. Soon your eyes will shine like mine. They will shimmer and shine!” The priest turned to Osyth. “How fine of you to greet these wandering souls, Ambassador. They have no idea the honor they have been given. I will see them safely through the village.”

“See that you do.”

“Of course, of course,” the priest said. “The little cherubs.” He opened his arms and the children gathered around him. “Wonderful of you to greet them, just wonderful. To see them in this unruly, graceless state. Wild little pups who’ve never known the whip.” He smiled to Osyth, his eyes glittered from the shadow of his cowl. “Were we all so unloved once?”

“Yes,” Osyth said. “A lifetime ago.”

“Indeed,” the priest muttered. He bowed low to the ground and the children bowed along with him. “How fortunate to find light in all that darkness,” he said. “Praise the Spire.”

He turned and his small flock trailed behind him. Together they walked towards the dank streets of Vennath. The priest stopped suddenly a few paces away from Osyth and drew up his hand pointing to the sky. “Dear me,” he called out. “Dear, dear me. I nearly forgot. Forgive me, Ambassador but I quite nearly forgot. An Acolyte from the temple was in my chapel this morning. He was looking for you. How could I have forgotten? The Angel Vellah requests your presence. I daresay, it must be something quite important to seek you all the way out here. We rarely see the Acolytes.”

Osyth thanked him and the priest bowed one final time before hurrying off. The children hurried after, though many of their heads stayed turned to stare at the Ambassador as they went. They stumbled over one another and the priest scolded them and they chased after him and Osyth watched until they were out of sight.

Prologue

It was dark when the carriage rolled through the southern gates of Mayfaire. Darker still when it crossed the Salt Bridge and made for the River Wall. The guards paid it little attention. They watched as it battered its way beneath the torches on the bridge, and they nodded to the hunched driver as he passed. The gesture was not returned. The driver’s head drifted and bobbed with the swaying carriage, but he made no movement otherwise.

The carriage held a single passenger, and she watched the guards through the lattice behind the driver’s shoulder. The vastness of her face filled the void. She saw the guards and the sleeping city beyond them and licked her lips. “Lovely,” she whispered. “Lovely, lovely…”

A street dog shivered as she spoke. It ran to the lower markets and hid itself between two carriage stalls and cried out in the night.

 

***

 

Naked and skeletal, Adrian Redwyn could barely stand. His breaths were ragged, and he winced with the passing of each one. He hugged a makeshift crutch, some rotten board he found in the Abandoned District. It smelled of wet earth and rot and his fingers slid into it like clay. The robe from the clinic was discarded somewhere in the darkness. The priest had insisted upon his nakedness, and Adrian was too weak to argue. He had let the robe fall from his body and stepped into the circle of torches that the priest had prepared.

Firelight danced across the ground beneath Adrian’s feet. The floor was dry earth, packed so hard it looked polished. The room beyond was derelict and cavernous. Shadows played in the darkness. Angular shapes heaped atop one another and collapsed in great piles at the far edges. They caught in the edges of the light, broken and strange, as unknown to Adrian as the room they occupied. It could have been an old stable. It smelled of horses, of old wet hay and Adrian strained to think of entering the room, but the memory was distant and then it was gone entirely. The world was like that now, hazy and dreamlike. Empty.

There was blood on his leg, an old dried smear, though he couldn’t remember where it came from. It was on his arm as well. There was some vague feeling of having fallen. Some feeling of loss. He shook his head. He began to shiver. Damn, but the air was cold. He had been wearing a robe, but it was gone, and he couldn’t remember it leaving him. It had just been draped over his shoulders and now he was naked and cold and that robe was somewhere out in the darkness beyond the torches. Somewhere now in the dark. And he was alone. Always so alone and he closed his eyes, and her face was there and smiling. Always her face. A trick of the light, some fragment half forgotten. Oh, mournful spirit. He couldn’t remember her name. It was lost to him, fallen into some crack or fissure and his mind was all cracks and fissures now. All open wounds where her fingers could creep in. “All the way in,” he muttered. “Through the bones.”

“Hush,” the priest said from behind him. He was pacing beyond the burning circle.

The priest. Adrian forgot about the priest. Memories of the man came creeping back. His panic when he saw Adrian, his desperation at the sight of him. He said that he was not fit for the audience he was about to receive. Told him that she would kill them both. Adrian coughed and his mouth filled with blood and phlegm. He leaned and spat.

