Metempsychosis

 Cohis Brayhem stood at the edge of a pier in northern Ri’shurai. He was love-drunk and somewhat high. The waves of clean air awakened the small fibers of his skin, caressed his eyelashes, embraced him by the waist. He felt fulfilled in every way. Even the sun was sweet, like a mango resting in a dark basket. And the sky was cloudless and serene. Nameless birds arrowed traceless tracks close to the shore, up high. He had wandered there a thousand dreary nights, remembering her, remembering.
His lone shadow projected up the banks, to the city’s lowest markets. It was quiet there. He seemed made of dirt, as still and thin as an abandoned sign post. He visited the pier to make peace with tumultuous thoughts, and paranoia. The paranoia began when Imperial forces arrested his boss, Engul, and executed him, leaving the thieves in Ri’shurai with no obvious leadership. Brayhem worked for Engul for several years, and many jobs were entrusted him. Some would consider Brayhem powerful. But recently he took to raising chickens and pigs and butchering them and eating them. Not to procure a legitimate living (for he knew nothing of a legitimate living), but instead to avoid the poison of a potential enemy.
“You are no longer safe alone.” After years of working in Dream-tear, a city a hundred miles southwest, Istokleia, one of Engul’s distant associates, finally spoke to him directly.
“With every due respect, I was never safe,” replied Cohis.
“Granted. First things first. I need us on the same side.”
“I figure that,” said Cohis. He didn’t bother to face Istokleia. Although many young cutpurses rumored that to see her face would fatally hex you, he knew she marked targets for death by planting knives at their bedsides. He laughed, internally; that he owned no bed may have been a saving grace.
“For the connections you’ve established in Piraz-dai, Ataraxia — we hadn’t a foothold in those cities until you established them.”
“Sometimes I make myself valuable,” he said
“While I might express gratitude for cropping the path for me, Engul was a dear friend to me –”
“Not too dear, I imagine.”
“– and I can’t appear weak or naive.”
“You have already determined whether or not you can trust me.”
“Indeed. It’s true I don’t want you in this city any longer, coyote. In fact not even a night longer, only I wish to be fair.”
“Fair? You don’t know these streets, or its people. You have no authority here.”
“I payroll enforcers who would beg to differ.”
“As do I.”
“Where are they now?”
Cohis sighed. He pivoted nervously and glanced at Istokleia, except her face was hidden within his shadow. He discerned the melon-like scent of her oiled hair, and the tea on her breath, the grain ale. “I travel here alone,” he said, his voice suddenly quieter. He scanned his surroundings: in the distance, the strange silhouettes of men and women gathered. They descended from the markets, onto the shore. And waited well beyond the pier. They were not his soldiers.
“I told you, it is no longer safe.”
“Is this a threat or…?”
As Istokleia spoke, he interrupted her, and started pacing back and forth.
“Because they’re not close enough to save you, are they?” he hissed. “You’re a small fragile thing weighing against my wrath.”
“If you are at all wise — calm yourself,” she said. “Yes, they’re with me. But they will serve you at my say so.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You may know who I am, coyote, as well as I know you, by reputation.  I prefer low level criminals not know who I am. I need you to lead, in my stead, in my apparent absence. To speak for me, to communicate my will, to issue orders.”
“Aint shovin your fist up my ass to play me like some fuckin dummy,” he said and spat on her shoes. The people gathered on the shore approached the pier, slowly, a stone’s throw away.
“You won’t take the throne of the king even as it is empty?”
“I’m exhausted,” he admitted.
“Because you sleep with eyes half-open. With me, you would be untouchable.”
Cohis inhaled sharply. His limbs seemed to freeze in place. He shook his head, and tears lined his eye lids. What could she possibly know of his fear? Or loneliness?
“I am staying at the Engul’s estate, but a dark cloud descended upon that family and nothing seems capable of dispersing it. I’m overstaying my welcome, I can feel it, and have arranged a room at the Lunar Cradle, one with a warm view of the Myrrh, and sufficient privacy.”
She stepped away and bowed cordially, lifting slightly the hem of her elegant dark dress. Her face was startlingly beautiful to him, her skin honey-like and tanned, except for the scars. A circle the width of a fire poker dotted each of her cheeks.
In the company of trained killers whom he couldn’t identify, she left him then. Night time was close at hand and while the wind rustled the cypresses, and the gentlest waves sluiced through the sands, upon the planks Istokleia’s footfalls were perfecty silent.
*
Now the sun sinks into the horizon. Aurora rides atop a brown and white-spotted horse, with his cranky child Democricio stretching in his arms, all cried out. At night, the gates of Ri’shurai close, but a steep toll can briefly open them again. Aurora has a few coins in his pack. A change of clothes he tore to belt-like strips, a bit of water and milk and some fruit he crushed in its rind. There is also a secret gift from Princess Katreina: a key to a room in Ri’shurai, so that he and Democricio do not “live in squalor.”
Fortunately the gate is busy. He walks his horse to a stable and pays the man. At the gate he is asked his business and he answers honestly: artist, I paint mostly, to which the gatekeeper replies, there is no demand for your profession here. Aurora answers dishonestly: I have jobs set up already, and this seems to satisfy the gatekeeper and end the questioning.
On his initial visit, many years ago, Ri’shurai wasn’t as much of a city as it was the idea of a city, yet to be realized. Most of the planning was directed at stopping people from spreading sickness and disease so quickly in the poorer places of Ataraxia, but its multiplication in size and the diversity of its culture occurred mostly from northerners and eastern traders seeking a sedentary existence. There weren’t so many churches, temples, bars, gambling halls, hostels, or outdoor cooking huts. Shops open at dark was unknown then.
He hates this place, as it stands now or how it was then makes no difference, he hates the entire thing: its pervasive reek of fish feces and the salt of the Myrrh, the calmly suffocating mugginess that coats everything in an air of the dead and uninspired, a kind of hell where roofs leak and a shutter hangs off a hinge and flowers in the sills droop bug-bitten and ember-burned and sorrowful, it’s like the children don’t know how to smile, but they’re excellent scavengers — fatherless, motherless, they scuttle along the sand-colored streets with scraps of garbage in their mitts. As he passes by, they peer at him with the expressions of mischievous dogs.
Democricio sucks on Aurora’s milk-and-fruit drenched sleeve. The inn is quiet and well-lit and there are some strangers talking in a common room. Their room is up one flight of stairs and occupies a corner. Already awaiting him is a linen-lined basket within arms’ reach of a cot and there’s a wood-stove with a tidy pyramid of logs, and finally in the corner beside a window there is an easel, the sight of which warms his tense and swollen heart. He gently lets Democricio into the cradle and wraps him up in some soft linen so that finally the boy can get some rest.
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lammy and kayla

 

 

 

0

 

my shelter is the myometrium of a woman.

 

i am a placenta-wet baby, pink in the face, unable to breathe, crawl, or scream.

 

this is an alcohol-induced seizure.

 

i am twenty eight years old and have a sixty-six percent chance of dying.

 

the sirens wail. flashing ambulance lights fill my pupils like rushing rain water weighs down loose canopy.

 

i re-awake in the emergency room with no memory of how the night passed, or why i’d become so reckless.

 

temporarily i am frightened, self-loathing, cold. i am a dog with no owner to claim my ashes should i die.

 

in the morning i feel nothing in particular.

 

a pair of doctors condescendingly scold me for losing my place at the half-way house.

 

for now i am homeless.

 

my clothing and body have been cleaned of bile.

 

my cigarettes, photo id, and pocket knife are arranged on an aluminum night-stand.

 

i’m

 

“free to leave”

 

 

1

 

the reading streets swell like a bubble of dried blood, the swarm of mongers form one body the way cells create a fabric of skin. i am wounded, i ache, my skeleton shrinks and expands, i am insatiable. i pray.

 

my home is a red duffel bag i carry on my back, which i unfold like a tent beneath a creek-stone archway on sixth street, where vehicular traffic is no longer allowed, and where over the course of an hour i blow on the tip of a black man’s curved penis in exchange for a night and morning’s worth of ativan i crush with the handle of the knife and snort from underneath my overgrown pinky nail.

 

it is mid-winter, but the city street is remarkably warmer than i expect. the sky is a mud puddle devoid of star and moon. boys with puerto-rican accents are playing futbol in a field of slushing snow, their voices exhausting to incoherent murmurs, like the unsteady hum of a turned down radio. my mouth is dry. i feel snake-bitten. i relax like a corpse, wrapped in a chrysalis of sheets and blankets.

 

2

 

once upon a time i was a poet, like a shaman with no tradition, spelunking the dyed caves of my proto-hominid heart. i investigated stone-carved artifacts and, with resurrected spirits to guide me by lantern light, imposed meaning upon random arrangements.

 

this is how i became receptive to the vast external, and engendered ecstasy.

 

time. my destroyer. my body dissolves and forces my poetic spirit to escape the genocide of the drug.

 

3

 

i walk a windy path from the city of reading.

 

bask in a pre-dawn glow.

 

the mountains, pale blue during the day, are indigo like the chapped faces of american slaves.

 

4

 

once upon a time i cast a shadow

 

once upon a time i held a reflection

 

these were my best and closest friends.

 

perfectly entwined lovers, whose love i secretly coveted, and so vowed to annihilate.

 

i lacked compunction for the murder of my secondary and tertiary selves. i lacked compunction when i left no evidence my spirit imbued a body, my body imbued a soul.

 

5

 

what is the sound of a sunrise? i hear sirens, police cars and ambulance. take me to the hospital, i’m sick again.

 

the city of reading is dark now, in the daytime. the streets clutter with soundless people. at the bus stops, filthy with starbucks, pretzel factor wrappers, lak graffiti. this is a reading of sorts. i peer down at the time: seven in the morning. i am supposed to be on my way from one job to another, but i’ve abandoned both. miserable places. the boss at the warehouse said i’m through, and he calls the shots. go home and sleep, he said. it’s true i don’t sleep very much. not for weeks now.

 

on my wrist are little stick drawings, little heads with stilts for legs. we are holding hands. i think you drew them when we met. i retrace them every day in dark ink. you call them lammy and kayla. i believe they’re cute, or they used to be.

 

like you, they are as i imagine them now, and perhaps nothing like this when you drew them. i have a good memory but my memory doesn’t serve me. for how long did you say you’d be away? somehow you are in my home, in my heart and among my books, the tufts of sheets. in my home, and never meant to leave. this is torture. i can’t sleep because i imagine your scent on the linens. i wash the sheets in pouring rain, i’ve washed them several times. and will it rain, again tonight? you left me a note in french, but i speak no french.

 

6

 

the clouds will disperse with rain. it’s rained every day for two weeks. i hang beneath the archway for a while but the street’s become ugly. shadows cling to the pile of carhaarts and thermal underwear, ceramic shards of coffee cups swiped from the 9th street cafe.

 

each day opens like a raw scab, in reverse. “time is no healer; the patient is no longer here,” wrote eliot -and you carried the quartets the day we met, uttering how it’s the prettiest prayer you’d ever read. but i have to confess: my wounds are no christian wounds. this is no stigmata. in our dance, i cannot lead, only follow. like a dog lost and big-eyed, i sniff the trails and tracks of the places you used to roam.

 

the library, rundown and sad. teachers stand in mud puddles as if rooted trees climbing from a snake-like river, unmoving and unmovable in the drifting walls of rain. i slosh upstairs and down, my head tilted low around other people.

 

impossibilities compel me. you are not here like you were.

 

7

 

i stare at a book until the clerks lead me out and i skulk into the night. a strong wind sweeps away the clouds, revealing a white ash moonlight.

 

if kayla is a spirit and a body, she and i may still share a soul.

 

i am drifting. over slick black streets. golden and disparate lights glow under a dense fog. i float through el barrio: rime with the dogs barking, rime with the children crying, flit to the red light blinking green light yellow red light blinking.

 

8

 

memory is a fog now too. sit down.

 

there is a church with a jesus sculpture. he is as gentle as a lamb. what is it you want me to do?

 

i am piping but there is no dance.

 

9

 

“darkness is god / nothing distinct”

 

10

 

i care no more about god than my own body. i want you if it destroys me.

 

in the silhouetted willows of the park at night, i conjure your locks of hair, flattened in the wind. benches and cigarettes. i sit and i stand. i pace and patrol the alleys. i follow our footsteps, those when we were younger. i erase our steps so i can retrace them again. i follow our steps again. i watch kayla while i follow the steps again. she watches me retrace the steps, then somehow soon sleep embraces me.

 

what do you want me to do for you? says jesus, as gentle as a lamb.

 

11

 

i am a person

 

am i not a human being

 

12

 

how would romantic love fit into god’s mosaic, my weeping friend?

 

how am i happier without you than i am without her?

 

should i desire anything, or anyone?

 

sleepless night bad dark eyes caves brown blue green i change as you tell me to. something in my blood knows what you want.

 

hope is intangible: i cannot observe hope in any form. and when i cling to the intangible, i always end with nothing.

 

if i feel no pain now, may i say the same of love?

 

kayla washes off my arm, for the rain’s come again. i am left paralytic beneath the alley bridge like a heap of laundry. and every time i close my eyes, i find you. was there ever a wonder i’d so soon pray to you? for you? my eyes close. you. i want you here, so i’ve brought you here, i beg for you. you’re with me in all ways. i beg. i will close my eyes and allow the darkness. i will be abused by poverty. i will go hungry. i will piss myself, and drink until my eyelids flutter and the eyes bulge and swell from their sockets. kayla is gone and somehow she will have to return.

 

can you find me again, love? for you i am homeless

Solivoz and the Secret Heart

A Moribund Tale

The winding Path of Enlightenment bisects the City of Ataraxia, north from the eight villages, south through the three underground cities, and out to the canyon-cave dwellings. Sister Synthi awaits upon a bench where there is a white-budding cherry blossom tree and seeds scattered flatly at its base, attended by a flock of red-breasted, hook-beaked birds who carry the seeds to distant trees like customs passed from one generation to the next. She enjoys the scents of spring, the wisteria and dandelion pollen floating in the waves of breezes like breaths over soft brook rocks and fresh uncut wheat; the faint pine-needle and perfume smokes wafting from one of the Garden Snake havens, where whores mend the wounds of their criminal knights.

Only the marketers and their prey, chatting and chirping on the streets like linens on a wire give a quaint fullness to an otherwise empty, cobbled street. Sister Synthi opens wide an updated acupuncture anatomy text book, with special attention to body manipulations of pressure points. Within its folds is a crinkled up loose-leaf of a map indicating the hills outside of Ataraxia, and an unassuming gathering of cottages that furnace themselves from the Forest of Angels. Rumor express that under the blood moon their songs echo like the transient images of ghosts manifest out of the corner of an innocent’s eye.

Most are ignorant of Sister Synthi’s trade, which she plies frequently for no money, considering those who seek the cult’s services are impecunious, and suffering excruciating diseases, such as severe skin disorders, madness, and dementia.

Yet rarely advances of funding arrive furtively and anonymously from lonely, despairing widows or mentally-ill soldiers who can no longer endure their consciences, and therefore search for immediate finality, as a method of redemption. The cult of Medusa is like an alchemical fusion between the business of whores and the echo songs of angels of an ancient forest: one must firstly rely upon hearsay to believe in them and, secondly, engage a blind trust to enact their services.

“Lives with no meaning are worse than lives lived in constant fear: the worst tyrant is a void/an eternal void or vacancy of significance,” scribes Sister Synthi in the narrow margins of the map’s accompanying letter entitled, Instruction of Desire. Soon one of Synthi’s fellow sisters will break bread and offer to walk with her to the site, ensuring her safety but also verifying the geographic accuracy of the map; until then she collects enough change from her pocket to purchase sliced overripe papaya from a shopkeeper of timorous disposition, since aggressive merchants are like burrs that cling to your clothes, prickly and difficult to remove without sticking your hand.

In appearance, she is or could be a shopkeeper herself, a thief from the night, a fletcher, a tailor, or a noble with a secret dependency. Her clothing is neither very dark, nor very light, neither gleaming like the towers of the Palace, nor cloaked in the coal cakes of a miner’s daily excavation. What would be odd to an outsider is that she is vegan, which is rare among her people. Close inspection of her sandals reveal wood and thin ropes of hemp. The necklace pendant that sits visibly upon her chest resembles an eyeball with dramatically long lashes, but this is an accidental random forming from obsidian glass. Now she fingers the pendant with one hand, with the other bringing fruit to her lips like others might smoke from the stem of a pipe.

Killing suicidal human beings isn’t the profession Sister Synthi imagined when she was a child, but knowledge she fulfills the wants and needs of a minimal clientele makes the actual moments of inflicting death facile if not pleasurable, so that she can’t sleep the night before an execution – but this pleasure she guards like it is the password of a royal treasury. She fears judgment of her character, and doesn’t think of herself as perverse.

Eventually, after an hour or so, Sister Lorena rounds the corner on horseback. Her dark eyes are watery. Her thin lips are curled at the corners, her cheeks sucked in as if empty of air, the frozenness of her glare – conveys a solemn amusement. She steers her steed gracefully, and stops amidst a small dissipating throng of potential buyers who glance up and down the gray-furred beast, appraising it as if another sale item on the racks. “I have an appointment in Vulture,” she says simply. Her sandals are similar to Synthi’s, except the insides are padded with strips of cotton.

“Need we stop in Vulture before the mercy?” asks Synthi. She closes her book and lifts it into her hands.

“Evidently you are new to the order. Asking yes or no questions of me is prohibited, because limiting in its potential responses. Sorry. We could. It makes no difference when I arrive, for if the business were pressing I wouldn’t be here with you.”

“So let’s go,” says Synthi. “As you see the ride seems longer than it really is, because of the terrain we cross.”

“So few can travel where we’re going, isn’t that correct?”

Mounting a horse proves difficult for Sister Synthi. She is neither from nobility,
nor does she descend from a lineage of farmers. She is tentative reaching for the saddle, made of wood, straw, cloth, and every bit as uncomfortable as it seemed to her. Creatures of this raw mass have the capacity of rearing back their heads and snapping off whole hunks of flesh, or it might kick her from one side of the Path of Enlightenment to the other.

Yesterday was a farmer’s festival foreign to Sister Synthi and, while slowly trekking through the basalt-stone northern gate, crossing the great bridge over the city’s moat, she gazes upon the farmland, reminded of an old cemetery the way soft wreaths of white and red roses hang upon street signs and lamp holders, cottage porch railings. Currently the peasants till the fields, in certain places, and, on all fours as if searching for a misplaced ring, yank weeds leeching off newly-planted corn stalks. Not one looks up or waves, or gives a sign of recognition. Despite the chill unique to early spring, sweat glistens upon their faces and drips into the soil. The town closest to the northern gate is “the Village of the Falcon” and is home to a medicine man, his apprentices, and a quiet hostel.

Sister Lorena steers her horse off the main path, circumventing the village, heading toward a lonely three-story tower where a reclusive, though well-known philosopher of princely wealth resides, composing his letters aimed at Ataraxia’s metro-powerhouses and high-ranking guilds. Another resident of the estate, a masseuse in service to the healers of Falcon, who’d been trained at Castle Constitution, sits outside the tower. Her dress is pale pink and she wears a silk violet scarf. At her feet is a leather purse, which she nudges forward. She stands up, enters the tower and slowly closes its rose-wooden door. She leaves the purse behind.

