The altercation could have gone better, Bleeding Wolf supposed, surveying the bodies at his feet. If he and his companions had arrived sooner, had been better prepared, they might have been able to surround the mercenaries, force a surrender, stop the violence before it began. But to the extent that he prioritized the job and his own party’s safety, it had gone perfectly.
There had been five that marched into the clearing. They had worn white, Holmite capes and carried a characteristically motley assortment of mismatched armor and armaments of varying quality. They were likely Holmite citizens then, but not Holmite agents, which was just as well: Bleeding Wolf had little appetite for the political implications that would entail. Of the five, he had personally dismembered two. They…would not be standing back up. Lan had beat the shit out of another who had unwisely attempted to dispatch him with an axe, and Ty had kicked another in the head hard enough to knock her unconscious. Those two were still alive, though Lan’s victim was in bad shape. The girl’s was another story. Bleeding Wolf hadn’t witnessed the whole interaction himself, but he did see the end, as Ty wrestled her to the ground and the last mercenary hacked frantically at his own chest, trying ostensibly to remove his heart. Leaving the girl contorted in a fetal position, Ty had cut the man’s throat before he could finish the job.
“Well, that was splendid,” Lan said dryly, wiping his rapier clean and re-slotting it into his umbrella-shield. “I think I shall be off to a walkabout. See if these louts left any stragglers still on their way. Mind the poor dear, would you?”
“She’s the poor one, is she?” Ty muttered as the merchant walked off. He glanced down at Orphelia. She seemed to have calmed somewhat, but she was still horizontal, breathing slowly and clutching her teddy bear to her chest. Ty was keeping his distance from the girl, and Bleeding Wolf was of a similar mind. He felt no need to intervene in her coping process, and there were other pressing matters besides.
“See if he’s got any rope in there,” he said, gesturing to the bag Lan had left in the clearing. He unbuckled a pouch at his waist and withdrew a handful of herbs. “I’ll see if I can patch this one up.”
They worked efficiently, applying rudimentary bandages to the mercenaries’ wounds and tying them both to a tree. By the time they finished, Orphelia had mostly collected herself, and the three of them met up again beside their original quarry: the corpse of Bilgames, Hunter of Beasts.
“This the guy, then?” Ty asked. Bleeding Wolf nodded, suppressing the swell of emotions as the certainty of it resolved. It was…him. The enormous, musclebound frame, the long beard, the etched armor. It was just like the stories, just like the glimpses he caught decades ago through a crowd. But though the corpse was still in remarkably good shape for what had almost certainly been days of exposure to the elements, the job was still just as it had been advertised: The corpse was just a corpse, throat cut, unmoving, and they were there to loot it.
To that end, Bleeding Wolf noted that his earlier conjecture–that the tipster had already taken his cut–had been vindicated. In life, the Hunter of Beasts had worn an enormous lotus flower upon his chest, but where the flower ought to have been, there was only an indentation, an irregular cavity amidst the corpse’s musculature, framed by hundreds of tiny pinpricks, perhaps where the roots had entered his flesh. The stories were true, then. The flower was an artifact.
“Looks like the best has already been taken,” Bleeding Wolf remarked, gesturing to the indentation. “I think we’ll earn our fee if we can bring Marko the armor, though.”
“Is it magic?” Ty asked.
“Hell if I know, but it’s all he’s got left. Marko didn’t ask for anything in particular, right?” Ty shook his head. “Help me get these off, then. The bugger can figure for himself what his merchandise is worth.”
It took them little time to remove the heavy belt and vambraces, but as they set about the task, a deep uneasiness fell over Bleeding Wolf. At first he thought little of it. They were in the Bloodwood, it was getting dark, there may yet have been more mercenaries about, and they were looting the grave of his childhood hero. There was plenty to be uneasy about. But then he heard a rustle beyond the clearing, and the unease became material. He looked up, saw a flash of white, and the rustling receded rapidly. Dammit, he thought. Missed one.
“Keep an eye out. Run if more show up,” he growled to Ty. “I’ll be right back.”
He tore into the woods. He’d try to be less lethal this time, he thought to himself, but either way, they needed this one caught. If their group had spread out, if the party had only intercepted a portion of them, this scout could be bringing friends back. And given the state the first group was now in, they would be out for blood.
Except this scout seemed to be very fast, and–Bleeding Wolf noticed it quickly yet still too late–something wasn’t right. The trail he’d been following for lack of visual contact, the scuffs in the dirt, the trampled moss, the broken twigs and branches–it was not a trail made by a human, no matter what kind of hurry they were in. These footprints could not have been made by boots. The spread of shattered branches was much too large for a human frame. The deep lacerations into the bark of the trees–what could a Holmite scout have been carrying to have made those accidentally? All of these thoughts coalesced, collated in his mind just in time for the trail to abruptly end.
He slowed to a halt, listening, sniffing the air, straining his senses to detect any sign of…whatever it was he was chasing in the rapidly dimming undergrowth. At first there was nothing. The shadows were still, the air smelled of the forest’s pungent floor and little else. Then he heard breathing, massive, deafening, not ten feet away, and the unwelcome feeling that he had been outwitted, that he had been led here, began to settle in. Slowly, he turned to face the source of the breathing, and he froze, fear and awe mixing, cold in his chest, as he recognized the mask.
He fell to his knees. It was him. The Wolf of the Green, for whom Bleeding Wolf had taken his own name all those years ago. The Masked Wolf. The Masked Alpha.
In his peripheral vision, he could finally resolve the Alpha’s colossal frame amongst the shadows as the creature began to pace, its steps suddenly graceful, silent in spite of its incredible size.
“You followed in our footsteps, then,” came the rumbling words, seemingly from every direction, as the earth and trees resonated with the primal force of the creature’s presence. “You were eager. Do you understand where it has led you?”
Bleeding Wolf looked up to see the Alpha paused mid-pace, neck elongated and bent down to regard him. It was not poised to strike. It was…skeptical? He bowed again.
“I am not sure that I do, Great One. Please help me understand.” The Alpha remained motionless for what might have been minutes before the reply finally came:
“Two circles converge. One, a careful orchestration, pieces placed carefully, falling outward until all is in ruin. Our congregation was the instrument of its genesis, and the first among us has now fallen to it. The second is a gyre of passion and rage and lies. It draws all within, for it is of the Deep, and the Deep is of all. It is human, and for that I despise it, for it has long since consumed me.
“Your eagerness has brought you to a crossroads of ruin, too late to turn back, only chaos and ravening before you. But…” Again, the Alpha paused, and the forest paused with him, as if the insects, the birds, even the creaking branches were captive to its words.
“But perhaps you may prove yourself a successor. Perhaps your devotion might stem the rot and resentment and the Story-That-Hungers. If you think yourself worthy, then listen carefully: Trust not the girl, but help her to find her redemption. Beware the Second, but help her to find peace. And when His whispers drown out all else, do not be afraid, for Harmony compels naught without discord.”
With that, the Alpha fell silent, and slowly, tepidly, the subtle din of the forest began to seep back in. Crickets and cicadas resumed their sawing chorus, and a breeze blew through the canopy, and as the quaking leaves drowned out the Alpha’s rumbling breaths, Bleeding Wolf looked up. Around him was nothing but roots and leaves and dusk.
Devlin woke with a heaving cough, dust and feathers issuing from his mouth. His brain was foggy. He could barely think. He could barely breathe with all these birds, black birds, brown birds, birds the color of dirt and shadows and dried blood, fluttering about his shoulders and face, shedding filthy down in his throat, cawing and chirping in his ears. In his daze, he could barely hear it, but it was all he could hear. Where was Orphelia, he wondered. Why couldn’t she chase them off? Why were they still here?
He wiped the crust from his eyes and looked about the alley. It was getting dark, and she wasn’t here. That wasn’t right. She went about during the day, of course. She brought food and water and the blanket she’d used to erect the makeshift awning over his head, but she always came back before it got dark. He roused what little strength he had and crawled to the mouth of the alley.
The street was nearly empty, and Orphelia was nowhere to be seen, but a sudden flicker of movement in the shadows prompted Devlin to recoil. He scrambled backward as a figure appeared, pausing at the mouth of the alley. It was the old blacksmith from across the street–the one Orphelia had warned him not to speak to. He lingered for only a moment, meeting Devlin’s gaze with a reassured nod before hurrying away. He had a large object–a spear, or perhaps a halberd–balanced on his shoulder, and somewhere amidst the confluence of details, it occurred to Devlin: Something was wrong.
The flock took off in surprise, instinctively squawking, pecking at his hands as he clambered upright. He began to stagger after the old man. The haze and the birds pulled at him, the fog gathered at the edge of his vision, but he willed his legs to keep moving. Orphelia should have been back by now. People were hurrying through the streets with weapons at twilight. She could be in trouble.
He kept hobbling after the man’s shadow for what felt like hours. Was the town really so large? How many houses had he passed? On his periphery, he kept trying to count, to note signs and features of the doorways on either side, but the birds kept fluttering about his shoulders, blocking his view, breaking his train of thought. It was only with a semblance of cognition that he realized he had followed the blacksmith into the square at the north end of town, and then almost immediately he was knocked to the ground, senses assaulted by a blast from the old theater on the other side of the square.
Bleary, he righted himself in a half-crouch to see, through the storm of screeches and feathers, a tall, black-clad figure climb to its feet amongst the debris from the explosion, only to be engulfed again by a torrent of fire jetting from the theater entryway. In the sudden abundance of light, Devlin could see the figure all the more clearly, that it did not seem to heed the flame licking at its voluminous cloak, that its movements were too smooth, too precise, as if it were unfolding rather than simply standing. The birds seemed to see it too: As the flames around the creature died down, leaving it apparently untouched, the screeching chorus faded with them, and for the first time in weeks, Devlin could see clearly.
Standing in what remained of the theater’s doorway was the greasy man Devlin knew to be Marko, the artifact dealer, brandishing a stone sculpture of a face in his left hand, his right covered in blue fire, surging from a glowing bracelet on his wrist. On the other side of the square, as yet unnoticed by either, the blacksmith waited next to a stack of crates, halberd ready, attempting–like Devlin–to take stock of the situation.
“You can get lost if y’ain’t got nothin’ to say!” Marko called out. “We do business here. You can take your threats and leave!”
The figure did not respond, but it did glide forward a pace, prompting Marko to raise the stone face. Instantly, the ground in front of the figure compacted with a loud thud, as if struck by something massive, sending dust into the air and leaving a crater in the dirt. As a warning shot, it would have terrified Devlin, but the creature seemed unfazed, and in the moment of aftermath, as Marko attempted to judge the efficacy of his intimidation, it charged, closing the distance in an instant. It batted the stone face from Marko’s hand and, ignoring the plumes of fire he reflexively raised, tackled him, impaling him through his shoulder on a spike jutting from its cloak where a hand should have been.
The blacksmith was already in motion, running toward them, halberd bracced for a wide swing, but Devlin found himself approaching as well. In the uncanny silence of the birds’ absence, he found himself beset by a bizarre, intrusive desire. He wanted to touch the creature. He wanted to see what was beneath its skin, to stab his beak into whatever served as its eyes and savor the strange taste of flesh. There was a part of him confused, that recoiled halfheartedly at the wet fervor that had overcome him, but it was tired, far too tired to resist.
The blacksmith arrived first, his wild cleave catching the creature at the base of its neck, pulling it from atop Marko and sending it reeling toward Devlin’s position in the middle of the square.k But though he seemed to have struck a solid blow with the sharpened edge of his weapon, the creature righted itself swiftly with a clicking undulation, barely inconvenienced, much less decapitated. It issued a jarring sound, somewhere between a hiss and an otherworldly hum, and poised itself for another charge. Then Devlin reached it.
With a confidence he had never known in himself, he reached out and grasped the limb the creature was passing for an arm, and with a terrifying, practiced familiarity, he projected a presence into the creature, found its whirring voice, and took hold of it.
As expected, it fought back. The hum and the harmonies swelled, intensifying, weaving into vicious complexities as they writhed in his gnarled grip, and then they burrowed into him. Devlin imagined a clicking, modular eye, studying him, unblinking, segments dialing and focusing, but the image remained for only a second before his mind was recalled to reality.
