Update

Hey Everyone,

 

I’ve had a hard time categorizing this little experiment. At first I called it a “Novel in Progress,” which was appropriate, but a little on the dull side. Eventually I changed it to a “Serial Novel,” which is much sexier, but I’ve always harbored a little reluctance for that description. Calling this book a “Serial Novel” gives the impression that it’s finished and concrete, and that you simply have to tune in each week to get the next episode. It’s a beautiful idea, and one I will return to, but I’m realizing as I go that plowing full-steam ahead can be a tad dangerous.

Let me explain.

I started this website with the idea that it would be vehicle for sharing my novel and receiving feedback, and so far it has been excellent at both of these. This site has allowed me to share this strange little story with a beloved group of readers (and please know that it means the world to me if you’re reading this right now), and it has given me the opportunity to hear a chorus of feedback about the story told so far. You have kept in touch with the good, bad, and ugly things you’ve discovered over these nine chapters and I have taken everything to heart.

With all of this in mind I’ve decided that the pause here between parts two and three can give  me a nice chance to remedy some of the more glaring issues with the early chapters in the book. It also give me a chance to add what I believe is a pivotal chapter before we head out to meet Osyth.

So today, unfortunately, you’re not getting a new chapter of Mayfaire. You’re getting an excuse and a promise.

I know, I know, I’d rather a chapter as well.

Here is the excuse: I don’t have a new chapter because I’m working on fixing the existing ones.

And here is the promise: I won’t spend any more time on this than is absolutely necessary.

As I mentioned before, one of my updates is a new chapter, which I’m very excited about and I hope you will be as well. It will shed some light on the aftermath of Adrian Redwyn’s meeting with Prudence, and introduce you to a very important character that has been patiently waiting for part three (even though patience is certainly not one of her strong suits). It’s a fun chapter to write and hopefully a fun one to read, and if all goes according to plan, it should be available on the site very soon. Part three will follow on its heels and we can finally get this show pushing forward once again.

So here we are. The perils of the “Serial Novel” laid bare. I would ask that you (temporarily) think of this book as a “Novel in Progress” once again and stay patient with me as I step backwards. Please know that I’m only doing it to better prepare the way forward.

And trust me, part three will be worth the wait.

 

Yours beneath the Spire,
Mat

Interlude – Harrowsong

I am a weapon
I am the hammer of God

I bring revelation
I bring enlightenment

I am the farmer’s scythe
I shear the wild grass
reborn as bread

I am the woodsman’s axe
I fell the wild tree
reborn as home

I am the breaker’s whip
I cull the wild horse
reborn as steed

I am the headsman’s blade
I am menace
I am death

I bring peace to the world

— Harrowsong of the Veng

Interlude – The River’s Jewel

Listening to my readers is a huge part of releasing the book in this serial format. I love hearing about people’s opinions on the progress, characters, and story, and I find the feedback to be very valuable as I move forward.

That being said, this week’s chapter is something of a response to some great feedback that I’ve received dealing with history and lore of the Island of Lyr. I had a section of history in chapter 8 (The Sovern Lodge) that some readers felt was out of place. I agree with this, and have been thinking of ways to introduce some important history without interrupting the flow of the story.

This week’s chapter is something of an experiment. It is an interlude between parts two and three, and is an excerpt from a historic text from the Scholam. I really love the character and format that this takes and feel it could be a nice way to break up the story and inject some good info. As always, I’d love your thoughts. Enjoy!

-Mat

 

 

The River’s Jewel:
A History of Mayfaire

 

Compiled by
Esteemed Chronicler Arin Lantis Grevelle, Scholam Historic Guild

Begun on this day
The twenty-ninth of Harvest, in the year 237, the Age of Hope

 

Part One: A Brief Introduction

 

Throughout the years the Scholam has produced countless histories of the early years of our great island kingdom. One need look no further than Hemmel’s extraordinary Books of Lyr or the Histories of the First Years by Mellis Hinton III to learn of the early events that shaped the foundational cities of the east. Hinton’s beautifully livid account of the Exile Fleet’s first sighting of the island is enough to warrant the navigation of her inspired, if occasionally overwrought, tome.

These books, and the dozens of similar ilk, do a more than adequate job of detailing our young kingdom and, as such, I feel there is scarce little to the study that I may contribute. I say this as argument against the dictate of Master Scholar Forstin who has tasked me with yet another volume about the formation of Avan Lyr, though he has specified that my work is to concentrate solely on the history of the sewage system, which I find to be wholly unnecessary. Furthermore, I believe his intentions to be coming not from a place of true intellectual interest, but from the harboring of ill feelings he holds needlessly against me. It should be noted that I have apologized profusely for my behaviors towards the honorable Missus Forstin. My comparison of her to an ox in my latest tritise was meant only as a compliment to her fortitude and strength of character. How it came to be associated with her bullish appearance I have no idea. I have said this repeatedly, but my words seem to fall on deaf ears.

It is for these reasons that I have abandoned Master Forstin’s assignment in favor of an assignment of my own. I intend to fill these pages with the history of the city of Mayfaire, the River’s Jewel, and my beloved home. Though self-appointed, it is a task that I do not take lightly. It is my belief that the history of this grand city mirrors that of our entire island kingdom and that it is no less significant than the founding of Avan Lyr or the establishment of the Western Capital. I hope that the exceptional quality of this text will please the Counsel and prove to Master Fortis that I am meant for greater things than the writing of fecal histories. In these pages I aim to regale with the most concrete of facts and shall avoid any similes upon which readers of sensitive character could take umbrage, especially those of slow wit and simple appearance.

Furthermore, it is my belief that more elaborate histories of the great cities tend to be written upon the eve of their downfall and I wish to refute that trend. When a city’s greatest moments are behind it, historians scramble to record books of glory as ways of convincing themselves, or the population, that places of magnificence do not falter, they only rise. This can certainly be said about Artine’s History of the City of Hope which declared its subject to be the heart of civilization only twenty years before the city’s population plummeted, preferring instead the more promising lands of Avan Lyr. Common also is the trend to write histories with a tinge of nostalgia for more glorious times if the current day is lacking for inspiration. I can say with confidence that neither of these scenarios applies to my own volume, or to the city of Mayfaire. The River’s Jewel has never shone brighter, and has no signs of losing its hard-earned luster. It is quite the contrary in fact, since all evidence points to greater and greater days ahead.

Presently, I am sitting in my study on the eve of a great day. I can hear the sounds of celebration, even as I write these words, echoing through the streets and finding their way through my windows. The city is celebrating a momentous event, for tomorrow is the dedication of the Colosseum of Avar, the grandest construction that has ever graced these grounds and truly one of the wonders of the Island of Lyr. I have seen the cascading Falls of Raban, as well as the musical gardens of Lainn and the furnace trains of Aurton, and I can say with certainty that our Colosseum stands among, if not far, far above them all. I can also say that it is deserving of the name Avar, and if that great hero of legend was to see the works that our humble hands have dedicated to him he would weep as I have wept at the building’s magnificence.

Words simply cannot express my joy at being present on the eve of such an event. There can be no greater honor for a student and contributor of history than to be witness as history itself is unfolding. We chroniclers have dedicated our lives to the past, and often to the deeds of the dead, so it is a rare treat to see the glories of the current age as they are occuring.

It behooves me to take a moment to address my accused predisposition to cast Mayfaire in a glorious light. My critics are often quick to point out what they perceive to be a fawning over this particular city in my writings, but their scorn is misplaced. As an historian of merit it is my duty to provide an objective view of my subjects and leave my own personal opinions far from my texts. I therefore feel it necessary to acknowledge my family’s contributions to the city and make clear that they are in no way an influence on my opinions. I will ignore the fact that my noble family helped to pull Mayfaire from its early fragile days as a western outpost. It would be unprofessional to even mention that this city would not exist at all if not for the generosity of House Grevelle, so I shan’t do it. And I will certainly not speak of House Grevelle’s role in creating the eastern trade routes, a role that continues to thrive to this very day. My voice shall be a voice of truth and objective honesty for Mayfaire and its people. Why would there be need to embellish the history of a city so grand?

It is an unfortunate aspect of history that the vital early years of a city are oftentimes shrouded in the fog of time. Mayfaire is no different. The foundations of this city were built in times of great strife, and in a less cultivated age. It would seem, reasonably enough, that the earliest settlers of our city were preoccupied firstly with survival and had no thought of setting down the events of their days in ink. Why they could not find the time to do so has always been a source of frustration for me. It is a tragic inconvenience.

What we can gather, through the meager evidence that remains, is that the outpost that was to become Mayfaire once stood where the district of West Reach is seated today. It would be difficult to imagine when one is strolling through the pristine campus of the Temple Scholam, or the historic, and lavishly painted, residences of the Reaches that the districts were once the site of life and death struggles of our forebears. It is a fact, however, that if one casts their glance downward at the corner of Weyland Street at Croston they will see a peculiar line of thick stones incorporated into the very street on which they stand. These rough hewn stones mark the foundation of the first founding wall of Mayfaire, a remarkable, and often overlooked, trace of the first settlement.

Walls have always been an essential part of a settlement on our island. Whether or not this has been the case for all of human civilization is anyone’s guess. The first settlers to our island made it their business to eradicate the knowledge of where they came from and, save for a few precious records at the High Library of Avan Lyr, how they got here. It is a tragedy that all island historians are well used to. We trade in knowledge and facts of the bygone eras and yet we face a void of all knowledge when it comes to the years that would truly cast light on who we are and where we came from. It is an unfortunate mystery of our lives that we begrudgingly accept. The lives of our ancestors and the lands they came from may reveal themselves to a talented historian someday, but of these facts I (and the entire Scholam) remain ignorant.

The truths that I do know about settling and civilization are bound to our great island, and they all settle on an unmistakable fact on the frontier: walls are life. It was a common sentiment shared by all the great leaders and summed up perfectly in Verilly’s History of the Western Expansion:

 

There were, of course, settlements into the western woods that began without fortifications of any kind. Their names are all lost to us, however, as none lasted beyond a fortnight.

 

The passage, while undeniably exaggerated, is clear on one fact of early settlement: start with your wall.

When the Exile Fleet first came to the shores of this fair island they found themselves in a paradise. A new world, one seemingly untouched by mankind, was before them. Rich in resources, and set about in a temperate climate where crops could be cultivated in long growing seasons and warm spring rains. It wasn’t until they worked their way inland that they realized they shared their new home with a frightening indigenous race.