“Pressure point treatment of this magnitude requires a particular set of needles. They are or should be arranged to correspond to the points expounded upon within your text,” Sister Lorena explains coldly. “She isn’t involved with us exactly, but is called upon when we receive money, because her lover is respected politically, and his coin trusted as ours could never be.”

Immediately, Sister Lorena dismounts from the horse, innocuously jogging toward the purse. Synthi instinctively looks backwards at the city of Ataraxia to make sure they aren’t being followed. The Infinity Lotus, the zenith of the palace, radiates a halo of broken prismatic colors upon the obsidian, basalt, and dark indigo bricks from which the city is forged, and six geysers spill into the moat, making the city seem like the apparition of a mountain-sized, silhouetted willow tree. There are outriders on the road, but not within earshot.

Returning, Sister Lorena opens the purse then abruptly closes it again. “She has also provided us with the vials of Sol, but you will need to apply the drug to the needles first, let them dry. When it comes into contact with the blood stream, then the drug will begin to take its effect.”

Ignorant of such drugs, Sister Synthi can only silently defer to Lorena’s advice.

The cottage is two miles away, where hills begin to take form upon the skin of the earth. Like the philosopher’s tower, it is set apart from the local villages and contains its own guarded flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens, on the eastern side of the cottage. A cow and a goat have separate pens on the western side of the cottage.

“Milking cows marked most of my adolescence,” whispers Sister Lorena. She remarks upon the old age of the cow and its relatively healthy shape, how she appears well-fed and maintained, perhaps more so a pet than a source of food. “I will meet you round the tower a day from now. If the job ends before then, I bid you safe travel.”

Arms full, Sister Synthi stands nervously watching Lorena about-face with her steed, urging her into a pace she was spared herself, not being used to riding. Already Synthi’s loins ache, burn, sting –from splinters stuck in the backs of her thighs. She pats down her clothing of dust collected on the road.

Letting down gently the purse at the stone and thatch-roofed cottage, she raps upon the door and, with her fingernails, combs out knots from her hair.

Only a moment later does the door creak open half-way.

“To stand there like a fool!” Synthi hears from inside the cottage, which swathes sweet warmth over her. “Honestly, come in, you are expected after all.”

Hearing the lady’s childish voice makes her feel like a fox, the scent of a fallen nest of eggs rubbing its snout. A sensation of wicked suspicion climbs her spine like a ladder between heaven and hell. “I hope I’m not late,” says Synthi courteously, stopping for her equipment again.

“Eleven years too late, I’m afraid,” the girl answers, meeting Synthi at the threshold. “Please, come in, and take comfort. I’m fixing a soup as we speak.”

Rarely is Sister Synthi’s breath taken; rarer still that beauty should be the source of the theft. “Pardon,” she says mousily. “I figured you would be…” and she shakes her head backing slowly from the door.

“An adult? An old woman?” says the girl and her smile is as wicked as the sensations rapidly removing themselves from Synthi’s body. The girl is of the Vedic bloodline. Her eyes are emeralds and her body thin and limber, the color of river sediment. Her bones are like the strings of a lute, her hair longer than an invincible night, and her voice the symphony of mockingbirds imitating a solitary nightingale.

“Maybe I am mistaken. I’ve come to the wrong place,” says Synthi.

“I’d be offended,” the girl replies, “if you continued to think so, and did not accept my hospitality, for what it is. There,” she nods at the bed in the corner of the cottage. “On the night stand, you see with the lantern. Set up there. And… oh, nothing… it will have to wait.”

Drawings upon an easel catch Synthi’s eye as she looks for the most convenient place to seat herself. The girl, who appears no older than twelve she would surmise, clicks the cottage’s door into place. She is barefoot, even though the floor is just dirt.

“Every now and then sister, I dream of you. Dream. There you are. Awkward and speechless, eager to begin, eager to finish – and so am I. Your desire for me to explain myself is as evident as the light beaming through my window each morning. From psychic sorcerers, I understand that recurrence within dreams is always a foretelling of an event—as opposed to, for example, a memory of an event. Do you know anything about clairvoyant dreams?”

“Veritably nothing,” says Synthi dismissively. “And I doubt greatly you’ve ever seen my face or form or know who I am, either. Now—I’ve read your Instruction of Desire, in which you request, in addition to a service of mercy that I scribe a dictation, but you don’t describe what I’ll be scribing exactly.”

“Oh, I’m not forcing you to cast a curse upon yourself!” the girl’s eyes bulge playfully. “Ugh,” she says. “You’re so uptight! All about business! You won’t even ask me my name.”

“Tell me your name, then,” Synthi answers, rolling her pant leggings up to her calves. The fire caresses her skin. The soup boils.

“Ew! No. Not after you’ve exhibited such poor manners. You are hereby punished of my true identity, and no matter what you will never know my name.”

Dressed within an olive and tan patchwork snakeskin gown that drags behind her, she hustles from the kettle over the stove to the round stone table where there are three empty clay dishes, two empty cups the size of her slender palms, and a rather dull cutting knife. She then finds a bunch of pages and assembles them haphazardly into a pile and tosses them onto the table under Sister Synthi’s nose. The girl bends sideways. She sticks her tongue against her canine tooth and picks up a well of thick ink, and a swan’s feather sharpened enough to spear a boar. “Now listen,” she whispers. “Close your eyes, and write precisely what I say.”

“OK. First of all, young lady, whom I serve with the utmost dignity: If I close my eyes, I will not be able to see what I’m writing. Second of all, I will write what you say, but you must ready yourself by resting, on your back, in bed. There is a favor I ask of you. To fulfill your request in totality, I must make use of your fire.” As the girl nervously curls herself in her bed, Sister Synthi dips certain needles into the Sol, setting them next to the open furnace. “The needles and the drug numb you for when you decide that you wish to bleed out. The intoxicant will give you psychic bliss, and should cause both euphoria and visual hallucinations. However, since the numbness and intoxication have onset times, it is in the waiting that I will be able to comply with your Instruction.”

“Hallucinations?” the girl says. “I hope they don’t frighten me or distort my mind. How will I tell the story if my mind is warped?”

“A little bit at a time, I suppose.”

Voraciously the girl crawls to the edge of her bed, as if Synthi is withholding from her the last drop of clean water in all of the earth. “That’s an impossible way to tell a story.”

“Excuse me, but I don’t believe there is an alternative. You can’t experience a peaceful death, and enjoy the capacity of speech simultaneously. I’m very sorry.”

“No matter. No worry. I’ll adjust. I’ll adapt,” the girl says. “But maybe while the needles dry I can begin!”

Opening the ink vial and inspecting the feather’s end, Synthi says, “Fine then, but you must relax and go slow. I’m no great scribe or woman of letters. Go on, then. How does your story begin?”

“That’s something I’ve thought I’d never hear,” the girl states happily. She stares down the assortment of needles and their relative similarity to knitting implements, only with long, thin, cylindrical points. “But I don’t know.”

“Here I am, quill in hand. You must try at least!” says Sister Synthi, holding her hands to the heat of the furnace.

“Ah yes… In the land of the dreamers,” begins the girl, leaning back in bed as Sister Synthi applies the first needle. “Hey! Aren’t you writing this down?”

“Not yet. You would be pleasantly surprised by the strength of my memory,” she says. “I need you to relax, because the first is meant to numb your shoulder.”

“Great!” she says with feigned enthusiasm. “In the land of the dreamers,” the girl continues irritably. “Ouch! That stings!” and her fawnish eyes glare at the needle as it is removed from between muscle and bone, drawing the faintest of dark blood in beads. She breathes as if exhausted. She says:

“So the myth goes that the heart of a virginal peasant girl is possessed of such a magic its power could defeat an army of a million, no matter how well-armed, disciplined, paid, fanatical, or determined.

Years and years and years ago, in the strange savage land of the dreamers, a legend grew of a secret heart that granted its beholder eternal life, but had fallen entombed within an icy resting place, where dead villages sunk beneath mountains of snow.

Now a petty thief is at the brink of starvation. For weeks he is without food and can find no shelter from the rains. In his mind rings the belief that all legends, like petals of a flower are connected to roots nourished in the earth, are rooted in a ground of factuality. His sights are set upon obtaining the heart of immortality. He is penniless. He is depressed. He is scared. One night, in a rush of desperation he robs a duke of his gambling money. See, the duke had been too drunk to identify his assailant, and thus the thief, unknown and undistinguished from all the other beggars and bone-picking street scavengers, got away with his crime. He skips town with his belly brimming with mead and his pockets lined with coins. In the new town, he is suddenly a somebody: Solivoz, a traveling man of obscure bloodlines who can now bathe, trash half a roasted swan, pay for the town’s drinks for weeks. Soon he finds himself earning money, but nowhere near enough to keep up his guise. There, it comes to be a secondary mission, to recruit men who by necessity remain cloaked in shadow, who are reborn constantly from shadow. Thieves like him. Thieves like he had been: skilled, but without money to reflect their skills. The hidden goal is to hunt down the legendary heart and sell it to some power-hungry wealthy man, so full of pride he’d wish never to die.

Within months, through petty stickups, Solivoz turns a band of six into a gang of nine, and this gang of nine becomes a troupe of twenty-eight. They are successful robbers who travel back north to steal jewelry, clothing, fancy weapons and fancy armors, selling the loot to whomever. But the men and women become quickly disgruntled. The pay isn’t up to the risks. It’s as if their targeted city is an overly-tended and therefore depleted garden, from whence derives their name, “Serpents of the Garden.” Solivoz nervously awaits the day he can propose a score that could leave him comfortably retired at an early age, so he may step down from his leadership of the thieves and pass the torch to one of the original recruits, given that they be reliable and intelligent. All that stands in his way is a lack of proof of the heart’s existence. But, he returns to a position of similar destitution as before he set off, so decides to announce his idea to the gang of thieves. He says, “The greed of man can no longer be defined by the amount of money he wishes to earn, but by the time he wishes to subordinate his fellow humankind.” Fascinated, his culling of thieves agree that if nothing else, a fresh place to target may serve them better than trying to squeeze water from desert sands.

With almost all of their remaining money, they barter for llamas to store belongings, especially water from the unpolluted streams far, far from any city. Solivoz knows the legend stems from a ruined pyramid city along the frozen coasts far, far south. Between here and there is a fish-town of ill-repute, supposedly under the puppet-control of murderous sailors, who locals nickname “the strangers,” and an arid land that at its hottest cannot support a blade of grass.

Only half of the men are able to make the expedition south. Not enough food, water—and morale is too low. On foot they start down from the city, men who weeks ago wore pleasant soft linens and silks and cotton are forced into ratty furs and old, stiff leather armors too large or too tight to protect from the spears of frigid weather.

The fisher-folk’s town, when they arrive, appears like a handful of lightning bugs. Lanterns lighting the town wink in and out against bitter winds. One of the men they carry to the healer’s cots, to treat frost-bitten blue feet. There Solivoz sneakily asks a priest of sallow sunken cheeks and cynical disposition about the ruins, and the whereabouts of the heart of immortality.

“Nobody knows where it is, goodly man, but it’s real, as real as this man’s amputated foot! Most agree the cemetery is buried beneath dunes of snow. I’m afraid your friend will not be fit to travel and in fact may die without weeks of close care. I must ask, what interest is the heart of immortality to you?” The priest squints behind the dim glow of a candle that accentuates his white whiskers.

Solivoz replies: “We’re historians in service to our city-state and my benefactor wishes to bring home a symbol of pride.”

In the center of the healer’s hut, an old woman gestures for Solivoz to quiet, raising her fingers to her lips. “Allow my men to keep watch over their fellow, I’ll return in a moment.” The woman looks recently resurrected. Very thin, like a newly frozen icicle and with skin rich like a night sky. “Don’t bother with him,” she says to Solivoz. “He is as ignorant as a boulder.”

“But you can help me?” says Solivoz. He rubs his hands together fiercely, to keep them warm.

“I don’t believe anybody can help you, forgive my saying so, dear. You’ll find what you seek, though. He’s wrong about the snow having buried the cemetery. For there is no cemetery. The ruins of the city is what he means to say.”

“Why should I believe you rather than him? And why if the heart’s whereabouts are common knowledge has no one ever recovered it?”

“Because our people let legends and myths be myths and legends—and thieves, you see, are so often without imagination! You’re no thief, I understand. In service to a string of lords, I understand!” Now when the old woman winks she appears to Solivoz as a senile trickster trying to get her jollies off.

Having traded some food for picks and shovels, Solivoz and his men depart by morning, a band one less than the night prior.

In Solivoz’s distressed and restless mind, the doubt of his own leadership hacks away at him. The fires they build provide sufficient warmth, so he prays. The landscape is blindingly white, like an ocean frozen amidst a tidal wave. A sparse array of trees is like the fins of whales. And the men, in two paralleled lines become drifting mounds of snow. Snow in their beards. They are grim-faced and silent. To breathe too much air is to accept a piercing of the lungs. They travel at least sixteen days without seeing the faintest trace of wild life. No birds, no wolves, no bears. A volcanic mountain impresses the horizon and reveals the southernmost tip of land that disintegrates into an island chain. The ruins are somewhere near to that mountain.

On the very next night, Solivoz smells smoke before their own fire takes shape, and figures his imagination is playing tricks on him. But then – after his comrades have tucked their chins and closed their eyes to sleep – he spots the impossible aura of light emanating from the destination. At that distance, Solivoz assumes the fire could warm no more than five men, and he shutters to think of the sort who would travel all alone in this treacherous territory.

“A deeper shadow is cast,” says Whisper, Solivoz’s second-in-command, “to the east of the mountain. IF that shadow is from the high point of a temple, we may as well turn back. Better to return home empty-handed, than not return home at all.”

“The high point of a temple fallen is yet low to the ground,” says Solivoz. “We press forward,” he orders, having looked skyward and seeking naught except a clear sky and egglike moon. “Leave the leading to me, and go back to sleep.”

Now the least expected thing happens to Solivoz: in the dead silence of a clear night, he hears what at first h takes to be the beat of a muffled drum, but oddly, when massaging cramps from his wrists he realizes the beat he hears synchronizes completely with that of his very own pulse. The twisted-knife hunger pangs in his stomach buckle him to the snow, to the point he almost regrets eating less food than his fellows, but he doesn’t know how else to regain the unity among he feels he’s lost.

By the morning, Solivoz is sleepless. His eyes are pink and watery, the lids encrusted with icy dust. His men are ready to move, but he says, “We stay here. The heart is here. I’ve sensed it.” “But the woman from the healer’s hut said…” “She doesn’t know if she’s lying or telling the truth. It’s here, beneath us. Ready the picks and shovels.” “The city’s ruins, she said. It was with your insistence –“ “We can’t waste a single moment,” says Solivoz. “You don’t sense it, do you? I hear the thudding, it’s like a caged dove’s wings against the bars, it’s like…” “The only thing I hear is you speaking non-sense,” says Whisper. “Hand me the pick and shovel,” says Solivoz. “With a day’s work we’ll know if we’re standing atop a burial site.” “No,” the man says. “We’re going towards that temple, it’s the only solid lead we have.”

“Don’t leave me!” Solivoz barks. “To leave now may mean your deaths, and not by my hands!”

“That’s a bluff, and you’re above attempting to intimidate me.”

After all, the men side with Whisper, wanting to live.

I do not blame them.

Instead of making for the ancient temple, they decide to lay siege to a town of relatively defenseless men and women, stealing their white bear pelts, and their ores, the few pearls they owned, their brandies.

But at this time the zinc-like, quicksilver scent of the heart and its blood overwhelms Solivoz. He is torn between chasing after Whisper and the other comrades — thinking of forgiveness– and trusting his gut instincts. “If it’s here,” he thinks, “I’ll retain every profit.” So – as Whisper and the others travel north, Solivoz stabs through a layer of snow and ice, though his body is weak and each heave sears his stringy malnourished muscles. He feels kinks in his joints, his elbow is especially sore. Beneath the ice is a denser-snow. Little by little, he digs a crater towards the earth. Soon he uncovers an indecipherable stone – his shovel clinks and clanks against the stone; the ice pick does not shatter the stone.

The drumming of the heart becomes more evident, like great footfalls in an empty house. He digs away a radius, madly. He is mad, now, and machine-like, a mill. The wind flays his back, he fights against the harsh nipping gusts not to redo what he’s already done.

By night he rests among or atop the invisible dead. He uncovers eight headstones, like lumps of stale moldy bread. With the shovel he forces one loose. He shifts it from the dirt like a rotted tooth from a jaw.

The tangy zinc scent of blood.

The stone sticks to the leather of his gloves it is so cold, with inches of ice encasing the stone. Now he drops to his stomach with his ear pressed to the earth, listening for the heart beating.”

*

“So he finds this heart of immortality?”
“Indeed, for it is isolated from any organic living thing. It breathes. It beats and sings…it’s almost begging for…
I surmise you may think this tale should end happily.
Our starved thief finds precisely as he sought in life. Ah, two-fold, for the trickster at once sells the heart to a greedy high priest for endless riches and – as a thief – steals it back before the old man knows what hits him.
Solivoz establishes himself well away from the dangers of the law, well away from the dangers of his former comrades, well away from any trace of his former identity. So he believes.
But material wealth, as it turns out, is insufficient to foster an honest to goodness happy life. What Solivoz possesses in riches, he lacks in family, in friendships, in love. His heart becomes what it was before, emptying out and emptying only.
In the cities people revere but envy him, not knowing the pain of loneliness he feels every day and every night. And so when a new, rich merchant family moves in, looking to strengthen their family’s finances through a wedding, he appears to be the perfect suitor.
And he is!
Their daughter is very young, yes, and he is beginning to age, faster because of the toils of his youth, yes, but nonetheless they fall in love. It’s love without sex, yes, because he is too coy or suddenly too much of a gentleman to display his sexual lusts for her in any capacity. They fall in love but it is a friendship made passionate through the exclusion of every other aside from each other, and this is a mark of love, that all others aside from the lovers become insignificant for a time, during those moments when they fight to attain genuine intimacy, and mutual knowledge. Their sensuousness is kissing fruit, and prolonged gallivanting through the gardens of the city; taking long swims in the river; star-gazing and sharing prayers.
Time seems to them limitless, and why shouldn’t it, when love is itself evidence of the eternal?
But then…

Now listen to this.

I’m sorry, I can’t

A thief thinks like a

They capture

but he

with the heart

#

Sister Synthi slides into the young lady’s cot, where she finally fades into a deep slumber, her eyes gradually closing. The drugs have taken full effect.

Her body is like a child’s witch-doll. Needles in her shoulders, hands. Needles through her knee caps, two for each toe, two for each heel, she looks like a frightened small bird, its neck feathers ruffled, her collar bone and chest are stuck stacked with so many needles.