The creature was shuddering, resonating violently, and the force of the vibration was all but wrenching Devlin’s arm from its socket. His confidence was gone. He panicked and let go. Still twitching erratically, the creature whirled on him, but before it could continue the motion, it lurched sideways into the ground with a metallic crunch, and the twitching stopped.
Looking past the fallen creature, Devlin noticed Marko, clutching his shoulder with one hand, the stone face raised tepidly in the other. Behind him stood the blacksmith, undisguised concern written on his brow, attention divided between Devlin and the motionless heap of cloth and spines at his feet.
“What…” Devlin croaked, the query only half in mind before the screeches and feathers returned to drown it out. Then the haze returned. And the fatigue. Then his legs buckled, and everything went black and mercifully quiet.
An intro story intended as a direct reference to Robert Chambers’ The Repairer of Reputations. I do recommend the original, provided you can overlook one or two references to attitudes that are justifiably no longer acceptable. Beyond that, though, in the niche of literature that Lovecraft and Derleth came to dominate decades later, The Repairer of Reputations stands out as a particularly subtle example among weird fiction’s supremely un-subtle enclave, with its portrait of a shining, futuristic 1920s New York (from the perspective of its 1895 publication date!), seen through the eyes of Hildred Castaigne, a megalomaniacal but only understatedly unreliable narrator. It also has suicide booths.
The original leaves the open question of how much Hildred’s insanity has affected his perception. There are clear, “onscreen” arguments over whether Hildred’s combination safe is, in fact, a breadbox, or whether the crown he keeps inside it is simply a piece of trash, but those allude to the arguments no one has: How much of the ordered, tranquil, pomp-and-circumstance New York of the future can be real if we are seeing it only through his distorted gaze. It’s an elegant ambiguity, one I ignore entirely in the below. My story is not elegant, and where Chambers’ work was meant to stand alone, mine is intended to introduce an aesthetically similar but larger and (by modern standards) much more conventional interweaving of characters. My version of Chambers’ setting is meant to be unambiguously real (because I like it), but I hope it will pique your interest anyway. The tags/categories are relevant, of course.
Toward the beginning of the year 1920 the government of the United States (and, newly, of Britannia) had practically completed the program adopted during the last months of President Winthrop’s administration. The country had every appearance of tranquility. The Great War, despite its ravagings upon Europe, had left no such scars upon the republic, having cemented its mutually agreed-upon annexation of the British Isles and Canada and emboldened its navy, granting it control over a profitable majority of both the Atlantic and Pacific. The last vestiges of the white separatist movement in Texas had been quelled and its leaders apprehended with the aid of the Venus of the Sinaloa, and with the exception of the Army’s ongoing, troubled campaigns in the Shandong jungle, the country was in a superb state of defense.
Moreover the nation was prosperous. Chicago, for a moment paralyzed after a second great fire, had risen from its ruins, argent and stately and even more beautiful than the white city which had been built for its people in 1893. Everywhere good architecture was replacing bad, and even in New York a sudden craving for decency had swept away a great portion of the dingiest existing edifices. Streets had been widened, properly paved, and lighted; trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures demolished, and underground roads built to replace them. The new government buildings and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks, which proved a godsend to the population.
The colossal Congress of Religions had convened only a year ago, but already itseemed clear to most that a new understanding prevailed between men and their cultures and creeds, that bigotry and intolerance were to be laid in their graves, that kindness and charity had finally triumphed over that ugly, sectarian will to conflict. Many thought the millennium had arrived, at least in the new world, which, after all, was a world unto itself.
Many thought as much, yes, but Beau Pierre wasn’t so sure. He looked down, bleary, from the window of his tenement–one of the few of its hideous kind remaining in the city–upon the newly reconstructed Pell Street, its wide, neat sidewalks, flowering cherry trees, alabaster storefronts opening to the carefully managed calm of a seaside park two blocks down. People were supposed to like these things, to draw from them the same outward order and organization within their own souls, but Beau found them curiously soulless. Something was wrong with him, he admitted.
After the war, he had enrolled at Columbia. Prospects had been bleak at the time for a return to Paris, and he had been eager to resume his studies. But it didn’t take. It wasn’t that the faculty weren’t supportive or that they were hostile to expatriates or really any subversion of his expectations for the place. Beau had changed. It might have been the war–the Romantics had oft described the change that might occur in man upon his immersion in hardship and violence–but something told Beau that the particulars of the Western Front weren’t what the Romantics had in mind. Besides, the war failed acutely to provide an explanation for the other changes he’d noticed in his life.
Beau turned to look at the door at the opposite end of his dusty studio and focused, flexing a muscle in his mind which had gradually made itself apparent over the past three years. Clouds of possibility converged about the door, forming lines and threads stretching into dimensions he could intuit but not consciously fathom, along which the door began to shift. The vast majority of them–ninety five percent, Beau estimated–were closely grouped, and the majority of what remained did not stray far. It was a near certainty, then, that the door would open between seven and eight minutes from now. He checked his pocket watch. Ten minutes late. Perhaps it was a power play?
Since his departure from the university, Beau had drifted through a few different arrangements of employment, less for the needs of his lifestyle–he lived cheaply and had been able to extricate an appreciable nest egg from his family’s holdings in France before his crossing–than for an idle fascination with Americana and its trappings. A store clerk, a carriage driver–a profession swiftly yielding to the automobile traffic coming to dominate transportation about the city–a librarian, a shop assistant to a record seller–it was through this last, oddly, that he finally encountered the grasping fingers of New York’s peculiar underworld. Out of curiosity, he had accepted an invitation to a secret society dedicated to the King in Yellow, who seemed to Beau to be a sort of cross between myth and metaphor, though he still had little idea what any of the society’s gibberish actually meant. It was through that bizarre enterprise, however, that he had been recruited by Felix Wilde.
He’d never seen the man–only received messages from the other members of the society. The employment they offered–periodic requests to deliver cryptic messages and nonsensical objects to individuals across the spectrum of social standing–paid poorly, which was notably orders of magnitude better than it ought to have paid. It was terribly interesting, Beau felt, made all the more so by the enigma of Mr. Wilde himself. The man, purportedly a microcephalic gremlin, was the chief accountant at Hawberk Armoury and Defense, the largest arms dealer in the country, but it seemed he had his malformed digits in some great share of New York’s illegal operations as well. Some small portion–liquor smuggling, forgery–seemed profitable. Most, like Beau’s errands, did not, but it was clear that Mr. Wilde held a sort of ineffable sway over the city’s miscreants. Beau dearly wanted to understand why, but salient evidence had thus far eluded him, which was why the development of three weeks ago was so exciting.
Between Wilde’s sporadic requests and his own counter-research, Beau had taken to spending his afternoons at Belmont Park, testing his newfound predictive talents upon more measurable stakes. Almost to his surprise, they proved quite reliable, and he found himself able to collect margins on small bets placed within ten minutes of a race’s start. When he attempted to replicate his success with a more substantial sum, his predictions did not fail him, but unfortunately, his lack of guile did. The track administrators had apparently noticed their novice patron’s perfect betting record and, upon the unfurling of circumstances that might otherwise have garnered the attention of their other clientele, decided to intervene. Beau’s winnings were confiscated, and he was tossed unceremoniously to the street.
It was a costly error, to be sure: Though he was not currently relying on the extra pocket money, he had entertained hopes that it might provide some assurance of his financial independence in years to come. A ban from every track in the state of New York complicated things. Ultimately, though, Beau found it worthwhile, for the very next morning, an envelope arrived at his door, marked in the usual way with the initials “F.W.” It was a task, of a sort, but unlike previous instances of terse, unadorned instruction, this note took the form of a ledger entry:
Incident recorded for one B. Pierre, student, migrant, amateur gambler. Incident occurred April 3rd. Reputation damaged on the racetrack. Known to track proprietors as a race fixer. Reputation to be repaired April 23rd aboard the Prince’s Emblazoned. Retainer to be paid by client’s assistance to Mr. Hawberk on said date. Entry papers and details to be provided to client by H. Castaigne at 8:30 AM, April 23rd, prior to departure.
-Mr. Felix Wilde
Accountant, Hawberk Armoury & Defense Co.
The mystery had coagulated deliciously. Martin Hawberk was a pillar of society, and the Prince’s Emblazoned, his ocean liner, was the decade’s crowning achievement in modern nautical engineering–such was the agreement among every sailor Beau could find relaxing outside the cafes which bordered the harbor. That idle engagement with Mr. Wilde’s nonsense had propelled him into such stations was a thrill in itself. That it might finally shed light on Wilde’s intentions–or “repair” Beau’s damaged public character–was a veritable culmination of his atrophied ambitions.
He cut these ruminations short, rising in anticipation of a knock at the door, which arrived precisely on schedule. Adjusting his sleeves, he breathed deep and opened it to a dandily-dressed young man who sauntered in with barely a glance of acknowledgment.
“Mr. Castaigne, I presume?” Beau asked. The man delayed his response, surveying Beau’s ascetic lodgings with an almost exaggerated curl of his lip before laying his cane against the windowsill and producing a folio, which he set upon the table.
“Indeed,” he replied, begrudgingly making eye contact. He did not sit, instead choosing to lean dramatically upon the backrest of Beau’s chair. “You understand what is at stake here, yes?” Beau clasped his hands and shook his head humbly, for now content to play along with Castaigne’s overstated theatrics.
“I am afraid Mr. Wilde provided me with precious little context. What service is it I am to be providing?”
“You are to be controlling damage,” Castaigne said, almost with a snarl. “Hawberk has decided that he shall jeopardize our finances with his frivolity, and Mr. Wilde finds this unacceptable. We are to understand your capabilities make you an effective card player?”
“I’ve not made a habit of card playing.” Castaigne scowled and looked out the window, perhaps to hide his sudden turn of rage.
“My blood boils at the thought that you were chosen, with wits this dim!” he spat, turning back. “Your role is to ensure that either Hawberk or yourself wins this useless game, so that our work is not imperiled. Do not fail, or the King in Yellow will surely enlighten you as to the meaning of fear.”
Beau considered the manic threat for a moment but ultimately found himself unable to resist:
“What have I to fear from the King in Yellow?”
Castaigne regarded him for a moment, taut-lipped, knuckles clenching around the top of the chair. Then, in a low voice, he intoned:
“Mr. Wilde the other day relayed to me the most curious rumor of a certain Benoit Foyer, a French entrepreneur most perturbed by the theft of his family’s fortune by his estranged half-brother, mere hours after their father’s death on the Front. I understand he is attempting to ascertain the miscreant’s whereabouts. What do you make of it?”
Despite his efforts, Beau felt his brow raise incrementally. Mr. Wilde’s attention was more careful than he’d realized.
“I would venture,” he replied slowly, “that Mr. Foyer may overstate his claim. There exists no record of his parentage prior to his adoption into the Foyer family, making his accusation baseless.”
“Mr. Wilde is quite gifted at finding records, Mr. Pierre. Hawberk’s former competitors can attest to it. But let us agree that, in this case, he is surely mistaken in his assumption that such a record might be provided to Mr. Foyer. And let us agree that his faith in you is not misplaced.”
With that, Castaigne deliberately relinquished his grip upon the chair and fetched his cane.
“Everything else you need should be in it,” he said, gesturing carelessly to the folio on the table. He paused. “Except you had best find yourself a tailor. Even Mr. Hawberk would not suffer your presence on his ship looking like that.”
He strode out, leaving the door open behind him–and Beau to wonder whether his curiosity had been worth it after all.
A brief interlude from Crossroads (because I caught myself working on material out of order). Note the references below to the Sevenfold Gyre and to the One-Eyed Crow (and, obviously, the previous Three Gifts story).
Ty Ehsam had been certain from the get-go that his visit to the Crossroads would be a costly detour. Marko’s reputation preceded him, and Ty’s question had never been whether he would efficiently ascertain the location of the Keystone. Rather, he had merely wondered which particular pound of flesh the broker would extract in exchange. But the visit had still exceeded his expectations in a not so good way.
The job, Marko’s price, stank to the high mountain. Tip of some folk here–Bilgames or some such–biting it up at the edge of the Bloodwood. It sounded like bait. Marko knew it sounded like bait, but if Ty Ehsam got his head collected by some booby trap up north, that was hardly Marko’s problem, was it? Damn it.
