The Obsidian Psalm Teaser

Epigraph

This narrative begins with the death of its hero.

-Ambrose Bierce, A Jug of Sirup

A noiseless patient spider,

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

-Walt Whitman, A Noiseless Patient Spider

Sings the willow

Branches steeped in blood

Here

Here

Sings the dragonfly

Wings of cut glass

Sings man

No more

-The Obsidian Psalm

1235 AC (After Chant) – Golgoth, The Warden’s Territory

“Money’s easy,” Kant said.

Vesh grunted, broad shoulders bobbing, iron-gray head nodding. He kept an easy pace, big brown hands on the haft of his spear, the length resting on a simple pauldron that encased one shoulder.

“How d’ya figure?” Faro asked.

 She watched the half-cripple stagger across the uneven ground of the tunnel, steel arm on the hilt of her blade, one eye scanning the dim path ahead. Magelights run by the city’s furnaces sputtered and clicked in the quiet. The tunnels ran the length of the no-man’s land between the east and west halves of Golgoth, and while both the Warden and the Lady did their best to prevent crossovers, there were simply too many.

“Way I see it, ain’t a man ever earned anything easy. Money’s hard. Dying’s easy.”

Kant shrugged, uneven shoulders moving like a wave. “Man ain’t got much for scruples, money’s easy. Making it, taking it, drinking, fucking, or eating it away.”

“Yeah? What’s hard, then?” Faro asked.

“Generally the thing between my legs,” Kant said, and guffawed.

He pulled the wineskin from his belt and took a swig. Drunk often, that one. Rook’s eyes slid to the daggers hung on the man’s hips. Cutter like him could dice a man easier than making a salad, though. Rook figured it was his rolling gait. Threw men off, men trained to watch the feet and not the hips or the shoulders. Not that those helped with Kant, either.

Rook’s mind drifted, taking in the group. He thought of Kant’s words. He wasn’t sure how the man maintained his beliefs in the face of tromping beneath a blasted wasteland where the dead and living alike shifted and shoved against one another like great beasts with locked horns. Nothing down here but bone and rubble. A sound, from a grate they passed, and Vesh flinched.

“Kind of jumpy, big man,” Faro noted.

“Chant,” Vesh replied.

As if that explained everything. As if one word was as simple an answer to something like the Chant. The Circle’s magic nearly ended the world, broke the will of man and beast alike, and almost unraveled a thousand years of progress. But sure, Chant.

Still, Rook understood. There were stories of pockets where the magic lingered. Where it crept into your skull and whispered its lies. Lie down. It’s easier. Safer. The gods will embrace you. The gods. He nearly snorted at that. Only two he knew of now, if you could call them that. Abominations. Horrors. His, the Lady. And their destination, the Warden. A war that had lasted five hundred years. Kant was partially right. Sometimes it was easy. Not in this case, of course. You didn’t just kill a god.

Why then, were they even attempting something this mad? Because the Lady willed it. It wasn’t an order, or even a demand. Just a simple request, a compulsion placed in the head like a worm boring into the cerebellum, coiling there and driving you on. Love. Disgust. That half-flayed skull, grinning teeth, iron plate driven over the sockets. The distant clank of chains, of gray flesh flaking, drifting like snow in murky water, arms crossed over her chest. The low thrum thrum of a heart, like a million thrush taking flight. And the compulsion, throbbing, aching, a spike in the skull. You remembered. Because you wanted to please. It was the lie of obedience because the alternative was displeasure. And only the mad invoked the wrath of gods.

They were summoned, and they set out. Simple as that. No one knew the reasoning, and for most, terror supplanted curiosity. Even now, he knew this was a sacrifice of sorts. The only answer they did have was who. They’d been gathered because they were expendable. Criminal. Soldier. Mercenary. More meat for the engines. Rook certainly didn’t ask why during the audience. Perhaps he’d somehow displeased his god. Perhaps the Lady thought they might succeed. None of it really mattered though, did it?

They arrived at a crossroads in the tunnels, and Vesh called a halt. It was only a mile, two, between battle lines. They’d already crossed the mark, and while they wore the uniforms of the Black Guard and carried papers that marked them out as Shroud’s own, it was considered poor form to pop out in the middle of enemy forces.