From the base of her neck to her pelvis, there are eighteen needles, and rivulets of drying blood that smear down the side of her ribs. The final needle enters next. Synthi heats its tip in the fire soon to extinguish from lack of lumber, then when the embers continue to crackle like an old man’s wheezing laughter. For a second she think she follow the anatomy manual, which shows a needle penetrating the space at the center of her forehead, but then, having considered the young lady’s story, places her arm above her head, elbow up with needles jangling together, yanking skin and stretching skin. Beside her breast, tracing the curve of her arm pit, like a distant lightning bolt there is a barely visible scar. She gasps and covers her mouth. She leaps up and checks the windows, but there is nothing near, except for a goat and a milk cow.

Greed takes her by the hand. Curiosity by the nose. Soon she is overcome. In a haste she rummages through her belongings. Her hand cramps. She finds a butcher knife among the young lady’s former belongings.

To test the sharpness of the knife, Synthi drags the blade over the pads of her toes. Is it some mystery that she bleeds and the bleeding isn’t so very hard? Synthi stabs the young girl, can’t stop herself, there’s a crunch through bone, and she saws along the line of the scar, can’t stop herself, the young girl’s body twitches and flops like a shored fish, but the drumming of her heart doesn’t cease. First the tops of her finger follow suit with the knife’s end, parting the bloody flaps of flayed skin, and clawing deeper towards the heart itself, grasps the meat of it, the wet leather hot and stringy of it the heart. Her catatonic heart. And she hold a heart in her hands. The weight of it. She sinks slitheringly, red moths of blood unfolding wings upon the floor, where she falls to her knees. Her heart feels like a liquid metal, a silvery liquid meat, and it breathes gentle hisses. At eye level to the bed once was an impossibly young and impossibly old tortured lady is now ash and dust and a ribcage and a swordlike femur and a sickle-moon-skull, behind the black and white clouds of her ever-living hair. The needles hide in the ash. Her skull is splintered, her jaw fractured, eroded as though gnawed upon, her eye sockets are lightless, and hollow.

“noah’s ark”

Noah tumbles from his bed as though he neither tossed and turned all night, nor dreamed bad dreams.

He shares a room with his brother, Daniel, and must be quiet while he slips into his denim shorts, an over-sized Penn State t-shirt, and a frumpy white fisherman’s cap that’s become beige from the nicotine of his father’s smoke.

Light presses bluely through the drapes.
Beneath his stocking feet,
the floor is soft static electricity.
His heart beat hastens
thinking of Erie’s Sunday morning streets:
the gray-blue post-industrial streets,
with paint-peeled brick buildings
rusty dented cars in muted parked positions,
sloppily-stitched graffiti on abandoned shop walls,
the street’s orchestra of source-less whirs and clanking clanks,
its symphony of sea-shelled chatter,
and choir of unexpected silences.

In an excited rush, he forgets the black zipper-up fanny pack hanging on his bed post. When he straps the utility pack around his waist he feels important, like batman, or a pathologist carrying highly-necessary contents: The bugs and bird feathers he catalogues can be combined to cure ebola and old age, but he’s already traveled twelve minutes from his Aunt and Uncle’s front porch—too far to return and retrieve the belt over which he berates himself for the next couple of blocks, feeling stupid.

To reach the horizon-wide steely Erie Lake, it takes him over an hour, but he remembers the way by heart. His final step lands his bare feet in frigid water. Sand like cold grits mushes up to his ankles.

At 6:15 a.m., the shore is empty but for his black sneakers and knee socks, and the towel with a three-pack of sweating Heineken bottles belonging to a pair of frat boys fishing sleepily from a canoe the color of a rain cloud.

Sometimes, the great steely lake and densely coniferous forest awe Noah, how thoroughly the mountains and lake and forestry pre-date and predict him.

For a moment, Noah stands in the water inhaling deeply the clean-cut spring air.

A dripping shrill cry makes him squeeze his toes together and it feels like his calves are blossoming mountain laurels suddenly exposed to the sun.

He removes his beige-white cap and swats the air to keep the gnats at bay.

The people stationed in the canoe look like the wax statues of civil war soldiers.

He can’t spot any fish and this frustrates him.

The gnats are simply a pesky nuisance.

With a small fuss, he backs from the water, the tentacly fringes of his shorts soggy, and he traces the familiar shoreline towards his right, where brown aluminum Nature Trail and Conservation Warning Signs are nailed through the bark of an old oak.

First he jogs, following along the trail, then sprints so fast that when briary vines singe the tops of his feet, he flinches but doesn’t stop. The screeching sound echoes from the foggy darkness of the forest and freezes him solid.

Leaves crinkle. A gentle breeze. A blue-jay flutters from its nest.

The sun shines bleakly through dissipating fog and web of limbs, and there is an uninviting darkness ahead of him. He bends forward and, leading with his hand, swings beneath a pine tree, and heads off the trail.

Noah’s sun-freckled peachy arms feel a surface cold. The little needlelike punctures in his foot begin to feel bloated and stretched and burning, so he limps. He smears dirt on his forehead with his arm.

At the base of another pine tree with a strip of cloth dangling from a branch and pine cone, there is a wooden milk crate that he’d placed there weeks ago and covered with an extra t-shirt.

Inside the milk crate are: two voles, two field mice, two frogs, and two baby rabbits, piled upon each other, all dead, stiff, and decaying.

Again he hears the haunted wail, this time much closer, and worries someone might be injured, but the voice isn’t human.

He replaces his t-shirt over the milk crate and tip-toes in the direction of the high-pitched yooeeaaaaoowling hiss and finds a tree recently fallen and climbs upon the high-point of the log thinking over what he’d heard and dismissing reasons why he’d become so immediately obsessed over this shrill suffering animal sound.

He feels ten times his weight he is so dizzy. He tightens his eyes and opens them

— sunlight, shadow, sunlight, tree. sunlight, shadow, sunlight, tree —

and he realizes the tree he sits upon is rather odd, that it grows not up, but bowed down like a turtle shell, into the earth.

A red-fleshed millipede clumsily advances from the dirt and he snatches it and the millipede tickles his fingers and simultaneously he drops his hat with the millipede. He glares down the trunk of the tree, where it’s splintered and frayed. He inches towards a flowing tuft of fur or brown burrs that shakes like a little bee hive.

Instinctively, as though arming himself against attack, Noah snaps off a gray dead tree limb and hops off the log to strike a rotten part of the tree, to investigate what’s beneath. When he lands he slips over wet leaves, and crashes.

A suffocated whimper: The landing bursts open a belly like an egg-shell water balloon, snaps a baby fisher cat’s toothpick-like bones.

No birds in the trees. No insects to gather. No sun, no rain, no wind from the heavens. No breath in the kit’s lungs, no pulse in its veins, no light reflected from its eyes.

Noah falls, panting, to his back. The wet leaves and lifted-dirt receive him like a sleeping bag, and he stares into the slices of sunlight, his chest pumping like an old piston.

“My god.” He sits up. He exhales. He removes his oversized t-shirt, crawls dragging through caked dirt on all fours beside the dead creature, towards the bowed-down tree. He breathes heavily. He clicks his tongue. “C’mere. It’s OK,” he whispers, but the fisher cat doesn’t even flinch. He reaches into the shadow until his hands fill with the tough greasy fur. He scoops around the little mass and brings the kit between his knees and atop a stone. He pets its dead hind paws, its ridged spinal column.

The kit’s ears are wide and round like gray tulips, its mouth a little O.

II

Six months ago mother complained to daddy of stomach pains that eventually affected her to the emergency room, where she ended up dying.

I need time to re-adjust, to be seen in public. I hope I didn’t die with her.

My daddy Walter, my brothers Daniel and Noah, and I live in a dark three bedroom house two miles from Erie, which is just south of a great lake.

Oak and maple trees in the front yard shade a fifteen year old un-polished porch. The porch overlooks a wickedly curvy back road that, towards the right winds into a warren of intersecting rural roads and, to the left, descends to a sleepy coal town in Crawford.

Sometimes Daniel and Noah stay with Uncle K, in Erie, so they can be boys and play at the lake.

The family mechanic Roy visits to fix the lights and dashboard of Aunt Chrissy’s white Granada, which is parked at our house and needs some work to fix wiring the rodents have chewed through, preventing the car from starting. The man who arrives is quite heavy, and white, with military-associated tattooed arms and a handle-bar stash and beard. He makes good money, because he does good work for reasonably fair prices.

He jacks up the car, he wants to replace the brake pads, switch the oil and rotate the tires, might as well. Do something else involving words I don’t understand. He is present for ninety-two minutes and now the car is operant; as quickly, Uncle K and Aunt Chrissy are gone till tomorrow. They take Noah and Daniel with them till dinner and daddy takes me to the grocery store.

Place smells like Lysol products, potpourri.

Housewives with green hand-baskets. A house wife’s sun-bleached bangs ride her hot-pink-rimmed shades. She is so beautiful it hurts.

To follow her.

First to the bakery, then the cake mix aisle— it’s someone’s birthday! There is a picnic at her house!

She will visit family or friends and doesn’t want to arrive empty-handedly. Mid-thirties, probably self-sufficient although married and a mother of two or three or four children who anxiously await her return. She makes eyes at my daddy, who is oblivious, as usual, purchasing potatoes, carrots, celery, and fresh parsley for dinner, and on impulse, chocolate cupcakes and bottles of water.

Daddy is a non-stop workaholic, can’t be in two places at once like he wishes. He overworks himself, and then can’t do much of anything for a couple of months.

On the way back home over the Old Road, he idly taps his fingers to some Rolling Stones song and smokes a cheap cigarette down to the filter.

He pats my kneecap, something he’s only done after disciplining me.

At home, when we’re organizing the groceries, daddy keeps bragging about the strawberries Uncle K brought over a whole week ago, and pestering me to try them, when I explain even if I wanted to try them I’d be busy with homework and I don’t have much of an appetite for fruit— but I lie to him.

I plucked a strawberry from the jar the very night Uncle K brought them, and it was too soft and bitter for me, rotting and smelling like peroxide. After I ate a couple of the strawberries, I vomited a little and my face lost feeling.

He’d been sucking them noisily at night watching classic Penguins games all sunken-eyed sinking into his favorite chair. That beaten-down thing is so dirty it gives me the icks.

It’s probably got bed bugs or scabies, not to mention the crumbs are just thrown about, mostly pretzel niblets. They’re so shiny they don’t even look real. He fixes a paper plate full of those shiny pretzel niblets and mustard for himself, but then forgets to make dinner for us, his children.

But dinner hadn’t been his responsibility.

Years ago, my mom cooked, cleaned, disposed of the garbage, purchased the groceries, washed dishes and laundry, cared for the lawn. Daddy worked a couple of shifts at the prison and said he didn’t do anything there except sit and that’s why he gained the weight.

Since she’s died, I’ve taken over her job. Without me, Daniel and Noah would have to fend for themselves. Neither of the boys can even microwave Raviolis. Daniel is scared of the dark and anything hot and Noah is scared of sharp things, like knives, automatic can openers, and especially scissors, because one time a barber nicked Noah’s ear.

We eat a late dinner. My bread is buttered and toasted, with melted parmesan. The soup is thick and salty. After the adults drink an ice-cream kalhúa, Aunt Chrissy offers to take us to Erie, explaining that it’s calling for rain tomorrow around lunchtime and throughout the rest of the day, so her Sunday shift will probably be cancelled.

Daddy agrees it would be good for the boys, and while they don’t argue, I decide to stay with him to tidy up the house and keep him company.

Our home feels empty without Daniel and Noah. They are responsible for our family’s daily rhythm. I’ll be awake early tomorrow morning to dress them in fresh clean laundry, to toast waffles and heat the butter and syrup, and while they wolf down breakfast, check that the proper books are in their respective backpacks, review the completion of their homework assignments, tie up their shoe-laces and comb their hair so they don’t look ratty, unkempt, or neglected.

Then daddy, exhausted of his apathy, sleeps on his favorite chair, his rough calloused hands pinned over the remote controller, grubby fingers over the pause and play buttons, the television the only light in his dim den, re-running a family video in which Mama is dressed in a lime-green gown and splashing sparkling champagne from a crystalline glass, smiling widely, on the precipice of laughter, her stomach petitely pouch-shaped, pregnant with me. Her wrists are slender. I realize how little I resemble her sixties’ flower-girl look, the wavy full hair and environment-tone powdery make-up, slight hues of pink to complement her gown. I approach the television to turn it off, but daddy says, “I’m watching that,” which startles me.

“Your eyes were closed, I thought—”

“I’m resting Abby,” he grumbles.

“Doctors say it’s not good to dwell.”

“Not good to forget, either.”

The den surrounding him is a suffocating clutter. Heaps of medically-labeled bills, fishing rods with tangled line and loose hooks, clothing in unorganized stacks, Hershey’s chocolate wrappers, coupon clippings and glossy advertisements from months and months ago strewn about like he’d left a window open to a terrible thunderstorm.

“I’ll clean up, sweetie,” he says. “Just haven’t gotten around to it.” As I’m about to leave the den, he says, “Hey. This is the best part. Help me up.”

I bend into him and he takes me around my neck and wobbly stands. He turns up the television. He drops the remote onto his chair. “What’s going on daddy?”

“This song, sweetie. Played at a festival when your mother proposed we marry. C’mon let’s dance. It starts off fast and then suddenly slows down, it’ll be fun,” and he tugs me inward by the waist. He smells strongly like chicken broth. His eyelids are violet and swollen.

“Dad, I have chores—”

“They can wait, sweetie.”

I don’t remember which song was playing, only that it was very long— never seemed to end.

*
After some contemplation, Noah lets his brother Daniel in on his little secret. While Chrissy, Uncle K, and Abby sun-bathe and talk of empty subjects, Noah walks Daniel into the woods near the lake, speaking like a magician, in high haughty tones, about how, “what I’m about to show you will rock your cradle, totally blow your mind, you’ll never think the same way again, but you can’t tell anyone what you see or you’ll ruin everything,” and Daniel soaks everything up, his eagerness outweighing fear over the heavy responsibility of a secret.

“I don’t like this place,” says Daniel.

“This place don’t like you, because you’re retarded,” says Noah.

“You’re not supposed to say retarded.”

“But papa says ‘honest is best.’”

The milk crate, set against the base of a tree, is just like Noah had left it, except now it contains a stiffened fisher cat kitten and tiny birds he shook from their nests and collected.

“You know how to tell a female bird from a male bird, retard?”

“Kinda bird is it?”

“Don’t matter what kinda bird it is,” says Noah. “One has a little thing on it, and the other doesn’t. Every animal is the same.”

“Well my teddy ain’t got a little thing on it and he’s a boy.”

“Your teddy ain’t a real animal,” says Noah. “Cover your mouth now,” he says, “Like when we play cowboys and Indians.”

While Daniel crushes his nose with his t-shirt, Noah swipes the cloth from the milk crate, loosing a storm of flies like chaos from Pandora’s Box, and then reaches into the milk crate.

“These are mice,” says Noah, holding in his palms a couple of walnut-like voles. “C’mere, man. Look at em. See the one’s got a little thing right there. See it?”

Daniel nods. He pinches his nose.

“Now look at this one.” Noah points at the dead female vole. “Nothing. They’re totally different.”

“That’s disgusting, Noah, they’re dead. I think I should tell ma—”

Noah looks askance at his younger brother. “Aww it’s OK. That’s what I wanted to show you. This is how they like make babies,” and then Noah directs the dead stiff vole penis towards the dead stiff vole vagina the dead stiff vole anus the dead stiff vole mouth the dead stiff vole eyes the dead stiff vole ears,

And Noah cymbals the dead stiff voles together, the sound of smashed up dead voles sounding like chewing too much food —

“Noah? Daniel?” cries Abby. She marches along the lakeside Nature Trail. “Where you’d you boys get off to?”

a chrysalis

Margon Sannacherib looked once at the door, and who was slipping his head through the opening. They knew a pleasant word would arrive then, for Agustin never delivered news if it was bad news. The slimy informant revealed a toothy grin that shined across his pimply red face. Sighing, Margon stood from behind their dark desk, and quietly moved to greet an eager contact.

Opening the door fully, they greeted and gestured toward the finely-polished and upholstered seat in front of his desk. Agustin’s grin faded with the salutation, for his life depended on the meeting.

Sannacherib smelled a foul stench upon Agustin, and swallowed words that would admonish his disrespect. But Margon didn’t bother, didn’t want to. As dirty as Agustin was, he was an open ear and a quiet mouth – that is, quiet when gold was not present.

Carefully gathering piles of paper—maps of the northern Mirshan, and service requests from the Emperor with regards to his missing daughter, Margon regarded the informant. Agustin seated himself, leaning forward.

“Your payment is outside, as usual, good when you tell me what you’ve come so far to tell me.”

Agustin scratched his scraggly-haired cheek, and took a deep breath. “Allerous Crown, you know of this organization?”

“Sure sure.”

“One of their agents, Kiersoran Leontini’s younger brother Mistaje, was apparently too mouthy, or too expensive or lied about something he’d said. He was found executed not but three days ago.”

“And this is important? I care nothing for a Bureaucrat’s son.” Margon Sannacherib contemplated Agustin’s report.

The leader of the Narith’s face was emotionless and yet deeply focused, even while they poured wine into an elegant goblet. Agustin hadn’t known Margon Sannacherib for very long, but after involving himself in Narithi affairs, he got to know them quickly, and got to know them well.

Margon’s eyes were pearls. Magical orbs, some rumored. They appeared to be a human of approximately forty years—thin, muscular, and wearing nondescript dark robes, like a hermit, one liberated from the suffering of life, yet Agustin knew Margon dug their spindly fingers into every fattening coffer of the Mirshan Empire and was by now something other than an abominable cursed-at-birth hermaphrodite. Margon was ruthlessly pragmatic. They did not pull dead weight in their extensive network.

“There’s more,” continued Agustin. “A lot more. I’ve witnessed something curious. The people of dream-tear have begun their annual religious protests. Except now they have become violent. The Karpan’tok are decreased in number by half for sheer fear of being beaten by random street-wanderers. They’re displeased with this Dream Sphere, the city’s government. I don’t foresee it lasting much longer.” Agustin leaned back, setting a full goblet of wine atop his belly.

“This is nothing new either,” Margon responded coldly.

“T-there’s more still,” Agustin said quickly. “Something you will be interested in, I am certain.”

“Then you should quit dancing around it.”

“We’ve located him. The child of Solus, the Pargaon of Solus – in dream-tear city. His caretaker is a monk of the Silver Stem, none other than Deluth.”

“The unmitigated murderer, yes. Now you’ve done especially well today, Agustin,” said Margon. “But I must ask, how have you come by this information?”

“Criminal connections and street spies. I’ve compiled their statements,” said the informant. He presented Margon with a scroll. “Everything is here.”

Taking it in two hands, Margon could no longer restrain a smile. “Help yourself to my wine while I look this over,” they said and exited the room.

Agustin swallowed one gigantic gulp of the wine and, for a moment, wondered about the extent of the value of the information he sold.

I.

Deluth ’s shoulder was almost numb from leaning on it for such a long time. He stood in the magical, domed Glass Tunnel, a hall of the Solar Temple that gathered sunlight no matter the weather or time of day.

He gazed without purpose.

He spent many hours here, especially lately, reveling in appreciation of the dark orange rugs that spread over wood-hued brick, and the contemporary sculptures that men he recently met had completed.