And the boatman made it all so much worse. Who was Lan al’Ver? What was his interest in Ty? And what did Marko know about him that he wasn’t sharing? Near as Ty could tell, the man was no mage–mana didn’t cling to him the way it clung to the other two travelers on their journey north–but everything else about his behavior outright keened of magical fuckery. And the girl. The girl was certainly a mage, drenched in the Deepest magic Ty had ever seen, obviously up to no good, and even after making it clear they had nothing to do with each other, al’Ver stepped in for her. Ty was not easily persuaded toward murder, but his priors on Deep mages assured him the girl was very probably a cannibal, and even now, hours later, sipping wine in the relative safety of the inn, he could scarcely believe that al’Ver had vouched responsibility for the girl, volunteered her for the job. And Marko listened!
Ty hated it. Whatever was going on with this damn job–this damn town, even–everyone knew more than him, and it was going to get him killed, and he didn’t have any choice but to go along with it all because no matter what kind of gruesome death was waiting for him in the Bloodwood, failing to deliver on his promise to the Blaze would be worse. He’d backed himself into a corner, and he hated it.
He gulped the rest of his wine, setting down his cup just in time for another patron to pull up a seat at his table. He glanced over, guarded and irritable, to see the shapeshifter who had traveled up the river with him and al’Ver.
“Greetings. Marko mentioned you were looking for muscle.” Ty stared him down for a moment, though he seemed not at all put off by the suspicion.
“Yeah,” Ty replied. “He mention anything else?” The shapeshifter shrugged.
“Scavenging near the Bloodwood’s all he said. You have more details?”
“Yeah. Some mage died,” Ty said. “Got an approximate location and a warning we should expect other scavs.” The shapeshifter frowned.
“That…sounds like bait,” he said after a moment. Ty couldn’t help but snort. It was a dark sort of funny, sure, but it was a relief too. Finally, someone else who saw the insanity in all of it.
“It sure does,” he admitted. “Marko’s got something I want, though. This is what he wants in return.”
“You have yourself in a bind then.” The shapeshifter smiled as he spoke and finally sat down. He offered his hand. “Bleeding Wolf.”
“Ty Ehsam,” Ty replied, tepidly shaking it.
“Well, Ty, it it’s a trap, there’s a good chance bringing me along could save your life. I’m pretty familiar with the area.” Ty nodded. He’d figured: Every shapeshifter he’d ever heard of had ties to the Bloodwood.
“I’d still want to know why you’re so eager to run into a trap.” Bleeding Wolf shrugged.
“I understand Marko’s paying for time even if we don’t find anything.”
“Enough for a risk like that?” This prompted a laugh. The shapeshifter’s canines were uncomfortably prominent.
“You got me,” he conceded. “There’s actually a point of curiosity in this for me. To which end, I’m asking an additional fee.”
“‘Fraid I don’t have much to offer you.”
“You can tell me what it is you want from Marko, and I’m yours.”
Ty grimaced. He didn’t want anyone else stuck in his miserable business, but…fine. This one wanted in, and he could really use the help. And, he had to admit, it was some comfort that he at least knew something the shapeshifter didn’t.
“Okay,” he replied. “When the job is done, I’ll tell you. You might wish I hadn’t, though.” Bleeding Wolf shook his head, cracking his neck at the end of the gesture.
“I wouldn’t worry,” he said. “Wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve learned that I shouldn’t’ve. So I’m in. Tell me more about our dead mage. Any idea who it was?” Ty swirled the dregs of his wine.
“No. Marko gave me the name ‘Bilgames’, but I’ve never heard of ‘em.” He looked up to see Bleeding Wolf staring, aghast.
“Are you sure that was the name?” the shapeshifter asked.
Ty nodded, alarm creeping once again out of the pit in his stomach. Bleeding Wolf stood up and nearly ran to the door.
“Get up!” he called back to Ty, still sitting bewildered at his table. “We need to find al’Ver and get out of here, or every scav and False God in the Riverlands will have beaten us there by morning!”
I have mentioned it before in the most fleeting sense, but one of the long-standing goals of the Rale project has been to produce a Tarot-inspired (though structurally not really) deck of cards depicting images from the world as exemplars of the ways that humans fight death.
Many of the images themselves have been ready for some time, but they have been waiting on frames. They need frames, of course, because the frame is what indicates the card’s suit. Like so:
Cruelty and Control are here presented in the “Viscera” suit. Blame is in the “Gifts” suit, and God is in “Stories”. Not pictured here are “Embraces” and “Avoidance”, as they are still in progress, but these came together so beautifully that I had to share.
A story by Leland. Not unlike this, but less saccharine and more anthrocentric.
When the ancient gods roamed the world we humans were harvested.
Every bear with teeth and fur and claws could rip us apart and eat our soft meaty insides. The creatures of the wild were so big back then. Monstrous. All with terrible magics far greater than our soft skin.
But the thing that truly hunted us was the Wendigo. It roamed in the forests at night, riding the winds, riding the cold. It cultivated us as a crop. The weakest were culled every season by that creature that sang in the dark. We humans fought within ourselves to avoid weakness, undermining our neighbors to save our children from the horrible screams. We humans developed emotions and manipulations to survive this thousand year torture.
Then came the Bird, the Turtle, the Fox and humans received protection. A sweet gift of safety beneath the mountains of fur and feather they offered. Sitting atop the shell of the island Turtle we humans were not hunted for flesh, but these gods still had hunger.
The gargantuan animals with their beautiful magics hungered for something else that the humans had: sweetness and sadness. Our strange emotions that ruled our universe and had been developed by seeing our neighbors and children die while wishing for their survival. These emotions became the sweet desserts that the old gods ate.
Rituals upon rituals upon rituals were made for the old gods. Their massive eyes would watch them with an odd, thirsty calm as they drank our emotions in. Humans in groups learned different god’s preferences and built their society around satisfying a terrifying yet loving benefactor.
The beautiful red Fox loved weddings and desire. It would curl around a group of young humans that were bonding themselves to each other. The fox required that this group never touch fully before they made their promise in its ear. Then that night they would lie in the mountains of soft, deep, velvety fur and make love for the first time on the old gods back. The fox would rumble and purr underneath the human moans.
The Turtle was obsessed with mourning and the death of those long dead. It required it’s humans who lived on its island-like shell to record the names and loving acts of each person in each lineage from the very beginning of time. Parents would recite stories to their children about their grandparents and great grandparents and their great grandparents before them. Deep, powerful, emotional stories of pain, and they would all cry at the end, banging on the ground, the Turtle’s shell, as hard as they could. Every week the humans would light a fire for each loved one who had ever died and try to keep the fire going, heating the tortoise, while they sobbed.
The Lark was fascinated by change in the bodies and in the minds of the humans. Parenting and adulthood were curious for the bird, for old gods never raised their children. The bird demanded clothes on its humans, feathers that covered the humans up and made them see shame in each other. Different colors for different ages, different colors for different genders, different colors for those who made mistakes. The change between colors was a massive affair, humans would get naked under the eyes of the bird and wait for a day and a night in the cold and the rain while the bird hunted down the fluff and trinkets that would cover them again. The bird required children to leave their parents upon the age of thirteen. Too young to feel safe, but old enough to survive their silent pain. The bird would stare into their eyes and then pick them up flying them to another nest of humans hours and hours away.
The Wendigo never left. It’s horrible whistling and ice cold breath still rang through the woods at night. It never crossed the ancient gods, never stole from their herd. But it knew the sadness of being one of the enslaved. It offered freedom for humanity a chance to not need do anything but live in its forest. Some humans chose freedom and had their guts turned into ice. Some humans chose freedom and ate their children with the distended mouth of the Wendigo. Some humans chose freedom and moaned in the night, crying and sobbing and chewing the ice cold of their own hands and feet.
In that way, humanity never lost its emotions and the gods never grew tired of us.
One day I went wandering, and as the sun got low in the sky, and the clouds turned stormy over my head, I found myself at the edge of the woods. In clear need of shelter and with no means to build my own, I ventured in. The dark had only just fallen when I was beset upon by wolves. They ran me down and bit into my flesh and tore my bleeding corpse apart.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
I returned to the forest’s edge, armed with wits and weapons, and when night fell, and the wolves again approached my camp, I shot the first of them dead, ending the chase before it began.
“You will come no closer!” I shouted after the remainder, confident I was heard, for I felt then the woods’ countless eyes upon me. Alas, one pair of those eyes belonged to a brown bear, which wandered, hungry, into my campsite, undeterred by my shouts and gesticulations. My first shot barely wounded it, and I did not get another. It mangled my shoulder with a swipe of its claw and, biting into my chest, slammed me into a tree until my skull shattered.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
When next I returned to those woods, I brought with me others as eager as I to conquer the brutality of that place. We came well-prepared with tools and traps and, of course, our firepower, and on account of our numbers–or perhaps the noise we made in our conversation or careless trudging–the wolves did not bother us at all. It was not until the third night that we came upon another bear, its leg caught in one of the traps we had cunningly placed at the perimeter of our day’s patrol. Incensed by pain, the beast attempted to charge us, but restrained as it was, it perished in a hail of bullets before crossing even half the way.
My companions and I were in good spirits then, for we had conquered the monster. The things in the woods–we believed–were no longer any threat to us. But come morning, we realized a new worry: In our trek into this place, we had taken scant inventory of the movements of the sun above, for it had been obscured by branches and far from the forefront of our minds. We had little idea of where we were, and there, three days’ journey of indeterminate direction into the undergrowth, we had little idea of how to return. Moreover, as the days passed, as our aimless wandering brought us no closer to anything we’d seen before, it began to grow colder, and the number of beasts about seemed to dwindle. And as our supplies grew sparse and our worries thrived, I began to feel more and more as if I were being watched.
It was not an animal–of that I was sure–for I had grown cognizant of the ways in which their presences intruded upon ours. Rather, it seemed as if the forest itself was watching, laughing, licking its thorny lips in anticipation of the fate which imminently awaited our arrogance. Such a fate did seem to be waiting, after all: It seemed we would likely starve and succumb to the cold within the week.
I did not starve, though. Instead, I awoke one night to my companion standing over me, hefting an axe and grinning madly.
“We’re all just animals, aren’t we? Eating to survive?” he cried out, as much to himself as to me, and brought the axe down. Not exactly an illuminating thought, I noted as my head split open.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
While I had been glad of my companions in my previous life, it was clear to me that in difficult times, their presence would turn to liability. So the next time I ventured into the woods, I did so alone, seeking not to conquer their brutality but, rather, their austerity.
Searching closely this time among the boughs and brush for floral details my foregone predatory inclinations might have overlooked, I came upon a bush laden with red berries which were tart to the taste. I tasted them, then ate my fill, satisfied with my find, but that night I found my bowels so inflamed that when the wolves came, I could scarcely defend myself, and they feasted happily on my viscera.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
Subsequently, I avoided those berries, but, determined to find some sort of sustenance that might supplement my stores in the colder months, I continued to seek out the marginalia which I had previously ignored, accumulating a wide variety of brown mushrooms, white mushrooms, black mushrooms, herbs, fruits, roots, and saps, nearly all of which–I discovered over as many lifetimes–brought about my death in some fashion.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
Much time thereafter, having amassed some knowledge–still hardly sufficient–of survival in those woods, I found myself despairing of my mission, for I could see only more death resulting from further effort. It was in this state that I spotted, between the thick branches which saturated the forest’s depths, a small shack, firelight in its window and smoke rising from its chimney in tentative wisps. Bewildered but heartened by the discovery, I approached and rapped on the door. A disheveled woman answered.
“I beg you: help me,” I said. “I have searched many years and paid uncountable cost with precious little to show for it.”
“Why do you search?” she asked. Her face was dull. Her eyes were wild. I told her:
“I seek the wisdom to conquer this place.”
“Hmph,” she grunted. “You are not of this place, then, are you?”
Not waiting for an answer, she invited me in and gave me a bowl of stew which I found hearty and pleasant, though I did not recognize the roots and meats therein.