The wars with the monstrous Clans of the island have been well recorded by others and there is nothing that I here can add to their histories. I will say that Mayfaire suffered in the familiar way that all expansions of our borders suffered, and the assaults from the Clans were violent in a way that we living today can hardly fathom. Excavations in and around West Reach have provided us with all manner of artifacts from the earliest days of the settlement, and judging by the sheer number of bones of both races, they were bloody and brutal.

The first true record of the the city comes to us from the hand of Artin Vale, an early merchant and scholar who was aligned with House Delando. It is appropriate that the earliest documentation of the settlement was laid down by a merchant’s son, and I do not shy away from the irony that another merchant’s son is recounting it. Artin Vale, whose family name still adorns many of the spice boxes from the Windlands, tells us of the fifth year of the city, and how the lanes had been roughly established to connect Mayfaire to the southern plateau. It was with this connection, and the resources now flowing in from Selvid and the plateau, that laid the first seeds of Mayaire’s fate.

Salt, though it is now so common as to be found on most supper tables, was once a rare and vital resource to the capital city. The art of extracting it from sea water was brought to the island by the first settlers, but it proved to be a skill of no use since the gathering of sea water was just as treacherous as our ancestors first ill-fated fishing expeditions. It is a tragedy that we have simply accepted that an island-living people have little ability to gather the bounties of the waters that surround them. Attempts were made by the early settlers, but given Vale’s accounts of the fouls things netted in the coastal waters it is no wonder we avoid it. It is, in fact, a remarkable thing that the Exile Fleet managed to navigate the waters to the island at all since the leviathans surrounding Lyr have made ocean travel impossible for the entirety of our known history.

The shallow bays at Hope and Insmos allowed for some extraction of salt from the brackish water, but it was labor intensive and yielded little, so you can imagine the excitement when an expedition party discovered ancient salt mines on the Southern Plateau! Of the original excavators of that land we have very little information, but it seems that they were eradicated outright by the loathsome Clans hundreds of years before the Exile Fleet landed. Few of their structures exist, and among them were the ruins that would eventually form the foundations of the salt-mining city of Selvid. A route was established to connect the salt mines to Avan Lyr, but it was quite treacherous. Vale writes:

 

Of the importance of salt there can be no question, but the value it brings and the costs it accrued were unmatched, and despite the sacrifices of our bravest, trade with the valuable Southern Plateau remained elusive. The route began simply enough, but as the hills steepened, and the soil gave to slick rock, the way became nearly impassable, even for the most hardened of journeymen. With no viable way to ferry pack animals the only resources that made their way to the city were brought on the backs of the survivors, and they were far too few.

 

It is no wonder then that Mayfaire grew as fast and as it did. It provided the island with not only a simple route to the precious salt mines of Selvid, but also a fast and safe way to transport them to Avan Lyr: on the currents of the Great River.

Any history of Mayfaire would be incomplete without the inclusion of the Great River and its importance to the life of the city. The fast-flowing currents not only allow us to send resources to the capital city with ease, they also turn the great water wheels of the city and fill our fountains, baths, sinks, and (perhaps most importantly to any civilized place) our running sewers. The infrequent floods that bedeviled the early settlements are a small price to pay for the numerous gifts our river gives us, and besides, with the construction of the Drains, they have been completely under our control.

One interesting characteristic of our river trade route was that it was unidirectional; the strength of the river’s current only allows goods to flow to the east. Upriver travel was, of course, attempted, but the manpower required outmatched the benefits. Especially since the road connecting the two cities was quickly becoming so well traveled as to be almost pleasant. Outposts and watchtowers were established to keep the marauding Clans under control, and the journey itself could be taken in under a week at a leisurely pace. The journey was just beginning to be taken simply for pleasure alone, a fact that the early settlers would scarce have believed! I myself have had the opportunity to take the road many times and can attest to its beauty and grandeur. From the sweeping grasslands surrounding Avan Lyr, to the dense and wild Midland Forest, it is a true delight. Lush greenery as far as the eye can see met by a sky as blue as the gems mined in Aurton. It helps, no doubt, that since the Clan Migration the lands themselves are safe and practically free of danger, but the early travelers made the trip in spite of those old threats.

With the establishment of the early trade routes, Mayfaire became a vital settlement to the island. It also sat as the furthest settlement in the West and, as such, became the natural seat for the expeditions that would establish the cities of Hardûn, Lainn, and the far western settlement of Levitia, which, as we all know, would later be known as Raban Lyr, the City on the Falls, and the great Western Capital of Lyr. The success of these expeditions further established Mayfaire’s role as a center of trade and it grew quickly from a humble frontier outpost into a thriving, wealthy city.

The initial leadership of Mayfaire was formed by appointees from the noble houses of Avan Lyr. These houses, though respected in the capital city, found themselves losing power to the lords of the early merchant houses. Several rose quickly in power: House Acton, who claimed control of the expedition roads and the valuable western fur trade, House Vireo who controlled the salt routes to the southern plateau (though they would later move the seat of their power to the mining city of Selvid), and my own house, House Grevelle, who controlled the Stonewood trade in the north. Much can be said about the relationships between these great families and the politics of power in Mayfaire, and not all of it is kind. I have my opinions about the ruthlessness of the vile House Acton, but I respectfully withdraw myself from political discussion in this book. This will either please or enrage my readers, depending on their predilections, but I find the topic dull and tiring. Suffice it to say the Barons of the great houses did not get along, and after forming their own militias something akin to civil war was descending on the fledgling city. Violence may have erupted in earnest if not for the intervention of a man named Avar Aurel, who would go on to form the City Guard. He would also, in a selfless act of humanity during such corrupt times, go to great lengths to keep the organization neutral.

The City Guard of Mayfaire is, in my humble opinion, a greater wonder than even the soon-to-be-dedicated Colosseum at our city’s heart, and more than deserving of a quick mention in these introductory pages. They have defied the corruption that is so rampant in many armed forces and have a training and renown second to none. There are those who claim that the vanguard of General Cor Tennal are the greatest fighting force on Lyr, but I believe that to be a gross exaggeration of their martial acuity. While powerful, they are a field army, burdened with armor and placed in ordered ranks. The City Guard of Mayfaire fight with an independence and intelligence that allows them to be flexible in both assault and defense, and they have proven themselves time and again as keepers of true peace. Mayfaire, I believe, would simply not have survived without them. They are glorious and I place that glory firmly on the noble lineage of their leadership. Few institutions are allowed to be led by successive generations on our island, the practice tends to lead to ineffective leaders at best, and downright cruelty at worst, but the passing of leadership to successive generations of the Aurel family has kept the City Guard a force to be reckoned with. I will let others speculate as to the nature of the bloodline, but I believe them to be of truly special descent.

So far I have made no mention of the religious practices of Mayfaire. The simple reason for this is that faith has never played a part in the formation or leadership of our people, much like the rest of the island. I have heard of superstitious generals who take the auspices before battle, and there are, of course, the strange beliefs of the Sacris cult who seem to be growing in alarming number in the east, but these men and women are the exception in our society. Many believe that Lady Lyr herself, that greatest of all leaders who navigated the Exile Fleet from its dark past and saved our civilization, pushed her people to forsake the practices of worship altogether. Perhaps in that rumored knowledge we can discern a hint of what the first settlers were fleeing from in their unknown homelands, though we shall never know exactly.

There is more, so much more, about Mayfaire that needs to be recorded, and in these pages I will go into detail of each and every event that has played a role in our history. It is my hope that this humble introduction will provide a foundation of the city upon which I can lay the blocks of its great story. I am excited to continue, but for now the revery in the streets is calling my name, and I would be foolish to ignore it. The dedication of our glorious Colosseum is nigh, and tonight we celebrate not only its completion, but the cumulative wonder that is our beloved Mayfaire. I simply cannot wait to be among the celebrations.

9 – Morning Star

Hey everyone! Man, am I pumped about this week’s chapter. It’s a real doozy. I’m excited for you to read it, so I won’t take up much time here, but…

I wanted to propose a question. A couple of my readers have expressed interest in a section of the site that has brief chapter synopsis or maybe a small paragraph before each chapter to get you caught up. Kind of my version of a “previously on LOST…” type thing before each episode. I realize a week can be a long time to wait between readings, so this could help jog your memory about events and people. Any thoughts? Hit me up in the comments or my contact form or any social media (links at the bottom of the page). Oh, and as always don’t forget to sign up to the mailing list for update emails. I love getting new subscribers.

And tell your friends about the book!

Ok, that’s it. No more interruptions. Time to sit back and enjoy this next chapter. I know I enjoyed writing it!

-Mat

 

 

Chapter Nine – Morning Star

 

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah huffed and slid back into the shadows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me your name.”

“Veric, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

“Good. Do you know why you’re here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything, sir. Anything at all.”

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

“What would you have me tell?”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty two, sir.”

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

“Sorry… Osyth.”

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

“Aye, near every breath of it.”

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

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

“Be honest with me.”

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

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

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

“And what did you see?”

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

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

Veric hesitated.

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

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

“And what is that?”

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

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

“No, sir.”

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

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

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

“Aye, but God speaks through him.”

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

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

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

“I… I believe in God. Nothing else.”

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

“No, sir.”

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“I can understand that, sir.”

Osyth smiled. “And why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah stirred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how many came back with you?”

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

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

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

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

Veric was silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can take away the communion?”

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

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

“Look at me, Veric.”

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

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you not even look at me?”

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

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

“Look at Jeremiah.”

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

“The floor.”

And they went.

“Now to the sky.”

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

“Put your arms down.”

He did so.

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

A solitary figure watched them, perched among the rooftops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 – The Sovern Lodge

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

 

8 – The Sovern Lodge

The Spire descended on Avan Lyr in the year 280, and with it came the end of the Age of Hope. Cosmin’s great grandfather, Corvin Aurel, stood at the east wall of Mayfaire, one among thousands, and watched silent as the plume of smoke pushed itself from the capital city and into the evening sky. Avan Lyr was leagues away, but the smoke appeared to be emerging just at the borders of the Central Forest. The scale was all wrong. Nothing could be so vast.