To the followers of the sun, this hall was merely a symbol, as one faithful cleric explained to him: “I worship Solus, because it is the only entity that continually fights the darkness.”

Practically many of the monks would read and write in the temple’s many halls, particularly this one, meditating on their teacher’s mind-riddles, or lightly conversing with fellow followers about the goings-on of life in the city of dream-tear.

From the Glass Tunnel, Deluth’s deep stare met the next room, where students of no more than fifteen years of age gathered, kneeling. They softly chanted the morning recital, called “The Promises to Aerth.”

More than eighty students were present, but their voices did not climb any louder than a low hum. There was an inherent charm in the scene not found commonly in the Mirshan, an empire known for its wastelands and dangerous cities.

He stepped outside of his daydreaming, and moved to a single glass panel that looked over the western side of dream-tear. His gloomy dark vision followed brown leaves. They were discolored, the last wave of them he’d seen this year, and they fell like little clocks pendulums to the ground.

The once-forested city: exemplary of business destroying beauty, he thought, noticing a fleet of lumberjacks heading for the woods. Richly-fashioned merchants strutted behind the laborers as if they also owned those who cut their wood for them. It nauseated him. “That’s life, isn’t it,” he whispered.

“Hopefully not,” Ithimyr said sternly, putting a light hand on the monk’s shoulder. “If so, we’ve been duped, haven’t we, into being faithful?”

It was Ithimyr, Bishop of the Solar Temple. Wearing long white robes that followed behind him when he walked, he seemed a man of royalty more so than a man of the local clergy, but Deluth didn’t vocalize his criticisms.

“If we’ve been duped, we deserve it,” responded Deluth finally, his attention still upon the city outside the Tunnel. “I don’t want to keep my head in the clouds so long I forget what the ground feels like.”

“And we wouldn’t want that either,” said the Bishop gently, drawing his hand back. “By the way, Deluth.”

“Yes, Bishop.”

“You prepare dinner tonight, remember that.” Ithimyr chuckled, walking into the prayer hall, small chattering ensuing from the crowd of young male monks. “Stand. Draw yourselves,” he began charismatically. The students did as instructed.

Deluth looked inside, spotted Mathaniel, his adopted-son, and smirked. Mathaniel now neared his fifteenth year; they had entered the Solar Temple’s order of monks to put their violent pasts completely behind them.

While Mathaniel loved the training, Deluth felt like staying at the temple stole his sanity. Often he envisioned himself joining the city’s Night Guard, the Karpan’tok, among who, corruption trumped law and became the cushion between officers guilty of their own wrongdoings, and imprisonment. If he were to join them, he was afraid he might eventually be killed, and the act pinned upon some nameless killer, and justice never served.

Justice here was never truly served.

The fat man’s bellies got larger, the beggar child’s ribs jutted out farther.

It saddened him immensely, and more when he couldn’t fix any problems he might discern. But he had to pick up tonight’s food at the city market. It was his turn to cook the ascetic’s dinner, something he genuinely loved to do. His son Mathaniel would help, which would pass the time somewhat more quickly, and thus the night would not be a completely boring disappointment.

Mathaniel had grown up all right. Deluth remembered when he first encountered the boy, bent and nearly broken at the feet of an abusive father – the child was pale and sadly fragile. Now after four years, he stood taller than Deluth, though still lanky, and he fashioned his auburn hair long and unkempt, despite the order’s wishes. Nearly the opposite of Mathaniel, Deluth kept his dull black hair close-cropped, his oval face clean-shaven.

Lately, Mathaniel developed a knack for the art of the sword, a skill Deluth usually tried to avoid displaying himself, except with this son. Still he found ways to teach his son the ways of both the Silver Stem and Solus during their daily kata sessions.

As a matter of fact, there was one form he hadn’t taught Mathaniel yet, and figured it was about time that he should.

*

Snow fell between the time he left the Glass Tunnel and the time when he remembered to buy the remaining dinner supplies he needed. He felt distracted, spending a chunk of time reading a quick lesson he’d teach Mathaniel later that evening – this lesson was important, for it would introduce Mathaniel to magic processes of summoning.

On his walk into the center of the city, snow crunched beneath Deluth’s footsteps, rather to his annoyance. He sighed. Deluth’s breath blew wistful clouds before his face that seemed to hide his discontent. He entered the market, keeping a close note on every detail of his periphery. The last two years in dream-tear made him direly alert at all times. The legal system made him bitter, if nothing else, but he achieved a life within it enough to keep the Night Caps, as they were informally dubbed, at bay.

The market merchants of winter were the farmers in the spring. Mostly the whole family worked at once, and many families joined to make life simpler. Competition while a good drive for most consumers produced undying greed in the sellers. Only a year before, the farmers created a guild under the condition their prices stay fair according to the Dream Sphere – failure to comply would end businesses and, depending upon the effects of their poor practices, jail time might become involved as a punishment.

Deluth caught a drifting snowflake in his palm. He greeted an unfamiliar fruit saleslady of maybe sixty or so years of age. She seemed friendly to him while she plucked out the season’s fruit and tossed the pieces into a small burlap bag. When she finished, Deluth smiled to her, threw the bag over his shoulder and paid for the food. In that exact moment, he spotted a not-so-very-rich young boy stuffing a few pieces of bread and fruit into his tattered overcoat.

The monk’s heart stung in his chest, knowing full well he experienced a flashback of himself, stealing food so that he and his sister, Seipora, could survive. Bless her, he thought, letting the bag of fruit drop into the slushy snow. He took two steps toward the kid who immediately knew he’d been caught in the act of stealing. The boy, instead of fleeing, looked up shamefully and opened his coat.

“I know, I know,” said Deluth, lowering himself to kneel. The young boy, who had mud packed in patches all about his face and neck, gave off the effluvium of street garbage. “Hand them over,” he continued sternly. “Now.”

The kid quickly let the imported oranges and stale chunks of bread fall into the snow in front of Deluth, who bundled them in his arms. “Good, now come.” At first the boy was hesitant to follow Deluth, who was certainly leading him to the farmer who owned the fruit, but Deluth gripped the back of his arm more-than-lightly. “I have some extra food to pay for,” he said solemnly to the lady merchant, who nodded, her expression remote and sad.

Giving the lady the coins, he knelt down to the boy and motioned for him to come with him. “Don’t be too sorry for what you did,” whispered Deluth. “I’ve been there.”

The boy looked up at him, brushing some filth from his face. “Thank you,” he said quietly, unsure what else might be appropriate. “You work in the temple, don’t you?” he said.

“Yes. As a matter of fact, that’s where we’re headed.” The monk pointed to the temple up the street. They quickly reached the temple, a long building of three stories constructed of white block and alchemical glass. It reached high above almost every other building in dream-tear city, besides the Palace of Ecstasy. The door before them was built of shadowood and its frame gilded elegantly. Deluth, before entering the temple, handed the boy all the food he had previously stolen.

Once again Deluth knelt. “Listen. If you’re ever hungry, or if your family is ever hungry or cold – come here and you knock on this door.”

“But I don’t know your name sir,” said the boy with a hint of embarrassment, fumbling pieces of fruit.

“I don’t know yours either. That’s the beauty of it.”

*

With his legs crossed in front of him, Deluth sat atop a golden rug in meditation. His eyes were closed and his body completely relaxed. He breathed deeply and steadily. The monk washed away the lush garden, of his own design, that surrounded him, and traveled down a mental corridor that led directly to the core of his being.

His thoughts began with the question of his purpose –the doubts indeed gnawed at him. What am I really? A manifestation of flesh, a mindful ghoul waiting to be put to rest? The skills I’ve learned, and mastered, what good are they to men in line to die? Deluth envisioned himself at the foot of an obscure altar, praying to Solus, weeping for answers. He shook his fists violently, although his ignorance wasn’t the fault or responsibility of God. Why do I feel empty? I’ve done so much for this church, and its deity offers me nothing in return for my service.

As though in response, Deluth foggily saw himself standing before a golden-framed mirror. The man he watched was not wearing the monastery’s standard garb, was not holding the deity’s holy books, not worshipping Solus at all. It was a clear answer to him, then, that the temple of Solus offered him survival, but not meaning. He had progressed beyond the work of this particular monastery and temple, what they taught him and offered him would never satisfy him. Suddenly the reflection dissolved, and Deluth opened his eyes.

“I apologize,” Mathaniel said, his bony hand knocking on the threshold of the garden. “If I had known better, I would have waited.”

From the meditative pose, Deluth looked at his adopted son. “No,” he said finally after a tense silence. “It’s fine.”

In his other hand, Mathaniel gripped a shiny, newly-crafted sword. His wry smile told Deluth it was time for his afternoon Silver Stem lessons. In dream-tear city, his mother’s philosophy was the only other allowed by the Dream Sphere to be practiced openly, but only because it was a secret faith. He wouldn’t surrender this advantage. “What about after dinner?” asked Mathaniel, attempting to make his voice sound deeper.

The monk almost laughed, but instead stood from his pose, drawing, from seemingly nowhere, a sword. He leapt and pointed the sword towards the student’s sternum. “Be on guard,” he jested.

“I can’t… how am I supposed to—” said Mathaniel, but responded with a backhand, upward slash that sent Deluth’s sword away.

“Well if you’re not on guard, react as though you were—Good!” the monk said, driving his student back with a whirling display of high-low sequences. Each he parried perfectly. Mathaniel practiced the katas often, the sequences performed alone, but rarely had time to use his skills in a metal-to-metal spar.

Deluth felt impressed with Mathaniel’s skill with such an unorthodox blade, especially in parrying his intensely-intricate patterns of striking. The monk wasn’t certain why he all of a sudden wanted to show his son the truth of a sword fight, why he wanted him to feel the reverberating clang of metal, to feel vaguely threatened.

Mathaniel fell mainly to defense, and when Deluth slowed the attack, Mathaniel muddled his footwork. Deluth drew the student into attacking, allowing fake openings to arise, only to close them when Mathaniel lunged at the opportunity.

Knowing his teacher would show no signs of fatigue, Mathaniel became quickly frustrated, his blows becoming wide and anxious. After the third swing that cut above Deluth’s ducking head, he lunged beneath the blow, speedily hooking his adopted son’s right arm, and flipped him to his back. Mathaniel’s sword skittered beneath a shrub.

“Not all battles are won with the sword. None are truly won in anger.”

“But if you were angry with me, you could easily win.”

“Then it is no battle,” said Deluth.

Brushing himself a bit of the garden soil, Mathaniel patted his pockets. “By the way, this was on your door.” Finally he presented his teacher a small piece of paper, subtly moving toward his sword. “A dinner reminder for one Deluth .”

“You’re joking.”

“Not exactly, read it for yourself.” Tossing the paper into the air he tried a similar tactic Deluth used earlier, where he kipped his blade up from beneath the shrubbery, but the monk, laughing loudly, parried the flimsy shot, twisted his own blade down to slide it along Mathaniel’s and, afraid of being cut, Mathaniel released his weapon.

“But really?” taunted Deluth. “Another dinner reminder.”

“That may have worked if you had not known the trick yourself.”

Stretching his lean arms, he moved backward and began – without Deluth’s order – his daily progression. As he swayed, the sword cutting high and spiraling down, augmenting its curved blade in swings that meant to trip, Deluth could easily judge his son had been reading Kensai texts on his own accord and that some of the movements Mathaniel made were similar to the progression Deluth would have attempted to teach him.

“Yes,” Deluth said, avoiding the fact he was truly impressed. “But remember that life depends often on what we know of our opponents. The most crucial knowledge is knowledge of oneself. Never allow false estimates of either your opponent or yourself.”

Mathaniel seemed not to be listening, instead swiftly advancing from one stage of his metallic dance to the other, the twirls of the blade growing with complexity. Watching carefully, the monk noted each new move, many of which he did not teach, and Mathaniel hadn’t practiced them before. And yet, this seemed like a perfected dance. Mathaniel’s face was wrought of ataraxia—all the stoicism Deluth had lectured him about being utilized, and the sight of it was beautiful. He knew while his son may not have seemed to be listening, each word had been regarded and taken in as clearly as his cuts.

There must have been something wrong, thought Deluth, for the spell that this particular kata cast was the summoning of an Ifrit from the gravitational dimension.

Mathaniel concluded the sequence with a whirling bow, one that would make most girls his age faint. Mathaniel had almost seemed embarrassed though, when he looked up to Deluth, and he didn’t smile at the show he’d just put on.

“You know,” Mathaniel started to say, breathing heavily. “They’re talking like you’re about to die.”

“Who? The Bishop? One thing about them and my beliefs I should make clear to you. It is given wisdom we all change, Mathaniel. It is the seeming constancy of the Sun and its warmth and light upon all the Aerth that gives way to the belief of the eternal. He’s a prime of example of a man who’s changed and would deny it.”

“You have changed.”

“And you have, as well,” the monk retorted. “Change is the constant of life. You are not who you were yesterday. And not who you will be tomorrow.”

“That isn’t what I meant and you know it. The first time I heard you say that to me, you scared me. You were a killer. I hadn’t known then I’d call you ‘father’, or trust you as such. You said the same thing then. Like it was an apology, or would later justify what you’d done to the man who abused me. There are limits to your mother’s philosophy that Solus transcends.”

“The Solar Temple believes that steadiness and accountability will grant you a happy life, but think of all those who awake every morning struggling for their daily bread. How is that circumstance not a living hell?”

At this, they were both quieted, neither certain why the conversation bit so deeply.

*

Nighttime fell, born of a dark moon.

Deluth stood at the front entrance to the Solar Temple, greeting people as they arrived. Most were regular patrons, while others were street dwellers looking for a hot meal, and it was sadly quite obvious who was who.

Little clouds were in the sky, but short waves of light snow showers came and passed, leaving a few of the visitors with a thin coat of white on their shoulders, that melted when the warmth of Solus embraced them.

After the heart of the nightly throng cleared, and the line dwindled to a small few families, Deluth deeply sighed and walked a few steps to the white-laden street. The boy he’d seen stealing arrived with three of his siblings, he presumed, and behind them, the children’s parents. The man and woman wore light brown, respectable clothing, and strangely ashamed grimaces.

“I’m Deluth,” the monk said, lending his arm. Nodding, the boy’s father, a man of likely fifty or so whose bones stuck out everywhere one could, tried to force a smile, which then instead came across as plaintive.

Deluth patted the man on his shoulder and said, “There is no need of pride here.” The monk smiled, ushered them through. The family, save for the mother, who appeared to be expecting a fifth child, he noted, was skinny, though the children were the ones who seemed most nourished. Perhaps later he’d offer to bring them into the church for schooling. Unfortunately Deluth would have to run that by the Bishop. His gut instinct told him it would be OK.

Trying to catch the rest of the group, he led them through the temple’s hall, and the family seemed overwhelmed, walking slowly to appropriate their gaze toward the war-depiction tapestries and poetry banners. Deluth felt guilty in consideration of his own newfound disdain for the church. The monk wished they wouldn’t rub their lavishness in the faces of the less wealthy. How intimidated they might have been so that the Bishop could impress outsiders into joining their congregation.

Several temple sentries dressed in silver chain and blaze orange capes stood, holding shadowooden double-doors wide for the remaining family to enter the dining area. The tremendous hall and the food he prepared: the only hot food steamed atop three connected shadowooden tables. On the walls were weapon racks that held secured fancy jeweled replicas that were more considered artwork than anything protective or dangerous.

“Go ahead,” Deluth whispered in a pleasant tone. “If you can find a seat, I mean.” There were nearly sixty seats, none of which members of the clergy actually occupied and only about ten remained vacant. The parent of the boy Deluth caught stealing mouthed a thank you, and seemed gracious and happy.

The crowd’s murmuring prayer was entrancing.

The monk reveled in the moment in which parts of the city were not segregated, not bickering or cursing or fighting. A genuine smiled formed over his lips, and he leaned against the wall, as a recurring miracle unfolded. For this, if only this, Deluth regarded the church highly in his mind, whether or not its philosophy agreed with his own.

He slipped from the dining hall and let his thoughts float like dandelion seeds. He remained outside, and mused to himself.

2.

After the Temple’s guests departed Deluth didn’t believe he slept. More or less he rested on his back, staring into the darkness of his ceiling, trying not to think very much.

As he rose from his bed, he detected his door was slightly opened, despite distinctly remembering having shut the door before trying to sleep.

Candles were lit, and his curtains weren’t drawn. A soft yellow surrounded him like a humid moon’s light on a scarecrow. He found a letter from the Bishop: D, be ready. Sun up with the Dream Sphere.

When Deluth turned back toward his bed and found there was a small dagger standing on its point at the dead center. With the candle flickering, the thin blade seemed to fold and un-fold, each jolt of the flame a churn of uneasiness in Deluth’s stomach. Who else besides the Bishop entered his room to issue a message of this nature? Was it a warning, or a threat?

The monk stood away from it, circling his bed. He figured whoever stuck it there could have reached three inches closer toward his heart to end his life.

Quiet footsteps in the hallway got louder, approaching his door.

Deluth stepped through the threshold of the door. He guarded view of his room from Mathaniel. “Who said you would come with?”

“The Bishop said it would benefit me to understand the politics of dream-tear.”

Outside a sweet breeze of fresh air drifted into their lungs. Snow fell from the light gray, low hanging clouds one wet heavy flake at a time.

On the streets there were traveling merchants situated close to the temple, likely all belonging to the same guilds from southern cities. Hopefully they aren’t moving in here, Deluth thought scornfully.

“Bishop informed me Leontini is interested to speak with you about training his recruits.”

“They should know the answer to their proposition by now,” said Deluth. “Look there,” he said then, pointing out a crowd of business-folk. Flapping their jaws, pawing at pouches of coins. “Their objective in life, child” – Deluth wished often he’d quit saying child, for it was obvious Mathaniel wasn’t one anymore, and it probably embarrassed him – “Is to line their pockets in gold. They stop at nothing to do so. If slaying you and me affords them riches, they’ll let us die a thousand and one deaths. Squirm only if they have to twist the knife.”

“If even then,” agreed Mathaniel.

It was a chilly morning. Deluth forgot the precise way to the Leontini Estate, although once in the vicinity the manse was impossible to miss. One the eastern-most sect of dream-tear, the proud spokesperson of the Dream Sphere, Kiersoran Leontini had built a home large enough to house his family for centuries. Above ground, there were at least four stories (Deluth hadn’t bothered to count), its roof built from shadowood and its base from dark basalt-like bricks.

Kiersoran greeted them with a wide sincere smile, presenting the small pale-wooden table that sat in the center of the tight room. Deluth looked past him and remembered a larger room at an earlier meeting. He wondered if the back wall was false and what in the world Kiersoran Leontini could or even would be hiding.

The man who once rode mightily within the ranks of the Dak-thaz Kordan, the Dark Horse Company, now seemed resigned within the ranks of the Dream Sphere. His graying dark hair was barely visible beneath his black floppy jockey’s cap, the outline of it paralleling his pronounced brow, shadowing his dim blue eyes. The shape of his eyes expressed sadness or worry or anxiety. They were focused and unblinking. His mouth set straightly, as though his teeth were keys in locks.

At the table were Arnoul and Lyonet, Emmie and Rivyn.

