An eruption of violence. Echoes of screams. The tang of blood in Emine’s mouth and her ears ringing and the dawn light suddenly gone. Musty smell of lichen. Her hand burning where the skin had scraped away. More screams and she twists her neck to follow trace them and cries at the pain in her head. She sees only darkness. Iron taste of blood thicker now. Another scream.
She reaches out in the dark, tries to sit up, only to find some phantom weight holding her. Blood running up her nose and she coughs and the jerking movement wakes her swimming mind and now she dimly sees the walls and ceiling floor and knows she’s laying twisted and upside down on the stairs, head pointing down.
And she needs to run.
She rolls her back against the steps. Soft sunlight spilling in from the archway above and from below a sliver leaking beneath the door. Cheering from the crowd, weak and rattling against the stones. She pushes herself up and her hand slips off the edge of a step and she falls again. The throbbing in her head peaks as tiny flecks of light invade from the corners of her eyes then spiral into the dark like a lost swarm of stars. She feels sick. The pain calms and again she tries to stand, then slumps once more on the stairs.
The dim light in the stairwell grows dark. She cranes her aching neck and there is a Palace Guard standing in silhouette far above her. She cries out and claws frantic up the wall to find the railing and she braces and pulls herself up and stumbles down the stairs to the lower door.
Boots now rushing behind her. Harsh and unforgiving. Closer and closer, so loud against the stones. Crashing and painful inside her head. Bright outline of the door growing larger but as she runs it begins to waver and spin. Her feet do not hold. Falling now and her weight pushes the door open and she collapses back into the bright world.
And now the roaring crowd. Now the ocean of faces and bodies in the streets far below, but she is invisible to them. No one is watching her. No one sees. She grips the wet stones beneath her and cries out and no one hears. They are cheering, praying. It fills the world and she can’t hear the boots on the stairs, but knows that they are coming. She thinks of the spears. She thinks of Elias.
The dancing lights return but they bring with them a darkness that seeps at the edges and now she is in a tunnel. She tries to scream and no noise comes out and she lays on the ground bleeding and her legs don’t let her stand and the tunnel is collapsing. The sky is no longer the faint blue of dawn. It has gone amber, then purple as a bruise, and the grey stones beneath her are now the warm and comforting color of sand.
The traitor looms above her. She can do nothing but turn away from him. She doesn’t want to see.
A flicker of movement along the parapets. A violent shadow racing along the wall towards her. Some fast and lethal ghost. Hatred shining in its eyes.
Then nothing at all.
Sasha Lonne was perched on the Tower of the Hawk when the first guard attacked Cosmin, and was halfway down the tower stairs before he hit the ground. She reached the wall and exploded across it, a glimmer of black and steel.
She watched the door to the East Gate platform as she ran. She held a long dagger in one hand, a short sword in the other. She would go in like a crack of lightning. She would kill as many as she could.
And then the door burst open and Emine poured out. She was bleeding. She was trying to stand and couldn’t. A shadow appeared in the tunnel behind her.
She sheathed her blades in a single motion, and drew a throwing knife from the belt around her thigh. She had nine of them, all sharp and ready. From the spiraled strap at her shoulder she plucked a small, heavy dart, perfectly weighted and fletched with three golden feathers. The poison in its tip stained the metal a faint lilac purple.
The guard appeared in the doorway. He stomped on to the stones next to Emine and reached an armored hand toward her and she cowered away from him. She looked suddenly at Sasha. Their eyes met.
Strange to know someone their entire life without ever looking them in the eyes. Strange to be at once so connected only to find yourself a stranger. Sasha had been there on Emine’s naming day, when the girl was barely a month old. She had bowed to Petra and Cosmin and pledged her life to their daughter. She had been there for the Emine’s first day of youth academy, and on the day her father took her beyond the city walls for the very first time. She had been in the shadows the nights when Emine crept through her window to stalk the edges of the Abandoned District with her friends, the days when she meandered along the district markets with Elias, the trips to the southern bridges, or down to the merchant docks. Sasha Lonne had always been there. Always watching. Always ready to kill or die.
And now she watched as the Palace Guard grabbed a fistfull of Emine’s hair and pulled her from the ground and when she screamed it was the worst sound Sasha had ever known. Unbearable. Still running she sang the tiny dart through the air and struck the man in the soft leather that wrapped his inner arm. He jerked slightly with the blow, then his arm seized and went rigid as stone and the hand opened uncontrollably, dropping Emine to the ground. The guard cried out and looked up to see where the dart came from, a reflexive motion, unconscious, but he turned towards Sasha Lonne and exposed his neck for a single moment. It was all she needed.
With his one good hand the guard clawed desperately at the knife buried suddenly in his neck. He opened his mouth to scream but made no sound. He gaped like a fish. Blood pouring down his armor, cascading along the ridges, and Sasha was upon him before he even saw her.