The cloud grew and grew. A slow, relentless pillar connecting the horizon to the heavens. Rippling like liquid and ringed in silver looping clouds that themselves began to spread and float to the growing blossom at its crown. And the darkening sky above it all. A warm breeze touched those standing along the wall. The air was acrid and electric, and with it came a gentle haze that held in the air. It was all so gentle. The whole day. A slowly climbing cloud, a slowly changing sky. The horizon fading stone to slate then vanishing altogether. The graceful crawling of this new sky as it reached out to the west.

The sunset that came to Mayfaire that day was beautiful beyond words. The hazing in the air shifted the sky all blue and red and swirled with the deepest violet. A few final rays of the sun broke the haze and touched against the borders of the clouds in ribbons of silver and gold. The whole city watched from whatever heights they could find. They kept their backs to the eastern sky and the growing mire that could barely be a sky at all.

Dawn rose dim and sickly. The sun was lost among the reeking clouds and the light it cast was yellowed and hazy and by noon it was no brighter than dusk. The city beneath the sky was dark and silent and the people were dark and silent in turn.

There was no panic. Not at first. The city stood somber and waiting. Scouts were sent to the east, but none returned. Rangers spread out to find the borders of the growing clouds, but the news they brought was grim. A week passed and the sun did not shine. Another week, then another. And leaves of the forest began to wilt. A month passed. And the first of the southern crops began to fail.

The sun did not shine above Mayfaire for over a year. Riots broke out as food holds emptied and soon a great famine claimed the city. Disease followed, as it always will, and the defeated people of Mayfaire had no choice but to leave their city in search of lands where the sun was still shining.

Many did not find it. Rumors spread of the clouds ending near the southern Selvid Plateau, and of thriving green lands to the west near Hardûn, or far to the north by the foothills of the Black Mountains. None were confirmed, but the desperate people of Mayfaire fled their city and became refugees in their own lands. Corvin Aurel mustered the exodus, but was killed before he could leave the city. His son Trevans was born somewhere on the migrant road to the south.

Mayfaire, now populated only with its unburied dead, stayed behind.

Life staves off death, and when the people of Mayfaire left their homes they unknowingly invited the decay of abandon. It started simply: a tiny dripping of water from a loose tile in a roof, an insect-ridden beam in need of replacing, mortar baked brittle beneath the sun. A hundred thousand small annoyances, but with no one to fix them they grew into calamities. Small leaks turned to floods that rotted wood in the hot summer and cracked foundations in the freezing cold. Old beams collapsed, masonry crumbled, and soon entire buildings fell and the city withered beneath the sick golden haze of its new sun.

Rats took control of the streets. They feasted on the abandoned dead and grew hale and abundant then turned on one another when there were no more bodies left to eat. Soon their bones joined the piles of those they feasted upon and in the end the city was home only to flies. They drifted fat and lazy through the air and stayed until there was nothing but dust beneath them and then they departed as well. They scattered beyond the walls on fruitful journeys into the dying forest, and Mayfaire was left in silence.

And there the city sat, cold and still beneath a vile sun, and when the first men and women crept back to the city they were vile to match. They were twisted, horrific things shuddering from the ashes of the east. They nested in the old ruined city. They dug burrows beneath it and bred in the old bones of the dead and climbed to the tops of towers to screech at the night. They were the firstborn children of the Spire. A new life that God gave unto the world.

For years, and in lands untouched, Mayfaire’s refugees watched as the sky grew brighter and brighter in the north. Scouting parties took timid journeys into the newly formed Barrens and came back with tales of the monstrous things that infested the dead forest and the old city at its heart. They also told of the sun shining bright and clear on the city streets and with that news the displaced people would not be deterred.

The reclamation of Mayfaire was led by Silene Halwyn Aurel, Corvin’s widow and Cosmin’s great grandmother. She reformed the broken City Guard and assumed its command. She did so unchallenged. She won the loyalty of the Sovern, a once proud militia, and led them all to the north and ten long years after the city was abandoned the first settlers returned to Mayfaire.

They found their city in ruins, but it was their city, and under the appointed leadership of House Hollis they began to rebuild it. They started first with the lower districts of the Reaches and Riverside, as well as the High Circle where the buildings of governance and law resided. The northeast quarter of Highland was also rebuilt, as it was the most untouched from the years of decay.

Dûngate, the district to the north of the Reaches, suffered terribly in the years of abandonment, as did the winding streets of Loton in the far northwest corner of the city. Plans were made to resurrect these crumbling neighborhoods, but they never took shape. The resources of the city were simply too precious, the new population too small. The revitalization of the city ended at the borders of the devastated districts and over time the names of Dûngate and Loton were forgotten and they became collectively known as the Abandoned District.

The city grew, the New Forest was seeded, and the first games returned to the Colosseum, and all the while the Abandoned District say empty and broken. A haunted remnant of an older age. A memory best left forgotten.

 

***

 

Cosmin walked the ruined streets without pity. The district should have saddened him. It saddened most people. But he found himself with no time or pity for sadness. He mustered only a bleak contempt, but even that was half-hearted. He saw the ruin and he saw past it. Houses fallen upon themselves. Stone walls sagging as though they were made of wax. The wood rotted from doors and windows and the moon playing at the open hollows and deepening them into wailing mouths and eyes.

Cosmin saw none of it. He walked down the center of the overgrown street and made no effort to hide against the buildings. He limped slightly. The moon was low and bright before him. His pulse hammered and his ripped hand throbbed in time and he suffered waves of pain coming from beneath the bandage, now warm and wet. Droplets of blood fell to the street and ran behind him in a thin trail. He could hear the blood patter on the stones. He didn’t stop. Let the beasts follow him if they must. Let them follow all the way to the steps of the Lodge. That would be one hell of a sight. One absolute hell of a sight.

He grinned at the thought. He whipped his hand in a small arc and left a swipe of blood on the ground. He spat. “Sniff that you bastards.”

The road buckled over tree roots and broke open in patches of wild grass before him. An owl watched unblinking from the crumbled eve of an old tavern, its head following his approach, its eyes shining gold in the moonlight. Graffiti was written upon the walls of the tavern and Cosmin stopped to read it. The owl watched him for a moment, shifted uncomfortably, then flew from the eve, a silent ghost on its way to haunt the ruins of another building. It had plenty to choose from.

Cosmin paid it no mind. He read the graffiti and couldn’t help but smile at the words written bold and black across the wall.

Eldonnis was here.

That was all they said. Letters large enough to be read in the moonlight. A simple claim of existence. They were fading, the paint chipped, and Cosmin wondered just how long ago they had been written. And whatever became of the brave and bold Eldonnis?

More graffiti appeared as he walked down the road. Words written large and small and in many paints by many hands. They covered fallen walls and the ridges of old archways. One set written vertical on a cluster of pillars standing like a ribs above a pile of old grey brick. Another painted across the paving stones at Cosmin’s feet. Most of the words simply proclaimed that their authors had written them. Undeniable proof to the world that someone had made it this far into the haunted streets. Some were personal boasts, others were vulgar accusations, some were grim confessions. A few were the naive vows of young love. One simply said Fuck the Pale City. Cosmin liked that one quite a bit.

Ollon + Nevid Forever.

Virgula is a slut.

They all made him grin and for a moment he forgot about his bleeding hand. He forgot about the Ambassador and the darkness of the city and the awful weight of the letter in his pocket. The graffiti felt joyous to him in spite of its vulgarity. It was all irreverent, and defiant, and it was everywhere. It showed him the strong will and fighting restlessness of Mayfaire’s youth. He needed that. Mayfaire needed that.

He caught himself wondering how he would react if he found that Elias or Emine had written any of them. Elias, he knew, would never be bold enough. He would only venture this far into the district if his sister had dragged him, and even then he wouldn’t deface a building. Emine, on the other hand… well Emine could have written any damn one of them. He was sure of it. What he wasn’t sure of was the pride he felt at the thought.

He passed through the outer blocks of the district, the graffiti thinning as he went. He still found worlds written along the deeper streets, but the joy seemed to have left them. The words became mean and fierce. Kill the Motherfuckers, said one. Blood and Fury, said another. One, written in tall thick letters simply said DEATH. It raised gooseflesh on Cosmin’s arms.

He saw another scribbling on a wall, the letters large and half-hidden by the heaped remains of an old home. Two words, Will Rise, but more appeared as he came closer.

Then he stopped in the middle of the street. And his stomach turned and his pulse quickened. He read the words again and again.

The Avarine Will Rise.

His blood felt cold in his veins. He walked to the building and ran a hand along the letters. They were written on a crumbling veneer of old stucco and Cosmin took his eyes from them long enough to find a piece of rubble at his feet and he gripped it and used it like some primitive hammer and beat at the words until they were smashed and erased from the side of the building entirely.

He let the stone fall from his hand. He stepped back and looked at the wall. The words were gone, but they had been there and that was all he could think about. His hand was aching once again. A drop of blood fell from the soaked bandage. The wind picked up and came cold down the street and a swirl of dust rose with it, barely visible in the moonlight, faint as mist. A howling sounded in the distance. “Goddamn,” he said.

Two streets further and the graffiti vanished altogether. He saw signs of trespass, broken bottles, broken windows, refuse in the overgrown streets, but very few people ventured deep into the Abandoned District and soon the buildings were left only to the familiar destruction that only time and the elements can provide. Teenagers can deface buildings with their misguided fury. They can destroy walls, and smash in doors, but only time can truly turn a city into a ruin.

Or at least that’s what Cosmin thought.

 

***

 

He emerged onto the dimness of the West Road and looked up to see the shattered heights of the Tower Scholam silhouetted against the waxing moon. A fierce, solid building sat across the open street. Its stones were dark with age, but it was otherwise untouched by the ruin that surrounded it. It sat back from the road and a wide slope of stairs led up to a heavy set of arched Stonewood doors that sat beneath a pillared eve. The slim figure of a woman stood beside the doors. She had a bow drawn on Cosmin as he approached.

“Hail!” Cosmin shouted as he stepped across the road. “Hail Sovern huntress.”

“Who comes?” the figure shouted in a high, clipped accent. She did not lower the bow.

Cosmin stopped and raised his hands. He heard the sounds of other bows being drawn from the shadows around him. “Cosmin Aurel.”