Yes, hello, I am one of you, scumba—friend. How do you do? Please don’t open your clearly human face and devour my umbilical meat. What? Haha, no, you’re right. You’re normal. I’m normal. All praise the rotting bitc—I mean, the Warden. Would you like to partake of this roast rodent in a traditional rodent feast?

Yeah, that wouldn’t get them stabbed at all.

Rook hunkered down on an upturned chunk of stone, jutting from the ground like a bone snapped free of flesh. He dug into his pack, pulled out meat wrapped in greasy paper, a chunk of hard bread, and a stinking cheese. Chewed, slow and methodical. Washed it down with sour mouthfuls of watered wine. Watched his companions. Vesh sat alone, spear leaned against his knee. He gnawed on something brown and dry, watched his companions with gray eyes. Kant and Faro sat shoulder to shoulder, passing a skin between them, talking and chuckling in hushed tones.

They made an easy coterie for a group pulled from the misfits of society. Convicts, killers, and the broken. Rook shook his head, marveling at the simple strategy that, even in this, the Lady employed. Better to send strangers and the disposable on missions—no one would worry about broken hearts, broken wills. The only loyalty needed was to the Lady and the task at hand.

A shuffle, a step. A low broken breath, like a hitch in the ribs. Rook started, and forced himself to calm. Put his food down. Vesh caught the motion, eyes flicking to the tunnel to their right. Rook shook his head an increment, and Vesh nodded just as small, hands moving naturally to his spear. The first thing any man with experience will tell you: slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Panic made mistakes. And mistakes made corpses. Besides, if it had been an ambush, they’d already be in the thick of it. No, better to move naturally. Let whoever or whatever this was think they’d got the upper hand.

Rook stood, staggered, as if drunk. He was good at it. Seen his father do the real thing a hundred times. Put a hand against the wall, stumbled down its length.

“Where ya headed?” Kant called.

“Godda piss,” Rook slurred.

He stumbled closer to the mouth of the tunnel, flicked a glance upward. Something moving in the dark. Pale. He slid another few steps, pretended to almost fall. On the way down, his hand found the hilt of his falcata, snapped it free of his belt. He came up in a half-crouch, steady and sturdy on his feet. Whispered a silent prayer to a dead god that Vesh was somewhere close.

The thing that slithered from the tunnel had ceased to be man or beast long ago. A remnant of an earlier time when the war raged hotter. An abomination. Its snakelike lower half undulated above the scuttle of rows of chitinous legs, the upper rippling with muscle. Four arms protruded from the elongated sickly white torso, above which a thick neck supported the skull of something half-human, half reptilian. Blue fire burned in six sockets where eyes might have once stood, and livid scars decorated its body where parts had been sewn on or hacked free, respectively.

 It lurched toward him, a half-hearted hiss in its throat, gurgling from the wound in the side of its neck that dripped black ichor. It fell at his feet, and Vesh slipped from the shadows, impaling it through the back. The thing died in a mere heartbeat, gore trickling from its wounds. Way too easy for Rook’s taste.

“D’ya think sent it this way?” Vesh asked, prodding the corpse with his spear.

A hot breath rolled down the tunnel, the stink of rotting meat and filth riding it like a thorn on a river. Kant brushed against my hip, suddenly sober in his ear.

“Run or stand?”

He thought about it, but not for long. Something moved in the darkness. If they ran, they had a better chance of surviving and completing the mission. Then again, if they stood and failed, maybe they weren’t meant to succeed.

Kant caught his eye, nodded, and melted into the shadows. Faro’s blade rang out as it left the sheath, and the crossroads seemed to brighten. Whatever magic lay on the steel, it felt potent. Rook glanced back to where Faro had taken a wide stance in the center of the round, sword held with both hands. She’d made herself bait, then. Brave girl. Maybe not bright, but brave.

They took up positions on either side of the tunnel alongside Vesh. And then… the wait.