“It is clear you know much of these woods,” I said. “Would you do me the kindness of sharing what you have learned?”
“I know these woods. I fear these woods. I am a creature of these woods,” she replied. “I inhabit the shadows between the trees. I fear those shadows. I recoil from them in awe and horror. But you have been away too long, and you have forgotten what casts them.”
“I am not afraid of the dark!” I protested. “I merely wish to be prepared for what stalks it.” She cackled:
“You should fear it! You stalk the dark–you are a beast! The beasts that survive learn to fear!”
At this, I began to notice a blackening at the edge of my vision and a sharp pain in my stomach, and the old woman donned a crown of bone and antlers which, I realized, had hung on her wall since I entered. Unable to move, I could only watch as she drew a knife and carved my heart from my chest, and in that moment, I felt what I imagined was an inkling of the horror she had described.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
I reentered the woods immediately, retracing my steps through the brush with new fervor. It felt then like anger, perhaps righteous indignation that the hag should so betray a traveler seeking aid, but I still retained enough presence to recognize the unsettled, writhing terror beneath it. The poison and bones and antlers, the darkness that surrounded the woman had rattled me, and I was driven now to respond in the only way I knew. I came again upon the witch’s shack and crashed through her door and battered her skull to a pulp with the butt of my rifle, and then, my racing heart assuaged that the threat had receded, I went about gathering what I had come for.
I scoured her shelves for wisdom in whatever form: parchments, recipes, jars of ingredients wet and dry that I might recognize, memorize, harness. I found it, so very much of it, and I spent what felt like lifetimes there in that shack, absorbing what the old woman had been. I brewed her potions and cooked her stews, and when I had no more of her ingredients left, I went out and gathered them anew, each from a dark and invariably unsettling place. A day arrived when I sat in that ragged cabin, harrowed and manic and at last satisfied that I had conquered the fierce shadows of those woods, and on that day, I was shaken to attention by a hammering at my door.
I opened it to find an unruly mob, stereotyped to the last man with torches and pitchforks, who wasted no time on pleasantries and attempted immediately to force their way through. Holding them back for only a moment, I beheld the contents of my shack in the woods–the scattered parchments, the cauldron bubbling with flesh lumps of unsavory origin, the string of dried human hearts I had “gathered” in my most recent foray outside, and, of course, the seven-foot-tall man with the head of a deer who had been with me since I came to this place–and realization overtook me.
“Perhaps I let this all go too far,” I remarked to the deer-headed man as the mob finally overpowered me and burst through the door. They tied a noose around my neck and dragged me outside. The deer-headed man followed.
“I think not,” he called after me, a hollow, guttural echo reverberating between the trees. “You did not go far at all. You simply fell into a trap.”
As a woman tied my rope taut to a branch, I called back:
“Are you actually talking to me? Do deer throats even make those sounds?” I saw him shrug, but at that moment the woman kicked the block out from under my feet, and the snap of my neck cut the conversation short.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
When next I came upon the forest’s edge, I paused, reflecting on the traps I had stumbled upon in my past lives. Behind me in the light, humanity had spread fearless and far, erecting towers of metal and stone, and now there was little left beside the metropolis, its controlled, sub-rural gaps, and, of course, the woods, still dark, inexorable, frighteningly constant and yet faded, it seemed, from every human attention but mine. I was still drawn there, but it occurred to me that the injury which so drove me before now barely ached. Once I had thought to prove myself better than this place, but now, my inferiority a foregone conclusion, I found myself at the edge of the woods all the same.
I was afraid, I realized. Afraid, of course, of the woods, that I should enter and again be so thoroughly consumed, but that fear which so struck me then lay not before me. It was behind me, what I fled, the metropolis, the sterile nauseam of “progress” shepherded by system, by vast presences of voltage and industry which needed no longer hide in the shadows between the trees. They hungered like the woods, would gladly swallow me if I stepped back through their shining gates, but I knew that if I decided to fight back, to rebuff the paper teeth that gnawed my soul, those presences would vanish into aether, and the only blood on my fists would be that of people, innocent of–incapable of understanding–the horrors they comprised.
The presence between the trees, though, offered me a certain courtesy. It offered me an opponent.
“Escape to the Great Outdoors!” blared a sanitized imitation of a woman’s voice, resonating, discordant, across the woods’ threshold, distorted by trees and what sounded like rattling, corroded tin. “Exclusive Travel Packages Available Today!”
I was of course uninterested in such an offer, but I had a notion that, in actuality, none was being made to me. Intrigued, I crossed into the trees. It was not long before I came upon a clearing, and at its center I found the source of the strange advertisement.
Standing there in the afternoon sun, motionless but hunched, as if paused, hesitating before its next step in a hopeless shuffle forward, was a bizarre and uncanny creature. It loomed over me, fifteen, perhaps twenty feet tall, with a body resembling an emaciated–perhaps mummified–corpse, overgrown and infested with roots, branches, debris, and a winding, itinerant thread of barbed wire. The corpse-giant had no head, but where its neck ought to have been, a metal pole jutted from its flesh, wreathed by two strands of electrical cable. Atop the pole, the wires attached to a pair of siren horns, fastened at asymmetrical heights over the creature’s left and right shoulders. Its stance was wide, no doubt due to the precarious balance offered by its semi-skeletal legs, and its arms hung lifeless in front of it.
It stood oblique to me, “facing” the woods to my left, but though I found its countenance quite unsettling and feared the consequence of making myself known, I could not help but query:
“Didn’t I read about you on the internet? You’re someone’s scary story! You’re a product of civilization! Why are you out here in the woods?” With a screech of feedback, the creature’s sirens blared to life.
“Face your fears for a better life!” imported the static-ridden voice of a hip-and-with-it everyman. “Ask your doctor if Phobilify is right for you!” Then, with a shudder, the creature turned to face me, taking three halting–and yet somehow violent–steps. I stared into its faceless, industrial visage, curiosity only barely overcoming my terror, and considered whether I ought to turn and run.
The reaction which instead emerged from my gut was a hysterical giggle, which I quickly suppressed, clamping a hand over my mouth. But the thought behind it remained: It was ridiculous, wasn’t it? I knew these woods, knew to fear them, knew that to face them risked my life and my sanity. I could lie. I could admit to an astounding lapse in judgment which brought me here, face to face with the darkness in its own home. But I would not. I knew, this time, I would not. I wanted to gaze into the darkness, to see in it not the meaningless void which humanity saw in the woods but something else–something shifting and unknowable–which I hoped, with all I was, still lived in my own heart as well.
And it was funny! This electo-cryptid before me, this thousandth face of the ineffable thing in the woods, sounding its mockeries, its empty calls for monetizable attention–it was laughing! And I had a sense, a hopeful suspicion, that it was laughing with me and not at me.
So I stood there, defiant, terrified, giggling, as the siren-headed thing lurched, seized me in its dry, slender fingers, crushed my ribcage in its grip, and though I died, defeated utterly once again by this thing that lived here in the woods, I realized amidst the rush of air from my chest that, somehow, I no longer felt trapped.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
It was many years before I again spoke with the thing in the woods, though in that time my demeanor toward it softened. I did not abandon my forays beyond civilization; rather, I renewed my vigor, seeking with every opportunity the uneasy solitude I found among the trees, tolerating–or perhaps embracing–the uncertainty of survival which came with it. I had cultivated a healthy awe for the forces whose sway I navigated there and a healthy fear for the gaze I felt upon me in the night, but even so I was surprised to eventually find others like myself in that place. We were few, and it took years–lifetimes, even–for us to find communion there, but I was not alone. There were rare others who found that strange comfort in the unknown’s hungry embrace, who were as well deeply unsettled by the monolithic indifference offered by their fellow men amidst the cities and the streets.
Together, we were resilient to the forest’s caprice, and in time, we ceased departing it altogether. We found a clearing–perhaps the same clearing where I had perished to the siren-headed beast, though I could not be certain–and built a town, snug amidst the trees, and we thrived there, going about our lives–and the lives after those and the lives after those–until one day, a man strode in from the woods, hefting a shabby briefcase up to my doorstep. His breath smelled of charcoal, his shoes worn but uncannily pristine, his perfectly greased hair clashing nauseously with the threadbare, burgundy suit hanging loose on his frame. He was a traveling salesman, he explained.
“Traveling from where?” I asked.
“Oh, ya’know, hereabouts, thereabouts. Th’important thing’s what I’m bringin’ to ya, though!” He knelt and balanced the case on his knee, undoing the clasps as he flashed his plastic smile, and just then, behind his dead eyes, I saw something writhe. I knew what would be in the case. I knew it would be like a faraway shelter, simple, familiar in its use, eerily out of place. It would have some hidden, darker side, a sordid history perhaps, or an old, dusty curse of which the salesman would relay only the slightest rumor. It would compel me to cling to it, press past the ill fortune it would seem to bring until, finally, the mystery of its existence dangling, tantalizing before me, I would be devoured. I would almost certainly die, I knew, but it would not be before I tasted the narcotic brine of the unknown, the fear, the horrible something which I had always truly sought.
I knew what would be offered, so I met the man’s stare, looked past him, gazed again upon the thing in the woods whose shadow twisted behind his eyes. And with the case’s last clasp still fastened, I preempted:
“I’ll take it.”
Top Image: yo bro is it safe down there in the woods? yeah man it’s cool, by Tomislav Jagnjic. I do not own it.
“Alms, ma’am,” Karilet replied, voice rising nearly an octave. She sounded almost chipper. “Or scraps, bones. Anything helps, really!”
“Huhrm,” the lady at the door coughed. “Not today.” The door slammed. Karilet half-nodded, half-sighed, and moved to the next door on the row. She didn’t begrudge the refusals–these people weren’t much better off anyway. She knocked at the new door.
“Alms!” she called. “Anything helps!” The door opened, and an old man, nearly skinny as an urchin himself, emptied a pot of refuse at her feet. “Thank you, sir!” she exclaimed with an enthusiasm that her actual gratitude failed to match. The man merely grunted and shut his door.
Dropping her wide-eyed expression, Karilet began to pick through the trash. A few half-rotted apple cores, a surprising volume of moldy bread crust, and–oh!–a rat carcass. This wasn’t bad at all. She hastily gathered as much of the pile as would fit in her threadbare satchel and ran off, up the Gutterway, to meet her companions in the Lower Market.
It was not a long way. For the burgeoning size of Spar’s urchin underclass, their range of motion was uncomfortably tight. Karilet and her companions could roam the Condemned District and the Gutterway with little fear, and the Lower Market was busy and disorganized enough to provide good cover, but the Upper Market? The Old City? Anywhere outside their not-so-carefully isolated den of squalor, they would be too noticeable. The guards would catch them, ask them for their Signia Citizia, jail them for vagrancy because they had no Signia Citizia, because they had never completed the Skolastikar, because they had fallen out of Goetia’s system. And it wasn’t as if the guards would have any sympathy for their circumstances: The Diarchy was at war, and any lowlife hanging about the city could just as easily be a shadowman. It seemed needlessly cruel to Karilet that the guards would subject children to this logic, but Sarchus swore up and down that he saw the Goetia arrest a kid in the Lower Market that tried to escape by turning a whole alley dark. If Khet was sending kids, it made sense that the guards would be cagey.
For many of the urchins, imprisonment for the duration of the war–ruinous and harrowing though it would be–was all they had to fear. For Karilet, Andrew, Theo, and others in the District, the threat was far more grave. Before abandoning her to the streets, Karilet’s mother told her of the danger: In Spar, it was the law that all children in their tenth year be brought before the Goetia–the Diarchy’s magical police–to be tested. If the tests revealed no magical aptitude, the child would be sent onto the Skolastikar. But if they had the talent, a further division was made. Those able to channel the pure energies of Nature–fire, water, the elements–were trained to join the Goetia. Those from whom flowed impure or distorted magic–magic of shadows or flesh–would be put to death.
Karilet learned later from the other urchins that the law was issued generations ago, when the University discovered that distorted magic was slowly destroying the world. This provoked thoughts she tried to keep from her mind: If her magical instincts–the way dripping blood whispered to her, the causal strings of her companions’ cuts and bruises she couldn’t help but pull–were destined to bring ruin, were the Goetia not right to hunt her? And what about her parents? Their intervention was callous, reticent. It kept them safer than her, but still they intervened so she could live. Why? If she was a threat, how could they want to save her? And, having done so, why would they then just toss her aside?
