18 – The Painted Road

The world seemed lost to madness and Isaac could only watch. Over the sea of bodies he followed Sasha and Emine in their fight against the crowd. The girl collapsing to the ground, vomiting. The blood darkening the back of her head. He tracked their path, saw the alley Sasha was leading them towards, and jump across rooftops to reach it. He couldn’t take his eyes from Emine. The girl was never far from her brother’s side, and if she was in such a state, so shaken and bloodied, then what of Elias?

Isaac’s despair deafened him to the change that had come over the crowd. He didn’t notice the hush, or the rattle of chains on stone. He watched Sasha and Emine disappear beneath the building to his left. He dropped to the adjoining roof and watched Sasha rattle a group of boys from their perch of barrels. He began to slide over the edge of the building, to drop silently into the alley…

And then he heard the laughter. Then he heard the ironsong voice of the Ascended spilling across the city. “On your knees,” it had said. “Great Vellah comes.”

“No,” Isaac managed to say to himself before his body began to tremble. “No, no, no…”

He watched as Sasha jerked Emine down the alley below him. He steadied himself, and dropped quietly behind her. He make a chirped whistle as he fell, knowing what could happen to someone who descend on Sasha unannounced.

“Keep going,” he whispered to Emine when she faltered at his sudden presence. “Don’t stop.”

Sasha didn’t turn or slow down. He didn’t expect her to. He ran beside Emine and looked at the girl as he passed. Blood smeared across her cheek and her pupils were stretched wide and dark. If she had been attacked if was not meant to kill her. She had fallen, and fallen hard, but didn’t appear to be hurt otherwise.

Sasha turned a corner in the alley, and the three rushed out onto the sunlit expanse of the Ebeness, a narrow street that ran parallel to the East Road. It was completely empty, save for a littering of leaves that drifted on the morning wind.

“Elias is alive,” Sasha said.

Isaac nodded, and swallowed hard. “Cosmin sent me to the Barracks,” he said. “He wanted to start the migration. I did as I was told. I always do. I came here as fast as I could but I couldn’t get closer. I swear I couldn’t get any closer. And now—”

“Elias is alive,” Sasha repeated. “He’s alive, Isaac.”

“You are sure?”

“They were attacked by the Palace Guard. They’re brutes and they’re well trained. If they wanted to kill him they would have. I couldn’t have stopped them.”

Isaac shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. He looked again to Emine whose eyes were barely open. To the blood on her face. “What of Cosmin and Petra?” he asked.

“I don’t know. They were dropped to the ground, but not stabbed. I think they wanted them alive.”

Isaac nodded. “That thing at the gate…” he said.

“It was one of the Ascended. There were others behind it.”

“It said Vellah was here.”

Sasha draw a fast breath. “Yes,” she said. “He’s here.”

There was nothing Isaac could say. No words for the horror. “There won’t be a Census,” he said at last.

“No, there won’t.”

“Cosmin planned for this. He knew something was happening. He always knows. He sent scouts to the West. He’s stocked the Barracks with supplies, wagons…”

“He was betrayed, Isaac. The Barracks are compromised.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Where do you think the Palace Guard were trained?”

“They were never part of the cause.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sasha said. “They would not have done this on their own. The Barracks are compromised.”

Isaac thought over the words. His mind was turning and turning. There was nothing but empty chaos. A maelstrom. Structures collapsing. “How many did you kill?” he asked.

“You can’t storm the platform, Isaac.”

“How many?”

“Just the one.”

Isaac said nothing. He stared at some far point towards the East Road.

“You’ll die if you go up there,” Sasha said. “And you’ll put Elias in danger. You know you will.”

Isaac thought of the far away heights of East Gate and the platform above it. The dark shapes of the Palace Guard standing framed in the low embrasures, their armor and their spears. “They’ll take them to the Colosseum,” he said. “Nowhere else.”

Sasha nodded. “I can’t help you,” she said.

“I know.”

Emine stumbled. Her head had been listing to one side, and her bearing shifted as she stood. Isaac watched her lose her balance then catch herself on Sasha’s shoulder, clinging to the woman to steady herself.

“Don’t let her lie down,” Isaac said.

“Of course not.”

He returned his gaze to the Emine. “Sasha will protect you,” he said. “She has watched over you since you were a baby. She will die before she sees harm come to you. Do you understand?”

Emine nodded and the blood smeared across her face broke something within Isaac. He saw the same blood on Elias but in his mind the blood would not stop running. The eyes sinking deep in the sockets, the skin bloated and bruised and the air thick with flies crawling the contours of Elias’s face. Tasting the crusted blood along his lips…

Isaac put a hand on Emine’s shoulder. He took his sleeve and wiped the blood from her cheek. He wanted to say something but didn’t know what it would be.

“Look at me Isaac,” Sasha said, an edge of impatience in her voice. “Elias will live. You will get to him, and he will live. Cosmin had allies in Hardun. That’s where we’re going. That’s where we’ll meet you. You and Elias.”

“You’re taking her to Hardun?”

“I am.”

“The old roads are still dangerous… and the Firstborn…”

“What’s Hardun?” Emine asked, her voice foggy and soft.

“Hush,” Sasha snapped, then turned back to Isaac. “We have no choice. If I can’t trust the Barracks the only safe places will be far beyond the city. It’s what Cosmin would want and it’s what I’m doing. You will meet us there.”

“You’re going to her house first,” Isaac said.

“Yes.”

“You know what’s hidden there.”