The thing they don’t tell you about combat, in books and plays and poems, is that it isn’t a dance, or the artful clash of steel and bright young men in crowns of flowers and silk shirts, dancing like fucking. Killing is deeply personal, a love letter writ in blood. Up close, tight, working with your hands, a lover opening their companion to get deeper, right up into their guts. It’s the hammer-song of stone and steel, the rack of thunder against the hills, the smash of flesh against flesh. It’s bruise and blood and ache and agony. It’s the gentle gasp and the hitch-catch-gurgle of red fluid in pink lungs. It’s the wet spurt of artery, the sudden spray of vomit from a raw throat. Killing, Rook thought, was a lot like fucking. With twice the mess after.

The tunnel exploded with motion, magelights swaying on their lines, foul air stirring hair and rippling clothes. Skeletal rats poured from the tunnel, a white tide of bone rolling across the floor. Faro blew two to flinders with desultory swipes from her blade. Ivory shards sprayed against the brass plates on Rook’s free arm, and he half-turned to avoid them catching his eyes. Something hard and fast-moving struck him in the chest, sending him tumbling backwards. Vesh gave an angry cry and used his spear like a broom handle, sweeping it from side to side. More rats shattered, and Rook got to his feet in time to witness the creatures piling atop one another in the center of the floor, undaunted by Faro’s hacking.

The bone beast grew, forming itself into the rough semblance of something perhaps only glimpsed by the rats in a former life—a lean body, thin skull, ragged teeth, long protrusions of bone whipping about like tentacles, and a crest of more bone, formed from ribs that ran the length of the beast. It lashed out and snagged Faro’s arm with a tentacle, the rough bone stripping the sleeve away and shredding the flesh as though it was tissue. Blood stained the whip red, and Vesh leapt in, thrusting with his spear.

Though chunks of the beast were knocked away, they returned with an unnatural speed, clattering across the floor. The noise was near deafening, and close to maddening. Another bone tendril lashed out and snatched the spear from Vesh, snapping it and returning the tip to his shoulder. It recoiled once and batted him out of the way, sending the lean man flying with a barely heard cry.

Faro had managed to break herself free by smashing the bone with her steel fist, white powder coating her arm and face. She tumbled free, snatching up her blade. The beast lunged for her, and Rook watched as more bone shifted and rattled. At its heart, a blue fire, and he took his shot, Kant appearing from the shadows to back him up.

While it focused on the other members of the coterie, Rook roared, smashing into it with a lowered shoulder, the brass pauldron protecting him from the impact as he hit it low, legs pistoning, lifting the horror, his weight coming down on top. It smashed to the stones with a sound like a chair shattering, bone dust puffing into the air, shards and fragments and pieces of rat tibia and fibula and phlanges scattering, a throwing of bones by a blind witch.

Arms sprouted from the mass of ivory, clawing at him. Vision in one eye flickered, went out. Pain in his head, pain in his arm, his chest, wet heat slithering across his flesh, nerves screaming in agony. He forced raw and ruined hands into the chest, prying ribs open, snapping thin ones frantically, digging and pawing and clawing like a man buried too soon, desperation lending him strength. The ribs opened like a casket, exposing the blue fire and the thing making it, a withered heart the size of his fist. He fought, muscles straining to keep the bones from re-knitting, from shielding the fragile thing again.

Then, Kant. Descending from the heavens like an avenging angel, a dragon carrying daggers in gnarled fists, blades like hatred, like hope, stabbing down down down, rending the heart, ripping, shredding, and that blue fire looking for somewhere to go, somewhere to be.

It rippled and slid, wavered and gusted, seeking like a blind worm in the light, igniting the wounds on Rook’s hands one moment, then snuffing as the heart separated, shredded meat on bright steel. He sagged and rolled off the pile of now-ordinary bones, bleeding from a thousand cuts, aching from another thousand bruises.

Kant stood over him, grinning.

 “Just gonna lay there and bleed?”

Rook opened his good eye, glared up at the man. Wondered if he could slit the femoral from where he lay. Instead, he closed his eye again.

“Just until I pass out.”

And then he did.