“Emmie,” Leontini said, tilting his head to meet the young lady’s gaze. She couldn’t have been older than twenty. Deluth regarded her in awe of her wealth. Her hair was black and so curled as to seem foamy, dropping freely about her shoulders and chest. Each strand seemed like a stroke upon a painting blown by the wind, giving her a wild, untamed, animalistic appearance. When their eyes met in warm stare, Deluth found her brilliant teal eyes, a color he’d seen only when the moonlight skipped off the oily Myrrh Lake, serene and calming. And around her almond-shaped eyes, she dressed her skin with black paint, intricately drawn in the shape of little wild flowers, which accentuated the teal her designs had framed.

“This man’s name is Rivyn,” said Leontini. The man beside Emmie extended his arm. They greeted. Rivyn had roguish features, like he’d been in many bar fights, and scaly knuckles, as if he’d dealt the most of the damage. He wore an indigo linen tunic with gray sleeves. None of his attire bore a pattern. He grinned. It felt like mock-sincerity. He wore a black beret over his dark chin-length hair. His neatly-trimmed goatee, like the extended shadow of his spade-shaped jaw-line, needed a shave.

“We’re awaiting Bethany and…M-m” and Kiersoran almost said his brother’s name.

Deluth cringed.

Officers found the young Leontini man in a sewage ditch with a knife stuck in his throat. “Forgive me,” he continued, swallowing, fighting back tears. “My brother’s absence has a lot to do with why I’ve asked for you; however, Deluth—I requested the Bishop specifically. Does this mean he’s turning down the position in the Dream Sphere or are you accepting it on his behalf?”

“I wasn’t aware you’d voted him in and I myself received no word on the matter.”

“Perhaps he’s still considering.”

Nothing was made easier by the fact Bethany Whitemill and Mistaje were close friends, inseparable partners, and widely-suspected lovers. And so each time Kiersoran mentioned the knightly woman, he thought of his younger brother also. His name beside hers would always be on the tip of his tongue.

One could hear Bethany Whitemill coming from miles away, her footsteps echoing in metal clunks. She approached swiftly, while a semi-private conversation about the government’s role in the city’s education formed between Lyonet and Arnoul, and drew Mathaniel’s attention, as well as Emmie’s suddenly impassioned argument: “But who are we to dictate what people can learn? And worse yet, force them to pay to learn only what we are willing to teach. Pay for what? Pay with what?”

Her escort or friend Rivyn leaned back and stared blankly at the room’s diamond-chandelier, grinning crookedly.

When she entered she was met with a respectful quiet. Fully-decked in Champion’s Plate, a suit crafted of a rare alloy mixed of both gold and silver, one that could never be purchased, only awarded by an Emperor of Mirshan. The Champion’s Plate fit perfectly around her stout, curvy form. Bethany had broad shoulders and thick fists, though if any fat existed on her, it easily and forever went unnoticed.

She dragged her straight, pale red hair away form her stale green eyes, which appeared moist and bloodshot. She took her reserved seat at the end of the table, forced a thin smile. “I’m not up for any bull-shit this morning.”

Leontini welcomed the food, then: fresh fruits, mainly a stock of ice oranges and white pears; steaming sweet rolls and spice cakes in baby-blue frosting; and pan-fried strips of primed pork, which smelled bitter like raw cocoa. Beverages were served with the iced-salads. A wine dating back more than a century, which Kiersoran bragged arrived directly from Emperor Mose’s orchard. There was also a wide assortment of juices salvaged from the cold room in small, stout barrels.

Something about this alarmed Deluth. The bottle of wine, a priceless find, is something to be saved for dinners with royalty, not wasted during a morning meal with merely half the Dream Sphere’s members, a pair of monks who didn’t belong, and a rogue who didn’t care. Was this to be more of a meeting than a chance to gossip and debate, he questioned, studying the situation.

Nonetheless the wines flowed as freely as Emmie’s opinions. More than one, Rivyn and Deluth exchanged short-lived glances; both had been quiet for most of the dining. The rogue had an icy look, but not a threatening one. Again he seemed bored out of his mind.

“This meeting is about my brother,” Kiersoran said.

Apparently Mistaje had been deep in debt to the Sharroghin, the city’s waning coterie of thieves, and when his own organization, the Allerous Crown Information Brokerage Guild refused to aid Mistaje pay off the debt, doom quickly found him.

The problem was Mistaje kept his debt secret. Kiersoran for example would have gladly paid the debt in full, he claimed, no matter how great the debt had been, and while Kiersoran disliked thieves, they were easy for him to understand.

When he finally heard of his younger brother’s situation, Leontini ordered his personal elite soldiers to annihilate the Sharroghin “immediately and completely,” but called off the assault, because the Night Guard informed they had already taken care of the problem and that further action from Leontini would constitute an extremely serious crime. He was a man that would not break one crime to uphold another. Deluth had yet to judge whether this attribute was honorable or one born of bureaucratic cowardice, and it wasn’t really his business.

Kiersoran smeared his hand across his face, obviously flustered. “More specifically, I want to discuss his butcher. The Sharroghin hired someone to kill my brother. I think I know who they hired, but we can’t touch him, you know why?” he asked rhetorically. “Because his murderer is a captain of the Karpan’Tok. I’m here to ask the people in this room for permission to take an over or under the law approach in taking him down.”

Bethany stared at Kiersoran from across the room, her lips shut in disapproval. “Denied. Do not ask us of this. Why would you sacrifice your principles seeking revenge? No—you have none of my permission, and not even my sympathy. If you think killing one man will resurrect another, you’re deluded. And don’t pretend Mistaje isn’t a loss to all of us at once.”

“I’m not asking permission to kill him,” interjected Kiersoran before anyone else might answer. “To bring a man like that from power, his means of living above the law would be severed. And if by change he were to decide to continue down the path of the hit man, he could be arrested like the rest, or better yet the Sharroghin will take good care of him for us!”

“And that would work, Kiersoran,” said Rivyn, “except that he’s insignificant. You have to think about it from the criminal organization’s perspective. He’s nobody. Anyone could fill his position. There will always be a criminal like him who survives the glare of the law – and besides, they use your city-wide assaults against them to re-organize, in secret and in greater numbers. I’ve witnessed this behavior dozens of times in smaller cities.”

“Then you’d advise me to do nothing,” he said, his voice riddled with wounded disappointment. “Fine then, any other points of business?”

“No,” answered Rivyn. “Before you move on, I’d advise you to bring proof of the murder to an officer of the law you can trust.”

“That would be impossible now. Why can’t we simply vote to remove him from his position?”

“We could if it were the will of the populace,” said Emmie.

“But how could we ascertain the opinion or will of the populace without raising the suspicion of the guard?”

“And what shall we accomplish with regards to the violent protests?” said Bethany. “I hardly made it to my house from the market the one night, I experienced so many threats, and you can perfectly forget about sleeping, when they threatened to torch my house, where my children live and sleep.”

“I’m not sure what we can do, if as Kiersoran claims the Captain is arrayed against us. He controls where there is police presence, after all.”

“Precisely why we should vote him out,” said Emmie.

“The question is who would reinforce our vote? No one,” said Arnoul Arata.

“Ugh,” said Kiersoran. “As for the protestors, let them protest. I imagine very soon we can give them what they want. We’ve saved a damn near enough tax money to build three new churches of equal size of the Solar Temple. Will that not be enough to house the three other practices?”

Arnoul Arata groaned and pushed his plate away with an exaggerated sniff. “I don’t understand why we have to fund their movements. It’s disturbing. When we could use this money to buy back the Karpan’tok or I don’t know…”

“For the political support, why else?” said Kiersoran. “That would be a good thing for you, considering the largest vein of protestors are protesting against your beliefs.”

“Not only mine. Those protestors are still the mad minority of this city. Don’t forget that.”

So it became that this meeting was a waste of Deluth’s time and mental energy. The mono-religion law was nothing he agreed with, but the removal of the ban on other practices required a unanimous vote from the Dream Sphere. He and Mathaniel left soon after the heat of the argument dwindled. The monk wondered exactly why he was present to begin with; surely Kiersoran did not expect him to work the way he originally suggested. How would he or anyone for that matter know about that aspect of his past?

*

Deluth taught a quick Kensai lesson to Mathaniel before dinner, and then labored over several combat forms in his study, until all of daylight was gone.

Back in his room, the dagger still stood, seeming to stare a burning hole through him. Directing his attention elsewhere, he intuitively checked under his bed and in every nook or cranny. Perhaps a touch paranoid, he lifted the drapery at the window.

Deluth sat on the bed beside the blade and studied it. The knife itself had a dark leather-wrapped hilt, which held a spherical black opal at the end of it. Its blade was straighter than an arrow and it appeared as sharp as a cobra’s fangs; it dug cleanly into his mattress through the pillow with what looked like no force whatsoever. The monk decided to leave it standing, hoping if the culprit returned, he or she or they could witness how truly worried he had become.

3.

Outside a squat house two crowded blocks away from the Temple of Solus, the young man Kallaverrah waited for Adrian’s signal. He breathed warm air onto his icy fingers.

It was nighttime. The frozen white streets glowed palely. Kallaverrah let his chin slide deeper into his tunic, the warmth of the grayish-white cloth comforting him from the cold. The young assassin stared from his shadow, picking up every movement as far as his eyes could see.

Merchants were absent, even the Sharroghin type, which further appeased Kallaverrah’s recurrent last-minute worries before the job went down.

Hide-armored chumps from the Karpan’tok moved away from the temple in small waves, like short gusts of wind, as they were supposedly instructed and paid to do so. Hopefully, no others would try to play hero tonight, he thought, scanning for passersby and stray beggars.

Kallaverrah was a rising operative in the Skulghin, one whose achievements had been so steadfast he recently earned the recognition of Margon Sannacherib, the leader of the Narith, who lived in the eastern Empire. In the short two years in which he was employed, Kallaverrah took on more than a hundred jobs, completing each without fail, and without ever catching the attention of the law.

Tonight’s job was of a new magnitude, one that should surely determine his rightful place in the organization.

A pair of Night Guards passed him then, not even glancing toward the alleyway shadows that rendered him invisible. Looking across the street, Kallaverrah saw the white-haired and deceptively beautiful Lidijia, his allied operative, shift her feet once the lackey guards were out of sight. He checked for Urbett Uran, who nonchalantly stood outside an upstanding tavern, blowing out random puffs of smoke from his pipe. Kallaverrah awaited for the signal to take out the Solar Temple’s sentries.

The young aassassin pulled one black glove from his hand and tightened his fist and relaxed it, making sure he could perfectly grip his hatchet. Satisfied, he replaced the glove, pulling the leather tight to his hand and wrist and forearm.

He took a deep breath into his tunic to hide his cloud of breath, his hazel eyes remained fixed on Urbett. After he saw twin tumbles of smoke roll into the black of night, followed by a wide O, Kallaverrah allowed a smile to creep across his lips.

*

Adrian watched cautiously as Kallaverrah and his two operatives scurried through the empty streets clad in mainly white, sliding into dark alleys before anyone even had the chance of spotting them. He and Terra emptied the side-streets of beggars no more than half of an hour before, taking them to MIzure Taziin with the strict order they remain alive and she return to the Temple with great haste. Raya Taziin was the Skulghin’s main means of keeping and leaking prisoners of their vital information. Since half of her blood was demon’s blood, they knew she would develop a talent and enjoyment for torture.

Too often she simply killed the prisoners, though, generally feasting on their still-beating hearts as she sacrificed them to her father.

The Skulghin never argued with her actions, for they soon understood her savage ways were the keys to her advancement in power. Terra and Adrian formulated that between her and the Skulghin’s Evoker, Marez Maru, they could, if they augmented one another, probably take down Mirshan Castle with their stream of Hellfire abilities.

Tonight, their skills would be put to the test, and what he witnessed was only the first part of a three-fold operation.

Once Solus’s sentries were neutralized and out of the way, they could easily relocate the sections of the temple that would be most vulnerable to fire and then allow the hellfire conjurers to finish their assault.

The operatives were closing in from both sides of the temple. There were a total of six sentries on the outside, and from what a particular homeless boy told Terra, they learned five more were positioned in a nearby building. Other Skulghin operatives handled those stations.

Adrian felt thoroughly pleased with this new addition, though he wished they could recruit more worshipers of Aequeya, rather than the seedy drifters and cutthroats who abandoned other organized crime circuits. But Syruc seemed stable enough to handle any assignment that Turro might order. He noticed, rather to his initial surprise, how capable he was of removing himself from view, even his, while Syruc’s cohorts had trouble keeping up with him.

They entered the seemingly abandoned building, out of direct view of the Temple. Once those sentries were taken care of, the outside ones could be disposed of. The Skulghin did not want an alarm to sound, even though they knew the Karpan’tok wouldn’t answer, it still meant that Deluth and the sun-child would be alerted, and in that case, it was very likely for them to escape. Or so their secretive reputation bade them.

Proudly, Adrian the Yellow, as he was often referred to, knew almost everything about dream-tear and its inhabitants. Setting up shop in obscurity, the sickly magic-user could hear the dirty gossip outsiders’ ears were not meant to hear, and he forever made good use of anything he obtained.

He learned much about Deluth through informants, such as Agustin, who unfortunately recently vanished. Everyone he talked to knew of the monk, a surprising life he chose to retire into, admitted that he was under-achieving urchin from west of the Shadowood, whose only claim to fame was he adventured alongside a famous conquering paladin called Othonis.

Probably lies, he figured, but Adrian never discounted anything he heard. Good stories were hard to come by, after all.

*

Kallaverrah, cloaked in the invisibility of snow, raced along the outside edges of the Solar Temple. He scanned for roaming sentries. Bent low, he gripped his hatchet in his right hand, holding it close to his hip. Paralleling him an alley away was Lidijia, the young woman who was talked about being the Skulghin’s newest successor to Terra, easily one of the most dangerous assassins known in the western Empire. Only agents of Ataraxia’s death squad were deadlier.

Regardless they rushed behind featureless buildings, focused on the job at hand. Weaving in and out of the narrow alley paths, Kallaverrah finally spotted a temple sentry sitting beside another at the base of the back entrance steps. Halting his pace with a motion to Lidijia, they both stopped and observed.

They waited for Urbett to calmly walk up to them and ask for some tobacco. At that point, he would have distracted the sentries just enough to land blows to both.

Urbett staggered drunkenly. He was an excellent actor, if nothing else, capable of mimicking anyone from the Emperors of Mirshan Keep to the prostitutes of Ri’shurai and all between. The undisciplined sentries immediately stood, though neither of their hands went to their weapons.

Kallaverrah sighed. He beckoned Lidijia to quickly move closer. They would have to be breathing down the guards’ necks for the ambush to succeed.

“Yeah!” Urbett Uran stammered. “If ya can’t get a… out of a.. how ya supposed tah…”

Kallaverrah couldn’t keep from smiling except that he wondered just where the other sentries were. They had been patrolling the temple at a rapid pace. Kallaverrah hadn’t seen any but the two who dispassionately sat on-guard at the foot of the temple’s rear-entrance steps.

Finally he motioned for Lidijia to get to the Sun Temple, where they would sneak a few more feet to then knock unconscious or kill the sentries. As they slunk a dark nook at a corner close to the back, Lidijia silent let her staff slither from beneath her white cape, using it for both balance and intimidation against Kallaverrah.

He noted this, though, and regarded her subtle action as an attempt at beguiling him into a future attack, but he may have been paranoid. Kallaverrah was not an employee who sought to advance through treachery. He wouldn’t attack someone on his side. How could she know that?

“Please, sir. Find your home. Or an Inn,” said one of the guards.

“There aren’t many open now,” said one of the men. “Besides who would admit…”

In a dazzling array of attacks, Kallaverrah and Lidijia let their weapons draw tornado-like winds atop of the hapless sentries. Lidijia thwacked one on the knee from behind, twirling in a circle, striking both his ribs and his temple within two heartbeats. The other felt the cold of the hatchet’s handle thud against the base of the skull just before his world fell completely black.

“There are more,” whispered Kallaverrah. “But let’s get these out of the way.”

Like rabid worker ants, they transported the unconscious men upon their shoulders, behind a dark building that stank of vegetable compost.

Snow crunched beneath their feet.

“Silence!” hissed a feminine voice. “Your footfalls would wake the dead.”

Kallaverrah and Urbett Uran stopped and let the men slide from their shoulders to the snow. She had been perched upon the rooftop of a housing block. Her eyes reflected the moon light like a possum’s. Her features were rust-red, her hair long and silky black. She smelled like stomach bile and spoiled milk. She wore a white dress with a crimson obi and sash, she pinned her knees together and lowered herself as if picking up a dropped coin. With only one hand, which looked rotted with scar-tissue, she raised one of the temple’s guards above her head, staring deeply into his face.

“These shall suffice for now,” she whispered softly, looking deeper into the darkest alleys. Then, taking them each in a different fist, she flitted open her wings and flew high enough to make no sound, and low enough to stay hidden between the buildings.

Kallaverrah nodded, but turned away with an involuntary gulp. For the first time since his employment with the Skulghin, he was simply scared of the consequences of his actions.

*

Rivyn stood in the threshold of the TAVERN, slouched and leaning against its dusty wooden frame, looking out to the dirty dream-tear streets. His vision followed the urchins from one corner to the other. They were probably looking for drugs or love, he thought with a smirk, remembering his smoke-weed and pipe. After lighting the pipe he faced inside the pub which, that evening, was eerily silent.

Glumfin, the tavern owner and barkeep was snoring at the counter. The skin on top of his balding head shined off the dim lantern light. He should wake up and clean some, Rivyn thought, noting the cobwebs, busted chairs and spilled ale mugs.

“Excuse me Zot,” a patron grumbled from behind, trying to squeeze by. He hadn’t realized he was standing in the way. He stood beneath six feet tall and wore a plain faded blue tunic and baggy pants. To most who laid eyes upon him would say he was a sorry excuse for a legend. Knowing him wasn’t so odd; hell even the local drunks bragged they held a conversation with him a time or two.

“No, pardon me,” he complied politely, showing the old-timer a seat. Quo’rath, likely the most famous and yet untouchable thief in the Mirshan was a simple host and bouncer of an unkempt tavern set in an unkempt city.

He yawned, quickly boring. There was a grand total of eight people awake in the tavern, the lot of them serving themselves to Glumfin’s dark ale, which may have had a better reputation than Glumfin himself. An old angry little man, he normally regarded his patrons with a quiet, snoring sort of respect. Though, when he chose to speak, words just somehow came out “wrong” for him – meaning that the bitter barkeep was being purely honest. Rivyn quickly figured out this trait after begging more than one crying and cursing “ugly duckling” storming from the tavern to stay put, but the old man’s guffawing and stamping his feet drove them away and he seemed so very proud of himself because of it.

Usually, after such incidences, Glumfin would simply sigh, lay his old face back down upon the bar counter, and fall asleep.

“Not my fault she was born with…” he might utter, half-awake. “Webbed hands.”

Rivyn stepped back outside again. Everyone in the tavern was quiet, and thus they wouldn’t mind if he took another breather, and got high.

That night, he felt persistently forlorn and lonely.