It left her confused in a way that, mercifully, her companions were not. They saw no deeper meaning to the war, and they hated the Goetia, the guards, the Diarchs, anyone they could blame for their poverty. They were, in fact, very poor, and with no visible path to citizenship, they likely would be their entire lives. The train of thought was vicious and unhelpful, but Karilet welcomed the distraction from her ambivalence. At least the rage carried with it a fantasy of revolution, a happy ending, however imaginary. In truth, the happiest ending Karilet could see was an early and painless death.
Karilet sighed, feeling mired and sluggish in spite of the quick time she’d made up the Gutterway’s north end. This was going to be a Thinking Day, she realized, and Thinking Days were never pleasant. Doing her best to sideline the troubling inquiries into her existence, she plunged into the grubby crowds of the Lower Market, where the Diarchy’s poor citizens collided in force with the wagoners, farmers, traveling merchants, grifters, fences, and, very occasionally, mercenaries of the Outer Circle, to exchange coin, food, lumber, trinkets, shouts–of prices, offers, incredulous combinations of both or neither–and, very frequently, thrown fists. She darted between these boisterous exchanges, finding the plaza’s western wall and hugging it, out of sight to the guards, as she made her way to the particular lumber cart her companions used as a meeting place. There, she found Andrew, lounging against the wall with a parcel, no-doubt serendipitously obtained, behind the cart’s owner, who looked, as always, wary but unconcerned.
“Ay, Kar,” he piped up as she approached. “Whatcha got there?” Then, noticing her expression: “It go rough?”
“Nah,” she said, glancing away and forcing a smile. She opened her satchel for his perusal. “Got scraps, as ‘spected. And meat.” Andrew’s nostrils flared with mixed hunger and disgust, and he nodded several times in affirmation. He opened his own parcel and showed Karilet three apples, bruised but otherwise intact.
“Traveler dropped ‘em right near the exit,” he added. “I had ‘em ‘fore she knew they were gone.” Karilet nodded in turn. The urchins had a code for procuring things from the Market. The carts themselves were strictly off limits, and stealing from citizens, guards, and regulars was forbidden as well. The children weren’t obvious here, but they certainly weren’t invisible. If the merchants bothered to report their loitering, their entire existence would grow more perilous, so they made sure to respect the boundaries of anyone who might see them twice. But, of course, this left plenty of marks who would soon leave the city and never see them again.
“Where are the others?” Karilet asked, glancing out into the crowd.
“Sarc and Bea are duoing on the east side. Theo went back early–he wanted a nap, and Sarc said it was fine since he scored first thing.”
“They need help?”
“Nah,” Andrew wheezed, picking his nose. “Checked on ‘em fifteen minutes back. Think they’re wrappin’ up. Should be round and second now.”
Karilet grunted her acknowledgment. Sarchus was the oldest in their house, their de facto leader, even as neared his Crossing–the age at which, according to the gangs of the Condemned District, he was an adult and needed to join up or die. As Karilet understood it, many urchins chose “neither” and jumped the first Traveler caravan they could find to work for slave-wages in the Circle, but Sarchus was a legacy: Both his parents had been Moccasins before they died in the purge ten years back, so when the time came, he refused to report to the Skolastikar, renouncing his citizenship. He pledged to join the Moccasins like his parents when he was sixteen, and he encouraged the rest of the house to do the same, reassuring them that his “cousins” would welcome them with open arms. Karilet was unconvinced. She took the Gutterway shifts more often than the rest–they gave her time to think, or “mope,” as Sarchus called it–and she saw what the gangs did to the people there. They would beat families in the street, extort them for “protection” money, threaten or maim their children. To Karilet, it seemed even more brutal and senseless than the tyranny of the Goetia Sarchus so vocally despised. But he and his makeshift family were kind to her, in her time of need and still. She doubted she would join the Moccasins, but she kept her mouth shut. She didn’t have to make the choice yet.
Andrew’s estimate was accurate. He’d only barely finished speaking when Karilet spotted Sarchus’ characteristically hunched frame shouldering through the crowd, tall and bulky enough at his age to eschew the careful weaving the other children relied upon. Behind him, as if to compensate, Bea flitted like a blown leaf through the gap he cut in the masses.
“You made it,” he said in Karilet’s general direction, drawing half a glance from the lumberman. “Any luck?” She offered her satchel as answer, to which Sarchus gave an approving chuckle. “Alright, then,” he said. “We’d best be heading back.”
Amid the dusty streets of the Condemned District, silence clung like a torn and weathered blanket to the ill-maintained architecture, committed to its efforts but, in fact, hiding very little. According to the Diarchs, the District was abandoned and had been since the purge. In reality, it was home to a wide variety of undesirables, urchins, indigents, gangs, and others who simply didn’t want to be found, living out a busy–if not lively–existence in the old Cultural District’s rotting corpse. The tepid hush no doubt meant nothing to the Goetia–they knew as well as anyone what bubbled in the District’s muck, even if they were not as yet motivated to do anything about it–but it perhaps served as a reminder to the denizens: Anything too loud can always be silenced.
So it was across the district, and so it was in the cavernous, second-story apartment Karilet’s companions called home. Physically, it was by no means isolating: There were five of them on that floor alone and ten more between the floor above and the next-door apartment to which they’d built a scrapwood bridge over the alleyway. Below them were a couple of fences–married, it seemed–who in turn received their fair share of messengers from the gangs. But in spite of the proximity, the movement, coming and going, whether of courteous deference or existential dread, Karilet found every interaction she witnessed in the place to have that same cautious quiet.
“Oh wow!” Bea exclaimed reservedly when it was Karilet’s turn to share her haul. Karilet didn’t feel very excited, looking at the bread and maggoty rodent alongside Andrew’s fresh fruit, but she understood the sentiment. Meat, on their resources, was a rare treat, and the carcass would certainly be more appealing once it was prepared.
“Can you clean it, Theo?” Sarchus asked. The question was a formality. No one else was going to.
“‘Course,” Theo belched, heaving his bulk into a seated position. He grabbed the rat by the tail and dangled it in front of his face. Karilet and the others stared with mounting discomfort at what they knew was about to happen.
“Theo…” Sarchus interjected with a beleaguered sigh.
“Do you mind?” Theo’s gaze shot back to Sarchus.
“Hm. Oh,” he grunted. He climbed to his feet and trudged to the storeroom, twirling the rat in his pudgy fingers. The rest of the room exhaled in unison.
“I just…hate watching it, you know?” Bea whispered. The others nodded in agreement–that many maggots wasn’t easy on the stomach. “But anyway, Karilet, you did a great job!”
Karilet’s shy smile was as gracious an acceptance as she could give the compliment. Bea was Sarchus’ favorite, and while, for Sarchus, it was merely a mark of affection, for Bea, it was a mark of status that she guarded with offputting fervor. It had been bad when Karilet first joined. For months, Bea would steal her food, spit on her when she thought no one was watching, slip rotting things into her bedroll. It did little to aggravate Karilet at the time–she was almost too numb from her mother’s betrayal to even notice then–but it still meant they would probably never be friends. Even after those months, when Bea realized that Karilet would not leave, when Sarchus’ attentions had not shifted, when her hissing and spitting turned to these sudden bursts of effusive praise, slight, timid, ultimately false smiles were still the only reaction to Bea that Karilet could manage.
“Yeah, Kar!” Andrew added, snapping her out of her trance. “Dunno how you do it. I only get the crusts on my Gutterway runs.”
“Agreed,” Sarchus said. “Well done, Karilet. You as well, Andrew–been awhile since we’ve had anything fresh around here. Now, listen. I have to go talk to Lud. While I’m gone, I want you to–” His instructions cut off sharply, interrupted by a loud thud from the floor below. Gripping his large, rusty dagger, one of the very few weapons they had between them, he crept over to the entryway.
“You alright down there, Den?” he called through the door. No response came. Karilet felt her hair stand on end. “Den?” he called once more before frantically motioning the others to hide. That’s when Karilet heard the heavy footsteps echoing up the stairwell.
“What’s all this–” Theo whispered, emerging from the storeroom with a freshly de-wormed rat, as Bea hurriedly shushed him. She shoved him back through the doorway, and Andrew and Karilet piled in after her, remaining, for then, just close enough to the threshold to see the spot near the entryway where Sarchus lurked. For a moment, everything seemed to freeze, then, echoing through the apartment–perhaps even down the street for its volume–there came a loud, steady knock at the door.
None of them made a sound. No one they knew would ever approach them this way, and it was far too early for the gang messengers to be paying visits. Nonetheless, a few seconds later, the knocking came again.
“Fuck off!” Sarchus shouted, feigning annoyance in an admirable attempt to mask his alarm.
“You had best open the door,” said a smooth, unfamiliar, female voice. The sound of several more footsteps, framed by the telltale clink of chainmail, echoed up the stairwell. “You have three seconds.”
Sarchus, now clearly panicked, looked back to the storeroom, waving for the others to stay out of sight. Realizing his meaning only after a second, Karilet ducked back only just in time for the entryway door to blast through the apartment, past the opening to the storeroom, with a deafening BOOM that shook dust from the walls around them. Her ears ringing, she saw the door clatter against the wall, seemingly without sound. She heard Sarchus’ muted shouts and the faint ring of metal falling against stone. Then she heard him scream.
Whether out of caution or outright terror–Karilet couldn’t be sure which–she and the boys remained frozen there, out of sight, but for Bea, the sound was too much. She leapt to her feet and tore out of the storeroom with an anguished shout. Immediately, a man in armor with a black hood sewn over his helm–the uniform of the Goetia–scooped her up and pinned her to the floor. He looked up, unconcerned with Bea’s thrashing, and peered into the storeroom, meeting Karilet’s terrified gaze.
“A long time ago, before I was born, before my mother’s mother was born–”
“Before I was born?” A soft laugh rang around the hearth.
“Yes, sweetie, of course. Before you were born. A long time ago, the gods would walk among us. You could talk to them or go up and touch them. They were as real as you or me. Sometimes, they would give us gifts, and the greatest of them gave us the greatest of gifts.”
“What did he give us, Mommy?”
“He gave us a place to live, sweetie. A place where we would be safe.”
“How many are there?” asked the female voice, still out of view.
“Three more,” the officer replied, gaze fixed on Karilet.
“That’s one extra. Check the rest of the floor. See if there are any more.” The officer didn’t move, but several more clinking footsteps seemed to obey the command. “Children,” the voice continued. “Please come out slowly. Do not try to run.”
Glancing between Andrew and Theo, neither of whom seemed to have registered the words, Karilet climbed, shaky, to her feet. She felt dazed, her ears still ringing, her mind trying–but suddenly unable–to process the reality of the situation. Slow, numb, she stepped toward the opening of the storeroom, toward the officer whose hand still weighed between Bea’s shoulderblades as she scrabbled against the floor. His eyes, still but wary, remained locked on Karilet, as if this girl, ragged, half-starved, barely thirteen years old, could somehow threaten a soldier. She crossed the threshold, and the details of her circumstances came into view.
The officer holding Bea down beside her was one of four now scouring the apartment, blood hoods and cloaks obscuring their faces and clinking armor as they moved through what Karilet realized was a haze of smoke from the smoldering door–and not merely a trick of her own anxiety-addled mind. Standing in the doorway, holding Sarchus with one hand under his shoulder, was an unarmored, unmarked woman in a traveler’s cloak. Like the officer, her face was grave and wary, and though she wore the garb of a Circler, she had a soldier’s build and bearing.
Sarchus, meanwhile, did not appear to be standing of his own accord. The woman’s grip seemed quite firm, but his legs looked half-limp, ready to give way should she let go. His face was twisted with pain, and he was clutching his forearm, just failing to hide a band of scorched and blackened skin. That’s when Karilet noticed the orange glow about the woman’s other hand.