The woman lowered her weapon at the name. She was shadowed beneath the eve, but Cosmin could see the swirling of tattoos that covered the lower half of her face. She did not bow as he approached. “Hail Cosmin,” she said.

“Hail Rhoa.”

She let out a short whistle and Cosmin caught the movement of three other figures from the corners of his vision. All lowered their bows at Rhoa’s signal. They went still once again and vanished as though they had never been there at all.

She must have seen the surprise on his face. “The Lodge is on edge,” she said as she knocked hard on the doors. “The Days are here early. There is something bad in the air.”

“Yes,” Cosmin said. “There is.”

Rhoa pushed the doors open and nodded for Cosmin to enter.

The Lodge beyond the doors was grim and silent. It had always been a raucous place and now it sat as still and dead as the surrounding district. A fire pit dominated the center of the building’s great room though it held nothing but cold ashes. The dark shapes of several of the Sovern were seated in benches around the pit. Cosmin could only just see them. They did not speak or nod as he passed, they only stared.

Rhoa stepped in front of Cosmin and led him through the room and out to a wide arched hallway and a vast courtyard beyond. “He’s been waiting for you,” she said.

The sky was above Cosmin once more. He could see the green grass, nearly blue in the night, as it stretched out across the yard and he could see the great silhouette of a man standing at its center. Rhoa stopped at the edge of the courtyard and Cosmin walked alone. The great man had his hands folded behind his back and was staring up at the night sky. He did not turn as Cosmin approached.

“Figured I’d see you,” Baltar Keyne said. He had the same accent as Rhoa, a holdover from the northern ancestry that many of the Sovern shared, though his was a rolling baritone.

“I need your help,” Cosmin said.

“I figured that as well.”

The moon seemed to brighten. It hung in a sea of stars so illuminated and vast they made the sky seem dirty with light. Baltar stood beneath them, feeling their expanse. His breaths were smooth and steady.

“It’s a lovely night,” Baltar said. “Crisp, and cool.”

Cosmin walked beside him and they both stood watching the sky for a long moment, they were small and frail beneath it. “It’s a terrible night,” Cosmin said at last.

“Indeed it is. But can’t it be both? Lovely and terrible at once? The fires are out, but the stars are burning for us.”

Cosmin turned and studied the man beside him. “You’re calmer than I was expecting.”

Baltar considered this. He scratched his beard and Cosmin saw the peaks and ridges of a hundred scars running along the man’s arm. One in the shape of a crescent moon was deep in the meat of his hand. “Calm,” he said. “I am far from calm.”

“You hide it well.”

Baltar crossed his arms against his chest. “Have you any idea how my hunters love their fires? They are a great weapon for us, and now they have all gone cold.” He turned to face Cosmin, the teeth woven into his beard rattled as he did so. “Some hope dies with the flames. It always does.”

“I think that’s the whole point.”

“Of course it is. The Faith loves us to be desperate in the darkness. We are meant to lose hope. But what then? What replaces hope when hope is lost?”

“Fear,” Cosmin said. “Sadness.”

Baltar nodded. He turned back to the stars. “Indeed. But my Sovern do not understand fear or sadness. I’ve broken them of both. They are butchers. And when they lose hope something darker than fear or sadness replaces it.”

“Something you put there.”

Baltar nodded. “Perhaps. Or perhaps it was always there and I simply know how to wake it. Whatever the source, each of my Sovern have a fire inside of them. One that burns when all the rest go out. But it is a black fire, and not one that I am prepared to stoke. Not tonight. So I wear a mask of calm. They see it and they are calm in turn.”

“It’s very convincing.”

“Yes, well. It’s been worn many times. We all put them on, do we not? Some of us wear many. Your own masks have been on for such a time you may not remember the face beneath them.”

“I can remember.”

“I hope that you do. Ere all be lost. Now tell me what happened to your hand.”

“I grabbed one of their clubs.” Cosmin raised his bandaged hand and turned it. It was soaked through and glistening in the moonlight. “By the wrong damn end.”

“Ha!” Baltar roared. “Did you now? Most clubs have handles, you know. Even those of the Vacant. A fine handle on every one of them, I’m sure.” He shook his head. “You never were much of a fighter, old friend.”

Cosmin grinned. “It was dark.”

“I don’t doubt it. It looks terrible.”

“It feels worse.”

“Just wait til it gets infected. I can slice it off if you’d like, clean and neat. I can do it right now. Save you some trouble.”

“I’ll see Halliwell,” Cosmin said. “For this I‘ll prefer her blades to yours.”

“As you wish. How many attacked you?”

“Six.”

Baltar’s eyes raised. “Six? And you fought them all off with the wrong end of a club. Very impressive. You’ll have to tell me what happened. It sounds worthy of a tale.”

“Isaac happened.”

“Ha! Isaac happened. I damn well bet he did. By heaven, I wish I had been there to see that cat of yours slip his tether. He’s as strange as they come, but I love to see him fight.”

“It wasn’t much of a fight.”

“I don’t doubt it. I imagine he cut them down like weeds. Did you get any of them with your backwards club?”

“One. Once I spun it around.”

“Well I’m surprised he let you get that one in. Must have felt bad for you.” Baltar craned his neck to look behind Cosmin. “Did he follow you here? I’d like to hear the tale if he’d work the nerve to speak to me.”

“He’s getting rid of the bodies.”

“So it happened in the Circle then?”

“At the southern edge of the market.”

“Bad luck. Damn bad luck… I suppose he needs a few hands.”

“He does,” Cosmin said. He pulled out the letter from his coat pocket. “So do I.”

Baltar took the folded parchment. “Looks important.”

“How fast can you get a rider to Hardûn?”

Baltar frowned. He turned the letter in the moonlight and saw the name scrawled on the back: Tristan Valdere. He let out a low noise, not unlike a growl.

“How fast?”

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

“How fast?”

Baltar scratched at his beard. “Well, let’s just see.” He turned to the dark Lodge behind and bellowed. “Evanine!”

A figure broke from the shadows near the arches of the Lodge and strode towards them. She wore a single sleeve of armor on her left arm that rose to a spiked pauldron on her shoulder, polished bright and menacing. A ring of bones radiated around her neck and her shining hair was pulled back from her face by two long curving bones. She looked at Cosmin and nodded curtly.

“How fast can you make the ride to Hardûn?”

“Five days.” Her voice was clear and sure with a hint of noble draw. “If I ride alone, and unencumbered.”

“You’ll not go alone.”

“Six, then.”

Baltar nodded. “Will that work?” he asked Cosmin.

“I don’t see a choice.”

“Good,” Baltar said before turning back to Evanine. He handed her the letter. “This goes to Valdere, he’s the king… or whatever they have there.”

“Consol,” Cosmin said.

“Whatever the hell he is. He’s the old man in charge. That wax seal will get his attention.”

Evanine nodded, and tucked the letter into her pocket.

“They will see you coming,” Cosmin said. “An emissary will come to meet you across the chasm. Tell them I sent you. Use my name and show them the seal on that letter. Do not give it to anyone but Consul Valdere. No one else, do you understand?”

“Don’t speak to me like one of your Guard,” Evanine snapped. “It’s a letter. I’ll deliver it.”

“It’s the most important thing you have ever held,” Cosmin said. “It is more than parchment and ink.”

Evanine dropped her gaze. She turned to Baltar. “It will be done,” she said to him.

Baltar was watching Cosmin. He was silent for a long moment before turning back to Evanine. “Take Bishop and Foster,” he said. He looked around the dark courtyard for a moment and a grin spread across his face. “Gris is going with you as well.”

Evanine opened her mouth to protest, but Baltar held up a hand and stopped her words. “He’s going. You need brawn as well as speed.”

“I’d rather take an ox.”

“Ha!” Baltar roared. “You hear that Gris? Evanine has called you an ox.”

“I’ve called her worse things,” a deep voice called back.

“An ox,” Baltar said. “Well he’s nearly as strong as one, and twice as stubborn. He goes. Now get moving.”

Evanine let out a sharp breath and then strode off towards the Lodge. She called three names as she went, and three figures, two lean and one towering, broke from the shadows and followed behind her.

“How far have you cleared?” Cosmin asked as the huntress and her cadre disappeared into the Lodge. “Really cleared. Not just enough for a few riders. Enough for a group.”

“You plan on marching on Hardûn?” Baltar asked with a grin. “I thought it was to be the other way around.”

“How far?”

“Well past the Fortress, and the old roads to Lainn.”

“What about the Gorge?”

Baltar frowned and shook his head. “We’ve widened the bridge, but not enough for any force to cross it.” Baltar hesitated for a moment. “It’s a bad place… but you know that. The damned Pikes as well. We’ve torn down the ones near the road, but they stretch on for miles. It’s a haunted corner of hell, I’ll tell you that. Haunted and evil.”

Cosmin didn’t seem to hear the words. “How many can cross the bridge at a time?” he asked.

“Not many. Ten on horses, no more.”

“Is it wide enough for a carriage?”

Baltar shook his head. “Not even close,” he said slowly. He lowered his voice again. “What are you planning, old friend? What was written on that parchment?”

Cosmin ignored the question. “I’ll need two more riders,” he said. “Scouts. They will go east and find out what’s coming from the Pale City.”

“You already know what’s coming.”

“No,” Cosmin siad and his voice dropped low. “I don’t. Something is wrong. Something devilish is happening, and I don’t know what it is… the torch came early. Three years early. And the Vacant are frenzied… And suddenly the Days are here and that means the whole damn Congregation will be here as well.”

“Let them come,” Baltar said. He spoke the words not to Cosmin, but to the entire courtyard. “Let them come and let them go. Damned things. Fucking monsters.” He turned back to Cosmin and looked down to the man’s eyes. “We’ve endured the Census before. And we can do it again. You can get things back together when they stomp off to their damned city. We’ll get the roads clear. We’ll stick to the plan. And by heaven the Avarine will—”

Enough,” Cosmin said, and the force of his words stopped Baltar mid sentence. The great man seemed to shrink. The shadows near the Lodge tensed. “You know better than to say that word.”

“There is no one to hear it!” Baltar said with his arms spread out, his palms open. “No one, save my Sovern. And they are loyal as any who walk this island. Your great secret is safe.”

“I saw it written on a building,” Cosmin said as he took a step towards Batar. “Not seven blocks from here. Written. In letters as long as my arm. That secret is not safe. And it is dangerous. And with the torch arriving early…”

“By the stars…” Baltar said. “You think they know?”