Emmie attended a party with a crowd of people he didn’t feel he belonged with. He felt Emmie and he loved each other, maybe even deeply, but not passionately or romantically, so he felt lonely even when they shared a meal or a bed together.

He noted the stars in the sky so dim behind the thin layer of clouds they had a hard time competing with the weakest lantern lights of dream-tear’s city streets.

Distantly or faintly he heard glass breaking or maybe clay pots falling from windows. It was only recently guild laborers completed the installation of a Mirshanni-designed sewage system. Since dream-tear was likely the last city in all of the Aerth to install one, most citizens were still unaccustomed to properly using it.

Winter was atop them, yet the air felt thick with humidity and he sensed snow or freezing rain in the rising wind. After he took another puff from his pipe he observed that suddenly Hobbler’s way was numb-like and uneventful—where were the beggars and homeless, the protestors, for example? The sudden emptiness made him uneasy. Especially the beggars, who were present night after night, with bowls and baskets in their open palms– they should have been moving about the streets. On a normal night, it was busy with shadowy movements, fencers peddling their wares while the associate thieves brought more in by the burlap sack. Rivyn could pick these activities out anywhere he traveled, for he had a good chance of already being there, doing those same things. He wondered, ironically, how far that life was behind him, though he arrogantly assumed he could still thrive as well as he did then, in that city, if not better.

Also why was a pack of maybe ten Karpan’tok members heading towards the tavern? What is this? thought Rivyn, backing in through the door. Suddenly, he felt a bit of cold feet, thinking he might have to make a run for it, remembering the more or less recent days of his past.

It wasn’t long before tonight another officer from another city accused him of stealing the Baron A’kounra’s final series of self-portraits. Just before the skeletal mummy crumbled to dust, died of old age rather, the paintings mysteriously disappeared. Supposedly, the paintings weren’t simply dye on canvas, but between its cleverly-inscribed frame and the goatskin face there were small sheets of parchment that all together introduced the successor of his holdings, as part of Baron A’kounra’s will. Oh, how the authorities wanted those paintings, Rivyn remembered with a faint smile. And while the city’s authorities and local inhabitants seriously suspected him of the theft, they couldn’t find the portraits or any other way to link him to the crime; whoever stole them from the Baron’s mansion had very clean hands and an unmemorable face. And that was just the one theft the officers accused him of.

In the dormant years of his criminal career Rivyn hated this attention. When he was youthful it was lucrative to spread his name to the right people. Crime lords called for him by one of his many mock aliases. He enjoyed the reputation as well as any wealthy merchant might. But to their credit, in Piraz-dai, they almost apprehended him.

So he was finished with the life of stealing and assassinating, at least for a little while. He wanted to settle, find peace and quiet in service.

The city guard continued marching in his direction. Rivyn didn’t expect them to believe he was now an innocent.

Perhaps they only want beer, he reasoned cheerfully, and awoke Glumfin the bartender to handle them. If he served well it might even raise his reputation.

*

Adrian the Yellow laughed, in a reverential way, as the Fire Walkers doused the wooden joists of the Solar Temple with lantern oil. The sun-child Mathaniel’s room, his caretaker’s room, the room of the ascetics.

The Fire Walkers waited patiently for the infernal hellfire to be unleashed. They dressed in pure-white clothing and porcelain half-masks. They were devoted to a god they believed controlled heaven and hell and believed offering themselves as sacrifice through fire would reward them with those heavens He controlled.

All operatives stood guard in their posts, on the look out for to-be rescuers or would-be heroes.

Marez Maru waded through the shadows like an earthworm in dirt, his hands already glowing dimly with scarlet magic. His green robes swept behind him, the bottoms wet from dragging in the snow. Maru’s face paled and his fingers spindled, writhing and rubbing together as if churning the makeup of the temple before him with his mind.

His raspy voice was neither accidental, nor his normal voice. A fierce wind picked up that seemed to slide beneath his neatly-combed black hair, one that was unearthly and stank of the rotting animals of the abyss.

Raya Taziin landed softly beside him, her eyes shining whitely. They exchanged looks: his of interfered focus, hers of mischief.

Marez regarded her bloody mouth without surprise – but then she spewed a stream of bloody vomit onto the white carpet of snow.

Hastily, Raya lowered herself to her stomach and with her scarred bare hands she leaned forward, with a low cackle and scrawled out a ten-pointed symbol to call upon her father.

By the time she drew the simple, smeared-red overlapping triangles within a diamond, Marez Maru finished his lengthy invocation.

The earth seethed beneath them. Before their eyes snow began to melt and disappear as rapid as wasted food left on Hobbler’s Way.

Upon deeply croaking the last word of power, Marez Maru stepped back, pulling Raya with, as a thick ray of lava-like fire erupted from the earth, swirling through the night directly at the Solar Temple. Scorching through the humid air, the hellfire struck the Glass Tunnel of the Temple, shattering it and the silence of the night. Its flames licked up the oil and, before the half-demon and Marez could exhale, the temple was completely on fire.

*

Rivyn was high. He was tired, but couldn’t sleep. Fewer lights shined on this side of the tavern where he stood smoking and thinking—when further north in dream-tear, heavy waves of smoke rose reaching towards the sky, a flickering orange glowing the sky.

“The Temple of Solus is on fire!” someone cried. He gasped, and realized it was no accident or coincidence the streets were empty.

At the front of the tavern, the Karpan’tok conveniently exited at that all-too-precise moment. He stood with his back against the tavern wall, to remain unseen, as the officers, carrying swords and adorned in their bronze helmets, passed down the street. Rivyn doubted they heard the same cries as he, but what else could explain why they were doing double-time, unless—

No. This is no mere coincidence, Rivyn thought, and followed them down the street.

4

The Fire Walkers marched in ceremonial scarlet silk robes that their mothers and grandmothers weaved and dyed.

From inside the Solar Temple death throes echoed, childish and shrill like slaughtered livestock and cattle.

The Fire Walkers climbed over toppled crumbling walls, and with each step the heat of the fire breathed more heavily. The sounds of the asphyxiated struggling young monks crackled with the splintering ceiling supports and falling rock and in-folding glass. Closer to the bluest of the flames, they walked.

Together there were seven, always seven of them at once. They allowed the hellfire to consume their flesh. Their voices joined the semblance of a requiem, and an awakening of the senses to the afterlife.

*

Fires licked the walls, red blades dancing and drawing, ruthlessly etching smoldering scars onto them with wicked celerity. The supports on the ceiling fell, now half-dangling into the center of Mathaniel’s room.

Their ashes cast from the beams in black clouds that looked like swarms of locusts, twisting the Solus dormitory into a fiery cove. Still, Deluth waded, his bare hands briefly gripping crumbled furniture to toss them aside frantically. He used the knife like a claw, viciously tearing things from his path.

Deluth’s eyes began to swell, salty-water ran down his face, obscuring his vision. Beneath him, Deluth’s feet slipped on loose debris, his balance and depth nearly ruined by the deafening crash of falling stones. The monk edged closer to Mathaniel’s bed. He wiped his eyelids. He kicked blackened pieces of wood from between him and his son.

The Bishop screamed. He was outside, with survivors, beyond the smothering thrashing of wall-stones denting the temple floor. Even with the hissing of the fire and the hum and zip of burning rock, the Bishop’s voice rang loudly among the surviving monks and their outraged defiant shouts and cries.

“Find him!” the bishop demanded.

An overpowering wave of heat lashed at the back of Deluth’s neck and spine. He rolled to the side, and he felt a thousand hot embers bite and sting his body, but steered himself safe from the crashing ceiling-spears.

Above, the flames rotted a gaping hole large enough to clearly view the empty sky.

“Mathaniel!” screamed Deluth, breathlessly, repeating his son’s name again and again until he felt his lungs might explode in a nimbus of smoke. He covered his mouth and, with one hand, yanked away the burning obstructions piled in front of the slim window. Deluth hoped his son escaped through it before debris obstructed the path. Unable to spot Mathaniel he believed he wasn’t trapped in the room. Deluth climbed through the window. He coughed heavily and there was blood in the mucus.

Tumbling to the hot earth, four men, acolytes of the clergy, carried Deluth away from the falling burning temple.

His vision failed. A swirling blur of orange fire and white cloth and a dominating darkness. The eyes upon him seemed distant. The men’s voices seemed muffled, echoing as if inside a hollow cave. Deluth choked on a fistful of ash and smoke, wet chunks spitting from his throat. He wheezed. He rested his head back, and let close his dry and tired eyes.

Deluth sensed the flickering of the great fire from behind his shielded eyelids, flashes of red coming and going as he surrendered himself to the healing of the acolytes, whose powerful voices yet seemed mute to him. Finally Deluth unwillingly slept, and disconnected from his spirit, the knife he gripped dangled and then dropped from his hand.

*

Hopping out a step away from a crowd of white-robed priests of Solus, Rivyn was soundless. Forty or fewer fourteen year olds knelt in rows far from the temple, while squads of older monks hopelessly tried to enter the fire’s depths, to rescue any potential survivors. Rivyn noticed Deluth, the kensai instructor, lying lifelessly on his back. Every second or so, the man wheezed loudly and disgustingly. The man’s chest pounded visibly.

Rivyn inched to Deluth’s side and they exchanged frightened glances, as if both men were caught out-of-character.

“You all right?” asked the rogue nobly.

“Worse than I look,” he whispered. “But my body feels stronger every second.”

“That’s good, I suppose.”

“I don’t… what happened? My son. Mathaniel. Where is he?” he said, weakly attempting to stand. He dragged himself toward the crowd of training monks, calling for Mathaniel. His voice was throaty and panic-stricken. Deluth searched among those who reached safety.

“Where is he?” violently shouted the monk. He shoved his way through the rows of monks.

“Deluth!” reprimanded the Bishop. His face was resin-smudged. The fire burned. “Get a hold of yourself. If he was not in his room, he must have escaped. Probably before any of us had. Do not be selfish about this.”

“Where is my son, bishop?”

“He isn’t the only boy missing!”

Deluth attempted to search the burning temple, but his lungs and muscles gave out on him. The same acolytes who carried him from the fire prevented him from entering the embers of the dying fire, the debris, and the smoldering ashes. They held him around his shoulders and waist. He was so tired he seemed lifeless. The expression on Deluth’s face was so empty it was though none of the experience was real. His eyes swelled and his muscles melted. As pieces of his home fell to the ground he remembered how the temple had opened its doors to his son and him, when, without them, they would have slowly and painfully starved to death.

*

There were sections of the garrison warrens beneath dream-tear that remained even after the Marroencian War. The thieves of the city appropriated the garrison’s spaces for their own purposes. Its street moniker had become Darcanna, the dark tunnels with dim hooded lanterns on the ground that glowed queer colors. As a last resort it had become the meeting grounds of the Sharroghin.

Adrian felt furious, but mostly kept control over himself. He paced to and fro before Marez Maru. “Deluth’s ceiling did not cave quickly enough!” hissed Adrian. “By the next time we need something done maybe Turro will have hopefully found more useful, competent, reliable sorcerers.”

Marez pulled his jungle green cape about him with a fuss. “Don’t place that on me, because the fire walkers hadn’t aptly set the …”

“Your fire was not strong enough, Marez Maru. If we thought mundane fire would suffice, a child with a candle could have burned it. Deluth most certainly escaped, you realize that?”

“Should I care?” Marez said, leaning back against the garrison tunnel wall.

“It isn’t wise to shirk an order, especially one of Turro’s.”

“I am more frightened of you than of him,” admitted the wizard.

“You maybe mistaken in that. He is more wrathful than I, even if less formidable.”

“I trust all mad men similarly.”

“Deluth escaped, yes.” The dark alcove glowed brightly but for a second. A creaky sound emanated from a swinging rusted lantern. Terra had returned.

Standing a knuckle over five feet, the assassin’s skinny but solid frame glistened against the dim light of lanterns and cast deep shadows up her neck. Her eyes looked like pitch-black pyramids. Adrian knew if Terra wanted none of them to notice her arrival, they would not have, even if they’d been staring at all apparent entrances and exits. Her pink eyes twinkled coldly in front of her stone-gray face.

The killer-for-hire’s demeanor was wrought of ice. She was a true professional, and an expert of her annihilating craft.

“But the sun-child and twenty or so others will soon arrive in Raya’s quarters, with the strict order they remain alive and healthy.”

Standing face-to-face in the same room as she, Adrian felt in the company of an equal, and therefore he felt that strange paradox of arrogant humility.

Quietly, Adrian rolled his hand into a fist, feeling the many powers of the Pure Magic orb flow into his hands. Shoving it into his pouch, he regarded Terra with a welcoming nod.

“She understands the consequences,” whispered Adrian, calculating procedure. “Relocate men into the popular areas, the gossip-spots. Deluth now has no place to rest his head, certainly he will be searching for one. Your next mark is the bishop. End his life publicly. The citizens of dream-tear must understand the fire was no accident and now nobody at all can be considered safe.”

“What of the boy’s caretaker, Deluth?”

“Leave him. Turro deserves to take heat from his actions. Deluth isn’t our problem. We are his. Those are your orders, Terra. Fare well, now.”

*

West of the River of Sleep, on the eastern side of dream-tear, Turro waited in a run-down pub. He gripped his worn, flat straw-hat in his rough hands and sipped harsh liquor. He wore dark clothing, mostly grays and blacks that matched his graying beard and uncombed graying hair. He sweated nervously, despite the cold.

The bartender conspicuously left an hour ago.

“Deluth lives.” It was not the sickly-thin Marroencian Adrian, but the Skulghin’s true leader, whose name he did not know. She approached him from behind, so that he could not view her face.

The blood in his veins chilled.

“Shall I find a replacement for you, Turro?” She whispered, and applied heavier pressure into his shoulders, until her nails sank beneath his skin. “We Skulghin demanded his death, yet he lives. From this point forward, I can expect there to be no more failures from you,” she said And then she was gone.

Disappointed in the situation and berating himself, Turro wasn’t able to answer her, nor would he try to anyhow. The Skulghin Stiletto, as she was named by the Narith, was murderous and full of treachery. To her, his answers would seem like excuses. Any gesture towards a remedy would be an empty promise or platitude. He owed his allegiance and his life to her, for though in his day-to-day life he enjoyed every luxury, his power didn’t truly belong to him.

The liquor swam in his skull. He grabbed for more liquor.

Adrian entered the bar and sat on a stool beside Turro. “I’d rather hook strings of my brains from my head than catch an earful from that woman. My only question for you is, why this time?”

“Put it up your ass, coward,” said Turro lowly. He grinned. “She saves you from death by my hands and you know it.”

“That is possible.”

The two men walked outside and stood shoulder to shoulder. Turro dwarfed the skinny wizard Adrian.

It would be easy to underestimate Turro’s intelligence, Adrian noted, considering how muscle-bound the former lumberjack was, even beneath his heavy bear-pelt clothing. His rocky features, cylindrical biceps, tornado-shaped torso, and knobby meaty fists each were overwhelmingly evident, and would have been intimidating to Adrian had he been a stranger to the man.

The narrow snow-covered streets throbbed with vibrant life.

There were outspoken evangelists handing out excerpts from texts they scribed themselves. Apotheosis-prophets chanted in loud foreign tongues. Marketers and their passersby haggled prices. There were games of dice and accompanying boos, hisses, nays, naws, cuss words and enthusiastic love yous, wishes, and pleas for good luck. The air smelled of smoked squash and onion, cabbage and potato, opium, sol, and sweet hashish.

“What information do you have for me?” asked Turro. He inhaled deeply, to puff up his chest.

“Primarily that as usual she over-reacts. The cutpurses have seen Deluth with Rivyn, or whatever he calls himself now, the broken heist-man from lower Ataraxia. What I wonder, though is why Deluth hasn’t come looking for those responsible for the assault against the temple. I mean, he lived within its halls. They were his students—Mathaniel is his son. From his point of view time is of the essence. The longer he waits the less likely his son remains alive. Am I wrong in my assumptions?”

“You’re not wrong,” said Turro. “He needs to recover. His body hurts. His mind grips the loss. He needs to believe his son lives. Or else, he feels no motivation. And currently he doesn’t know exactly where to begin his search. Deluth received the message from the Skulghin. I’m positive of that fact. He thinks the attack was aimed at him instead of Mathaniel. He hasn’t responded yet, but he will. Give it some time, though not much. I’d place a wager on it he inquires about the knife within a week.”

“I don’t doubt it,” answered Adrian. “With that crook assisting him.”

“Rivyn only knows what our handlers have fed him, at least I suspect. He’s an excellent thief, to be certain, but he is far from omniscient.”

“Then Deluth won’t come for me, you realize, and I appreciate that. He won’t be hunting down Terra, either. Since the fire walkers are all dead, he might look for Marez, to hold him accountable for the arson. And Raya for the kidnapping. And then there’s you.”

“I’m well aware,” said Turro. “I feel as though you’re a reliable business partner, Adrian. Maybe not a good friend, but we’ve known each other for years. A decade or greater. So you understand it is not my job to worry about these things. If it were, nonetheless, I’m prepared. The information handlers will lead Deluth precisely where we wish. If I have to, I will personally crush his skull with my fist.”

Turro nodded toward a squad of Karpan’tok, who stopped at the corner, their spears pointed towards the gray sky. Turro blinked. An idea formed. “Look at them,” he said. “They can go anywhere they wish.”

“Anywhere at all,” Adrian agreed solemnly.

Adrian and Turro returned to the empty bar and drank for half an hour and talked about things, while getting drunker than they might have a night ago, and then again they reconciled their differences and began to agree upon solutions to the problems they faced within the Sharroghin, the city’s most populous criminal organization.

For example they exchanged mutual permissions concerning territories they oversaw but hadn’t previously intersected.

“So that’s decided,” said Turro, standing from the bar. He downed a mug of warm ale. He downed a clay cup brimming with whiskey. He slapped Adrian on his back.

At the end of the night, they walked away in opposite directions, and, for their own reasons, felt pleased.

5.

Deluth helped dig away the blackened remnants of the temple. The men and women there sought closure. In a down-trodden mode of labor, when the day seemed colder than it truly was, every able man and woman took up a digging implement and dug and scraped away peels of charred wood and ashen glass-like rock. After watching a while, Rivyn helped also, though he wasn’t certain why he cared.

These two men worked side by side, yanking away crumbled cinder blocks, singed doors, black-dust bed frames. The Bishop somberly informed them they searched for the missing young acolytes.

Oddly, the only bodies they uncovered wore the jawless skull masks of Aequeyan Fire Walkers beneath tattered ashen tunics and medallions melted and imbedded into their chests’ burnt hair and scorched skin. Death had given the corpses the illusion of their having died happily.

Deluth wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. His mind reeled. They were both quiet, working until Solus cowered behind the darkening clouds, until light careened only on the edge of vision, showering the twilight with a skyline of scarlet and violet. The monk drank water from a canteen.

“You have a place to stay?” asked Rivyn. He faced away and stared at the sunset. “Relatives, partners?”

“No relatives.”

“I live in a cabin outside of city. Do you need a place to stay? What will you do now?”

In a strangely calm tone, Deluth answered, “I might need a place. Yes. I don’t know how to feel. My son isn’t among the dead. Where could he have gone?”