1235 AC – Golgoth, The Warden’s Territory

They came up in a ruined home built some two-hundred years past, Rook carried between Vesh and Faro. His wounds had been bandaged, and thank the dead gods for small miracles, his eye was okay, but the flesh above it had been split down to the skull. Vesh had sewn it shut with a needle and crude thread  from his pack while Kant bound the worst of Rook’s wounds. Thankfully, he had been unconscious. After, they tended to their own injuries before making their way in slow, blessedly uneventful steps to a ladder that led to a cellar.

The house was a leaning creaking mouldering wreck of a ruin, once rich wood soft and stinking, floors sagging in tandem with a roof that seemed ready to sink to the earth and rest. Cobweb decorated molding and furniture spindle like glittering lace, and the scurry of beetles and rats echoed in the walls. They made their way past a dining room where a family of skeletons sat still slumped at a long-ossified meal, and into a large sitting room with a stone hearth that had weathered the years better than the rest of the home. Rook briefly wondered what had kept that family at that table. What lies had they been fed before their last meal? Mercifully, unconsciousness found him before he could worry himself over the answers.

Bedrolls were laid out and Rook placed upon them. Kant took on the role of nursemaid while the others banged from room to room, breaking and hacking furniture for a fire. Golgoth was always a bit wet and cold, perfect conditions for a man to take with an ague, or worse. Kant remembered the last time he’d smelled gangrene, sweet and hot like roast almonds, the flesh a bruised green tending toward black, like the earth under thick foliage, and yellow pus running like thick tears from the wound. He inspected Rook’s wounds and hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Even though he had some small gift with necromancy, he dared not employ it to heal without someone nearby to draw life from. The magic had a mind of its own, and without a focus, would take from whatever source it so chose. Maybe it didn’t work that way for the major talents, but those with just a spark had to make do.

The others returned, and after a short debate on whether having visible smoke in an abandoned part of the city was suicidal or a necessary risk, Faro stomped off in annoyance while the others worked on warming the room. Vesh cleared off a table and laid out their papers. Rook muttered in his sleep. Faro returned and said nothing, but joined Vesh, inspecting badges and orders, and their clothing for anything that might give them away.

Silence is an insidious thing among those whose lives depend on working together. Lack of communication can get a person imprisoned, left out in the cold, or killed. Kant opened his mouth, then closed it, feeling the weight. Their task hadn’t begun well, and there was no telling where it would go from here. In the face of a killing silence, what did one say?

*

Rook thrashed in a fever dream. A part, some distant part, buffeted by fever and pain, knew with icy certainty he stood on death’s threshold. Irony in a city ruled by necromancers. A wind blew, the throat of the air howling banshee scream, and wiped concern from his mind as the dream descended like a black curtain.

Ten thousand men, a living tide of blood and bone and yet unblemished flesh ensconced behind dull iron and sharp points roared across the no-man’s land. The war was a farce. Why the gods had chosen to divide the city between east and west for their war, why they had forbidden the conflict to spill into the city proper, was the minutiae of history lost in the mists of time. Who knew how or when it had started? When they decided to pour flesh at one another rather than arcane energy? Was it truly a farce? Was this all a play designed to cull violent men who might otherwise spill blood in the city? Was it a gambit for souls, once ripped free from their prison by a sharp edge, up for anyone to claim? Or was it a distraction, one to keep men from questioning the absolute word of divinity and the wisdom of spilling blood and shit and entrails across hard gray earth?

Then the hammer-clash-ring of bodies slamming into one another as the lines met, and the screams went up. The barbed points of spears ripping necks and hearts, sliding from breastplates, tearing open combatants like sacks of paper the women carried from the markets, wet from a drizzle, their contents spilling out in a ragged slop. The ring of steel as blade met blade and the hard clay became a morass of thick clinging mud, sucking and grasping at boot and greave. A knife in the neck, and the spurt of artery. The sound of a man screaming as his enemy, enraged, bore him down, short knife opening and reopening the wound, ripping tearing shredding, agony white as fire, thick as choking.