Fire. The purest magic, pride of the Diarchian military. She had seen pyrotechnic displays in city parades, years ago, but she had never seen it up close, never seen it scorch or kill or maim, and now, very confusingly, she realized with creeping horror that she felt cheated. She wished she’d seen the Goetia kill before, wished she could see them continue. The energies of the flame about the woman’s fingers, the violent traces hanging about the smoke, even–perhaps especially–the blistering wound on Sarchus’ arm: They tantalized her, reached out to her on cloying breezes, wrapped about her wrists, and, with faint, ecstatic tugs, pulled her hands at those loci of violence, bidding her reciprocate.
“Very good,” the woman said, still aloof to Karilet’s growing terror at the desire resonating in her fingertips. “The rest of you, now. Come out, please.” Behind her, Karilet heard Theo’s heavy wheezing as he and Andrew shuffled to her side. The woman’s expression turned, for just a moment, to a faint sneer. She continued:
“The testimony was reliable. I’m surprised. Five here, and this was very easy to find. “I’d say this constitutes a security risk. Would you agree?”
“A violation of the Decree, too,” added the officer holding Bea.
“Oh, I’d bet on it,” the woman replied. Sarchus, finding some shred of willpower, shuddered, trying to squirm free of her grasp, but she held fast, barely acknowledging the struggle.
“Kommandet,” one of the other officers interjected. The woman looked to face him. “Found something. They’ve got a bridge to the building next door.”
“Are there more?”
“Not anymore. They could be gone, or they could’ve run by now.” The Kommandet grunted, turning her gaze down to Sarchus.
“How many?” she asked.
“…what?” he coughed. A gout of flame erupted from her hand, sending tingles down Karilet’s spine and evoking an immediate whimper from Sarchus.
“How many undocumented children live next door?” she clarified, unfiltered menace creeping into her voice. “How many in the District?”
“Fuck off,” Sarchus rasped. The Kommandet, expression unchanged, simply brought her burning hand up to Sarchus’ face. Stifling a guttural scream, he began to thrash uselessly in her grip as his skin blistered.
“Sir,” the officer holding Bea said. The Kommandet looked up from her work. “Perhaps we should take them back.” Slowly, she nodded, and the flame went out.
“Very well,” she said. “We’ll–” She paused, reaching up to her own face and wiping a rivulet of blood from the corner of her mouth. “What?” she muttered. The she flinched, as if struck, and hacked blood onto both Sarchus and the floor, doubling over as red streamed from her face.
Karilet followed little of what happened next, amidst the officers’ panicked shouts, the jets of bright, searing flame, the crimson tendrils that lanced through the fire like spears borne on some surreal, violent tide. She was shoved at one point–she didn’t register by whom–but it was just another sensation in the flood that roiled in her skull. Some of it was the light and the screams, certainly enough to overwhelm a child under normal circumstances, but what coursed through Karilet, writhing, radiating pleasure, what dizzied and numbed her to everything else, to the particularities of the chaos around her, to–for just a moment–even her own name, was the death. The violence, suffusing her reality, blooming crimson in her mind, in the room, everywhere. She felt encircled by it, pulled into a newer, more thrilling struggle to survive, where suddenly that struggle was a comfort, a meaning where her existence had been, for some time, without.
She couldn’t say how long it lasted, but eventually, the chaos quelled, her giddy daze faded, and the aftermath began to coalesce. The officers and the Kommandet were strewn in pieces about the room. Next to Karilet, Bea was shivering, her eyes glued to a severed arm lying inches from where she sat. The others were just as shaken: Andrew, Theo, and Sarchus had all backed up against the walls of the apartment, shrinking from the spreading pools of blood Karilet, in her stupor, had allowed to lap at her feet. But they weren’t staring at the bodies. They were staring at the one who had made them.
Striding into the room slowly, evenly, barely rippling the blood beneath his feet, was a young man, a teenager, likely no older than Sarchus. He wore no shirt, and while his physique seemed unimpaired by malnutrition–crafted even, if the term applied to one so young–he was hardly beautiful. He was entirely hairless, lacking even eyebrows, and from head to waist, he was covered in sores and lacerations. Blood dripped from these wounds but did not fall, instead hanging about him in droplets and tendrils, suspended in air, glistening with macabre potential. As with the bloodbath before, Karilet of course sensed him conventionally. She saw his scarred face, grimacing with either pain or determination, she heard the soft, trickling slap of his footfalls on the pooled blood, but more than either, she felt him. In her mind, her heart, wherever it was that her gift whispered, she felt his presence thrum.
“Are you glad to be rid of them?” the stranger asked. His face was impassive, but the whole room seemed to reverberate as he spoke.
Karilet did not move. It seemed a given to her that she ought be glad to be safe, but the boy’s words seemed deeper, contractual, even, as if her expression of gratitude over these events she had truly yet to process would have real and immediate consequences. Her companions clearly did not feel this subtext: In the periphery, she saw Andrew, Theo, and even Bea nodding shakily.
“Yes,” Sarchus said outright. The stranger made no movement to acknowledge the response; he merely spoke again:
“Good. They will send more to find their missing dogs. Seek safety, and I will hide your trail.” Though his body remained still, Karilet saw his eyes sweep the room, lingering on her. The others made their way past the stranger, to the doorway, but she hesitated. The blood beneath her was beginning to move, to surge in swells and currents toward the boy, carrying the Goetia and their dismembered pieces with it. “Go,” he said, this time to Karilet alone. “We will meet again.”
She returned the slightest nod and hurried through the door, down the stairs, out into the street. Behind her, she could hear a wet, elongated crunch echo from the second floor, but as she ran after Sarchus and the others, it simply faded into the District’s hush.
“So what did they look like?”
“They were hard to look at, sweeti.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, my mother told me it was because the gods were what they needed to be. When you spoke to them, they would seem just like people.”
“So the gods were just special people?” A sigh passed over the warm room.
“No, sweetie. Sometimes they looked like people. They were other things when they needed to be. When they watched over us, they watched from the forest, from the eyes of foxes or birds. And when the Darkness was about to swallow us, they became horrible monsters, so they could fight it and keep us safe.”
“But Mommy, if they looked like different things, what were they really?”
“Fuck!” Sarchus swore, teeth grit, as the burned skin on his arm began to bubble and split. Karilet was starting to see grey. The blood running from her arm was taking its toll, but she redoubled her concentration, aligning the wispy energy of her self-inflicted wound with the rhythmic crackle and buzz she could feel emanating from Sarchus’ burn. Rudimentary healing, first aid in exchange for let blood, was something her gift allowed her, though it brought with it none of the ecstasy of the day’s earlier slaughter, as if the magic were somehow displeased that its harm was being undone.
“That’s pretty uncanny, Missy,” Lud remarked from the corner. He’d given up his chairs for Sarchus and Karilet, opting to stand as the others collapsed against the walls.
“Her name is Karilet!” Bea whined, her appreciation on Sarchus’ behalf surging briefly over her fatigue.
“Yeh,” Lud grunted. “Still freaky. Whoa!” He lunged forward, catching Karilet by the shoulder as she slumped sideways, nearly falling from the chair. Through the sunspots clouding her vision, she saw Sarchus pull the sloughed skin from his arm and wince. It was still badly blistered, covered in pus and flecks of Karilet’s blood, but it would heal the rest of the way on its own. Burned as it had been, it might not have.
“Uh, Karilet,” Andrew chirped, timid and clearly uncomfortable. “That guy…was he like you?”
“Dunno,” Karilet muttered, fighting the sudden, overpowering urge to sleep. “Never…seen that before.”
“Sarc, can you catch me up?” Lud asked, pulling Karilet upright. He straightened to his full, considerable height. “Goetia raided you, and I get that was pretty scary. But you got away, right? They get one of the others or somethin’?” Sarchus blinked, shaking his head.
“They’re dead, Lud.” He looked up, vaguely at Lud, though his eyes were still a little glassy.
“What?! They killed kids?”
“The Goetia, Lud,” Sarchus said, slapping himself awake. “The Goetia are dead.”
“Cuz, look, I’m trying to help–”
“No, I’m serious,” Sarchus snapped, anger pulling him from the last traces of his daze. “They had us, then this guy showed up an ripped them to fucking pieces.”
“What guy?” Lud asked, bewildered.
“I don’t fucking know!” Sarchus shouted. Karilet winced. The whole street would have heard it. Sarchus seemed to realize and undertoned his next words accordingly: “He was some weird-lookin’ kid.”
“He was a mage,” Andrew added. “A really strong one.” Lud blinked. Albeit late, he seemed to have pieced it together.
“Shit,” he spat. “He just attacked them? In the middle of a raid? Asshole’s gonna get us all killed.” He grabbed a knife in a leather sheath from the windowsill, embossed, Karilet could see, with the spidery sigil of the Moccasins, and made for the door.
“Wait, Lud, where ya goin’?” Sarchus sputtered.
“Foxglove’s gotta hear about this. Fuckin’ yesterday. If the Goetia don’t get the message that we’re helpin’ ‘em find this maniac, there’s gonna be another purge tomorrow.” Lud paused in the doorway. “You can stay here tonight. Plan to find a new spot tomorrow. I’ll be back.” With that, he ducked through the door and left. The whole room was silent for a moment. Perhaps more than a moment–Karilet was finding it difficult to track the passage of time.
“You okay, Kar?” Sarchus asked. She realized she had been staring at his wound. Shaking herself awake, she wiped a line of drool from her mouth.
“Yeah, uh…” She paused. “No. No, the blood, uh…” She stopped herself and took a deep breath. “It was close, Andrew.”
“The boy. I could feel what he was doing. I don’t know if he’s the same as me, but he’s close.”
“Don’t let it get in your head, Kar,” Theo said. Karilet sighed.
“I know he saved us, Karilet,” Sarchus cut in, “but I agree with Theo. We can’t be worrying about it, and we can’t have anything more to do with him, unless we wanna die. Lud’s gonna talk to Foxglove, and the gangs are gonna handle it.” Karilet nodded weakly and dropped her gaze to the floor. After a moment, Andrew piped up:
“You heard from the neighbors, Sarc? They make it out alright?” As he spoke, Lud’s door creaked open.
“They are well,” said the figure who walked in. The entire room jolted upright, whirling to face the newcomer. “I saw to it.” It was the boy, the mage, ethereality diminished in the absence of his tides and tendrils. His cuts and sores had scabbed over, granting his appearance an aura more leprous than ghastly, and his voice had lost its cavernous echo, but he was undeniably the same person who had saved them. He continued: “I bring ill portent for the aims of your departed ally.”
“What? Who are you?” Sarchus hissed, brow furrowed at the boy’s absurdly formal manner of speech. Then, not waiting for a response: “What did you do to Lud?” The boy peered sidelong at Sarchus, confused, it seemed, at his surge of emotion.”
“The one you call Lud is safe upon his errand,” he said. “I bear him no ill will. It is not as if the river should think less of one drowning–I merely wish to warn you that his efforts will fail. There will be another purge, and no syndicate in this district will save you from it.”
“Because of you!” Sarchus fired back. The boy’s lips curled.
“Did I not ask you when we met: ‘Are you glad to be rid of them?’ Did you not affirm that you were? Did you not think then, or are you not thinking now?” Sarchus scowled, but did not reply.
“Who are you?” Karilet repeated, winded, into the silence. The boy turned his stare to her. She could see blood welling like tears at the corners of his eyes.
“I am that which will win you this war the Goetia have declared,” he said. “It is not my name, but if you would call me, you may call me ‘Kol.’” Karilet blinked, too tired to even signal affirmation.
“You’re…gonna fight them?” Theo asked, neither tired nor afraid, simply bewildered.
“I will destroy them, utterly and absolutely, that nothing shall remain of them but dust upon this city’s streets.” Kol’s eyes swept the room, taking in the range of horror and incredulity. “First, though,” he continued, “you must truly believe that I can.” Another silence. After a moment, Theo broke it again:
“So, uh…how’s that gonna work?” At this, Kol frowned.
“You have seen a fraction of my abilities,” he said. “How it ‘works’ should be no mystery. But perhaps…” he paused, turning back to Sarchus. “Perhaps your estimate of the enemy is realistic, and, for that, I cannot find fault in you. I shall leave you to contemplate the implication of my intent. When we next meet, maybe you will have more fully ingested the essence of the true believer.” He turned to leave but lingered at the door, offering one final, quiet declaration:
“Should you seek me, do so in the temple ruins at the southern end.” With that, he exited, leaving the door open behind him.