*

“I feel,” said Kiersoran Leontini, “that we can no longer trust the Karpan’tok to keep order within this city. Does anyone disagree with me?”

The members of the Dream Sphere were silent.

“I will bring order here,” he said, moving toward the long marble table and hammering it with the meaty side of his hand.

“And how do you propose to do that?” answered Bethany Whitemill.

“I shall seek help from the Dark Horse Company. They are still plenty in number and their leaders owe me much.”

“Nonsense. I won’t have you disappearing from the city during these times. We could send literally anyone.”

“I think you should,” said Arnoul. “They don’t trust ‘just anyone.’ After all, they wouldn’t trust you, Bethany.”

“You intend to cross the Vast with the weak hopes of hiring a band of terrorist knights? You’ve gone completely mad. And the rest of you – do you plan to ride with him?”

“Do you think I’m incapable?” answered Kiersoran.

“I know all too precisely what you’re capable of. There’s something wrong with the first-seat leaving the city it sorely needs.”

“This is what dream-tear needs of me.”

There was an intense disquiet among them then.

“Furthermore, in my absence, I order you to announce the erasure of the mono-theological law. I will hear no questions or debating about it. Part of me believes this will be enough to bring security to the city we share. I have my doubts. Please, by the time I return from Blackrose, announce forgiveness of this particular law.”

Then he departed from the office, leaving behind him a tense silence. When all were gone except Bethany she sat resting against the glossy cold table and let her molten-red face fall into her hand. She seethed with rage.

*

“What a strange night. I hadn’t a dream like that in many years,” said Deluth. He dropped his axe and split a thick piece of shadowood in two. The monk’s fists were white and cold, the knuckles dried and cracking, little creeks of red splayed like spider webs across the backs of his hands. He looked up at Rivyn, whose crooked grin and blank stare were fixated on his pleasantly small house, a cabin nestled within the dark forest, shrouded by a mass of tall black trees.

“Fine,” the rogue replied gently. “Apparently Glumfin acquired a new bouncer. Said I shouldn’t be working twenty hours in a row. It was hardly work, the worst of it was getting through the old man’s sessions of snoring.”

“You’ve titled them? Maybe his business is looking up, he needs more help.”

“Doubt it really. The last two days the Karpan’tok have been lurking, which I don’t comprehend. Glumfin’s drink is too strong for most of them, who are unaccustomed to it.”

“I think I understand what you mean,” said Deluth. He lifted the axe and dropped it. Two pieces fell from the cutting stump and Deluth replaced them. “I don’t like them around, but it’s coinage for Glumfin.”

“They make me feel paranoid. I shall some day tell you stories that will make you shudder with fear merely knowing me when the guards are around.”

*

There was a sudden crash through the door that silenced the men like a thunder clap. Their vision darted to the door frame. Thick in Champion’s Plate, Bethany Whitemill stepped inside the bar, her locks white with snowfall. She shuddered and fixed herself, matting her hair and stomping the mud from her white boots. Bethany’s nose was bright red, and her chin trembled.

“He should not have left,” she said. “Kiersoran. He’s stubborn, firm as a brick in the wall, but I feel he is wrong this time.” She looked down at the table, at the rising steam, and at the two men who faced her patiently. Rivyn pulled another chair, his featureless gaze centered on her while Deluth let his broth stir, a wistful paleness in his face that spoke of nervousness and care. “Why have I come? Let me…” she paused awkwardly to take a deep breath. “Let me say I’m sorry about your son, Deluth, you’ve only ever helped this city – this haven of mutineers and petty rebels, it’s disgusting, and look at the control we maintain! Look at how well we protect the innocent. I’m in well over my head with this mono-religion law. I couldn’t give a flying… I don’t care which deity these people pray to at night—I never have. Kiersoran dictates the law’s erasure, which sounds good, but it isn’t any longer our biggest problem, when these shadowy insurgents may not be religious in the slightest!”

“You’re referring to the involvement of the Karpan’tok,” said Rivyn quietly. “How long did you wait before they left this pub?”

“You’re damn right I’m taking about the Night Caps, and do you not mean ‘how long did I wait before you booted them out?’ Well that’s my business.”

“It seems it is ours now,” said Rivyn.

“So what then?” Deluth said. “What do you need from us?”

She looked at the monk – the darkest she’s seen him, sitting with his head angled downward, the lowest of his bang shrouding his face. He seemed suspect, his face crinkled up, his words embittered. “With Kiersoran riding for Blackrose, the city will fall deeper into chaos. I believe it is the Captain of the Night Guard responsible for the violence.”

“Hadn’t you fervently disagreed with Kiersoran not but days ago?”

“Simply because I don’t want him taking the law into his own hands, doesn’t mean he is wrong. If, as Kiersoran stated, we could bring him from power…”

“I will not murder a man for you,” said Rivyn. “That would only create more chaos.”

“He’s right. You don’t have anything that could undermine his authority.”

“But if you gathered evidence against him, you would be doing dream-tear a great service.”

Deluth said, “We shall then follow him. If we catch the bastard off his guard, you can be certain I will get to him. I too have questions for him.”

“About your son?”

“About that night,” he answered quickly. “The officers are nowhere to be found when a crime threatens the entire city. What about Kiersoran’s brother, the fouled up investigation? How were there seven torch-bearing individuals able to destroy themselves and a temple that is also a haven for the homeless? Believe me I understand what you want, but I will not kill him without knowing. And trust me – trust me Bethany Whitemill, I will destroy the guilty. I’ve considered the victims and I’ve witnessed the suffering infecting their families. I feel the pain myself. I wouldn’t come here pretending you’re looking out for the welfare of the city. No. You have as many vengeful thoughts as I. And it will not be long now, Bethany, till either of us will have to hide them.”

*

The next morning, Kiersoran prepared for the journey east. They would leave for Blackrose Keep at sundown. He packed hastily. Initially he forgot essentials like sleeping rolls, tent equipment, waterskin canteens. He needed to relax his mind somehow. He remembered his appetite. He stored dried fruits, nuts, oats. His belongings awaited him in a carriage outside his home, beneath a lone hemlock tree.

Bethany passed by the carriage and now stood shouting outside his estate. He recognized the sound of her footfalls even before her voice. She had been rampaging all across the city, pleading with the Karpan’tok to keep him from leaving, to assure everyone they had always and would continue to protect the city’s citizens. They ignored her. They wanted him gone.

“I’m coming with you, Kiersoran Leontini.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“That’s exactly how I feel about you leaving,” she retorted. “And you care not at all what any of us think, I know that now,” she said and when she got near him, her thick hand pushed the old knight’s back against the door frame. “This is wrong,” she said. “It feels wrong. Are you listening to me at all?”

“I always listen to you, Bethany Whitemill. But if you do not understand why I must go, I feel it is your flaw rather than mine. Must you feign miscomprehension?”

“Of all the years in the history of the Empire, you choose this moment to turn your back upon me?”

He picked up his belongings. The house became silent. He lugged his belongings into the cold. He fit them tightly into the caravan. His hands shook from the night-time chill and from anxious fear. He felt sorry to Bethany Whitemill, but he knew his mission transcended their differences of opinion about how he ought to behave.

The houses around his estate were dim and quiet. Business groaned to a halt and the Karpan’tok marched in trios through the streets, herding people with their spear-tips. He knew she’d understand his reasoning when he returned with a sizeable order of Dak-thaz soldiers, when the streets would become cleaner, safer, realizing that was his priority in life, to protect each and every citizen, and nothing other was expected from him besides the fulfillment of this objective.

He would not betray the trust the people of dream-tear invested in him so wholeheartedly, nor would he fail to redeem their losses – which he considered shared by all.

6

Raya entered the house undetected, alone, and let the door remain open. Here an entire family slept on one giant cot that lined the opposite wall. They would soon be waking for breakfast if they could afford breakfast. She stood over the family, a large, but young family, it was a man and woman, presumably with their children, none of whom were older than eight or nine years, combed her hair with the sleeping woman’s toothpick comb. A cold breeze entered and exited, rustling loose paper work. The oldest child awoke, yawned and gazed at Raya, her eyes blinking repeatedly as though reassuring her consciousness.

The demon grinned evilly at the young girl, her wings flickering excitedly and her canine fangs glistening against the pale sunlight that was peaking in through the window. Gently she let the comb rest atop the dirt floor, and spread her wings with a clothily quiet flip. A whimper turned into a cry, a weep that screeched into a full throttled scream. Then finally the parents awoke in unison and stared groggily into the possum-eyes of the demon. She moved forward and they breathlessly scooched back against the black-wooden wall.

Scanning the silenced children, Raya quickly jolted forward, simultaneously clutching both parents by their throats. She smiled to reveal her long canines, squeezing their arteries until their faces bubbled redly, keeping her eyes on their eyes as they bulged and filled with blood and tears. The children joined their oldest sibling, an echoing chorus of crying and ear-popping squeals.

The mother passed out. Raya let her body fall to the floor. She released the man as well. He choked for air. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “What do you want?” he cried, but Raya ignored his desperate whimpering.

“Is she the mother?” the demon hissed.

“Yes why?” he spat, frantically pulling his children close to him, huddling like slaughtered lambs.

“You may not speak with me. If you speak to me again, sir, I shall take your heart and feed it to my father. Hm?” Her voice became cold, monotonous. “Now come with me, all of you, follow me out, and you carry that woman if you need to. Don’t bother yelling for help,” said Raya. “I can take your life within the bat of an eyelash.”

*

Adrian allowed his black beady eyes to lower in his skull. He stared at the cage, which rested upon a four-wheeled cart-like frame, where at the front of it, poles extended, strapped to a team of wide sturdy horses.

From inside the wrought-iron barred cage, the voices of children were like squeaky frightened mice in homes where they were not welcome. The cage fit all thirty or so children inside, but any more weight would severely jeopardize its integrity.

He and Marez walked beside the cage as it softly crunched southwards into the darkness along the Sylvan Road. The two drivers of their caravan were brutish quiet pale men with sunken eyes and alcoholic breathing patterns. Marez wrapped himself in dark green robes, his black hair hanging matted on his shoulders like coal-soot—his predatory eyebrows and nasal structure, his thin receded lips exposing the edges of his teeth.

Both wizards were interested in the meeting with the Boratorga, a tribal commune of an obsidian-skinned folk, erroneously reputed to be cannibalistic. They comprised of three separate tribes, the Xyn, the Seros, and the Boratorga, who were the most revered of the clans-folk. Glimpses of God ruled them. It was natural their leader was a shaman favored for both his physical prowess during the hunt and his spiritual charisma exhibited at the feasts, through song, dance, and religious speech. He was larger than the rest of his clan, built of bones that could support stone bridges and muscles that hadn’t deteriorated in the forty or more years he led the unified Shadowood tribes. The tribes also served as intermediaries between the Mirshan and the Rapina of the jungle-lands south of the vast Djad desert.

Adrian believed the shaman-chieftain wielded Pure Magic similarly to the way he wielded Pure Magic. Although Pure Magic relied on the life-force of its wielder for any effect to occur, scholars speculated certain blood rituals allowed the use of another’s life-force to power the magic instead of the wizard’s. He believed the clansmen had begun the rumor of cannibalism among them to shield from outsiders this other purpose for human farming and human sacrifice.

At the crook of the dense, dark forest, a man wearing a feathered-headdress and black-dyed linens stood bearing a torch. His dark skin made him seem one with the shadows of the veins of the trees. At the sight of Adrian, Marez, and their offering, the man smiled toothily.

*

The stones beneath Kiersoran’s feet were jagged and mud-covered.

He and his company traveled quietly and quickly. They hoped to reach the northwestern entrance to the road, a well-beaten but mostly discreet trail that led directly through the badlands towards Blackrose Keep, not an easy journey by any means, but it was the necessary path since the carts couldn’t withstand the rocky terrain. Riding north-eastwards, along Lake Myrrh would waste time and be easily followed. The carts were full of their supplies, dried fruit and waterskin canteens and Leontini ultimately included an offering of sentimental artifacts: a silver crown of remote and rare glistening gemstones encased in a glass box, a pearl scepter-head, a gift from dak-Anhk-amid during the Marroencian War, and lastly he wore his precious black chest-plate, where the words, “…” were scripted in Mirshanni, circling an upside-down gray heart that looked like two tear drops pulling apart. Leontini still wore the plate proudly, stubbornly, in defiance, hoping to restore what it really meant to him by ridding of it.

In the yester years, when the Marroencian War tore across the Empire like a wild fire, Leontini had become a knight of the Dark Horse Company, some of the land’s most feared combatants. He excelled in his position, reveled in the victories; each one was more rewarding than the last.

It wasn’t until after the War had concluded the weight of his deeds burdened and tortured him. He hadn’t realized the powerlessness of his own supposed authority. He remembered crushing civilians, “threats” political and religious, libertine and covetous – no one had been safe from him, even when no one was guilty of a crime. This behavior stemmed from a genuine desire to bring moral law to the people he vowed to protect with his own flesh and blood. Now It seemed to him a terrible hypocrisy. For a couple of retrospectively crucial years, he sequestered himself and withdrew from the Dark Horse Company, until his leadership skills became valuable again and they called him to serve in the Dream Sphere.
Leontini tightly gripped his gauntlet. He had unconsciously put his hand to his sword, and he didn’t know why, except that the uneasiness of his conscience, returning to those who demanded so much from him against his principles, crept upon him as he crept along the badlands, and he couldn’t shake the anxiety. His men followed behind him. They marched idly, quietly, mutely, as well they should, for it was vital they avoid the wolves of the badlands, who were dangerous gray dogs traveling in packs that outnumbered this squad threefold and were thus forever ravenous, lusting for blood, iron, and meat.

The sting of his past subsided. Recency overshadowed the past. The image of Bethany Whitemill, her teary, stale-green eyes. Her pained voice like water’s waves sliding over stones along the shore. He had grown old beside her, though not with her. His wife, while a good if only dutiful woman, had not been as upset at his departure as Bethany.

Stones beneath his feet were jagged and he looked at the stones and his feet and then backwards at the grim-faced men, one who spotted his glance and curtly nodded.

They still believed in his leadership. He faced the north. How twilight had fallen so quickly, Leontini was amazed, peering up and ahead to the golden-red sky, where swirling soft clouds gathered in the distance, a snow storm set for the morning, perhaps earlier.

Kiersoran motioned for his men to dig a pit, though the earth was icy and shelled with rock, they found a perfect place to nestle under cover of the night, and so they risked lighting a fire over freezing to death. He also sent out several scouts, ahead for bandit and outlaw encampments and one behind to check for overly-eager tails – certainly someone would have noticed their leaving.

Hours later, a couple returned bearing similar sentiments. “Nothing, Zaer,” but he knew there wasn’t nothing. His men were not lying, they were simply incompetent.

“Good, keep the fire half-covered – set up a sheet, two tall twigs or tent posts, they should set just fine in this,” he said, knuckling the earth to indicate its solidity. “Try with all our might to hide the light, is all.”

With the wind roaring, booming and breathing like the gods themselves were in argument, Kiersoran Leontini felt no solace in sleep.

He missed his deceased brother. His murder set his blood to a boil. He pondered a connection between his brother’s disappearance, the fiery temple now in gray ruins, and the assassination of the Bishop. What is my role, now? He asked himself. Besides a vengeful murderer in the making? He stared sleeplessly into the light of Lunus until Solus peaked up-over the horizon, birthing dawn. He awoke his men who slept warmly beside the fire they had built of dead roots and thin twigs and logs they hauled in the carts. He ordered them to cover the pit, to ensure no bit of the fire remained, nor evidence of a fire, before they set out on their new day’s journey.

Leontini’s memories of Blackrose were like odd, blurry coal-sketches, as though from his early childhood. His fellow Dark Horsemen: their sallow expressions, the dark helmets and armor. The training he remembered, too. Sparring in the courtyard, etiquette in the Emperor’s manor, killing in the Empire’s cities, sleeping in barmaid’s beds, all without a hint of guilt, all the ways the Emperor intended. He realized his hatred for the Emperor, understanding how his pride was measured like the weight of gold, and discovering how little Leontini weighed in that sense, seeing how easy it was to flick him like a coin into a well and wish for better things, only to have them manifest as though from Djinni’s hands. Is that what made him sick to his stomach? To feel manipulated? How he would soon return to the court, begging for the mercy of dream-tear, while powerful men would look upon him indignantly disgusted or amused. None of this would bring peace to the city streets.

By midday a scout returned, short of breath. His skin paled anemically. “There are two encampments, off the Rose Road. They don’t seem like bandits sir.”

“Why not?”

“Too many of em sir.”

“How many?”

“Hundreds sir.”

“Hundreds?” Leontini grunted. He didn’t believe his scout, nor did he want to believe him.

“And they weren’t human sir. I looked through the glass. The hair, it was like living snakes.”

“Did anyone see you?”

The scout rested his hands upon his knees and seemed like he might fall unconscious from exhaustion, and didn’t answer.

“Did they see you?” Leontini repeated harshly.

“I don’t believe so,” said the scout unconvincingly.

The sun shined brightly behind them. White clouds sheeted half the sky. The sky was a slate of white, this color of purity, this color of a pale man become paler from fear, this color to resemble the cremation ashes of his death.

7

Deluth slushed through the gray avenues on the woodland side of dream-tear. His dark eyes, pink-lined and swollen, slowly slid toward the sketchy motion of his periphery. In the alleyways, between antiquated white-stone Mas-jidi edifices dedicated to elder Mirshanni deities – he heard the clatter and tink of wooden spoons against boiler pots, the shivering jaws of homeless men and women and their guttural croaks of ailment. They shuffled from one small spot to another. They huddled closely. He discerned a dozen or so figures roving about, and a couple of shadowy clumps of people, wool blankets wrapped around them like a dark fog. Sighing, Deluth looked ahead, through his cloud of breath, toward the distant dark edges of the Shadowood. The trees lined the earthen horizon – it looked like a rotting jaw ajar.

He thought of Bethany and her proposition, her agenda. Deluth imagined Mathaniel again, for the millionth time, wondering if his son was alive, and where he would be sleeping, what he would be thinking about. Would he believe I was failing him? Deluth could not endure that track of thinking again. It was important he keep in control of himself. If Captain Scarsond was half as corrupt as Kiersoran insisted, he knew about Mathaniel’s disappearance, the assault against the temple, and probably more. What Bethany, Kiersoran, and the Dark Horse Company made of Captain Scarsond afterwards would be none of his concern. Deluth’s would realize the fate of his son, if no more.

Deluth stepped into the darkness of the alleyways. He rubbed his hands together nervously. He felt cold. He was wary of Karpan’tok listeners and back-stabbers, and of wasting his time. The monk drew his dark cloak about him like willow branches around its trunk – the avenue stole his breath.

“Excuse me,” he whispered to no one in particular.

An older pale-skinned man in strips of rodent furs opened his eyes, the whites of his eyes shining like two stars.

“I need your help with something. It’s about a man, the captain of the guard.”

The homeless man grunted. “Ya frim Glohmfn’s, ay? Reckon ye cohm in ‘ere booskin for aid. ‘Ave’im lend ya tha hahnd.”

“What would you say to some free drinks? Several of them.”