The priest cried out. He scrambled for the clinic robe, used it to wipe up the mess, then threw it back into the shadows. He scolded Adrian, then began to walk the outer edge of the circle with his head shaking. He recited a prayer under his breath, though Adrian couldn’t understand the words. Just more holy nonsense, ravings of the mad. The priest completed one circuit then set fire to a bronze censer and hefted it into the air. His prayers became louder, and the room filled with incense as he walked the burning perimeter again and again.

The incense was thick and sweet and it fought its way through Adrian’s mind and troubled him. It held some threat of betrayal. They would smell it in his hair and on his skin. Only the faith used incense. Only the faith, and the Guard would smell it on him. The thought vanished as fast as formed. Others thoughts rushed to replace it. Thoughts of betrayal. Of emptiness. A delirium of fears. They invaded him, and his vision spun and awoke the pain in his body and he lost his grip on the rotted crutch and fell to the ground.

He heard the clatter of the bronze censer. It sounded far away, muffled.

“Get up!” the priest urged from outside the burning ring. He dropped level with Adrian. His eyes were wild. “Get up damn you! You cannot falter in front of her. She will not tolerate it.”

Adrian growled. The disease had gnawed him to bones, but a trace of the old fire was still alive in him. New visions clouded his mind. Visions of the priest, and blood. He grinned at them, and grinned at the terrified face in front of him. He coughed and pushed himself up. Droplets of blood fell from his chin, and he smeared them carelessly across the ground with his foot. He stood and took a breath. The air felt thick in his lungs. It sent a stab of pain through his back, though he didn’t allow it to show. He spat again, this time towards the priest.

“What do I need you for?” Adrian asked, his voice barely above a whisper.  “What purpose do you serve? I can take my offer to her.”

“Offer?” the priest cried. “You think she is coming to hear an offer? You have nothing to offer her. Nothing to say to her. She only wants to see you.”

“Have you met her before?”

“Of course not. Of course I haven’t. Very few people have ever stood in the presence of one of the Ascended. Prudence is a favored child of Vellah. She is holy.”

“And she can give me what I want?”

The priest watched him for a long moment. “You are damned,” he said at last. “Do not speak to her. Do not look at her unless she asks it.”

Adrian’s stomach twisted again. His head began to throb. He watched the smoke billow out of the fallen censer. He counted the torches along the burning circle. Anything to keep from the pain. He looked up to the night sky to count the stars, but saw only the black ceiling above him.

A rumbling carried through the room and the priest moaned. “The crutch!” he cried. “Give it to me. The circle must only hold you. Nothing else. She’s only here to see you. Now kneel. Kneel, and keep your eyes down. Do not speak. Do you hear me? Do not speak.” His voice broke with these last words and he scrambled away from the room.

Adrian listened to the priest’s footsteps as they vanished into the night. He bent down to kneel, but collapsed again when he came near the floor. He pushed himself up as the sounds from outside grew louder. He closed his eyes.

The rumbling resolved into the hollow clamor of hooves on stone and the deep grinding of carriage wheels. The sounds grew until they were just beyond the edge of the circle. And then they stopped. And the world was silent save the breath of the horses. He pressed his eyes shut. He kept his head lowered. And he waited.

Something shifted inside the carriage. Then creaking wood and groaning metal, then footsteps. Deep, loud footsteps. His eyes were open, though he didn’t remember opening them. He stared at the ground. The footsteps grew louder, then a delicate sound of metal, like tiny bells with no resonance, gentle as rain. A shadow crawled along the ground. Adrian kept his eyes lowered and the shadow grew until it was all he could see.

And then she spoke, and her voice was deep and smiling, almost songlike. “There you are,” she said. “My traitor… my lovely betrayer. There you are.”

She reached her hands towards Adrian’s face. They were long and grub white, and large enough to wrap around his skull. Delicate fingers rolled from the palms, and he shuddered as they touched him. They were soft and warm. They crawled up his neck and caressed his face.

“First Lieutenant of the Guard,” she said with trace of mockery. “Heir apparent. A trusted and ferocious man. But just look at you. Look how you rot inside this husk.” She pulled at his skin, stretching it lightly, feeling it between her slender fingers. “Look how you fall apart… and soon you will be nothing but a corpse, forgotten and swallowed by the veil. Is that your fate, little one?”

Adrian tried to shake his head, but the loving hands held him like a vice.

“Look at me.”

The words caused Adrian to spasm. They poured cold over his body. The nausea returned, along with the pain. It was amplified in terror, and tore at his stomach. He fought against it. He caught his breath. And very slowly, he brought his gaze up.