Bea rushed to close the door, but otherwise, no one said anything for several minutes. Karilet was, more than anything, confused. What had the boy even wanted from them? Why had he come? That he wanted them to “believe” he could “win a war” against the Goetia was nonsensical. That he would depart abruptly at Theo’s question, that he would look upon their “realistic” estimation of the Goetia as an impediment seemed obstinate and, moreso, simply insane. She doubted there was anyone in the room who had a mind to seek him out in the temple ruins, who would have even half an idea of what to say to him if they did, but even so, Sarchus cautioned them:
“Leave it alone,” he said.
The next few days were quiet for the companions. Per Lud’s instructions, they found a new hideout, and the dusty sub basement on which they settled was not nearly as comfortable as their last home. It was darker, smaller, and–though Karilet recognized the value of the twisting alleyways surrounding it on all sides, though Sarchus insisted its proximity to Lud and Moccasins’ territory would prove helpful–it still didn’t feel safe. A brief wave of excitement came with whispers around the District that the Goetia had raided the temple ruins at the southern end, but, near as anyone could tell, nothing came of it. For her part, Karilet could imagine which conversations might have taken place outside her company, but she thought better of mentioning it to Sarchus.
For a week or so, life returned to normal. They got their scraps from the Gutterway like always, their forays into the Market seemed unaffected, and, save for their change of at-rest scenery, it felt almost like the Goetia’s brief incursion into their lives was over and done with. But then, one evening, Sarchus returned from one of his errands and broke the trance.
“Fuck!” he half-screamed, hurling a bread crust at the wall so hard it broke, showering Andrew and Karilet in crumbs.
“Sarchus, what is it?” Bea asked, running to him, grasping his hand, trying to make eye contact, as his gaze remained fixed on the wall he’d just ineffectually assaulted.
“They got Lud.” His exhalation was shaky, uncertain. “They just took him.”
“But…” Bea fumbled, “don’t the Moccasins have connections? Can’t Foxglove do something about it?”
“Talked to him,” Sarchus muttered, pacing over to the slit in the upper wall that served as their window. “Bilf took me. Said they weren’t gonna do shit. Said it was the cost of doing business.”
“But why would they even–”
“I DON’T FUCKING KNOW!” The violence of the reaction seemed to catch Bea off-guard. She staggered back in dull shock. “Maybe he got followed like us! Maybe someone reported him; maybe those hooded pigs were just strollin’ down these streets we borrowed from them and thought it might be fun to take some guy, rip him away from everything he knows and loves, and throw him in a pit to rot! Maybe torture him too, ‘cause why not–they fucking can!”
He slammed his fist into the wall, bloodying his knuckles against the coarse stone. He was almost sobbing, but none of them seemed willing to approach him. Karilet understood the feeling, the loss, the sense of betrayal from a family one thought they could trust, but she knew that nothing she could say would make it better. And she couldn’t quite silence the part of her that found it appropriate: The Moccasins weren’t her family, and she couldn’t see them as worthy of trust, though that wasn’t a feeling she could share with Sarchus.
“He’s in a cell somewhere,” Sarchus continued after a moment. “He might not get out. Not ever. And the people who should care ain’t gonna do shit. ‘Cause they can’t do shit.” He scanned the room, passing over his companions’ solemn attempts at sympathy, and turned to the door. “Fuck,” he muttered, any trace of vigor falling from his face. “I need to think.”
Karilet just stared on, as he walked through the door. The barb wasn’t lost on her–Sarchus had given her plenty of flak in the past for her own periods of introspection–but she wondered what the word meant to him. Considering his turmoil from the outside, she realized, lent her own episodes a certain unsettling clarity. All of her contemplation, all of her circles and examinations were truly about a single, simple question: Would it be better if she were dead? In her gut she knew she couldn’t face the choice, couldn’t give it a “yes” or a “no” because those answers demanded action, and that action terrified her. But Sarchus had no magic, no Decree branding him a blight upon the world. His question was not whether he was doing harm but rather–his malformed ambition unraveling–whether he should even bother.
She hoped he would find that he should, though she was also at a loss for a reason. Her own was fear, and she had never thought of Sarchus as afraid. Except…except she might have had a better reason. Thoughts of the boy, Kol, stirred, and she remembered how she felt when he slaughtered the Goetia around her, the tactile pleasure of the blood washing over her feet, the surging joy in her chest as violence met violence all around her, the exhalation, the release as the gore and viscera fell, wet, to the ground, and death settled over her like gauze. The rush, the shame that she could feel happy at the harm being done, even to those that would harm her, the fact that she still felt it, ringing in her abdomen like some disgusting echo–it horrified her, left her shivering against the wall of their cramped apartment with her companions too distracted to notice. But what horrified her even more was that she had not stopped wanting it. The sliver of realization she’d felt at the time had not faded, and the promise of violence, perversely, had become a reason to carry on.
Sarchus eventually returned, silent and ashen, later that evening. He was quiet, save for some small pleasantries with Bea, which seemed to put her at ease. Karilet could not fathom what he had concluded, but she didn’t ask. Her own shuddering, existential guilt was distraction enough for the night.
“Why can’t we see them anymore?”
“It’s a sad story, sweetie. Don’t you want to hear about something else?”
“No! I want to know what happened!” There is a sound of another heavy sigh.
“Well, we forgot about them. Then they forgot about us.”
“How did we forget, Mommy? We’re talking about them right now.”
“They were with us for a long time, sweetie. They kept us safe for a long time. To thank them, we would leave little gifts. Food. Or things that were precious to us. But as more and more people were born and grew up without ever having been without them, they forgot what they were thankful for, and they stopped leaving gifts. The gods stayed for a little while longer, but with nothing to tell them what they meant to us, they eventually forgot too. That’s when they left.”
“Are they still out there?”
“Maybe, sweetie, but they might not even remember that they’re gods.”
“How can we make them remember?”
The next day, Sarchus excused himself from the normal supply shifts in the Market and the Gutterway. He did so again the day after, and the day after that as well. Speculation–tepid, since he was still with them in the evenings–began to swirl among the others. Theo had heard from other urchin households that he’d been going door to door in the District spreading warnings that an insurrection against the Goetia was coming, and while the District’s residents had a better appetite for sedition than most, talk like that was still dangerous. Meanwhile, Andrew had caught sight of him about some business in the Lower Market on multiple occasions, though he was always empty-handed when he returned home. And Bea…fretted. Her attention was not on where Sarchus spent his time but simply on the fact that his time was spent not with them. She missed him, Karilet supposed, though how that fell with regard to her insecurities and her status with their group was less immediately obvious.
Karilet had her own ideas about Sarchus’ activities, but whether out of uncertainty or a more brazen hope that they were off the mark, she didn’t mention them.
Either way, whatever seeds Sarchus had planted–intentionally or not–began to sprout a few days later. The Goetia–absent from the District’s affairs for nearly a decade–began to raid there on a daily basis. They hit another urchin house, a rival gang’s meeting spot–each time taking their share of hapless arrestees with them. Karilet and the others even returned home one day to find their alleyway scorched and filled with debris, the site, apparently, of a skirmish between the Goetia and the Moccasins.
And, of course, the Goetia weren’t the only ones disrupting the District’s fragile peace. Every major gang was out in force, patrolling the streets in broad daylight, well outside their normal, nocturnal hours, risking all of the deadly backlash such flares of activity invited. They would say they were checking houses, making sure the kids in their territory were safe in this rough patch, but of course they weren’t safe: The storm of activity had made it virtually impossible for them to leave the District and gather food, and none of them had any illusions that the gangs would intervene on their behalf should the Goetia actually arrive at their door. The gangs weren’t really checking for any of this either. They were looking for something, and while her companions still seemed oblivious, Karilet had figured out the score. So, one night, as Sarchus left on another of his ill-explained errands, she swallowed her doubts and slipped out after him.
It wasn’t long before he noticed he’d been followed, though, and as she rounded a corner onto a sidestreet, not two hundred yards from their basement, she found him waiting for her, leaning against a wall with an uncharacteristically melancholy grimace.
“I figure you wanna talk, then?” he asked. The torchlight flickering over his face made his manner hard to read, but the question didn’t seem spiteful, the way the Sarchus she knew might have asked it. It just seemed sad, resigned.
Karilet wasn’t sure how to answer, so she just said what she had come to say:
“You’ve been to see him.” Her words were not uncertain, but Sarchus seemed to sense the query in them anyway. He looked away, down the darkened street where he’d been headed, and exhaled.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s…” He trailed off.
“You said to leave it alone.” Karilet realized the phrase was accusatory, though she hoped Sarchus would take it for the confusion she was trying to convey. He nodded, and his face softened.
“Yeah, uh, after Lud,” he began, hesitating. “After Lud got taken, I was angry, and for the last week, I’ve been worrying I did the wrong thing because of it. But.” He met her gaze. “But I actually don’t think I did.” Karilet looked down at the cobblestones, then back at the alley she’d come from, then again to Sarchus with a sudden shiver.
“You want the war, then?” she asked.
“Look,” he said, glancing over his shoulder again. “It isn’t really safe. Come with me.” Bewildered, Karilet followed him down the street, toward the southern end of the District. As he walked, he whispered:
“I don’t think you and I are the same. Like, I think you’ve always felt the difference between us and them. The citizens, the Goetia. The real people. At least since you joined us. And I didn’t get it. I thought they were bastards, sure, with all of the nice things we could never have, but we could survive, and they couldn’t do anything about that.
“That wasn’t true,” he said, pausing for a moment, checking both sides of a cross street. “We aren’t faster than them. We aren’t cleverer than them. We sure as fuck aren’t stronger than them, and our ‘friends’ won’t do a fucking thing if they come for us. I used to think the old purge happened because the gangs got too bold or something, but know I’m pretty sure it was just because the Goetia found an open spot on their schedule.
“I thought about it, and I realized that even if this all passes, the Goetia track Kol down and piss off, there’s nothing here for me. I’ll join the Moccasins, I’ll fuck around for a few years, then I’ll die in the next purge, or maybe in a gang war, fighting over fuck-all. They’ll still be better than me, and there’ll still be nothing I can do about it.”
“But he’s better than them,” Karilet mumbled. Sarchus turned briefly to look at her.
“Yeah. And because of him, I can be better than them too. For just a minute, anyway.” Karilet grabbed him by the shoulder, pulling him to a halt.
“So what happens after?” she asked, mustering the force she wanted to have come from him. “He wins the war, and lots of people die, and what’s left is people like him…” She looked down, inner fire guttering. “People like me. Who are destroying the world.”
“Heh,” he spat, snarling a murk of emotion she couldn’t quite identify. “I’ve got my answer. Dunno if it works for you, but–” he gestured over his shoulder at the old temple, half crumbled, still grand in its way, looming over the street’s wavering shadows. “He may understand you better than I do.”
Again, he led, and she followed, up the dusty, rock-strewn stairs, through the once-breathtaking entry arch, down a winding walkway through the vestibule that opened to an enormous, circular chamber. At the perimeter where they entered were rows and rows of concentric benches, dilapidated, rotting, nigh-unusable, but still enough to hint at the vast audiences this space once held. The benches encircled an area that might once have been raised on platforms of hardwood or marble, no doubt looted and pillaged over and again since the purge, reduced to the ring of bare earth that remained before them. At the center of that ring was a spike of glittering crimson, plunged into the earth, from which hung a bound, gagged, and thrashing man. Before the spike, Kol sat, cross-legged, perfectly still, his back to them. As they approached, he stood and, without turning, spoke:
“Here is the result of your handiwork, Sarchus. Do you see now that you are free?” Karilet stopped. She recognized the man on the spike. She had only seen him once before, but he was one to leave an impression: Foxglove, leader of the Moccasins, maybe the most powerful man in the District, here flailing, impotent, on a makeshift gibbet. Sarchus continued forward, eyes locked on Foxglove’s face. He drew his knife.
“Stay your hand,” Kol said. “Know: It is by your will that he is ended. But his exsanguination is a lesson meant for another.” Sarchus stopped, slowly sheathing his knife. He looked back at Karilet, his solemn grimace tinged with confusion, but after a moment, he bowed his head with a slight smile.