The creep of sorcery, the slow insidious chill as mist rose from the dirt, swirling spinning slithering, claiming bodies, and new screams, as men who had never faced the dead saw their enemy rise anew, wearing wounds and ruin like drapery. Blood clotted in thick scabs, maggot and worm performing the danse macabre within their guts, new life in place of the old. For them, grinning as the crows pecked their eyes, grinning as they gutted their enemy, grinning as their insides fell to the outside, concerns of life and love and even the simplicity of a good meal and a healthy shit had fallen behind. Now it was only death, inside them, filling them, spreading from them. A grasping hand, a foul breath, a greedy lover. Vermin scuttled across the field, feasting, gorging, young in their wake, growing fat on the new dead and the old.

And still the grinder churned, blades like teeth, men like meat, screams scented with blood and carrion.

*

When Faro returned, it was with a disheveled waif in tow. She hurled the woman to the ground at Kant’s feet, eliciting a cry from the young woman.

“Fix him,” she ordered Kant.

“You can’t be serious,” Vesh said.

“Why not?”

“It’ll kill her.”

Their arguing faded to background noise as Kant regarded the girl. Filthy, malnourished. Wearing burlap cut for a dress. Spindly arms and legs poked through the holes, blue eyes stared back at him from under knotted dirty blonde hair. She said nothing, but instead reached for him. He recoiled, and she gave him a smile, a gap where one tooth had fallen out, gums yellowed, teeth tending toward gray.

“You got a bit of keffa? Some cinderseed? I can make you feel good.”

“…be doing her a favor,” Faro’s raised voice cut through the room.

The girl froze. Rook moaned beside Kant.

“Yeah, I got a little.”

He pulled a packet from a vest pocket, shook it. The seeds inside rattled. The girl reached for the envelope, and Kant laid a hand on Rook, then snatched her by the wrist. He felt her life, so brittle, so small, and ripped it from her. Faster done better. The light went from her eyes and she collapsed as her life rushed into Rook, his flesh mending, wounds cleaning. Kant gasped and sat back as the chill crept into him, his breath misting even before the fire. Rook’s breathing evened, slowed. Finally, he fell into a natural sleep. Behind him, Faro and Vesh had ceased to argue, falling into sullen silence. Kant curled up into his bedroll and took his own rest as the sound of the girl’s body dragged against the floorboards echoed against black wood.

 1235 AC – Golgoth, The Warden’s Territory

They left the house two days later, under the cover of night. The walls and whorls of the city, sculpted by five hundred years of wind and salt and grit towered over them like the shadows of gods. A nearby tower, twisted and riddled with holes smoothed by ages, moaned with dead voices as a gentle wind blew through. Rook flinched involuntarily at the sound, the tatters of fever dream still clinging to him like a parasite. His wounds ached, but only in a distant way, like hearing from family in a far-off place.

They moved from street to street, trying to look presentable, professional. The plan hadn’t changed—infiltrate the Warden’s side of the war, bring it crashing down from within, kill the dead god. A turn here, a twist there. The city shuffled by like an old senile man. They came upon a square, long forgotten. A statue stood in the center, lit by the moon, mist clinging to its feet. It stood with arms upraised, one hand eroded, the other holding a curved dagger, face a pitted mass of stone scar, the features indistinguishable. At its base, a dry fountain, and upon the low retaining wall, a plaque, once bronze. Kant sidetracked to it, brushed away the patina, read the engraved words.

And here, her embrace

And here, her embrace

The Lady

Release in the light

Rest in the dark

A crow, startled from its roost on the statue’s shoulder, burst into the sky in a bustle of wings and an echoing cry. The bird’s disdain echoed down the streets. In the dust of the fountain’s bowl, coins rusted to the clay. A small pile of bones—the prey of some raptor. A sheet of parchment, an illegible hymn upon it, half-embedded in the baked mud. A frayed ribbon, gray now. Rook imagined it might once have been blue or red or any color other than that the sun and the elements had baked away. Perhaps it held back some young woman’s hair or bound a parcel. Perhaps it held no meaning other than that of refuse in a dry fountain forgotten by time and tide. And yet, looking at it brought something to his chest, a nostalgia for a childhood long gone.

His parents, sipping icewine beneath the leaves of a tree in Lady’s Grace. Rook and his sister, playing in patches of cool grass that sprung in sparing amounts beneath the trees, like emerald blades. The whisper of a breeze from the sea, like telling stories. They laid on their backs, watching the cool blue above, wisps of white slipping by like dreams. Their hands found one another, and they entwined fingers and told each other tales of the things they saw above.