The face of Prudence the Ascended filled his vision. She was so close to him. Close enough to bite. The flamelight played across her flawless skin, her midnight hair. Her face was drawn long like a wolf’s, and smiling.

“Am I not beautiful? Are God’s gifts not wonderful?” She loosened her grip.

Adrian nodded. Tears filled his eyes. Prudence’s smile grew wider. It curled beyond the edges of her face.

“You seek God’s gifts as well,” she said. “You, a heretic, seek the love of the Spire, the love of God. You bargain for it. You think it is something to be bought.” She paused, watching him for a long moment. She looked his face up and down. “It cannot be bought. Not for any price. Not by anyone. Do you understand?”

Another nod and Prudence brushed one of her nails against his cheek. Blood welled from the cut and warmed his face. Prudence pulled him closer and smelled it.

“No,” she said. “You don’t understand at all. How could you with that foulness in your veins?” She wiped the blood against his cheek. “But you will. If your words are true. Now speak to me, my pet. Speak to me in the flesh and not through the ether. Spectral minds can be deceptive. They can be ghostly and thin. I need to hear you and see you. Now, tell me who you are.”

He took a shuddering breath. “Adrian Cellus Redwyn,” he said. “First Lieutenant of the City Guard.”

“And…”

His mouth felt full of dust. “And… son of the Avarine.”

Prudence hissed at the last word. Her grip tightened and her eyes rolled white. Her smile twisted, the lips pulling back to red gums and the glistening teeth, so many teeth, all began to lengthen. Redwyn soiled himself as her face changed. “A tragic word,” she moaned. Her voice had lost its hint of song. It was now at the verge of a howl and a chorus of other voices seemed to join hers and they spoke all at once. “The life it carries, the things it means. It is painful, painful.” She brought herself still closer to Adrian’s face and he could see some awful depth in her eyes and his mind was filled with gnawing insects. “Your words found me all the way in the Pale City. They were frightening to hear. Frightening to share. Your words angered the Angel Vellah. They sent my Lord to fits.”

She held one of her fingers out and its nail began to grow. It was nearly transparent, glasslike, and as long as a knife. She traced its tip along the contours of Adrian’s eye socket.

“God’s love is not a prize, little betrayer. Like my trust, it must be earned. There are costs. There is a price for everything, especially devotion. Do you understand?”

The tears in Adrian’s eyes caused his vision to blur. The image of Prudence, her spider stare, was softened beneath them, and he was thankful. He nodded.

“Look at me, Adrian Redwyn, my little traitor. Look at me, and speak again. Tell me only truth. The words that found their way to me, and then to our sacred Angel… words of rebellion, of heresy… are they true?”

He blinked and the tears washed from his eyes and Prudence wiped them from his face. She had calmed once again. Her eyes had clouded back to their calm dark. Her teeth had receded. The tiny hooks in her hair caught the torchlight and glittered like gems. She smiled, and in the smile Adrian Redwyn saw that she was indeed beautiful. So very, very beautiful and in her beauty he saw life and salvation.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes. It’s all true. Every word.”

 

***

 

The carriage lurched back across the Salt Bridge as the night began to fade. It disappeared into the cresting dawn, and the days and months disappeared after it.

The heat of the high summer began to depart, and the first autumn winds chilled the nights. The early harvest came to the southern farms, and the city of Mayfaire began to prepare itself for the far distant winter. And far to the east, in the barren Holy Lands, the Pale City began to stir.

A Glimpse

In the dream it was always storming, and beneath the storm wrestled a fabric of bodies all intertwined and vast. They roiled upon themselves, a filthy sea slick in the rain. The dreamer watched them from a distance and then stood at their knotted shore and then suffocated within them. 

It was always the same. The impossible depth of bodies coalesced and the dreamer was part of them and all of them at once. A single being. A terrible thing that rose like a mountain from the land with bodies all reaching together and stretching and soon they pierced the slate clouds and climbed into the sky beyond in triumph over the storm. They stood mighty in the darkness above the world. They reached further and further towards the stars, but in all their reaching they found nothing but endless night. The heavens were empty. Darkness alone waited for them, and with nothing to reach for and nothing to hold they despaired in the void and lost themselves to it. They let go of one another and toppled back to the dead land below.

The bodies fell like rain. And once shattered they could not rejoin and with nothing to hold and nothing to want they turned to gnashing. And the dreamer was lost and bleeding among them and all their eyes burned and the earth stank of iron and in the end the dream was nothing but death and empty darkness.

It was always the same.

Discussion

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