“The others will be expecting me,” he said, turning and stepping away from the spike. “Stay safe,” he whispered, as he passed Karilet. Then he was gone, and she was alone in the circle with Foxglove and the stranger who had, in a sense that sprang, unbidden, to the front of her mind, answered Sarchus’ prayers.
Kol said nothing at first, and Karilet didn’t dare fracture the silence. It persisted for what felt like minutes, punctuated only by the crackle of torches and Foxglove’s ineffectual grunts. Finally, her curiosity bubbled up.
“Why do you care if we believe in you?” she asked. Kol turned to face her, his scars oozing and eyes bloody and wild, just as they were when she’d met him.
“Belief is for the blind, Karilet,” he said. “They must believe. I would ask something different of you.”
“I would have you witness.”
“The crumbling of a city,” he said, his face still stony, eerily impassive. “Not, of course, this city where your body dwells, but that which hosts your mind: a city, built painstakingly of the Goetia’s lies.” Karilet twisted her face in the closest impression she had of a sneer.
“What lies?” she asked. “They’re real, and they’re stronger than us.”
“How would you know?” Kol replied. “They have sharpened their blades, honed their bodies. They have learned to drink deep of death and throw it in conflagrations from their palms. Why have you not done the same?”
“You do not have weapons because you cannot buy them. You have no training because your society has neither trained you nor afforded you the freedom to train yourself, and they have thus denied you for the same reason they swept you to the very edge of their little world, for the same reason they meant for you to die as soon as you had reached ten years.” Karilet paused, her thoughts settling.
“Were they…wrong to?” she asked.
“They gave you a reason,” he said flatly. “Do you imagine they told you the truth?” She took a breath, but it caught in her chest. She wasn’t sure how to respond, but Kol didn’t wait for her. Instead, he turned and pointed up, past Foxglove, at a silhouette in the eaves of the chamber. “Do you recognize this creature?” he asked. Karilet peered into the rafters. She hadn’t realized anything was up there, but as she squinted, a familiar, pointy-eared shape resolved among a decayed statuary, arranged on a mantle just below the ceiling.
“The Fox of the Forest’s Edge,” she replied, remembering her mother’s stories. “The one the dune people call the Barabadoon. He’s the god they say created Spar.”
“They say this,” Kol mused emotionlessly. “But who remains thankful? After the Iron Queen issued her decrees, declared every family, every child, every magical impulse a tool of the state, a sacrifice in the name of safety, worship of the Old Gods fell out of public favor. Do you think this is because they all preferred her hierarchy, the might of the Citizia, garrisoned nobly against the threat of an ever-present shadow? Or, perhaps, did they accept it as an unfortunate truth, that the Fox’s gifted security was no longer sufficient? Or,” his lips parted, baring his teeth in an expression Karilet had no name for, “perhaps it truly was a statement of their gratitude. They had none left. The gift, the ‘safety’ he had granted was no longer a boon. For all they cared, it could rot.” Karilet stared at him, confused.
“Which do you think it is?” she asked. The corners of his mouth turned upward in a furious mockery of a smile.
“I think we will never know.” He strode forward, raising a hand, and the spike holding Foxglove aloft liquefied, spilling to the ground with a sudden, overpowering scent of iron and a cacophony of drips and sloshes that just failed to mask the crunch–and subsequent anguished moan–of Foxglove’s knees slamming into the ground. Kol paused before the broken, prone man. “I have no special insight to the world’s plots and machinations, Karilet. I merely know something that means more than all of them. Come.”
Karilet approached, stepping hesitantly into the pooled blood–spent, this time, bereft of the violent reverberations the Goetia’s blood had thrummed against her feet–and came to Kol’s side, peering down at Foxglove as he writhed in pain.
“I know you feel the echoes of death, Karilet,” he said. “The energy, the life in violence done unto flesh. But I want you to feel it as I do. Kill this man.” Karilet felt her fingertips go numb. She swallowed and stepped back.
“What?” she said, mouth dry, more an uncomfortable acknowledgment than a question. She knew what Kol was getting at. He thought she wanted blood, that she wouldn’t be able to resist, and he was at least half right: She did want to kill Foxglove. She wanted to pick up the sharp, blood-slick rock at her feet and smash it through his skull, feel the electric warmth of his wound flowing out through her fingers, not for anything he did–who he was didn’t seem relevant to her–but for the rush, the narcotic joy she knew it would bring.
But the threat of the Decree hung in her mind, tempered her desire. The Goetia said that distorted magic would destroy everything, but this truth, this bloody, awful truth Kol had shown her–didn’t it just prove them right? She wanted to kill, to destroy, to spread death, and if she wasn’t strong enough to resist, what was to stop her after this first kill? She wanted to be better than that, better than the role the Goetia had designed to kill her.
“You sense the second edge of the blade, don’t you?” Kol asked, scrambling her resolve. “You wonder if we would become tyrants. Who do you think this man is?”
“Why does it matter who he is?”
“Because his words have caged you, just like the Goetia’s. Karilet looked to Kol, confused. He continued: “He has ruled over you since you came to this place, feeding Sarchus’ ambitions–and many more besides–with lies, so that, in time, you would serve him with your life. You might have thought it acceptable, that he was an ally, supporting you against a greater foe, but his loyalty was always to your oppressors. They kept safe his control over you. It seems he had explicit agreements as well, since has sold off a number of his thralls now, attempting to capture me. But I believe his allegiance could always have been inferred.”
“So he deserves it,” Karilet concluded. “Why does that have anything to do with…with our magic? With what you’re trying to show me?” Kol nodded, vague approval emanating from his otherwise impassive gaze.
“You understand that destruction is a delight,” he replied, “but you fear becoming a monster. I want to show you that violence has purpose worthy of the joy that comes with it.”
“It is truth.” Kol reached down and grabbed Foxglove by the neck, lifting the much larger man effortlessly, as if presenting him to Karilet. “Truth is a scissor which cuts right from the wrong it destroys, but truth, as you know it, is just a word, with power only over words, and with words that cage–uncertainties, lies, perhaps–the Goetia have denied it to you.” Maintaining his grip on Foxglove, he handed Karilet the rock. She blinked. She had not seen him pick it up.
“But they have not yet denied you your body,” he continued. “Violence is also a scissor. And in this place where words no longer have meaning, it is the only one we have. Why should you feel remorse for cutting away the bars of your cage or”–his grip tightened with a gurgle around Foxglove’s neck–“the insects who built them?”
With that, Karilet’s resolve snapped, and she buried the rock in Foxglove’s neck, just below his jaw. The sensation of the strike flooded every corner of her body, and she collapsed, shaking, to her knees. Above her, she could just barely hear Foxglove’s burbling rasps and Kol’s voice over them:
“Come now. He still lives. It is not suffering for which we care.”
His words rang in her head over the following days. Before she left that night, he had made a declaration: Kol–for “Kol” was, as he’d said, not a name but an ideal of what Spar might become–would be brought forth from Spar’s husk when those given no other recourse ripped it free by sacrifice to their god. Dazed by what she’d done, she didn’t think much on the strange farewell at first. She thought it unlikely the gods would return, the boy’s vague prophecy notwithstanding. If they even existed, if they even still lived, they had been gone for too long, and Karilet doubted a sacrifice would reach them–or be made, for that matter.
Even so, he had not asked that she believe anything, only that she witness. So she watched, and, somehow, the world began to change anyway.
For weeks after Foxglove’s body was found on the temple steps, the Moccasins waged war across the District at night, in daylight, against themselves, other gangs, the increasingly frequent patrols of guards and Goetia–the particulars didn’t matter. In fact, it didn’t seem as if there really were particulars. The District was flailing, lashing out in hopes that whatever it hit would grant it some control, some ability to reorient to a new status quo. But, of course, the Goetia couldn’t allow one: The boy who had attacked them, overpowered them, stymied all attempts to hunt him down–for the whole city to see–could not be let go. They might have lied, Karilet thought, issued a statement that the one responsible had been caught and executed, out of sight in a dark prison, if not for the rumors running through the urchin community.
It turned out that the chaos, perilous as it was for the gangs and guards, was especially harrowing for the urchins caught in between, but in spite of this, stories began to spread of a strange young mage who would, time and again, intercede on the orphans’ behalf, dispatching their assailants with sudden and overwhelming force. Karilet and her companions–together, at least–did not see the boy again for some time, but as each new story reached their ears, she watched how they reacted, how, at first, they were terrified to even set foot outside their door, how that fear faded to hope, in turn solidifying to a tepid confidence that they were safe, that they were stronger together than the violence outside. She watched as Sarchus flashed her knowing glances, agreeing with Bea and the others as if he hadn’t seen the wheels turning behind it all. Maybe, Karilet realized, it didn’t matter what he’d seen. Maybe he needed that sense of confidence the same as the rest of them.
She watched as the violence escalated, and she watched as they remained unafraid, even as a drunken gang war spilled into their apartment, killing Theo and leaving Sarchus with a broken arm. She watched as a message spread among the children: “At dawn, on the last day of summer, gather before the Goetcia. Fear not those who would punish your trespass, for they will not matter.”
When the day came, Karilet marched with her companions and many, many others–hundreds, perhaps every orphan in the District–up the Gutterway, through the Market, into the Old City where the Goetcia, the palace of the Goetia, waited, ignoring onlookers’ open-mouthed stares, heedless to the guards’ vain attempts to apprehend the children at the fringes. She saw the solemnity and force in her companions’ eyes, taken aback, almost, by the alien determination bound there and yet absent from her, and she noticed, though no spoken agreement had ordained it–that every child there carried a knife, a rock, a whittled bone–something sharp.
At the Old City gates, the boy joined them–striding innocuously from a sidestreet, unobtrusive save for the wide berth the others gave him–and helped them to force the heavy doors open. They slowed as they approached the Goetcia steps and stood defiant before the line of black-cloaked soldiers upon them. The Goetia were ready for a confrontation, it seemed. They had intercepted the message, perhaps, or maybe the uncanny and unsubtle procession of children from the Condemned District had given them warning enough on its own. Every one of them had a weapon in hand, and burning pitch had been spread across the steps, doubtless meant to serve as magical ammunition against the bizarre mob.
For a moment, no one moved. A breeze blew, the fire crackled, and neither group advanced, both, it seemed to Karilet, still clinging to the order they knew, afraid to shatter what remained, even as they were poised to strike. Then the crowd of urchins parted, and the nameless boy called Kol stepped forward, wounds open, blood congealing in tendrils and spikes about his arms. The Goetia raised their weapons at his approach. Some pulled fire from the pitch and took aim, but before either could lash out, there was another break in the crowd, and a lone figure charged from it, up the steps, knife in hand. Karilet’s breath caught in her throat: It was Sarchus.
“Mommy, if the gods kept us safe, isn’t it bad that they’re gone?”
“Maybe, sweetie. It’s late, and I’m tired.”
“No! We aren’t safe! How can we find them again?”
A single Goetia officer broke from formation, sword ready to cut Sarchus down, but before he could make it, Sarchus turned the blade on himself, slicing his neck open to a curtain of crimson. He still stood for a moment before the suddenly terrified officer, his knife fallen from his fingers, clattering down the steps. Then he fell, and his blood pooled, and the crowd, letting out a deafening roar, brought their own blades to their throats.
Karilet convulsed, crashing to the ground at the sudden assault to her senses. She righted herself to see her companions’ lifeblood roil, rise up, converge upon the nameless boy in a cloak of death, and she watched as he rode waves of red up those steps, the children’s sacrifice transformed into a storm of blades that cut down the Goetia that still stood their ground; into a curtain of iron that shielded the boy from the fire they threw back. She watched as the officers’ bodies exploded in fractal stars of bone and gore, as the boy stretched out a hand and shattered the stone facade of the palace. She watched as he became a screaming, radiant sun, bathed in the death of Spar’s rotting cage, and when hundreds more had died, when the palace was empty save for the boy who hung above it, robed in the blood of many, she looked out at the fallen bodies of her companions and saw among them a small few, shattered but alive, chosen–as she had been–to witness the birth of their god.
Bottom image: God, by Quinn Milton, pictured here before