Cosmin was silent. When at last he did speak his words were calm, calculated. “I’m taking precautions. That letter was a precaution. Insurance. The scouts are a precaution as well and they must be sent out tonight. I need to know what’s coming from the Pale City. If it’s a census we will endure it.”

“And if it isn’t?”

Cosmin took a breath, turned and began to walk towards to Lodge.

“Cosmin!”

“Isaac is in an alley at Forsith and Vale,” he called behind him. “Blood was spilled so take water. Be quiet as you go.”

“Quiet?” Baltar shouted at Cosmin’s back. “You hear that my Sovern? We are to be quiet!” He slipped the warhammer from his back and in a fluid motion brought it slamming hard against the stone ground at his feet. It shattered a great rock with a popping sound that echoed deep and angry across the Abandoned District. He laughed as he did so, and the others in the courtyard laughed with him. The sound followed Cosmin as he passed through the darkness of the Lodge and out to the darker streets beyond.

7 – Petra Vireo Aurel

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

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

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

“I just came down.”

“Aren’t you cold?”

“I’m fucking freezing.”

“Emine.”

“Sorry.”

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

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

“I can’t sleep.”

Petra nodded. “What about your brother?”

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

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

“Did you?”

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

“It’s quiet now.”

“They probably killed him.”

“Emine.”

“What?”

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

“But look at the door.”

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

Emine said nothing.

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

Emine nodded. Another sweep of her dark hair fell over her face and she guided it back behind her ear. She looked over to the door.

“Where’s dad?”

Petra hesitated. She followed her daughter’s eyes and saw the rack where Cosmin’s coat should have been. “He left.”

Emine turned to her mother. “He went outside?”

“It’s nothing to worry about, Emine.”

“Nothing to worry about?”

“He went to move the Guard from their patrols. His position protects him.”

“His position? You think they care about that? About his title?”

“Keep your voice down. Please. They enforce the faith, and your father enforces the law. He’ll be fine. They won’t touch him. They wouldn’t dare.”

Emine looked back out to the street and shook her head. “I hate them,” she said.

“So do I.”

“Why do we put up with them? With all of it?”

“You know why.”

“No I don’t. It’s awful. They’re awful.”

“It’s only for a week. One week, and then they go back to the Reaches.”

“It isn’t just the Vacant, or the Days… it’s everything. It’s all just so awful.”

You have no idea, Petra thought, but didn’t let the words leave her mouth. “Yes,” she said at last. “Yes, it is. All of it.”

“The City Guard could fight them…”

Emine,” Petra hissed and pulled her daughter away from the open window. “You can’t talk like that. By heaven if someone heard you…”

“You know it too. You know how awful it is. So does dad. So does everyone. There aren’t that many of them. The Guard could get rid of them so fast. They could—”

“Emine the Faith is so much bigger than you realize. The Guard can’t do anything.”

“Maybe they can’t,” Emine said. “But others can. What about…” She hesitated. “What about the Avarine?” She said this last word timidly, in a whisper.

A chill ran down Petra’s spine. She froze. “What did you say?”

“The Avarine. They could do something. They aren’t afraid—”

“Where did you hear that word?” Petra’s voice was cold.

Emine paled.

“Where did you hear it?” Her hands shot up and grabbed Emine by the arms. The blanket slid to the floor. She stepped close to her daughter, all delicateness was gone from her voice. She still spoke in a whisper, but it was urgent, sharp. “Was it spoken aloud? Someone you know said it? Tell me.”

“I… I don’t know. I…”

An old fear came to Emine’s face. The strange and beautiful woman in the moonlight had vanished and Emine was suddenly a little girl again, fragile in her mother’s presence. She was no longer sixteen, she was five, she was caught hitting her brother, or stealing candy. Confusion and tears welled in her eyes. She shrank away from her mother’s anger.

Petra watched the transformation and softened. “I’m sorry,” she said, and let go of the girl. Red marks washed away from Emine’s arms where her mother’s hands had squeezed. “You cannot say that word. Do you understand me? You cannot say it. The Days are dangerous. That word is very, very dangerous. You cannot say it.”

Emine nodded furiously and Petra brought her close. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I’m so sorry. I’m just on edge, ok? Forget that word. You cannot say it.”

Petra tried to hold her daughter, but the girl’s arms stayed at her sides and she soon straightened and pushed her away. Emine wiped her eyes, said nothing, then turned and vanished up the stairs.

 

***

 

The door to the cellar was just beyond the kitchen, and Petra eased it open and reached into the darkness for the banister. There was hardly any light at all and she had to slide her hands searching down the wall. She guided herself down the narrow set of stairs, the air chilling as she went. She walked barefoot. She tested for each step, toes first, until she felt the cool earthen floor beneath her.

The cellar air was damp and heavy. Old earth, failing wood. It was the scent of a crypt, but Petra took a deep breath of it and was comforted. It reminded her of shelving preserves in the early autumn, of fetching garden tools in the spring, and she stood at the foot of the stairs for a long moment to breathe the air then sat down on the last step.

Two thin rows of barred lattice windows ran along the top edge of the ceiling to allow twin patches of the blue moonlight to fall on the cellar floor. The light was dim, but enough to see and she waited on the step for her heart to calm. She looked at the scattered memories that lay around her. A broken pile of flower pots. The peeling remains of a toy wagon. Then she looked to the shadowed rear of the cellar, to the places where the light never touched. She stood. She pressed out the wrinkles of her shirt. There were such terrible things yet to do. Gone was the old warm comfort, the autumn and the spring, and now the cellar was only a darkness to be passed on the way to darker places still.

The wine rack at the back of the cellar was tall and made of rusted ropes of iron and draped with an old threadbare rug. It was unremarkable. The mouldering remains of what could have once been a pair of wooden shelves sat beside the rack, and the corner they all piled against was lightless at any time of the day. Petra doubted if the kids had ever ventured far enough into the cellar to stumble upon it.

She found the far corners of the rack then braced herself and pulled and the greased wheels rolled easy and the rack pivoted from the wall. It made only a faint rolling sound as its weight shifted and Petra stepped behind it and stood at the door it concealed.

The lock made a gentle click when the key was turned. Another turn and she heard the faint sliding of metal. She pushed against the door and it slid open without issue and she stepped beyond its threshold and let it slide shut behind her.

The darkness beyond the door was so total and complete it felt as though it had form all its own. As if it wrapped itself around her, velvet and weightless, and held itself there like a phantom. Panic followed. Petra’s reached for the walls to but they were closer, much closer, than she expected and her knuckles scraped against them. The darkness was closer still. It was holding her, suffocating her, and she wished for only a flicker of light to chase it away but knew that even the smallest shine from the edge of the door could betray her, even here, so she urged the thought away and pressed her eyes tight against it. Colors blossomed and vanished beneath her eyelids. She pressed her fingers against them and rubbed and the colors exploded all at once and lingered long after she had opened her eyes once again. They dissolved slowly into some faint radiance in the distance and she held her breath and stared at it for a long time though she knew that in this hell there was no distance at all to stare into. No distance save down, but when she looked down she saw nothing at all.

“Stop it,” she whispered.

She reached out for the walls again and steadied herself. She caught her breath. She stepped forward with her hands running the walls until she touched upon the smooth stones of an archway. Her feet found the edge of a carved step and once found she found the next and the one after that. She followed the stairs as they spiraled down and down into the earth, each turning sharp to the left, until finally the ground was flat once again.

The air turned from musty to foul as she passed the threshold of the unseen room. There was the mineral reek of coal smoke, and the heavy scent of stale ash and cinder. Something putrid clung to the air as well, something distant and rotten that carried along with the smell of the smoke. Above all else was the iron tang of blood.

The candelabra was where she had left it, only a pace or two from the arch. She bumped into it with her arm then ran her hands up to the candles that crowned it. She reached into her pocket for a small flintspark and struck it against itself, sending a rain of sparks into the air. They were magnificent in the dark and hurt her eyes and were caught in a thousand reflections throughout the room then fell back to darkness. She struck it a second time and the oiled wick at the center caught.

The light grew with each candle. At first a dull glow, it soon became brilliant and cascading throughout the room. It cast along rows and rows of shelves with lines of glass. It spilled out over two desks at the rear wall, one covered in piles of papers and the other holding a series of jars filled with dark fluid and the preserved bodies of rats. A third desk in the corner was bare save a row of notebooks and an inkwell and a pen. In the center of the room was a pit of dead coals and above the coals hung a great round kettle with a globe of delicate glass suspended above it. The globe was stained red from the inside and a dozen or more filament tubes ran from its shimmering center and four of these tubes were still glistening with blood. They all ran into the arms of a lifeless young boy strapped to a table beside the coal pit.

Petra couldn’t take her eyes off of him.

He was so young. No older than five.

So, so young and Petra could not help but wonder what the twins had known at five. Only love and games and endless questions and tears and laughter and it had all been precious to her and now so long gone. She looked at the boy again. The lines of his ribs beneath the skin, the sunken cheeks. She remembered Elias at the same age. Then she remembered him at six, then at seven.

Tears filled Petra’s eyes and she made no effort to keep them away. They spilled down her cheeks and she couldn’t help but wonder, not for the first time, what the child’s name had been.

She walked over to him and brushed his dirty hair away from his face and frowned at a set of bruises on the boy’s nose and along the high edge of his cheek. She touched them lightly, inquisitively, not knowing how they formed or how she had not noticed them before. They were harrowing on the child’s face. Marks of an undeserved, abhorrent violence and when Petra finally realized their origin she buckled to the floor with grief.

She had given the boy the bruises herself. She did it when she suffocated him.

Her hand travelled uncompelled to her heart and she clutched at her chest and wept.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Heaven, I’m so sorry.”

There was nothing she could have done. She couldn’t complete her work without fire. It just didn’t work without the flames and the boy would have died painfully. She had gone too far with him and needed to finish, but she couldn’t do anything without fire. It was all she needed and it was all she couldn’t have.

And her thoughts turned to Osyth and then they turned to ice.

She stood and looked at the boy once more but she looked above the bruises and at the eyes instead. Those damn eyes that were still shining like dusty mirrors even after death. They caught in the candlelight like a dog prowling the dark edges of a fire.