She twisted the knife. The guard spasmed and jerked stiff before collapsing. She spat on him, then pulled the dart from his arm and jabbed it through his lolling tongue. She jerked the knife from his throat, wiped it clean on the plume of his helm, then sheathed it on her thigh.
Emine’s eyes were open, but dumb and unregistering. She had pushed herself to sitting and watched Sasha, but there was only fear and confusion on her face.
Sasha pulled the dead guard into the stairwell and closed the door to hide him. “To your feet, Emine,” she said as she turned and held out her hand. “There is no time.”
“We can’t leave them,” Emine said quietly, her eyes losing focus. Another scream called from the upper platform, and she bobbed her head in its direction. Her eyes now barely open, the lids fluttering.
Sasha grabbed Emine’s arm and hoisted her to her feet. She looked down at the jagged stairs leading to the plaza, then felt the weight of the girl. Emine’s head had dropped and hung loose below her shoulders, her hair undone and dangling down in tatters. Sasha called her name and shook her hard and her head snapped back up.
“Can you walk?” Sasha asked.
“We can’t leave them…”
“We have to. We need to get to the street. Can you walk with me?”
Emine hesitated, then nodded. She took a breath, pulled her hair from her eyes, then steadied herself and started down the stairs. Her steps were timid at first, like stepping into cold water, but soon she was moving with Sasha inches behind her, a hand resting on her shoulder. She stopped suddenly, halfway down, and began to sway. Sasha’s guiding hand grabbed her by the collar, and pulled her backwards. She held her for a moment, and kept her eyes locked on the door above them where the dead guard was hidden. A knife already in her hand.
“You have to keep moving. Get to the bottom.”
“My name is Sasha. I’m a friend. Now shut your mouth and move. Do you hear me? We aren’t safe. Go.”
Emine recoiled, then started back down the stairs, her steps timid once again, and buoyed by the bannister. The back of her head now wet with blood.
Along the plaza the crowd focussed on nothing but the procession, and Emine stumbled into their midst with little notice. Sasha pushed ahead of her, grabbed her by the wrist, and shoved through the crowd.
The path that Sasha cut was constantly closing back in on Emine, and she fought against it as she walked. Twice she reached out to steady herself on the arm or shoulder of a stranger, and twice she was jerked forward by Sasha who would not stop or slow down and soon they fought their way through the crowded plaza and made for the throngs lining the East Road.
The pain in Emine’s head steadily blossomed as she staggered behind Sasha. What began as a dull ache behind the eyes deepened to a thunderous roar, white hot and swelling and it caused her to lose her balance and she stumbled again, the world around her suddenly muffled and distant, as if she had fallen into a body of water. She blinked her eyes, so slowly. She shook her head, but the motion felt sluggish and started the crowd to a gentle spinning and the light falling on them became milky soft and she closed her eyes for what seemed like minutes and when she opened them again the crowd was gone and the world was a rich and muddy swirl.
“How did I get here?” she slurred. “How did I…”
The wrist in Sasha’s hand went limp. She turned to see Emine’s fluttering eyes, the whites turning upwards, and the girl’s mouth opening to speak and her knees buckling as she did so. Sasha caught her and guided her softly to the ground.
They sat together for a moment in the depths of the crowd. Sasha parted Emine’s eyelids, and frowned at what she saw. “No,” she commanded. She tapped on the girl’s cheek. “Hey. Not now.”
A forest of dirty legs surrounded them. Sasha looked between them to the barely visible East Road, and caught a glimpse of armored greaves marching in formation. Then the crowd shifted, and the view was gone.
The crowd… there was something wrong with the crowd. Sasha was seated in their midst with Commander Aurel’s bleeding daughter in her lap, and no one spared them a second look. They were transfixed by the procession. They were tripping over themselves for a view of the Veng. Sasha had been watching the roads since dawn. She had seen the pensive, frightened people as they crept silently from their homes. But now? Now the fear was gone.
Perhaps the people found some comfort in their numbers. Or they were so worn out by the nightly terrors that they welcomed the Congregation… And hadn’t Ambassador Osyth’s words been encouraging? Had he not spoken of peace? A young father with a child on his shoulders stood just above Sasha. They were both smiling. The child was waving to the Veng. A little lamb calling out to the wolves.
And there is no fouler wolf than the one rolling towards you, child. Not in the entire world. You could not fathom his horror.
Emine stirred in Sasha’s arms. She blinked her eyes open, and squinted at the world around her. She leaned down and vomited on the ground, then wiped her mouth and looked at Sasha. Shame and confusion clouded her face.
“Come on,” Sasha said as she pulled Emine upright. “I know this is painful, but we have to keep moving.”
Emine nodded, and let her weight fall on Sasha’s shoulder as she was brought to her feet. She pushed the dirty locks of hair behind her ears, took a few deep breaths, and followed Sasha once again.