“I do.”

“Be careful with it, Sasha. Be very, very careful.”

Sasha was silent in reply. She wrapped Emine’s arm around her shoulder then started across the street, their feet locked briefly in step and Isaac wondered if Sasha felt the weight of the moment. If she understood how precious it was to hold the person whose life she had devoted herself to protecting. To finally know them.

“Be safe,” he whispered.

And then he was alone.

 

***

 

A deep cry rose from the direction of the East Road. It sent Isaac speeding along the facades of the Ebeness, and in a matter of moments he was once again on the edge of his high perch. The sprawl of the road laid out before him, now utterly empty, and the tide of the crowd kneeling along its edges. They were silent save for the low chanting of the faithful.

Another cry, all black rage and mourning, and the great beast lurched onto the city plaza, a mountain of pale flesh and plates of gold. It beheld the city through the eyes of its child’s mask. It sniffed the air like a hound then lumbered across the plaza. The carriage temple followed. It was tethered to the beast by a great marble yoke and the prayers of the faithful grew fierce and primal at its appearance. Voices cutting harsh, throats giving out, chanting as one and praising the arrival of the Angel in words broken and transformed by the multitude, growing louder with each refrain until they reached a thunderous chorus swelling and shaking and rising over the city—

And then, all at once, the chanting ceased. The last syllable cut from every mouth so sudden it held for a moment in echo.

The city fell silent, and in the silence a shiver crawled its way through the crowd. It spread like an infection. Those closest to the carriage temple began to shake as if cold, then those behind them took up the motion, and then those behind them, until the shiver was travelling down the edges of the East Road, a gentle, undeniable convulsion in the crowd.

But not all of the crowd… enough to create the illusion of entirety, but Isaac knew that only the faithful were affected, that Vellah was reaching out to them and for his blood flowing in their veins and as the trembling ran down the road Isaac fought an urge to jump from the roof before it reached him. He wanted to scream. He clenched his eyes and waited for the wretched feeling that would tickle across his soul. The Violation. Hooks inside his body and he wanted only to run but knew that he couldn’t. Prisoner of his own flesh. Never to outrun the stain he carried. Gone were Petra’s promises of absolution, Cosmin’s unyielding hope. All settling to dust. And Isaac held his head in his hands.

Could I abandon this tainted body forever. Could I empty it upon the ground.

A rustling of clothes. Soft shuffle of bodies, then a low gathering moan, rapturous in its escape from thousands of mouths. Pouring forth in a wave and braking around him, clawing, clutching, reaching…

And then it left him behind.

He felt nothing. No twitch, no fingers in his veins. He opened his eyes, and for the briefest of moments he felt a rare, transcendent joy. He felt hope. He looked to the kneeling crowd, and saw their salvation. He looked to the carriage and he saw it burning. Vellah’s jointed bulk spilling limp from the gilded doors. The beast of burden dead with a thousand arrows in its hide. Heavy grey tongue lolling out from beneath that awful mask. Dark blood pooling in a mirror beneath it. He saw Elias walking with his sister. He saw himself untethered, face warmed by the distant summer sun.

But the dream faded as the faithful began to rise from the kneeling crowd. Shoulders slackened, necks bent backward, all in perfect synchrony, now standing one leg at a time. Thousands upon thousands. They brought themselves high as their toes could allow, each stretching their faces towards the sky. Tears in every set of glimmering eyes. Blind rapture. Complete uniformity. All standing as reflections of one another. No longer a rabble of individuals, but facets of a unified whole. Even their shoulders rose and fell together as they calmly breathed as one.

And the rest of the city remained kneeling at their feet. The faithless. And Isaac could see how in one unholy act Vellah had split the population between the blessed and the damned. A show of force greater than the march of the Veng. Here the kneeling heretics, and above them the pilgrims of Mayfaire, the faithful who had given themselves to Vellah and his promise of Ascension. To the love and glory of the Spire.

Screams now from the edges of the road as pairs of the faithful broke from their trance to grab from among those kneeling at their feet. Men and women, young and old, the faithful dragged them into the street by ams or handfuls of hair and turned them all to face the beast and the carriage it pulled. They ran the full length of the East Road, hundreds of them, a pair of the faithful for each captive and all separated by the same precise distance.

Panicked voices called from the crowd. Those kneeling turned their heads to the road and shouted to the captives but no one dared to move and soon their voices were drowned out by the resurgent chanting of the faithful. Each words matched to the syllable, their arms raising to the heavens then slowly parting as if expecting an embrace. Delicate and graceful, a field in bloom. And the beast called out above the chanting and if words escaped its mouth they were words that Isaac had no desire to understand and in reply the pairs of faithful tore at the throats of their captives.

They used their hands, but Isaac knew that in those wretched moments they were not their hands at all. They were Vellah’s. He puppetted them with no regard for the limits of what muscles should do. What men and women are capable of. He clawed at the soft necks and pulled free the buried arteries. The faithful acting out his will in dutiful silence with the love of an Angel in their glassy eyes.

Isaac could only watch. He saw the blood spray against tattered robes. The pools of it spreading from each body. Drawing close to one another then connecting and soon the road was painted a shining red. The terrible efficiency of it. The orchestration. Bodies drained and flung to the verge and their killers rejoining the crowd with their red and dripping hands. Once more the awful cry of the beast. Its shuddering rise. The golden child’s face flecked with blood and the slow grind of the carriage temple rolling along the newly sanctified street.