She folded the lids down over them. Then she undid the straps and withdrew the tubes from his veins. She found a rag, wetted it with her tongue, and cleaned the lines of dirt and sweat from along the borders of the boy’s face. She tried to close his little jaw as well but it kept softly opening so she left it alone and he appeared to her as though he were singing, eyes closed and mournful.

The boy was so light, more like a bird than a child, and she lifted him from the table and set him down on the stone floor. An iron trapdoor was worked into the ground a short distance away and she pulled on its chain. The door rose, and a foul smell, heavy with rot, rose with it.

Petra was on her knees looking once again at the boy. His hair was sticking in clumps to the stones beneath his head. She wanted to say a few words, but nothing came. She opened her mouth once to speak, but her throat was locked as if it were threaded through a noose and she could do little but gape stupidly at the corpse. She settled on simply bending low to kiss him on the forehead a second time.

She slid the boy forwards until his feet dangled over the pit. The legs followed and soon she held him in a sitting position at the edge of the opening. She tried guiding him gently into the hole, but she lost her grip when his weight shifted and he fell without ceremony to the pile of bones and decay far below.

It was a pit of failure, of depthless tragedy, and she couldn’t allow herself to think of the others that the boy was joining. She couldn’t bear it.

She went to a large bucket near the pit and scooped out heaps of ash and quicklime into the opening. The powder was caustic, and she knew her hands would blister from touching it but didn’t care. She felt deserving of the pain.

She set off the chain and the door fell back over the pit. It clanged into its rut and the sound filled the chamber and echoed against the walls and then faded away. A funeral toll for the unloved. A passing bell, a death bell, lych and corpse bell all at once and as she rose to her feet she could see nothing in the world save the iron door and the abyss beyond it and a pitch-black part of her soul wanted only to open the door a final time so she could fall beneath it and lay surrendered there burning in the dark beside the boy and crowned atop the rest.

She stood without moving for a long time. So long that she didn’t notice when the first candle sank low in its brass cradle and went out. Nor did she notice the second. Eventually the smoke caught her attention and she looked at the light failing around her and turned to leave.

She wondered how much more blood would be on her hands before it was all over but she knew the answer before the thought was fully formed.

As much as it takes. All of it. Every drop.

It made her shiver, but she knew it was the truth.

She walked to the foot of the spiraling staircase and blew out the candles. She ran her fingers blind along the wall once again and started up to the cellar.

6 – Birdsong

Petra kept a small garden on the roof of their house. It started as a place to grow some of the more obscure ingredients for her work, but eventually grew to include tomatoes, hot peppers, two species of squash, and the few hearty fruits that could stand the wet springs and scorching summers of Mayfaire. Cosmin had never paid much attention to it. He watered it when she was away, and pruned the vines if asked, but he always did so without thought. They were tasks to be completed and nothing more. Until one day when he found a great green worm with orange stripes sitting on a tomato vine. He watched it for a long time and never saw it move. He poked at it with a broken stick and it shifted clumsy on its vine.

He mentioned it to Petra who said it was likely a velsin worm, a devourer of tomatoes, and if he saw it again he should kill it. A week passed before he found the worm again and by then it had sprouted clusters of shining white orbs from its back. Curious, he brought the worm to Petra who told him not to kill it after all. She said it had become infested with parasites and when they hatched they would kill the worm and then go flying in search of others of its kind. It was horrific, but the tomatoes would benefit from the horror.

It was then that Cosmin started paying attention to the garden. He began to see it as a place of balance. A place of life and consequence and no illusion of morality. It was a place of intention and outcome that required occasional intervention to thrive. The leaves fought slow wars for sunshine. The roots invaded and intertwined against one another. The soil was fed with dirt and shit, and sometimes even teeth and bones, but the plants grew all the larger because of it. There were nutrients in the mud and in the bones. There was sacrifice there as well. There was a cycle of life feeding on life. There were marauding hordes of insects, and there were insects who ate those insects and there were parasites that helped and those that hurt. There was balance and it was always shifting and there was no good and there was no evil.

And Cosmin knew Mayfaire to be the same. He knew foul men who had murdered for just reasons, and he knew generous men who gave only out of corruption and spite. There was love in Mayfaire and there was hate, but it was human love and it was human hate and it all existed in its own flawed harmony.

And then there was the Faith.

Cosmin had once watched a blight take hold in Petra’s garden. It started low on a tomato vine where it bleached the leaves and withered the roots then spread up to the flowers and the fruit and dropped them all to the ground to rot. The blight reached another plant and another until finally it had befouled the entire garden. It sought only to consume, to destroy, and Cosmin knew that if it was indeed a part of nature it was an abhorrent part and one to be despised and broken. It did not belong in the balance.

Such was his city. He knew the endless shifting lines, the flawed harmony, and he knew the blight that threatened it. And that was all. So when he left his dark house for a dark street and passed rows and rows of dark houses he could not understand where he walked. It was a city he did not recognize. There was no balance and there was no blight. There was nothing at all. No people, no fires, no light, and no sounds save the distant howls from the Vacant. It was as if the city had fallen in some far gone year and he was only there as a revenant, some detached spirit clinging to a vanished place that he was no longer a part of but merely an audience to.

He drifted along the streets of the High Circle and past the stately homes that occupied it. Each was faced in brick and trimmed in painted wood with doors and shutters to match and he knew them all to be shades of aqua green and blue but in the moonlight they were only a spectrum of grey. The cobblestone beneath his feet was grey as well. It was slick and shining wet in the night and a soft fog began to drift down his street and the moon vanished inside it and the grey deepend to near black. Cosmin slowed and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Twice he stopped to listen to the howling Vacant, and twice it sounded as though they were getting closer.

The houses grew tighter around him. Their brick facades became darkened and stained with age and the paint on the doors and shutters became chipped and broken. A smell of garbage drifted on the fog along with the reek of some distant sewer. The skeleton of a carriage lay overturned, one wheel split and the others removed. Cosmin knew the street. It marked the edge of the Circle and the beginning of what had once been the district of Hargate. It was little more than a squalid fringe below the Circle Market and would soon give way to the expanse of the Abandoned District that pressed in behind it.

The fog drifted in patches. It brightened the road then faded back then brightened it again. It was as if it the night itself were breathing and by the time he reached the Market he found the night so dark that he could barely see. He walked with a hand running against the building facades then stopped beneath a shingled awning to wait for the world to brighten once more. Something moved in the house behind him, but when he turned to the noise he saw nothing in the darkness. Another chorus of howls drifted in the night. Now closer.

The fog lifted entirely and the world was bathed in the cool blue light of the moon. It was bright enough to cast a hard shadow of the awning on the ground and Cosim stepped from beneath it and into the moonlight which shocked him with its clarity. He stood at the southern end of the Circle Market. To his right he saw empty carts and stalls along the edges of the road and the rows of shuttered shops behind them. To his left he saw the tiered fountain at the center of the lower market plaza. And off in the far distance, just a black mass on the horizon, he saw the dark climbing heights of the Reaches

He walked to the fountain. It was fed by a high cistern and it gurgled and spat in the dead night and Cosmin watched its flowing water for a long moment and found some peace in the movement. It seemed to be the only motion in the city besides his shadow creeping along the ground and the slow roll of the fog. He touched the surface of the water and watched the moon’s reflection ripple and dance on its surface. He looked to the Reaches, there growing like some tumor from the southern edge of the city, and any peace within him faded away. Again the distant Vacant began to howl.

***

 

Cosmin was twenty years old when the first of the Vacant came to Mayfaire. There were seven of them and they had been led to Mayfaire by a jovial priest named Hellig. The priest had travelled on foot all the way from the Pale City with the pack of Vacant tethered behind him. He whistled as he emerged from the New Forest and was singing by the time he had reached the East Gate. The guards had no idea how to react to his sudden appearance and refused him entrance to the city. The Vacant, dark clad and snapping at one another, tugged at their tethers and paced the edge of the eastern trench. Hellig was not put off. He simply said that he understood. That of course, of course he understood, and who wouldn’t be alarmed at the sight of such things. He called across the trench and asked for whatever authority the guard answered to. They sent immediately for Cosmin.

Hellig was once again singing to the Vacant when Cosmin appeared at the gate. He looked down at the strange gathering and Hellig stopped his song and smiled up at him. He greeted Cosmin by name and told him that he was at Mayfaire by the holy decree of Vellah himself. He said that there were things to be discussed and that they should be discussed face to face and not by shouting across a void. His smile widened when Cosmin asked about his charges. He said they were children of God.

They met in a guardhouse at the southern edge of the city wall. The priest tied the Vacant to a hitching rail outside and spoke to them in a soft voice to calm them. A group gathered some distance beyond and the Vacant sniffed the air and growled at them from beneath their hoods.

Cosmin led the priest to a small room inside the guardhouse with a single arched window and they sat opposite one another at a rough hewn table made of oak harvested from the Barrens. Hellig ran his hands along it and said it was lovely. His eyes were shining in the dim light. He carried with him the heavy musk of wild animals mixed with some cloying sweetness of incense and perfume. He spoke of the Angel Vellah’s displeasure with the pilgrims that were coming to the Pale City from Mayfaire and Cosmin listened gravely to his words. The priest expressed his sadness at the inherent sin inside the pilgrims and said that Mayfaire must, of course, be riddled with sin as well. For how could such miserable things come from a faithful city? He patted Cosmin’s hand and smiled. He said that Mayfaire needed a peace that the City Guard could not create. He said that the Vacant were the judicators of the faith and how fortunate it was that they were now welcome in the city. How very, very fortunate.

Their numbers increased ever since. They would come in ragged groups from the Pale City and soon they were patrolling the entirety of Mayfaire, from the southern docks all the way to the North Gate. They sniffed their way through the cargo holds of the merchant barges and scoured the stalls and shops of the markets. They entered homes at will. They punished without mercy.

Cosmin’s father, Avar Aurel, commanded the City Guard in those foul days. He watched helpless as his men and women clashed again and again with the Vacant. He watched as the markets and merchant docks grew quiet and the streets bloody. He watched as the city itself turned desperate and fearful. He became desperate and fearful as well.

And then Ambassador Osyth appeared from the New Forest carrying the torch. And the city went dark before him.