They emerged at the far edge of the East Road, and pressed themselves against the wall of shuttered buildings. Emine doubled over and retched on the sidewalk.
“You hit your head hard when you fell,” Sasha said.
“The sickness will pass. So will the pain. Are you still dizzy?”
“We need to get to your house. Can you make it that far?”
“I think so.”
“Good,” Sasha said. She headed down the line of buildings towards a gap where a narrow alley met the East Road. A cluster of barrels was tucked beneath the awning of a corner shop, and a small group of boys stood on them shoulder to shoulder. They craned their necks and peeked over one another for a glimpse of the procession. They didn’t notice as as Sasha approached them with Emine limping at her side.
Sasha looked up at the boys and brought her fist down on the barrel. “Get down,” she said.
The boy closest to her stared in disbelief. “Who the hell are you?” he asked.
“Our spot, lady,” another called. “Find yer own.”
“Down,” Sasha said. “Now.”
“Piss off—,” the closest boy said, but before the last word was fully out of his mouth Sasha drew back and kicked the barrel, sending them all toppling down to the sidewalk. They cried out as they fell, but were silenced when they saw Sasha standing over them with a knife spinning in her hand.
“Run,” she said, and they clamoured over themselves and vanished down the alley. She sheathed the blade, and turned to Emine. “Wait here a moment,” she said. “I need to see if they’re following us yet.”
Sasha nodded, then hopped up onto the barrel. She leaned down to Emine. “They will come for you like hounds when they realize you’re gone,” she said.
“The Palace Guard, but they are not acting alone. They aren’t smart enough for that.” She looked at the Veng. “Someone is guiding them. It doesn’t matter who. Now stop talking. I’ll only be a moment.”
Sasha scanned across the gathered crowds, but saw no sign of the Palace Guard. She was about to drop off the edge of the barrel when she noticed that the marching column of Veng had ended. The last of their ranks stepped through the threshold of Mayfaire and the East Road was clearing behind them. The murmur of the crowd had grown low. The chanting of the faithful began to swell slightly in the silence. Every eye was pointed at the mouth of the East Gate.
The crowd near the Gate shuddered and shifted as a pack of figures began to emerge from the shadows. The dragged chains behind them, and shambled into Mayfaire like filthy skeletons. They were barefoot, starving thin, and naked except for a thick iron carapace that covered each of them from their jaws to their chests, the ridges all sharpened and upturned like knives. Sasha could make little sense of them. The single piece of armor was outlandish on their frail bodies, and clearly a great burden judging by their labored steps. And what use was armor if it left over half the body exposed? A quick strike and they would fall. Except…
A cold shiver passed down Sasha’s spine as she realized what she was looking at. They were penitents. Berzerkers. Their armor covered their throats and it covered their hearts. It covered the only places to hit for a quick kill. And there were dozens of them. They stammered their way into the city as a loose pack, a ridiculous counter image to the proud, regimented Veng that preceded them. They walked like tethered beasts. The chains sprouting from the backs of each carapace joining into a great bundle that dragged slowly from the darkness of the tunnel.
“What are they?” Emine whispered up to Sasha.
“Something is walking them like dogs…”
The chains whipped back in a cloud of dust and the penitents all wailed and thrashed as they were jerked backward. Several toppled then crawled back to standing and a deep cruel laugh came from the tunnel of East Gate. The crowd was held in silence. Even the prayers of the faithful died away as the penitents shivered and shook in the road. Then came the dry rattling of chains, a deep pounding of footsteps, and when the Ascended finally emerged onto the plaza he stopped to savor the horrified faces of the crowd. He walked with a curious stalking gait on his back-jointed legs and stood far taller than a man despite his back being curved and hunched. Plates of enameled armor glistened on his body and one of his shoulder guards bore a stylized drop of blood rendered in deep purple. A pitched, twisted helm covered much of his face and head, and if the shape was ornamental or the sheath of some foul anatomy Sasha could not tell. Nor did she care to. She despised the thing that stepped into her city with a bleakness she could barely understand. The utter horror of it. Like some haunted fragment of a dream she ached to forget, but instead of fear it conjured in her a desperate loathing. And she could not look away from it.
The Ascended held the great bundle of chains and whipped them again and the penitents all dropped to their knees and pressed their foreheads against the stones of the road, their bladed carapaces cutting into their legs and stomachs as they did so. The Ascended looked to them lovingly, then regarded the silent crowd. He stood still for a long moment, then pulled his lips far back in a snarl that brought his golden teeth to bear, glittering thick and wild against the soft crimson gums.
“On your knees,” he said in a deep, resonant voice. “Great Vellah comes.”
At once, the crowd dropped to the ground. The chants and prayers of the devout exploded with the spoken name of their Angel and their voices began to swell louder and rose over the street. Sasha dropped from the barrel and grabbed Emine’s hand. She pulled the girl to her feet without a word, and together they slipped into the alley.