“Ya actin’ like I’m on it,” said the old man scornfully. “Whiny a fohget to drink up for a few weeks, tha pains in ya gut go’way.”

“Do not pretend we’re so different that I’d judge you. I’ve slept in places similar to this one, only I was allowed to choose the alleys where I slept,” replied Deluth, hinting at the Night Cap’s herding of the homeless into different sections of dream-tear. “And Glumfin will boil you up some soup with the ale, all the ale you can imagine.”

“Ya be missin’ ya go-gits if ya thinkin’ I’d crosse’im,” said the old man. “Eh, for a pinter two. Heh.”

“Maybe I have lost my mind,” said Deluth and clutched a fistful of the man’s beard. “Where is the Captain now?”

“N-note’ere.” The old man’s eyes twitched.

“So with whom should your reverence lie?”

“N-note’im.”

“Where does he live?”

A pang of conscience tickled the deep in monk’s mind. What am I doing? He questioned himself.

His glowing eyes darted left and right to his companions and to the lit-up avenue. Deluth hinted at being capable of ripping the old man’s beard straight from his chin and cheeks with a forceful but slow pull. What am I doing? He thought again.

“Wot nite’sit?” he grumbled, pinning his lower back to the black wall so he could lean just a bit forward enough to slacken Deluth’s grip. “Awrite. Na lit ga ove mih ronny n’l tell ya wot a wont.” The old man sadly resigned.

Deluth let go. His dark eyes fixed n the old man’s wrinkled pathetic features. Screams seized his mind, echoing and burning like hellfire. What am I doing?

“Thas ‘A singah coyn,’” the man muttered, heavily exhaling. “E goes thir ‘fore ‘is big jubs, n’after sohmtimes.”

“Big jobs?” Deluth queried, sounding pleased. He lowered to kneel.

“Ittin’ and cleanin’ for tha unknowne. ‘Is jobs dun’t ‘urtis, only move us rond. Wonts no peekers, f’ya fonde mih wind?”

“What exactly does he do?”

“E kills people, fokin’ idiot. Foke ya thenk? ‘E pahrades rond ‘ere getttin’ rich for nuffin? No ‘e puts’n ‘is work n’retires for tha eve. Ats wot e’des. ‘E dun’t threatin us cos we allredee privy to the ponishments.”

“I wouldn’t count on that much longer, not if you’re being truthful,” said Deluth gathering some coins from a pouch.

“Still gettin me thah fokin drink? Morin I kin imagin yeh said.”

“If you do not tell a soul about our conversation, or about me.”

The man grunted angrily, spooning some of Deluth’s coins into his hand. He seemed happy to earn an extra meal or two.

There were scrapes of the gold coins against the man’s cooking pot. The old man’s teeth clattered. Snowflakes touched Deluth’s drawn hood. His heart murmured madly in his chest. His eyes blinked cold tears. A wound opened within. When he walked onto the woodland avenue, he leaned entirely from view, threw his back against the wall, blinking away angry, ashamed tears.

*

“Not like this.”

“Not like what, Rivyn?” Emmie whispered. Her soft azure eyes blinked, her head raised momentarily until she lowered it to his bare chest. There she left gentle noiseless kisses before he sat up, his colorless eyes ablaze with emotion. “I’m confused,” she said. “Darling?”

He sighed. He looked at her directly. Her tear-shaped eyes. He smiled at her affection and pulled her into him, to take in her softness, her scent. “It’s nothing,” he said quietly, guiding his finger along her slender neck.

They sat together wrapped in bone-blue silks, elated but nervously silent, loosely against the rosy thick bedpost. A trio of stolen ‘royal’ portraits hung romantically and scenically above them. The pale yellow walls were splashed randomly with indigo and black and chalk-white and crimson, a coffee and creamer like tan, a kudzu verdure. The room was lavish for the bard that rest within Emmie’s heart, but this lavishness would seem immature or degenerate in the eyes of the Dream Sphere.

“Have you read this story, Solivoz and the Secret Heart?”

“I’ve heard you mention it.”

“What do you think the poet of story means when he says…” and her eyes lit up musingly.

But his became dull and unfocused. “I never cared enough to consider it,” he said, not having heard her.

There was a moment of quietness between them.

“What’s your point, Emmie?”

“I think it’s a metaphor. Our pasts, our memories, if in the form of regrets,” her voice was tender and deft. “Remove a human’s heart from its cavity.” She nibbled her lower lips, making a yanking motion with her idle hand.

He considered her words, crookedly smiling. “I think you read me like a poem. And a touch too often.”

“Ah, Lyric—any enigma—can be deciphered,” she said and kissed his chin, above his goatee. “You, though, do not deserve to be unraveled,” and after a few furtive nibbles, she bit down on his lip.

“Ow,” he giddily pulled away, and his brow furrowed in playful confusion. “You’re a vampire, my star-shine, but if it’s my blood you’re after, consider me gone.”

“Out that door?” she challenged him. “Or through the window, you sneak? You thief of the night.”

“We both know I would not burden myself with the luxury of a hallway.” He turned away from her. She seemed to desire to ruin his concentration. “You’re beautiful,” he said seriously and suddenly, smiling in his way. “I don’t think I’m leaving here anytime soon.”

“Because you love me?” she said dourly, crunching her nose as if sucking a lemon.

“Ow-ww,” he said, his tongue pressed to his cheek and snorted like a minotaur through his nostrils. He quickly, briefly tickled her side, enough to hear her sing-song giggling. He adored her laughter. Her laughter left a long, echoing note. He would find her melodious laughter in his mind long after they parted. He loved her. It was Emmie’s voice that illustrated his tranquility like spectral strokes upon ragged old canvas.

“How did I find you, my sweet man?” she said and then she straddled him and tightened her pelvis against his. Her delicate arms slid behind his neck and she moistly kissed him. Her eyes closed. And she kissed him again.

“Rivyn? Darling?” said Emmie. Her eyes narrowed. “Are you OK?”

His empty expression, his faint grin.

“Rivyn?” she repreated.

He nodded, his eyes widening. “What.”

“Are you all right, I asked?”

He touched his lips to her neck, below her chin. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes warmly. “I’m fine,” he said. “Right now I’m fine.”

“You might keep your curtain drawn,” he said. “You’re a member of the Dream Sphere, for one thing. And this is a city rife with poverty and crime.”

“You should know,” Emmie replied scornfully, rolling deeper into her sheets. “Why don’t you come back to bed?”

“It’s early yet, and I have some things to take care of tonight,” he said, staring out to the streets. “I’m worried about a friend. That he’s going to do something he’ll later regret.”

“I know that,” she said amiably, turning in the bed to face him. She sincerely considered him. “You need not worry about him, though.”

“I’m not certain you will understand why I’m worried.”

“Leave that to me, Rivyn,” she still sounded amiable and sincere. “It’s obvious something is bothering you.”

“I already told you.”

“Something else.”

“Something else?” he sounded disinterested again. It was a typical means to curiously dismiss her words and yet invite more of them.

“I looked you in the face not minutes before we made love and I couldn’t place your soul. Your body, but no soul, like you were… absent.”

“Neither do I have any idea what you’re talking about, Emmie, nor am I too interested.”

“So what then? You won’t say a word about it? You’ll simply lope and mope around dream-world all night?”

“In hell you mean.”

“Is that what I mean?”

There was silence.

“Do you suspect Deluth is mad?” Emmie asked. “Deluded? Misinformed?”

“Imagine it is your child who has been stolen from you, and imagine you couldn’t even begin to understand why.”

“No.”

“I want to be able to help him. But I can’t work like this. Not like this. Killing people. That’s what you’ll want from me.”

“What I will want from you?”

“The Dream Sphere. Kiersoran and Whitemill, especially—and I won’t stand by and let Deluth destroy himself, either. How could I persuade him not to attempt to save his son? How could I convince him it isn’t his fault Mathaniel is missing? Could I really expect him to give up searching for his own son? Would you give up if it were you?”

*

Deluth stepped in front of “A Single Coin” tavern, a filthy-walled, mediocre establishment. Deluth’s hands rattled and sweat dropped from his forehead to the snow. He skirted the bar and sneaked around the side off the streets, and peered into its golden-lit common room. All Karpan-tok lounging precisely like they had at Glumfin’s. Enjoying their drinks. He wondered who was the Captain Scarsond, but then a man stood up, his shoulders and neck thickened with a fox fur cape and, to his side, a wide backsword glistened at its jeweled curved hilt. Deluth figured no one else among that rabble of Nightcaps could afford their drinks, much less a custom blade like that. If that was Scarsond, the man intended to leave shortly. His left hand tucked into the reddish fox cloth, his right at the ball-end of his backsword. He caressed or scratched the scabbard, almost nervously, the way he might otherwise bite his fingernails or puff on a pipe. He had dark features, a fat, ruggedly handsome face, a black beard and a cleft-chin that bricked outwards, which Deluth saw in profile. The man seemed incapable of smiling, though Deluth noticed his men around him bounced about in their seats, laughing boisterously at a joke Deluth hadn’t heard. Deluth backed away from the window. Scarsond finished off his drink and chased with a long pull from a pipe before he nodded to the barkeep, a man late in his life who rested his elbows on the counter, and between his elbows, there was a clay mug with a rag stuck in it.

Deluth slunk back into shadows, preying on the darkness for cover. The door cranked open.

“G’nite cap,” a man said distantly, reassuring Deluth he identified the right one. Scarsond ignored them and stomped into the wet-heavy slush-filled streets. He was a wide-set strong man, Deluth thought. He wiped his mouth dry of the ale he’d been drinking and drunkenly paused as if he didn’t know where he was. Deluth scrambled effortlessly to a better vantage, better cover. He felt certain he had not been heard. The monk smiled thinly and waited for the Captain to make his way inward, towards the center of the city and past the center of the city, and into the alleys between tall warehousing compounds.

Deluth observed carefully. He kept at a safe distance. Scarsond was tall and broad, perhaps only six feet, but his muscles and fat made him seem brutal, like a bad dream. His hand hadn’t strayed from the hilt of his sword, like he was constantly uneasy if not paranoid. Deluth retreated slightly until the gap between them grew a bit more comfortable.

They had reached one of the cleanest parts of the city when Scarsond stopped outside the Scenescape Tavern, waved to someone inside and turned away, waiting. Not a moment passed before a couple of spear-toting Karpan’tok stepped outside and greeted him. One of them laughed obnoxiously while the other handed the Captain something small, a parchment or pouch of coins, it was dark and Deluth couldn’t clearly discern what was exchanged or given. The two men disappeared down the street, the opposite from which Deluth was hiding. Scarsond entered the bar for a second, giving Deluth just enough time to relocate. He crept across the street and moved two alleys closer to the Scenescape Tavern, keeping three rows of small homes between him and the establishment. When the Captain came back out, he was muttering grating expletives under his breath and sharpening his sword.

He quickly re-crossed town. Deluth had a difficult time keeping pace while remaining silent. They moved through the darker areas of the town, not-unknown shortcuts of the central avenues, where they passed by an old cemetery and a one-room school house, now darkened by nightfall. He hadn’t taken the time to look at the old cemetery at night, to really look at it, like a dog might look at the cemetery, and ponder what such a thing might symbolize to a people of the stars or moon, what they might think about the bizarre sentimentality of humans.

Fog blanketed the tombstones and statuettes.

Beyond the cemetery fence, Scarsond stood, leaning against a pillar with his eye-sight focused in Deluth’s general direction, focused most likely on a group of street urchins crowded around a fire ring and a kid struggling to make fire in there among its wet slop of ashes. “Don’t lead them here,” the boy said to Deluth and this startled him. The kid had been sitting by the fire ring and to judge by the shreds of clothing seemed like he might be homeless or alcoholic or both. Some encouraged him, while others jeered and taunted, trying to explain how to make a fire properly.

Deluth thought the kid was doing as well as he could given the conditions.

He crouched, as though to fit in among them. He said, “Anyone else suspicious of that man? C’mon keep still,” and shortly after, the Karpan’tok began to patrol the streets and alleys, waking up homeless men and women and redirecting them to the school house and its cellar, or towards the center of the city. The gentleness of the officers surprised him, as well as the complacent compliance of the homeless individuals. This random act of kindness didn’t jibe well with the information about the Night Caps he’d understood previous to that moment. He circled around a couple of blocks, passed the gray stone buildings with dark shuttered windows and spotted the Captain as he approached a house on the corner of a crossroads that seemed black in the shade of a shadowood tree. The captain rapped upon the door. A stumbling, pale man stood in the threshold and squinted. Deluth discerned surprise in his trembling motions. There was fear threaded through his voice.

“Have you voided your balance?” Scarsond asked him calmly.

“With h-whom?” the man stuttered, wide-eyed and helpless.

“There is a balance. You have one with the old Sharroghin, do you not?”

“No,” the man replied quietly. “Th-that’s supposedly taken care of.”

Scarsond laughed. “You have not voided your balance,” he insisted, the tone becoming a menace.

“Please sir. I have children, a family. Why can’t we settle this over a drink?”

“Enough. Consider your family free of Sharroghin debt.” The captain turned away. He brandished his backsword. In a motion smoother than snow he lopped the man’s head straight from his shoulders, blood-splashed the side of the man’s house and the slush of the street. The Karpan’tok, from down the streets, rushed forth to claim the body, to investigate the death.

Deluth, his knees shaky, tried to pursue, but he fell limply into the open. Quickly to hide himself, he drew his hood but knew the Captain saw him. They locked stares and Deluth hobbled light-headedly into the alleyway, as the Captain signaled for his men to chase him down. They wouldn’t find Deluth in Rivyn’s cabin – at least he didn’t believe so.

*

It neared the middle of the night. A snow storm began with strong gusts. Dark clouds laid sheets over Lunus, obscuring dream-tear city in a deep shadow. Lidijia orbited the woodland around Rivyn’s cabin like an unholy crown, scouting with calm, night-time eyes. Kallaverrah, posted and hidden a whisper away from the cabin’s front door, waited patiently for his accomplice to return. He felt nervous. He’d not been told to revere a man’s skills in combat before Deluth became his mark– but Adrian and Turro warned him he would be easy to under-estimate, being thin, frail, and a peaceful member of the monastery. The fact he was a monk made Kallaverrah question why he was targeted, but he was paid to obey orders, not question them. Kallaverrah was garbed in eclectic rags of gray and white. He blended in with the heavily falling snow.

*

Deluth approached. Lidijia was the first to notice. He was a black silhouette in the outline of heavily falling snow. She could feel a certain kind of power exuding from him, yet he was also vulnerable. She stalked him carefully. The two of them approached Quo’rath’s woodland cabin, a perfect haven for a ‘retired’ thief or killer, whatever her employers had referred to him as. If he were present and interfered he would be dead, and that’s all that mattered to her.

The monk Deluth became close enough to strike. Lidijia almost struck him. She waited. If they perfected their plan, he wouldn’t last one second against their assault.

*

The black glove snapped against Kallaverrah’s wrist. He threw up his heavy gray hood overhead. He inspected a split Shadowood log in his right hand and a sleek axe in his left. Deluth stood within a globe of dim light by a fireplace and lowered himself to kneel, a lot like he had in the streets outside the schoolhouse. Kallaverrah watched. The monk held his son’s sword in his hands and gripped it so his palms touched. He faced the cabin’s fireplace and he trembled as the sword’s perfect point dug into the interstitial dirt of the stone floor. He rested his forehead on the pommel of the sword.

*

“Forgive me my son for the blood I will spill selfishly in your name, and for the time you shall spend wondering where I am, for the pain you have suffered–“

Deluth cocked his head to the right. A foreign racket alerted him. He stood, except he slouched to keep low. His foot slid forward quietly, advancing him ever-so-slightly. He kept his back to the nearest wall and checked Rivyn’s little office, finding nothing.

He turned his back, then and quickly moved forward, and the cabin’s front door slammed wide open, throwing books from their shelves and toppling a bowl of dehydrated fruits. Deluth expected someone, but there was only the strong wind and wet-heavy snow fall.

Suddenly Deluth felt a piercing pain in his ribcage and hip and instinctively he ducked and whipped in a semi-circle. Deluth struck forward with his right hand and crushed the solar plexus of the intruding young man. He pushed the man into the Rivyn’s office, holding him by his throat and then Deluth head-butted him in the eye-socket two or three times. Deluth pinned the young assassin’s axe against the wall. The ‘stinging sensation lightning’d through his entire skeleton. “Help me understand what’s going on,” he hissed. “And I will spare your life, but hurry, for my patience exits with my blood.”

Kallaverrah groaned and sank down the wall. He didn’t seem afraid, but he didn’t seem like he wanted to keep fighting either. His strike missed its mark. “Are there more of you?” said Deluth. “Just you and me? Hm?” Deluth struck the young man in the chin. “I’m talking to you. You don’t work alone. This isn’t even my house. Why are you attacking me?”

Blood pasted over Kallaverrah’s teeth. He grimaced except his face reminded Deluth of a wolf baring its tremendous fangs.

“I renounce the suffering of any guilt I might feel for harming you. I would speak. My reluctance to smear this house with the gray of your brains has all but abandoned me.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Where is your partner?”

“He was lucky,” he replied with a broken grin.

“Indeed.” The monk put his hand on the assassin’s throat and lifted his chin. “I don’t mind ending your life here,” said Deluth.

“What exactly do you want to know?”

“Who hired you.”

“The Karpan’tok sent me,” Kallaverrah lied. But Deluth wanted to hear something, anything to build on what he knew already. “They arranged the kidnapping at the Temple of Solus. You were supposed to die that night, but something went wrong. I don’t know.”

“Kidnappings?” said Deluth.

“Nightcaps figured out you lived through it and you sniffed them out. You got help from someone that spooked them, so they hired me.”

“You expect me to believe that nighttime thugs hired you to kill me?”

“Who else?”

“Fine, lead me to him, then,” said Deluth.

“You mean, lead you to the Captain?”

“Who else?”

The assassin laughed. For a moment he seemed like a child, laughing at a dirty joke. “There’s something you should know,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s about your son.”

“What about my son?”

“He’s still alive.”

*

Lidijia sprinted in a silent blur through the hallway and used a short knife to slit open Deluth’s carotid artery.

The wound looked like a bloody winking eye.

And Deluth bled profusely.

And Kallaverrah regained his axe in hand and grotesquely hacked at Deluth’s mid-section and sank the blade into the soft of his guts, and the axe blade fractured Deluth’s exposed collar bone and ruptured his skull. Kallaverrah spit blood in Deluth’s face and hit him in the face with the axe and smashed Deluth’s bones with the blade of the axe.

Lidijia walked away. She squeezed her fists together against the cold. She walked outside the cabin and breathed deeply the cold winter air. Her little rectangular nose turned up. She was like some predator seeking carrion, but her prey was merely the firmament through the cobwebs of clouds. Millions and millions of white pitches and timbres fell, slowly, through the branches of the dark forest’s trees.

As though exclusively through her imagination, she felt the lordly warmth of the Palace of Ecstasy’s tower beacons, the city’s saintly street-lantern beacons, its humble tavern hearths tucked away in the obscurity of cozy quiescence, and she walked away.

She followed the trail towards dream-tear city. In the morning she would be rewarded for Deluth’s execution.