The year was 62 AG. Osyth had been gone for fourteen years and was returning for the Second Census. He was expected. The city knew what to do when he arrived and the horns cried out from the city walls and all the fires went dark as he rode his beast through the empty streets towards the Colosseum.

Avar and Cosmin travelled to the Colosseum the day after Osyth arrived. They were accompanied by Albed Hollis, the Magister of Mayfaire and they all met with the Ambassador before the dawn. Osyth greeted them like old friends. He held Cosmin by the shoulders and remarked on how much he had grown. He asked about Cosmin’s sister Lilith who had just turned eight, and he asked about Magister Hollis’s dear son Marcus, who was only five. He asked about them like a loving grandfather but his eyes were cold and Cosmin wondered a long time after if the Ambassador had already known all that was about to happen.

Avar and Magister Hollis greeted Osyth in kind. They bowed to him. They told him of the glory of Mayfaire, but expressed their displeasure with the Vacant. Avar said they were killing at will and without reason to which Osyth said they were blessed by the Angel and whatever reasons they found were reason enough. He said this smiling. Magister Hollis then said that their raids were disastrous to the trade routes to the Pale City, to which Osyth stopped to listen. Hollis knew the depths of Vellah’s greed. He knew the extraordinary appetites of the Angel and he knew Mayfaire’s position as the hub of the western trade route. He knew how to get the Ambassador’s attention.

The Congregation came from the Pale City seven days later. They were a motley parade of over two hundred Acolytes and priests and at dawn the morning after their arrival Osyth led the entire population of Mayfaire to the Colosseum to perform the Census. He gave a sermon where he told the city of his sorrow at the behavior of the Vacant. He told them that he had met with the leaders of Mayfaire and that a peace had been agreed upon and that on the eve of the Congregation’s departure the Vacant would all go to the Reaches where they would stay. The Reaches, he said, would become a holy site in Mayfaire. The streets would be sacred and all of the faithful were welcome to claim them as their own. The Vacant would keep the peace in this new holy district and any who lived under their laws would be blessed. The Angel would smile upon them. He said that the Vacant would hereafter only be permitted in the rest of the city during the Days of Darkness, the sacred days that foretold the coming of the Congregation. He praised the wise leaders of Mayfaire and their conviction. He said that he would ask only a small price in return for this great favor. He said that every good thing in the world had a price. That these costs were no costs at all but merely the harmony of life made manifest. He said that sacrifice and redemption were two sides of a single coin and that the one is inseparable from the other. That to ask for a gift of any measure free of cost is to ask for disharmony. It is to ask for a coin of a single side and there can be no such thing. Who could bear to ask for something so unnatural? And how should the world respond if you did?

So Osyth named his price. And Cosmin never saw his sister Lilith or Magister Hollis’s young son Marcus again.

Osyth left the following day with the Congregation and the horrible fruit of the Census. In his wake the borders of the Reaches were established. The trade routes soon flourished once again, and the Vacant abandoned the streets of the city, only to return when the torch returned and only then for seven days.

Magister Hollis retreated to his Palace in shame and hid in the duties of his office. He became despotic and solitary, a man devoted to greed and wretchedness and little else besides.

Avar Aurel killed himself the following winter. Cosmin buried his father in the frozen soil of the New Forest and said no words over the grave. The following day he put on Avar’s uniform and walked to the Barracks and before the gathered might of the City Guard he rose to the position his father abandoned. He was twenty-three.

 

***

 

The fog rolled back and swallowed up the moon. The world went dark once more and the unhealthy heights of the Reaches vanished into the distance and Cosmin wondered just how long he had been staring at them. He spat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked across the plaza to where he knew the market ended but saw only the faint shapes of buildings in the near dark. He felt the letter in his pocket. He thought of the Lodge. The fountain beside him gurgled endlessly but there was no other sound in the night and Cosmin stalked to the edge of the plaza to leave the Market behind. He found the opening of a wide street and turned down it and walked without looking. He thought of the Congregation, of the Ambassador. He thought of his wife, his children. All the planning, the risk…

And the night lark sang out in the dark.

Cosmin froze.

Silence. Then two soft chirps, twip, twip, a pause, then two more.

Cosmin’s blood ran cold. The fog shifted. And six hunched shapes ambled down the road in front of him.

Shit.

He hadn’t heard them come.

Shit.

One of them howled, a deep cry that brought the hairs on his arms to standing. Another took up the cry and the rest followed and they quickened their loping gait and came for him.

He spun and made for the plaza. He stumbled for the fountain and the Vacant poured from the mouth of the street behind him. The fog lifted once more and did not return and in the sudden light Cosmin could see the frightened staring faces that crowded the windows above the plaza. They were all drawn by the howls.

Shit, shit, shit.

The night lark sounded again. A silhouette moved against the night sky. It ran across a building just south of Cosmin. It called from a lightless alley. There would be no windows there, no faces to watch.

He backed away from the fountain and made it halfway across the plaza before they were upon him.

SIN,” cried one in a wet growl that broke the tomb silence of the night. Its voice was ragged, clipped. “SIN.”

Cosmin raised his hands, palms out, and kept backing towards the alley. The Vacant began to circle and Cosmin considered running through them before realizing how foolish it would be. They would show no mercy if they were goaded. They would beat him to death.

“I am Cosmin Aurel,” he called as they closed on him. “I command the City Guard.” He took another step backward toward the alley. “I am heading for the outer patrols. I mean no harm.”

They carried with them some deep animal stench, heavy and soiled. One stepped close and sniffed at him. He could see the edges of its wild, ravaged face beneath its cowl. The inverted tear drop carved into its forehead. It raised its club up and pressed it into Cosmin’s chest. The thing was shaking. They were all shaking.

“Commander,” it said in its trembling low growl. “What does it command in the Days of God?”

“Death!” another cried. “No command. No commander. Only death for its sin.”

One of them let out a moan at the words. The pungent reek of urine rose in the air.

“Peace, brother,” the first replied as it snapped its jaws. “Not death. Not death for this trespass. To walk God’s streets at night is not death.”

“He walks in sin,” another voice cried, this one high and graveled. “Sin of its feet, sin of its flesh.”

“Yes, yes,” the first replied. It turned to Cosmin and clicked its teeth. “We bash the feet. We kill the feet for their steps in the Angel’s night.”

“You will not!” Cosmin roared. The robed, hunches figured stepped back briefly at his voice, and he took another two steps in its wake. “I have passage. Find your master and they will confirm it.”

Another chirp came from the night lark.

“Master?” the first of the Vacant cried. “No master tonight. We are the master.” It pounded its chest. “I am the master,” it said. “And he, and he. All are the master.” It raised its club to Cosmin’s face. “But not you. You walk when there is no walking. Not in the Days. It is sin, and to sin is to bleed.” It drooled at the words. “You bleed for us. You bleed for God.”

A flash of silver caught briefly in the moonlight. Something small and spinning flew from above and hit the first of the Vacant in the side of the neck. It winced and dropped its cudgel on the ground and brought its hands clawing to its throat and the knife that was suddenly buried there. It opened its mouth to cry but only a weak gargle came and the others stepped back as it fell to its knees in the darkness.

Cosmin shoved hard against the pack, pushed from between them, and shot into the alley. He reached for the dropped club as he ran and grabbed it by the barbed end by mistake. He grunted as it sliced into his skin, but didn’t loosen his grip.

Another flash of metal whipped by his face, close enough that he could feel the wind come off it. He heard a cry from behind, but didn’t turn.

He took another few steps into the alley, and shifted his grip on the club. His hand was wet with blood, and burning, but he held it tight and raised it as the pack roared towards him.

They came thrashing mad down the narrow alley, clubs swinging blindly in the dark, striking every surface they could reach. The lane was tight and forced them into a column. The front two came side by side, screaming towards Cosmin who stood his ground, hands tight on the club.

A slender shadow fell into the alley behind the pack. It made no sound whatsoever. It made a single stride then fell against the two Vacant in the rear. A flash of metal, then another, and the things were on the ground. The sudden silence caused the first two to falter. They turned and Cosmin raced towards them and brought the cudgel down hard and loud on one of their skulls. It made a hollow sound, grim and satisfying, and the thing collapsed. The shadow descended quietly on the last of the Vacant and Cosmin watched as its head simply rolled from its shoulders. The body stood for a short moment longer, as if in disbelief, then toppled to the ground at Cosmin’s feet.

A slight man, dressed all in black, stepped into the thin moonlight that fell upon the alley. He walked to the bodies, and knelt among them to wipe his blade on their robes. He stood and bowed to cosmin.

“I hoped it would not come to that,” the man said as he sheathed his sword. His voice was soft and quiet.

“It’s good to see you, Isaac,” Cosmin said, his heart hammering in his chest. “I was hoping you were the little bird I was hearing.”

 

***

 

They dragged the bodies into the alley. Isaac, though he stood barely as tall as Cosmin and substantially thinner, pulled five of the bodies before Cosmin could manage one. He sat them into a neat row then attempted to help Cosmin but was scolded away. He retrieved the severed head instead and rested it in the lap of its former body. He turned it so it faced away from him.

Cosmin knelt to catch his breath, his forearms resting on his thighs. Blood ran from his torn hand. Isaac watched the bleeding then took a knife and cut a length of fabric from the bottom of his cloak and gave it to Cosmin who grunted his thanks. He wrapped the hand starting around the thumb and pulled it all tight and tucked in the loose end then opened and closed his hand several times. He took a deep breath. The hand was already throbbing. He pushed himself to standing and winced as he did so. Isaac watched him and said nothing.

Cosmin looked at the row of bodies and shook his head. “Damn.”

“I watched you leave,” Isaac said. “I thought you might need my help.” He gestured to the Vacant. “Their blood is up. I’ve never seen them so agitated.”

“Neither have I.”

“I was at the wall when the torch came. I couldn’t believe it. I ran to your house as the fires went out to keep watch on Elias. Sasha was already there. She said she could watch them both so I followed you. Elias is safe with her there.”

Isaac stood before Cosmin with his head bowed like a man condemned. As if he had committed some trespass that begged forgiveness and Cosmin found himself wondering if there had ever been such ferocity housed in so humble a person.

“I would not have left my watch if Sasha had not been there,” Isaac continued as he stared at his feet. “I feared that something could happen tonight, so I came to the house. I know to not let him from my sight if there is some threat in the air. I know that. But I couldn’t leave you to the Vacant. Not when they are wilding like this.”