“Let’s move on,” Vesh said, and shattered the daydream.

Rook shook himself. Memories are lies we tell ourselves about the past. Half-glimpsed. Half-truthful. The whole truth bends toward pain, and the mind will do what it must to dull the edge. Better left in the dust. That’s where all things returned, wasn’t it?

*

They moved on, leaving the square and memory behind. As they went, they passed a dirty body, a girl little more than a waif, left leaning against a wall. If not for the screen of flies that clung to her face like a black veil, he might have thought her sleeping. Vesh shot Faro a disgusted look, and he knew something beyond his ken had happened here. They passed the body, sending the flies up in a momentary black cloud that resettled, buzzing. A brief glimpse of the face revealed crawling flesh, oozing eyes, torn lips. Then they passed, the street harboring no other souls.

Rook thought about random circumstance. What had brought them to that house, the girl to them, them to the square? What had brought these four together? Kant, cursed with the small gift, twisted by it. Vesh, an ex-soldier. Faro, sellsword. And himself. One-time killer. Was chance just that, or was there even a design behind the trappings?

He thought of his father, before the Lady had called him to her. Gentle. A bear of a man. His hands, so like the leather mitts at his forge, his beard grand and bristling. A cupid’s bow of a mouth. Bright sparkling eyes. And after, his sudden brusqueness. The violence, explicit and implicit. What had she demanded of him? What had broken that kind soul, turned it to black iron? No answer would ever come. The past was buried.

And still the gods played their games. A movement here, a shuffle there, and the board was set. Were they chosen for skill, or was there a greater warp and weft to fate? Was the Lady placing pieces in a great pyramid of bodies meant to build a platform to the heavens?Even as they passed walls etched with words deepened by erosion, a simple warning: The Chant Ends All, he wondered what it must be like for the gods. Brought to earth, ended by the very magic meant to speak to them, ended by man, a simple mortal. Lives like flies, thoughts like pinpricks of light in the dark. And the gods—wide and vast and unfathomable, and torn from the heavens by vermin even as their brothers and sisters were brought down. What must that rage be like? Even bound and trapped and half-dead as they were? What must the absolute incandescent fury of a deity be like should it ever be unleashed? He shuddered involuntarily and forced the thought from his mind. To contemplate it too deep—maybe they really were just being ground to dust for the amusement of malevolent spirits—brought a weight to his soul he’d rather not try to heft.

Kant dropped back, and Rook was glad for the company. The man smelled of woodsmoke and blood, though neither so strongly that his presence was intolerable.

“Given any thought as to what we’ll do once we’re there?” he asked.

Rook shook his head. “Was a bit busy not dying. Thanks for that.”

Kant lifted his chin toward Vesh and Faro, walking side by side up ahead. “Trust ‘em?” He asked.

Rook gave him a sideways glance. “What says I trust you?”

“Still breathin’ ain’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you probably trust me a little. What about them?”

Faro pointed something out in the architecture around them, Vesh grunted a reply, and Faro let out a brief laugh. Rook didn’t take his eyes from them.

“Not at all.”

“An ex-soldier?”

“That’s why. His loyalty lies with the Crow and the Lady. Whatever I might ask will in the end be subverted by whatever his masters have told him. Haven’t you wondered why of all of us—a sellsword, a criminal, a cripple—why he might be here?”

“Fair enough. You don’t trust the woman then, either?”

“Rumor is she’s switched sides so many times there’s a mountain of gold nearly as tall as the pile of bodies she’s left behind in a manse somewhere.”

“Unfortunate that,” Kant said.

“How’s that?”

“Well, I mean—” he gestured at her back, her hips swaying, golden-blonde hair tied into a tight tail that bounced against her back.

“You’re a pig,” Rook said.

“They say the flesh of men roasting smells like pig. Maybe we’re not so different after all.”

He moved on ahead, leaving Rook alone with his thoughts. He didn’t thank Kant for bringing the possibility of treachery to the fore so soon after their arrival, and thought he may have to pay the man back one day in kind.