“Isaac…” Cosmin began, then stopped and shook his head. He put his hand on Isaac’s shoulder. “Elias is safe with Sasha watching over him. He is safe.” Isaac did not look up. “I forgive you for leaving his watch.”

Isaac nodded, then raised his head. “You’re heading to the Sovern Lodge,” he said. “To find Baltar.”

“I am.”

“I’ll stay here. More of the Vacant may come if they smell the blood. I can deal with them if they do.” He said this casually, as if the enforcers of the faith were no more than flys to be swatted away.

“I’ll send a few of the Sovern to help you get rid of the bodies.”

Isaac considered this. “Most of the Sovern are brutes,” he said at last. “They lack subtlety.”

Cosmin grinned. “There are a few of them who know how to stay quiet. I’ll send them and they can help. Be nice to them.”

Isaac nodded. “There is a lot of blood,” he said. “I’ll drain the bodies into the sewer, but there is already a lot on the street. I should have been more careful.”

“Do what you can,” Cosmin said. “I’ll do the same. Break their necks if more sniff their way to you. Don’t draw anymore blood.”

He walked to the row of bodies. One lay with its cowl down and its face caught in the moonlight. It stared at the sky with dead, milky eyes. Matted hair was stuck to its face and its mouth gaped stupidly from the dark nest of its beard. Its lips were gone entirely, likely chewed away by the gnarled teeth they should have been covering. The inverted teardrop on its forehead was cut deep and the edges of the flesh were pulled back and smooth from scarring. The exposed skull was the color of old parchment.

“Strange to see them beneath the hoods,” Isaac said as he stood beside Cosmin. “Strange and sad.”

“Sad?”

“It’s just a man,” Isaac said. “And barely that. He couldn’t be more than eighteen. Look at him.”

“I am looking. I see a monster and nothing more.”

“I see both,” Isaac said as he bent down and pulled the cowl over the Vacant’s face. He then reached under its arms and carefully slid the body a short distance down the alley to a sewer grate. He leaned it forward and rested it on its knees then dropped its neck down and sliced open the artery at its throat and held it there so the blood could drain into the sewer. It looked like he was helping the thing to pray.

Cosmin watched them for a long moment then turned and started down the alley. He could hear the blood as it fell through the grates. The sound chilled him more than the night air and he walked without turning back.

5 – The Vacant

There were seven of them in the street. They wore tatters of old stained robes, and called and grunted to one another like feral pigs. When one began to cry out in the night the others would join, and they patrolled the empty road as a loose, screaming pack. Their cries carried to other streets in other districts where packs of their kin joined in the crying and the city in those moments would sound haunted and primal.

And they were getting too damn close. Cosmin watched them from his study window. They were stalking up from the south, growling and snapping at one another. They were let loose from the Reaches as the horns sounded and the fires went out and now they were right below Cosmin’s house. He took a step back from the window and the moonlight that gathered there. His hands were folded behind his back like a man in repose, but his heart was hammering and his folded hands were shaking. Another chorus of howls began and he flinched at the noise.

Something crashed in a house across the street. It was an unremarkable noise, likely a person stumbling in the dark, but the howling stopped immediately and the Vacant turned to the house and fell to a panting silence. One of them began to shake. It dragged a barbed cudgel which it began to beat against the stones at its feet. It cried with every blow then turned the club to itself and thrashed at its own chest. Once, twice, then a third time before it stopped and licked at its blood. The taste seemed appalling. Others in the group spoke to it, but the sounds were low and beastial and Cosmin could make out none of the words. The pack went down the street, but the bloodied one stayed behind. It watched the house arcoss the street, then ran to it.

The windows of the house were all shuttered and the thing pressed its nose against a set of them and sniffed through the vanes. It ran its hand down the wood and moaned at what it smelled inside. It raised its cudgel and cracked it against the shutters and they first splintered then burst apart. It shoved its head through the opening and was met by a screaming voice in the darkness of the house. It screamed in response.

Cosmin looked through his study for something to throw. Something to distract the thing from its terrible work. There was an inkwell on the table beside him. It was carved of stonewood and capped in steel and was large enough to fill his hand and he grabbed it and drew it back to throw into the alley beside the house. Then stopped himself. The inkwell would have his scent on it. Everything around him would. The Vacant would find it and follow it to his house instead. It would be scratching at his window, or his wife’s… or either of the twins. He set the inkwell down. He folded his hands again and watched as the thing scrambled through the broken window then vanished inside the house.

It burst through the front door seconds later and stepped into the street. It dragged a body by the ankle. Cosmin knew the man. He couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. One of the arms seemed to raise and flail, but the Vacant hurried to catch up with its pack and the movment pulled both of the man’s arms above his head in a V as they dragged behind him. The ankle was held tight and twisted. The house behind them was silent and remained silent as they went off down the road.

Cosmin shook his head. Nightmares. They had been in Cosmin’s dreams as well. Dreams of stars polluting the sky and dark shapes stalking beneath them. Of things low and barely seen with skin pulled taut over rolling bones and eyes catching in the starlight. His wife lost in the fields. His children too. They had called to him and all the hungry, skulking things leaned to their voices. They slouched to the sound. Cosmin had cried out and the nightmares cried out as well and his voice joined theirs and then more joined besides though these new voices came from things vile and unseen and all their voices turned to howls and when he finally woke he was met by the wailing horns.

She had already been awake. Her eyes wide and terrified and she said nothing and ran from the room to put out any flames in the house. She ran to the twin’s rooms and blew out their lanterns. She doused the coals in the oven and the hearth, then headed to the basement. He had gone to his study with the last burning candle in the house and used it to write a letter.

The Vacant was gone now with its prize. Cosmin watched the broken, violated house for a long moment, then turned to the letter at his desk. He ran his finger over the warm wax seal, pressed with image of a twisting ram’s horn, the sigil of House Aurel. The same sigil was in relief on Cosmin’s ring which he spun around his finger. It was warm as well.

He heard her walking back down the hall. “Petra,” he said.

She stopped in the doorway. Cold light came through the courtyard behind her and cast her in silhouette. She didn’t move.

“Are their lights out?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Good.”

She stepped forward into the room. She held a a bloodstained rag and was using it to wipe her hands. He stared at it. The blood seemed almost black in the moonlight.

“The cellar,” he whispered. “Oh no. No, no, no… I forget about the cellar.”

“It’s ok, I took care of it.”

He shook his head. “I’m so sorry. You should have let me.”

“It’s ok.”

He brought his eyes back up to hers. She had been crying, but her eyes were set hard. They were cold, unyielding and they made her beautiful and frightening all at once. Dark hair spilling over her shoulders, skin reflecting in the night. He wanted to say something comforting. He gestured to the letter instead. “I’m heading to the Lodge.”

“You’re going out now?”

“I have to.”

She only looked at him.

“I’ll be careful.”

“You damn well better.”

She walked to the window and looked down upon the dark street and at the shattered door.

“One of them got into Edrick’s house,” Cosmin said. “I think it may have killed him.”

“I saw.”

“There must have been a candle going somewhere in that house and the thing smelled it. That’s about all I can figure.”

Petra nodded.

“There wasn’t anything I could do.”

“I know.”

She reached out and grabbed his hand. Her fingers were cold and sticky with blood. Another crashing sounded in the night, distant, but furious. Another chorus of howls. Wild dogs on the hunt.

“He came early,” she said at last.

Cosmin didn’t reply. He was staring down the road.

“Has he ever been early?”

“No.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think…” The words caught in her throat as she said them. Cosmin squeezed her hand.

Do you think they know? She didn’t need to say it, he knew the question.

“I have to get to the Lodge,” he said again, his voice firmer.

“What about the Guard?”

“Adrian is at the Barracks. He can handle things without me for now.”

“I don’t like any of this.”

“There isn’t anything to like.” He let go of her hand. “Make sure the twins know not to spark any flames.”

“They know.”

“Make sure they really know. Especially Emine. You better take the candles from her room. The lanterns as well. I’m sure she has one hidden beneath her bed.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

Cosmin nodded, then turned to leave.

“Be careful.”

“I’ll be fine.” He kissed her on the forehead as he left. “We’ll all be fine.”

 

***

 

He waited as a second group of the Vacant scrambled down the road in front of his home. He stood alone, hidden in the shadow of the entryway. He listened as their scraping footsteps faded into the night, then he slipped out to the dark streets.

The air was cold and damp. The early autumn winds had just started chilling the nights and he pulled his coat tight as he set out across the city. His hand travelled to his front pocket where the letter was concealed. He felt the rigid parchment and the bump of the wax seal. He felt the desperate weight of his words.

He reached the alley opposite his house then turned to see Petra watching from the study window. He nodded to her, but she couldn’t see him in the dark. She only stood at the window with the breeze wisping her nightgown and her hair. She looked like a ghost in the moonlight, spectral and grieving. He wanted to call to her, but knew that he couldn’t so he mouthed the words instead. She vanished into the house.

Something caught his eye above the window, just along the edge of the eve. It was a tiny movement, a deliberate flicker. He heard a bird call out. The soft song of a night lark. It was the only good thing he heard since waking. He grinned at the whistle and whistled in response and the shadow flickered again. He turned west and pressed into the night and the shadow followed silent along the rooftops behind him.

4 – 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. 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 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.”

The horns finally ceased, but the howling from the Reaches only grew louder in their absence. They were coming closer.

Voices shouted from the Barracks courtyard. They called for Adrian. He ignored them. He listened instead to the wind and the rising howls. He thought of Prudence. He thought of nothing but her face and her voice and he listened for her 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 his back.

“My lady Prudence.”

What is it, child? Are you not well? Has that body begun to fall apart?

“No, my lady. I am strong and healthy.”

Then why do you call for me?

I have news. The Ambassador has come to our gates. He brought the torch.

Ah, and the city has gone all dark around you. Lovely, lovely… We are coming, child. There is much to do.

“You come too soon.”

Too soon, my pet? Why too soon?

“I’ve only saved a handful… there are still so many left.”

They are corpses, child. They are rotted. We are coming, and there is much to do.

“Yes, my lady.”

Do you love me, Adrian? 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.”

Your soul? Sweet Adrian you have no soul to give. Now hold your tears and listen… and rejoice.

3 – 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.