*

The street widened, the edges and carvings on the buildings becoming somewhat sharper. Someone had made an attempt to scour the blur of age from the surfaces, even in some places taking carver’s tools to the facades. Bones and roses climbed archways, crow and raven and vulture burst from flight behind shutters. Grinning skulls leered down from gables, and in some places, cornices and peaks had been carved from wind-blown stone into more grotesque visions. Hearts frozen mid-pump, stone gore running toward the gutters. Hunched forms of demons and winged devils surrounded prone men and women, entrails held like slick sausage. On a leaning tower, someone had carved intertwining figures, from infant to corpse, each stage of life rotting slowly as it moved to the next, climbing the walls like poisonous ivy, culminating in a shrouded figure at the top, robes open, welcoming the escaping souls. The truth in the lie of life. All things died. Rook looked around at the city. Or should.

 The street widened again as they progressed, flattening into a mezzanine that looked to the north and the east. Eastwards, the city closed in again. Some trick of the corridors between here and there, some lie of the ear, but Rook imagined he heard the clash and scream of battle. He turned his attention north, to the city laid out past the Fogyards—Redhook and Blackbriar, and the Spire beyond.

When they were children, he and Eliora would play at nobles, dressing up in their parents’ silks, draping themselves in the paste jewels their grandmother kept hidden in a corner of her wardrobe. Rook was the great King Filiath, and Eliora Prince Ithien. They bound sticks broken from the nearby willow to their belts and pranced around, swishing them in the air. Together they defeated greyhulk and razorback, and the dragons that would come down from the mountains to rain terror on the countryside. The Emperor rained riches on them, and the commoners strewed rosehip and lilac at their horses’ hooves.

Ironic, he thought, looking out at the black Spire, the newly-scrubbed white towers, and the palatial estates laid out and lit up, constellations of burnt-out dreams. He wondered now if they knew the lie of those old books, if they knew secretly, where muscle and bone and blood meet, that those days were gone, and there was only obedience and death. He watched the shimmer and twinkle of home lights for a while longer and wondered if somewhere down there was another brother and sister that dreamed as he once did.

Kant appeared at his shoulder, silent for a moment. When Rook didn’t turn, he said softly, “Come on then, lad. We’ve a war to win.”

Kant moved away, and Rook sighed, glanced once more at the light and the clean streets, and turned to follow. They descended wide stairs running east, risers worn as everything in this city was worn, the stone drooping with the passage of centuries of feet, like the cheek of a stroke victim. The street and buildings closed in again as they passed from their brush with civilization, shadow eating the light of the moon, darkness thrown by roof and gutter like black teeth chewing at the light.

Faro and Vesh had already moved on ahead, waiting at the Beggar’s Gate. Kant waited until he caught up, then fell  into a loping stride beside Rook. They walked in silence, just the beat of their footfalls echoing back from the close walls. Storefronts stared as they passed, empty windows like gaping eyes, the glass long salvaged or ground to dust. The facades slumped, defeat long having crept into the bones of the buildings.

“For a killer, you’re… you don’t look like a killer,” Kant said.

Rook grimaced. “How should I look?”

Kant glanced over, squinted. “Fair question. Meaner? Harder in the eyes?”

“My eyes aren’t hard?”

“Nothing about you says hard, boy. And yet…”

“What?”

“Iron in the blood,” Kant said. “An old saying.”

“Truth in it?”

“There’s truth in a lot of things, Rook, but if there’s iron in the blood, it’s never helped a man holding his guts in.”

They fell silent again, approaching the Beggar’s Gate. Vesh and Faro stood beside it, arguing quietly. Kant sighed.

“What’s the fucking problem now?” He asked.

Faro gestured at her companion. “He thinks we should find another way in.”

“Doesn’t seem smart, walking in the front door,” Vesh said.

“Unless you’re supposed to be here,” Rook pointed out.

“Told you,” Faro said.

“Gloating is ugly,” Vesh said, pushing the gate open.

“Your face is ugly,” Faro said.

Kant snorted, and the group passed through. On the arch above, ravens roosted in stone relief.


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